During International Week of the Deaf, Sign On For Literacy prize finalist Enuma shares how innovation can transform access to literacy and education for deaf children around the globe.
Sooinn Lee vividly remembers the experience of a deaf child’s mother she met while growing up in Korea.
It was a memory Lee immediately called up when she learned her own son was born with moderate hearing. She remembered the challenge of that mother in Korea, an art teacher who tried to communicate with her deaf child through drawing. But without access to sign language and education with sign language, communication beyond art was nearly impossible, Lee says.
Decades later, Lee is raising two children in Berkeley, Calif., grateful for the impact access to sign language and education with sign language has had on her now nine-year-old son and family. It was these experiences that fueled her to launch her tech startup, Enuma, in 2012, focused on leveraging technology to serve the education needs of children with disabilities.
“Our mission is clear: we empower children with disabilities to become learners,” says Lee, Enuma’s co-founder and CEO. “We see the potential of touchscreen devices, taking what we’ve learned from the gaming industry and applying it to education to motivate a young child’s mind.”
That potential is what led to the development of KitKit School, a tablet-based early learning program that helps children learn literacy and math skills independently. It includes a suite of games, books, videos, and art and music tools designed to support children in developing countries. A finalist of the Global Learning XPRIZE, Enuma piloted KitKit School in Tanzania and Kenya in 2016 and 2017, offering the app in both Swahili and English.
Yet long before KitKit’s schools inception, Lee cast a greater vision for its functionality, including exploring ways to make it more accessible and inclusive for children with disabilities. The potential for the app to offer these features came in fall 2017, when All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development launched the Sign On For Literacy prize competition. In June 2018, Enuma was announced as one of five winners of the first phase of the competition, winning $25,000 to develop their prototype, with a chance to win up to $250,000.
Through the Sign On For Literacy prize, Enuma will add a sign language mode to KitKit School that provides Tanzanian Sign Language and visual support to the curriculum, enabling deaf children and their communities to access early sign language learning resources. To accomplish this, Enuma partnered with multiple organizations for the deaf in Tanzania and now has a team of nine in the country translating the content of KitKit School into Tanzanian Sign Language.
Enuma also formed a partnership with the Center of Early Intervention on Deafness in Berkeley, Calif.—which provided early education to her son and support to her family—to develop early learning curriculum and resources.
The challenge for implementing sign language functionality in new areas is accommodating differences in sign language from region to region. That’s why Enuma will also add a sign language editing app so local communities can modify the sign language videos and resources to fit their context.
“The Sign On For Literacy prize has made a huge difference,” Lee says. “We had the concept for a long time, but had not advanced to where we could inspire and reach others who might see it [the innovation] and begin thinking about deaf education more seriously. Without the prize, we’d have no long-term vision of where this functionality could go.”
When asked whether education for all deaf children is a possibility in our lifetime, Lee responds with a resounding, “Yes.” A qualifier for that ambitious vision, however, is the collective passion and effort among innovators, funders, policymakers, educators, and others to make inclusive education a priority, she says.
“My hope is our work and the Sign On For Literacy challenge can inspire and push others to think about inclusiveness and accessibility up front,” Lee says. “If we start to build the architecture to hold those functionalities from the beginning, I believe that inclusive education can become more popular and critical in the learning of everyone’s life, a mainstream function we can access everywhere, in every signed and spoken language. It can happen in our lifetime.”