During International Week of the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Institute for the Deaf casts a vision for inclusive education for deaf children.
It was a summer camp in Sweden that set in motion the purpose for Dr. Christopher Kurz’s life.
A deaf child growing up in Detroit, Kurz was only 11 years old when he was selected as one of 52 campers from 13 countries, including Kenya and the Philippines, to spend a month building friendships, sharing sign languages and cultures, and learning the value of becoming good global citizens.
“This experience sparked my interest in learning more about international deaf people, especially their education and their rights to learn their own sign languages,” says Kurz, now a professor of a graduate program for deaf educators at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID).
Now decades later, Kurz hasn’t forgotten how those experiences shaped him, so much that he and his team at RIT/NTID are committed to improving access to sign languages and expanding the cadre of deaf role models around the world. This resulted in the development of World Around You, an open-source software that enables communities to create content in their country’s local and national sign languages to be shared via an open-content digital library of folktales.
RIT/NTID’s innovation is one of five selected as winners of the first phase of All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development’s Sign On For Literacy prize, a global competition to source technology innovations that increase access to local sign languages and improve literacy for deaf children. RIT/NTID received $25,000 in seed funding to develop a prototype of World Around You during Phase 2 of the competition. Should the project advance to the final phase, the organization could win up to $250,000 to pilot and test the innovation in a low-resource setting.
“Deaf people in the Philippines face both systematic barriers and cultural biases as their sign languages are minority languages within the majority English- and Filipino-speaking cultures,” Kurz says. “Deaf educational professionals, unfortunately, have limited understanding of a natural sign language’s role in education. Hence, accessible language resources like literacy materials are scarce for deaf children in both high- and low-income countries.”
Like deaf education in nearly every country around the globe, the challenges in the Philippines include a dearth of sign language resources to promote literacy, as well as a lack of qualified teachers who are fluent in sign languages.
While World Around You was developed in 2018, prior to the launch of the Sign On For Literacy competition, Kurz says the prize has opened a long-held desire for the innovation to be used by people in developing countries. The hope is for World Around You to empower people in developing countries to expand or modify it to align with linguistic rules and cultural norms, he says.
For decades, RIT/NTID has developed and tested a variety of technology solutions to narrow deaf educational gaps with some success, and is now part of a technology revolution that is leveling the educational playing field for children with disabilities, including those in developing contexts. These technologies hold the potential for deaf children to learn and participate in activities as equals, Kurz says.
That is the point where Kurz says he hopes other innovators will get involved. Realizing the responsibility for improving access to sign language and deaf education is not delegated to one individual or organization, his hope is for a team of technology innovators to begin partnering and collaborating with people in the international deaf community. For Kurz, that partnership began in Sweden at the ripe age of 11; now he’s witnessing its power as one of five innovators coming together through ACR GCD’s Sign On for Literacy prize.
“The goal of our team is to empower deaf people in developing countries in finding solutions to the deaf education gap—their accessibility to literacy with support of sign languages,” Kurz says. “They have so much to offer, and that includes exchanging and communicating ideas with each other. It is our hope to provide an everlasting and positive impact that promotes literacy in the Philippines and around the world.”