It’s true what they say - it’s hard to go back once you’re made aware of what you’ve been missing out on. So is the case for Gerald Isobe who, after being profoundly deaf since birth, if now able to keep up with conversations significantly better since his son, Brandon, created App MyEar, an app that uses voice-to-text to translate conversations for those who are hard of hearing. It is said that is it 90-95 percent accurate, compared to the 30 percent accuracy of lip reading.
Gerald was born in Hawaii with zero percent hearing - the reason why is unknown. It was discovered when he was two years old that he couldn’t hear, and he grew up in a “hearing” household, meaning no one else in his family is deaf, and no one in his family knew sign language, either - they still don’t.
As a child, he was pointed towards mainstream schooling, at which someone recommended he attend the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
Both Gerald and Brandon ultimately chose New York for its golf amenities, and got degrees in accounting and economics, respectively. It’s even, in part, because of golf that the app now exists.
“My dad, his golf game is amazing,” Brandon said. “Every time we play golf together there’s people that come up to him, talk to him and say, ‘you have a really nice swing, how do you hit it so far?’ And then they find out he’s deaf and there’s some awkwardness, and the conversation drops off, and people kind of just end up talking to me or talking to me to talk to him. And this started the idea, of maybe there’s an opportunity to use technology to help people communicate.”
How the app works is simple: Open the app, and speak! When a person speaks, the voice-to-text function kicks in and the words they’re saying appears on the screen for the person who is hard-of-hearing or deaf to read.
“I wish this had been possible when I was a child. If I’d had this when I was in college, it would have completely changed my life as far as golfing and just in general getting to know people,” Gerald said.
Gerald described various scenarios throughout his life during which the app would have come in handy: during away games for his golf team, when his teammates would all chat with each other on 2-3 hour trips while he just sat back; during classes, when he’d look away from his interpreter and up at the board, resulting in missing crucial information; when he lived in Japan for four years, where they don’t have interpreters and where they use a very simplistic form of American sign language … the list goes on and on.
“It was tough. It was very challenging. I didn’t have a lot of role models to look up to … there were smart students, and I looked up to the students that did well, sports role models. I tried to copy what other people did,” Gerald said. “...I was very independent, and I felt like I had to take care of myself and figure things out on my own. It wasn’t easy.
“No one ever spoke with me because it would have been too hard for them,” Gerald said. “...I’d have basic conversations. ...People don't even try to tell jokes to deaf people. This has been so greats. This changed my life.”
Gerald has been working as an accountant and as a supervisor with the Department of Defense for 38 years, and being deaf has presented its challenges. Be it a short or a long conversation, lip reading has its challenges. Now with the app, not only can Gerald’s boss go on for as long as he wants, but Gerald can now become more immersed in professional culture - instead of coworkers, or even his family members, speaking at a lower register of English to ensure that Gerald can understand them, he can pick up on professional communication language.
“It helped me be a better supervisor. As a supervisor, I had a challenge in communication skills. I wanted to excel and do better, and now I feel like I’m able to adapt and learn new language on a daily basis, and it’s been amazing,” raved Gerald.
“Now that I can read the English people are using on a daily conversational basis, I’m able to excel further in professional grammar and encourage young deaf people to do that same,” Gerald continued. “For example, if the interpreter doesn’t show up last minute or there’s no interpreter available, this is a great option instead.”
He went on to describe how difficult it can be at restaurants, if a waitress doesn’t know someone is deaf and some people, out of pride, don’t like to announce it, so they struggle through lip reading.
Unless you get a job in Washington D.C., where interpreters are available 24/7, it can be hard to participate in the hearing world when trying to just survive by getting a job. Even then, there’s usually a two-hour minimum on getting an interpreter, and they can run at least $100 per hour. Then, you have to hire them, hope they’re available and even just hope they show up.
It could have also been beneficial when his father passed away.
“When my father died, I didn’t have a way of really grieving my feelings, because there was no one to talk to about it. I couldn’t sit and sign with someone,” Gerald shared. “So I think this really helps me be able to communicate with people and I’d be able to tell people how I am feeling and have that conversation with people … that language barrier isn’t there.
“There are things that it’s helped with that I wouldn’t have been able to do before. ...With this app, I think it allows people to understand that I can be a part of the community, too,” Gerald said.
The app is available in app stores for $9.99, but comes with all of the free updates that are rolled out - like when Brandon made the app compatible for other languages as well, making it easier for deaf people internationally to communicate.
There’s also an app called App MyTalk, where deaf people can save 10 pre-recorded statements to play out loud for the hearing crowd. This was made for deaf people who are self-conscious about their speech.
“Next year at NTID when we have our 50th anniversary, I can’t wait to show people,” he continued. “Currently, about 10 percent of deaf students go to RIT rather than NTID, but I think that we can make it more accessible for them to go to RIT and access more education and classes.
“I think the most important thing is that this app is supplementary. If you like to lip read, pay attention, read their lips … read the app and see if there’s something you missed or didn’t understand,” Gerald said. “This doesn’t mean people have to stop lip reading or people have to stop using hearing aids. It just adds more to communication. … It’s meant to be supplemental. It’s an improvement.”
The app can be found in app stores, and more information and videos on how the app works can be found at