During International Week of the Deaf, Sign On For Literacy prize finalist eKitabu shares how technology is opening literacy and learning opportunities for deaf children across Kenya.
When EdTech company eKitabu was founded in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2012, a seed was planted not only to increase access to books and educational resources for children across the country, but to expand that access to a group historically overlooked in education: children with disabilities.
“We’ve always seen technology as a way to lower costs and also increase access,” says Matt Utterback, co-founder of eKitabu. “We always knew e-books provided accessibility features that print books don’t. All Children Reading and Sign On For Literacy gave us the resources and support to focus on harnessing technology to deliver inclusive education.”
With that vision as a personal and company priority for Matt and eKitabu, it was a perfect complement when, in 2016, the Ministry of Education in Kenya approached the EdTech startup to create accessible content for the country’s new digital literacy program, which involved the rollout of more than a million tablets and laptops to learners in primary schools across Kenya. According to MoE data, deaf children made up more than half of all learners with disabilities in Kenya’s public school system, so adapting learning materials for Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) acquisition and literacy was flagged a top priority.
The result was the development of eKitabu’s Studio KSL to help the Deaf Community and local content creators integrate Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) videos into early grade reading materials, thereby producing visual storybooks in support of Kenya’s new inclusive education policy. In 2017, as Studio KSL was in development, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development announced its Sign On For Literacy prize, which sought innovations that increase literacy outcomes for deaf children in low-resource settings. eKitabu saw an opportunity to leverage the prize to take Studio KSL even further.
“We want to establish Studio KSL as a resource for both publishers and content developers in Kenya to create visual storybooks and, in particular, create new stories,” Utterback says. “We also want to lower the cost of creating these books, which in the past has been expensive and unsustainable economically.”
In addition to the opportunity to win up to $250,000 for the project, eKitabu is already seeing the impact of the prize on its network with international development organizations as well as people in the Deaf Community across Kenya.
“Now we’re growing the eKitabu team with people from the deaf community,” says Will Clurman, co-founder of eKitabu. “The work has taught us already that the best way to understand the requirements and ensure quality and build a sustainable resource is for deaf team members to lead Studio KSL.”
One such connection made through the Sign On For Literacy prize was with Washington Opiyo Sati, a Kenyan human rights activist and politician who became deaf at age six due to Meningitis. In addition to providing significant input for the development of Studio KSL, Sati also connected eKitabu to others in Kenya’s deaf community.
“The Sign On For Literacy prize will go a long way to improve education for deaf children,” Sati says. “Inclusion brings us into the mainstream society where we are given the same knowledge and same responsibilities as others.”
Having the voices of so many shaping the project has perhaps steepened the learning curve for eKitabu, but Utterback says that is ultimately what will establish Studio KSL as a reliable, sustainable resource that can impact education in other developing countries. Investing to set up Studio KSL and iterate and improve production techniques in collaboration with deaf teachers and KSL experts is helping eKitabu lower the cost of producing quality visual storybooks and document regional differences in KSL, Clurman adds.
That vision is ultimately what will bring Kenya closer to what Sati hopes is the future for his country. “I want to see deaf education where every teacher of deaf children can use sign language, and I want to see a country where every child has sign language, even children who are not deaf,” Sati says. “And I want to see—because of the technology and learning platforms we have—the performance of deaf children improving dramatically. This will give more deaf children access to quality education and the chance to reach their full potential.”