Innovation from nonprofit Manos Unidas to expand access to Nicaraguan Sign Language across country

During International Week of the Deaf, Sign On For Literacy prize winner Manos Unidas shares how technology is transforming access to education for deaf children in Nicaragua.  

Boy in deaf school in Nicaragua.Marie Coppola began researching the experiences of the Deaf Community in Nicaragua nearly 25 years ago.

For Coppola, the interest in access to education and sign language for people who are deaf was personal. As a CODA, or child of deaf adult(s), she learned at a young age the challenges many deaf people have in accessing education and language, a gap that is even wider in developing countries.  

“In Nicaragua, as in many low-income countries, only a small percentage of deaf people have access to education and language,” Coppola says. “Both my research and personal experiences led me to found Manos Unidas, to promote equal access to education and language and to support capacity building and leadership skills among the Deaf Community.”

Eager to expand efforts to improve deaf education in Nicaragua, Manos Unidas applied for All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development’s Sign On For Literacy prize. A winner of the first phase of the competition, Manos Unidas’ Señas y Sonrisas (“Signs and Smiles”) project will create an interactive, community-led corpus of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) signs and their relation to Spanish words. The project—developed in partnership with a local deaf association—also involves the creation of an app for smartphones and tablets designed to facilitate learning and use of NSL, as well as a literacy outreach program focused on deaf children and families living in rural areas of Nicaragua who do not have access to education.

“I believe technology has been a game changer for both children and adults in Nicaragua,” Coppola says. “For children, there is potential for apps and distance learning to spread Nicaraguan Sign Language materials further, especially in rural communities. For adults, the rise of texting and social media has enabled connections among deaf people in Nicaragua, as well as with deaf people in other countries.”

Still, many challenges for expanding access to deaf education exist, the greatest of which is a lack of understanding of the Deaf Community and how sign languages affect children’s development in all stages of life, Coppola says. In rural areas, children with disabilities often have few resources for education, and if they do, parents do not always have access to information that would help them seek such resources, she adds.

These are challenges Manos Unidas hopes to address through the Sign On For Literacy prize. The hope is their innovation will serve as a model for inclusion and accessibility for deaf individuals, and that the project will foster leaders who advocate for systemic changes that benefit all deaf Nicaraguans. “Improving access to education and language for all Deaf Nicaraguans is certainly a positive step in this direction,” Coppola says.  

Coppola hopes the Sign On for Literacy prize will also inspire other innovators to invest in deaf education, whether in Nicaragua or other developed or developing contexts. Yet she cautions that innovators who take up this challenge ensure they communicate directly and often with the communities they wish to support.  

“Lack of communication seems more common when the target population are people with disabilities,” Coppola says, “yet the active leadership and participation of deaf developers and local partners are key to success.”

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

Learn more about Manos Unidas’ innovation here.

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