Rob Troy is building an AI tool that will help deaf people communicate
As a young child, Rob Troy grew up living in the ample grounds of a psychiatric hospital among the patients his psychiatrist father treated.
One school morning he remembers climbing into the family car to grab the front seat ahead of his brothers. In the rear-view mirror, he saw a stranger rise from the back seat before clambering out. It later transpired he was a benign patient – not that a startled Rob knew that at the time.
When his father realised the man’s identity – he was one of his own patients – he made sure to introduce Rob.
“My parents were absolutely determined I was going to be okay with their world,” says Rob. “I was very comfortable among patients under my father’s care, I don’t remember feeling uneasy.”
This unusual and enlightened childhood – his mother also worked in the mental health field – partly determined Rob’s future work as an interpreter for people living with psychoses, autism, or minimal language skills.
Successful interpretation lies in appreciating subtleties and communicating the message rather than becoming hamstrung on the language, says Rob.
He adds: “If somebody can’t maintain focus you need to find out what the meaning is rather than worrying about the lexical details.”
Now he’s inspired by the prospect of building technology that will help the underserved Deaf community take a fuller part in society.
An Executive MBA at Warwick Business School – which he undertook in order to learn more about the mainstream corporate world – has inspired him towards an entrepreneurial future.
After pitching his idea to the business school’s own start-up clinic, he has dedicated the rest of his time on the course to seeing it through.
When Rob speaks, his hands move expressively in sync with his story. He began learning British Sign Language (BSL) as a teenager in order to communicate with his best friend’s parents, who were Deaf.
He said: “I saw first-hand the barriers they faced, and I wanted to do something about it.”
By the age of 16, he had already learned and passed exams in BSL. People who are Deaf, he explains, face more social barriers than people realise. Also, because their native BSL differs from the English language, they may find it harder to read and write in English.
And parents who have a Deaf child may be slow to accept a diagnosis and learn to sign, affecting a child’s development, Rob explains.
“Deaf literacy rates are much lower than those of hearing people,” says Rob. “The average reading age of a Deaf adult is eight years-old.”
Intuitively, hearing people might write something down to communicate – this can further isolate a Deaf person.
Together with an engineer and a co-founder who is Deaf, Rob and his team have created technology that aims to help the UK’s 151,000 BSL users communicate online as easily in sign language as hearing people do with written English.
Rob’s solution allows businesses to ask questions and gather video feedback from Deaf people in their native BSL. Communication becomes faster and less cumbersome, and businesses and services can be more responsive. Currently Deaf people may not be able to engage with any requests for insights – and so will have no say in the design of services.
“There’s a gap in the market,” says Rob. “Organisations are signing up for interpreting agencies to deal with complaints from Deaf people, but we shouldn’t be waiting until the complaints stage to offer this.”
How can AI technology help Deaf people communicate?
AI will interpret the information for non-BSL speakers, and Rob’s business can follow up with advice and potential solutions.
Anyone who doubts Deaf people’s difficulties with services should walk a while in their shoes, says Rob. The layout of shops and gyms often don’t take into account visual noise or special awareness. Assistance and entrance to premises is usually via a phone on the wall. Many retailers still have cashiers that shout availability rather than a light flashing system to alert the next customer.
“It only takes a few good ideas from a few individuals to dramatically change the experience of many if they are taken onboard,” says Rob.
With several businesses and investors interested, Rob’s team are currently testing and refining their prototype, with a view to launching within the year.
For Rob, this venture is about equity and inclusion. According to a 2023 report by charity SignHealth 30 to 60 per cent of Deaf people suffer mental health problems, twice the rate of the hearing population.
“And the number one driver is lack of agency and self-expression,” says Rob. “They are forced to communicate in a language that doesn’t function for them. They can feel lonely and stigmatised.”
Ultimately Rob seeks to gain a seal of approval from a leading Deaf charity. “We aim to bring that (mental health) rate down if we can open up channels of communication and improve social participation.”
This is an approach Rob has brought with him to business school. A self-confessed grammar nerd, language fascinates him, and he’s the first to nitpick classmates’ arguments for clarity. As an undergraduate, he studied French and Italian, before taking a master’s degree in sign language interpretation and translation.
Words matter, and he’s currently challenging the University of Warwick to take advantage of diversity and consult with a wider range of students. He wants to see the language of standardised university communications change to reflect a more modern approach to inclusivity.
“Students could work with academic staff who might be fearful of making mistakes, open up a conversation and ensure subject materials, for instance, are truly inclusive,” he says.
And it’s the duty of alumni to change any organisation for the better, business schools included, Rob believes - responsibility lies with both the organisation and the individual.
He argues: “In the same way that we can now measure our carbon footprint, we should be able to gauge what we’ve contributed as a person, a citizen, how we’ve changed somewhere or something for the better.
“At business school, yes you are here to learn, but for this to be the best organisation it can be, you also need to bring everything you have.”