Gallaudet University envisions a digital sign languages library for every deaf child

During International Week of the Deaf, the Motion Light Lab at Gallaudet casts vision for its SignShare innovation, one of five winners of ACR GCD’s Sign On For Literacy prize.

Staff from Gallaudet University's Motion Light Lab

Through the Sign On For Literacy prize, Melissa Malzkuhn and her team at the Motion Light Lab at Gallaudet University are developing Sign Share, an open-source platform that enables users to create and share signed stories and resources uploaded to a digital library.

Melissa Malzkuhn started the Motion Light Lab at Gallaudet University in 2009, eager to explore how technology might enable deaf children around the world to discover the love of reading she’s coveted since her childhood.

Growing up in a third generation deaf family, Malzkuhn attended a school for the deaf. Sign language education spurred her love of stories—from books to live storytellers sharing tales in American Sign Language in the classroom.

“What excites me today is the potential of bringing talented storytellers to young deaf children, no matter where they are in the world,” Malzkuhn says. “To do this, we need to get the tools and resources out to talented deaf teams and work together to develop more literacy resources.”

Recognizing this need is what spurred the Motion Light Lab team at Gallaudet University to develop SignShare, an open-source platform that enables users to create and share signed stories and resources uploaded to a digital library. The platform also serves as an information center with resources including tutorials, research on literacy development for deaf children, and lesson plans for teachers.

A winner of the first phase of the Sign On For Literacy competition, Motion Light Lab was awarded $25,000 to be refine SignShare through the next phase of the competition, with a chance to win up to $250,000 to pilot and test the platform in a developing country.

Of the estimated 32 million deaf, hard-of-hearing or deaf-blind children around the world, 80 percent do not have access to education, and only two percent receive education in sign language. Absent early access to language, children fall behind in developing social and cognitive skills, which in turn hinders their ability to read and write and often results in isolation and a lack of access to education and job opportunities over the course of their lives.

Yet technological advancements have the power to reverse such challenges, Malzkuhn says. SignShare leverages technology to encourage content creation and sharing in any sign language, anywhere in the world.

“Touchscreen tablets, for one, have transformed how we think of reading and learn to read,” she says. “It’s possible to put videos and text on a screen and for young deaf children to interact with a storybook and learn to read through sign language and mapping the meaning over to printed letters and words. We are seeing how technology is shaping accessibility, and I believe the future will be shaped by inclusive design through working with people with disabilities.”

The end goal, Malzkuhn says, is creating a digital library for every deaf child around the world by involving and empowering their deaf communities. SignShare is a positive step in that direction, providing solutions to the dearth of sign language resources available to deaf children, particularly in developing countries.

Still, beyond resources, other gaps remain for effective deaf education, including increasing the amount of teachers fluent in sign language around the globe, and engaging parents and families on the importance of early sign language exposure for children, Malzkuhn adds.

If the world is to realize Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) to provide inclusive and effective education for children with disabilities, it will take the collective effort of many innovators, organizations, and others committed to leveraging technology and inclusive design.  It also requires supporting family and community participation in learning and using sign languages. That collaboration is the spirit of the Sign On For Literacy prize, and Malzkuhn says the Motion Light Lab team at Gallaudet hopes SignShare and other Sign On For Literacy innovations will inspire more people to create solutions that expand access to sign languages around the globe.

But to develop successful solutions, she adds one critical piece of advice: “When developing solutions to improve education for deaf children in developing countries, think about who’s on the team,” Malzkuhn says. “If you’re creating tools for deaf children, and there’s no deaf person on your team, then you’re missing the whole picture. Nothing about us, without us.”

Learn more about Gallaudet University’s innovation here.

Learn more about the Sign On For Literacy prize finalists here.

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