North Sound News

Bellingham Police Department uses live translator app for deaf community

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — When Joel Bergsbaken and James Christianson walk into their regular downtown Bellingham coffee shop, Joel is bombarded by all the usual sounds — beans grinding, steam compressing and the cash register.

But James hears only silence. And if you think that makes ordering a latte intimidating, imagine trying to report a crime you just witnessed to a police officer who doesn't know you're deaf and doesn't know American Sign Language.

Joel and James are advocates at Bellingham's Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center—Joel is hearing, James is deaf, and both saw the need to open a dialogue between the city's police department and the city's deaf community.

It's an entirely different language—James says—not a visual version of English, so writing is not equivalent to translating.

Scroll down to continue reading

More news from KIRO 7


"It takes a lot of effort to read. Hearing people learn to read by knowing how things sound and the writing system matches the sound but it's hard to understand what they might have intended in a written word," Joel said, translating into English what James said in ASL.

The Bellingham Police Department agrees, so Officer Eric Osterkamp set out to overcome the language barrier.

Osterkamp got the idea for symbol placards from the Oregon State Patrol; officers carry them and so do James and his clients. They can point to pictures to indicate whether they can read lips or read text or if they need an interpreter.

"It would be nice if the police were aware of how to work with interpreters so they can quickly get an interpreter on scene," Joel translated for James. 

That's exactly what is happening now.

Officer Osterkamp and James are on the scene of a pretend hit-and-run to demonstrate how an app that functions a lot like Facetime or Skype allows them to communicate, practically in real time.

Osterkamp—with a real person on video chat—asks James questions while the person on the phone translates to ASL for James and vice versa.

The BPD has only been using the app which has live translators for countless languages for a few months, and they only need the video component for ASL speakers.

Officer Osterkamp says this is life-changing technology; he remembers once responding to a collision where one of the parties involved was deaf.

"I could tell he was angry but his ability to communicate and my ability to understand what he was saying—there's a huge gap," Osterkamp explained.

James and Joel say the app narrows the gap.

"In an emergency there's a lot of information that needs to be transmitted quickly and in your second language it's hard to find the words but in your primary language you can express it clearly and having an interpreter on the fly like that you can have that quick back and forth like that to get all the information needed right away," James signed.

That way he never has to worry that just because he doesn't hear, he won't be heard.