Last October I was invited to the opening of the new ‘Information Age’ exhibition at the Science Museum in London. I felt really honoured to be part of this event, which was opened by Her Majesty the Queen, who sent her first ever tweet. It was the culmination of a project I had been involved in lasting several months, with a group of hard of hearing people working with the Science Museum.
The project’s aim was to help the Science Museum tell the stories of how the World Wide Web has changed the lives of hard of hearing people. We worked together on this project, sharing our ideas about how the Internet has transformed our lives, making it much easier for us to communicate with others on an equal basis, find out and share information and socialise with other people. You can find out more about the project here.
The Internet has really opened up the world to many deaf and hard of hearing people. It makes you feel part of a wider online community and support network. I know it really helped me to be able to communicate with other people and seek deaf peer support when I became deafened a few years ago and I felt very isolated.
Some members of this group made short films about how the Internet has had a massive impact on them and changed their lives. These films are now being shown at the exhibition in the Science Museum, as part of an interactive digital screen display, which is captioned and interpreted into BSL. I worked with my friend Andrew on one of the videos shown at the exhibition.
In it, Andrew, who is hard of hearing, describes how without access to the web, there are huge barriers to communication for him. Asking directions for him, when he is in an unfamiliar area, is a nerve-wracking experience, as, like most deaf and hard of hearing people, he finds it difficult to follow what other people are saying. He describes how it is so much easier for him to search for directions and maps on his smartphone, and to arrange to meet up with people for a drink or to watch the football in a pub, for instance, through instant messaging and texting.
It reminds me of when I wanted to watch my football team Manchester City play in the FA Cup Final a few years ago. At that time I didn’t want to go out or socialise with anyone apart from my wife and immediate family because I found it too difficult to follow and communicate with anyone, so it was much less frustrating for me to stay at home. But it would be the first time that City had been in the FA Cup final for thirty-five years, so I really didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of finally seeing my team playing in the Cup Final at Wembley. In the end I was lucky to get my ticket from a friend online and I arranged to meet my friends and family there through social media. It would have been impossible for me to make the arrangements without the web and in the end Manchester City beat Stoke 1-0, which was fantastic! I had a really great day, even though I could hear very little.
In another video we see Ruby, who is hard of hearing, using Skype to speak to her friends and family. “The web has changed my life, by making me feel equal to everyone”, she says. I think that communicating on equal terms to everyone else is one of the most important and powerful aspects of the web for deaf and hard of hearing people.
In her video Lidia expands on this idea of the web bringing the deaf and hard of hearing community together and empowering them. She describes how empowering it is to get the information you need from the web. “Being given the information you need empowers you in some ways and gives you the chance to take charge of your life”, she explains.
I went back to see the ‘Information Age’ exhibition with my wife last week. It celebrates 200 years of innovation in communication and information technologies and it is divided into six zones, each representing a different information and communication technology network: The Cable, The Telephone Exchange, Broadcast, The Constellation, The Cell and The Web.
The whole exhibition is completely accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people and in each zone, there are lots of interactive videos, which are captioned and interpreted on screen into BSL. There are also very clear hearing loops throughout the exhibition. The videos explain the stories behind these groundbreaking historic technical inventions and new communication media.
We spent a couple of hours wandering around the exhibition. It was absolutely fascinating and well worth a visit. Some of my highlights were looking at the first telephone inventions, some of the very first radios and TV sets of the 1940s and 1950s, the first computers and mobile phones right up to the present day with social media and the latest smartphones.
Some of it makes me feel really old! I can remember having a BBC computer in the 1980s, which was state-of-the-art at the time but now looks almost like an antique. I can also remember having a ‘121’ mobile phone in the early 1990s, which now looks like a brick compared to the compact smartphone I have today.
One section had the original NeXT computer, which was developed by Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computers. It showed the original Internet interface from 1990. The display described how British man Tim Berners Lee, who worked at CERN in Switzerland, invented the idea of a ‘WorldWideWeb’ a year earlier in 1989 as a global information management system for CERN. He described a ‘web’ of ‘hypertext documents that could be viewed by browsers. It is incredible how much and how rapidly the web has developed since those early days.
I also found it fascinating to discover the story of Alexander Graham Bell there, who invented the telephone, and learn about his connection to the deaf community. He was born in Edinburgh in 1847. His mother was profoundly deaf, so he learned to communicate with her through basic sign language. His mother’s deafness led him to become preoccupied with studying acoustics and the idea of transmitting speech by turning electricity into sound.
Later, he moved with his family to the US where he became a teacher at a Deaf school in Boston. There he met a profoundly Deaf student called Mabel Hubbard, who later became his wife. In 1875 after researching and studying the physics of sound technology and transmitting speech he invented a simple receiver for turning electricity into sound.
A year later, in 1876, he set up the Bell Telephone Co and his device was patented. It became the first satisfactory working telephone and it quickly became a common sight in households across America. Despite this, he considered his most famous invention an intrusion on his real work as a scientist and teacher of the Deaf. He even refused to have a telephone in his own study. I didn’t know his story before and how he invented the telephone as a direct result of his lifelong research into hearing and speech because of his wife and mother’s deafness.
This exhibition makes you realise how much information technology and communication has moved on in the last two hundred years. In fact, it has only been in the last twenty to twenty-five years that digital technology, such as the Internet, social media and mobile phones, has had such a massive impact on our lives. It has been a real game-changer in terms of giving deaf and hard of hearing people the opportunity to communicate with others on an equal basis, giving us a voice and breaking down the barriers to inclusion in our society. Who knows what the next twenty years will bring?