In one of the most tragic incidents in South Africa’s North West province in recent memory, three teenage girls were burnt to death and 23 injured when they jumped from a building at a school for the deaf during a hilly winter morning.
The death of the minors aged between 16 and 18 at the School for the Deaf in Leeudoringstad, attributed to the fact that they did not hear the evacuation alarm because of their hearing disability, sent shockwaves across the country but has proven an inspiration to a young man, born in the most impoverished Eastern Cape, to create an invention that is set to change the lives of the deaf members of the community worldwide.
“In August 2015, I read the terrible story of three deaf pupils who died while they were sleeping at the North West School for the Deaf. The pupils didn’t hear the safety evacuation alarm because of their hearing condition,” Zuko Mandlakazi (32) said. He also recounted the ordeals of her hearing-impaired aunt.
“I was always concerned whenever she visited Johannesburg and was alone in the flat when my cousins were all at work. I always asked myself, ‘what if the flat catches fire, then she doesn’t get to hear a safety evacuation alarm and it’s too late for her to smell fire smoke to exit the flat?’”
“I then started doing some research on the assistive devices and the deaf community and I learnt that there were millions of other people with the same situation as my aunt. I decided to do something about it and that’s how I ended up here,” he added in an interview.
That has given birth to Senso (R) is a wrist wearable that connects hearing impaired with lifesaving sounds and other important sounds needed in order to manoeuvre daily lives. The product picks up sounds, communicate these sounds to the user through vibration and LED lighting.
It seeks to dismantle the communication gap that exists between normal hearing people and deaf or hard of hearing people. For example, if the wrist armband detects a sound that’s important to the user, the vibration on the wrist will alert the user to a sound that corresponds to a specific colour coded LED.
“If a user programs a sound made by a child who is crying to a pink color, the wrist armband will vibrate, then the LED colour on the wrist will be pink, when the child cries,” Mandlakazi explained.