Ford Airport one of first airports to use sign language boards powered by AI

"I was blown away," Nancy Piersma says, recalling when she saw someone on a screen at Gerald R. Ford International Airport relaying messages in American Sign Language alongside captions at the bottom.

The Grand Rapids airport was one of the first in the nation to try the new technology.

"At first, I noticed just a hand moving, and so I turned and looked at it, and then I came over and started watching it. It made me happy," says Piersma, speaking by phone through an ASL interpreter. "Sometimes there's a little issue with little lag times and little, little glitches, but I would say it's 90% perfect."

Piersma was among the first people from the Deaf community asked by the airport to check out the technology unveiled in November. A community education and advocacy coordinator for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, Piersma is a native deaf facilitator who does cultural and sensitivity training for the deaf, hard of hearing and the deaf-blind communities. 

Necessary information

Flight delays and gate changes can be confusing for deaf travelers who are unable to hear the announcements.

"There's real concern that people are missing the types of announcements,” Piersma says. “It can be very frustrating, because we always have to go up to someone and ask them about our flights if they are delayed. Sometimes I can tell that there's been an announcement, and then I'm trying to find out what happened. I can just see from peoples' expressions that something happened. You can sometimes get the wrong information. Without technology, you can feel lost." 

The pilot program received funding from the Ford Airport’s initiative FLITE, or Ford Launchpad for Innovative Technologies and Entrepreneurship. It is one of the first airport-based initiatives to provide grants and pilot tests to companies focused on air travel technology solutions. FLITE has partnerships with Southwest Airlines, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Seamless Ventures, and the West Michigan Aviation Academy.

The Signapse technology has been used in the UK for about a 18 months, primarily in train stations.

As part of the FLITE program, Signapse received grant funds to test its technology at Ford Airport. 

The test ended in 2023 and the airport no longer uses the technology, according to Business Administration Manager Tom Cizauskas, who oversees FLITE.

“We are working with them now to continue to develop the software,” says Cizauskas, who noted the airport has sign language interpreters to help deaf travelers. 

“We were excited about it,” Cizauskas says. “It’s definitely something worth investing in and figuring out how to make it work."

Embracing universal design

In 2018, the airport began a path towards universal design to improve accessibility.

“What we like to do is not make it something different or unique or an extra step that passengers have to take,” says Cizauskas. “It should be seamless for everyone who travels. If we can just build in the different communication formats that different passengers need, we would prefer to just build it in so everyone has the same experience,” 

In 2018, the airport redid the counters to follow universal design. Other accessibility improvements include a new animal relief area, a hearing-aid system, wheelchair assistance, a TSA assistance program, a post-security companion care restroom with an adult changing table, and a hidden disabilities program.

"Having the support of a program like FLITE is invaluable to a start-up like ours," says Leia Clancy, head of growth at Signapse. "The program enables us to develop a flagship case study for our AI technology, giving us an opportunity to grow our business in Michigan and beyond."

Technology used in UK

The technology has been used in the UK for about a year and a half, primarily in rail, Clancy says. 

The service is created by working with an interpreter who signs a vocabulary of terms that are then pieced together by AI.

"There's a lot of different recordings, destination names, airline names, numbers, times of day with thousands of combinations,” Clancy says. “Our AI is able to connect with the airport's data feed, so we know exactly what's going on in real time."

The technology is being used at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and is further along in development there.

"We're in conversation with a few airports around the country about this technology. So hopefully, within the next six to 12 months, you'll see that rolling out to other places,” Clancy says. 

Clancy doesn't think the technology will take the place of ASL interpreters.

"The interpretation profession is so valuable and so important. There will always be a place for it,” she says. “For example, medical settings, legal settings and in a work meeting, having that person there is something we never want to replace. Where we want to be is all the gaps in between, like the airport. You're never going to have an interpreter there 24/7."

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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