ACR GCD-funded sign language storybook platform receives Zero Project award for improving accessibility

World Around You is a multilingual platform developed with funding from the Sign on For Literacy Prize in 2019 by three-time ACR GCD awardee RIT/NTID

ACR GCD-funded sign language storybook platform receives Zero Project award for improving accessibility

World Around You logoWorld Around You (WAY), a multilingual platform created by Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf with funding awarded through the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) Sign on For Literacy Prize, is a Zero Project 2022 award recipient for its work to improve accessibility.

The platform is one of only 76 innovations from 35 countries–which were selected from 381 applicants in 86 countries–for the Innovative Practices and Policies prizes. RIT/NTID is one of six awardees from the United States.

The goal of the WAY online platform is to increase global literacy for deaf children by providing accessible storybooks in local sign languages focused on increasing their sign language vocabulary and fluency as a foundation to written literacy skill acquisition. The platform includes an online library of storybooks about different topics, including COVID-19, folktales, deaf experiences, cultural items and foods, and sign language genres.

“WAY storytelling opens the world to deaf children, one native signed story at a time,” said Christopher Kurz, a professor in RIT/NTID’s master’s degree program in secondary education and the project lead. “WAY reinforces global literacy for deaf children and global sign language documentation of local, regional, and national sign languages by deaf people.”

Of the estimated 34 million deaf children globally, more than 80% do not have access to any type of formal education and only less than 2% receive education in sign language that they can understand. Without being provided early access to language, children do not have equitable opportunity to develop social and cognitive skills at the same rate as their peers, hindering their ability to learn to read and write. 

“Receiving education in a language a child can understand is so profoundly important because children first need a language before they learn to read,” says Erin Williams, the program manager for the ACR GCD Begin With Books Prize. “Sign language is that language, and so many kids don’t have any language acquisition until they go to a school for the deaf and then have to rapidly become bi- or tri-lingual.”

In 2018, the Sign On For Literacy prize competition sought innovations that addressed the need for sign language acquisition and literacy skill development for deaf children in low-resource contexts. As an awardee, RIT/NTID and its educational software development partner, Second Avenue Learning,developed the open source software that enables communities to create literacy content in local and national sign languages to be shared via an open-content digital library of folktales. Digital libraries are viewable from any web browser, can be hosted locally on Linux-based computers and mobile devices, and remixed by individuals (including children) with simple text and video editing tools. 

Committed to open source storybooks to  help access to the platform grow

Compared to proprietary solutions, ACR GCD supports the WAY platform as a successful example of open source materials and licensing to support more users around the world to share the content broadly and bring the platform to  to scale using this EdTech solution to improve reading outcomes for the most marginalized children, especially children with disabilities in low-resource contexts.

“World Around You owes much of its success to the open-licensed nature of the content and the technology, which allows for crowd sourcing of the books now, and the creation of a community team to work on the technology side of the platform by the end of next year,” said Stephen Jacobs, director of Open@RIT and co-principal investigator on WAY. “It’s another example of how open-licensing academic work can support its growth and lead to increased impact and translation.”

Building on the platform through the Begin With Books Prize and Ready2Read Challenge

As an awardee under the ACR GCD Begin with Books Prize, RIT/NTID will use WAY software to create 1200 accessible books in the sign languages of Indonesia (Jakarta), the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, the Fiji Islands and Samoa–regions where deaf children lack deaf signing models in school settings and often do not have books in their local signed languages. 

Building on their Begin With Books Prize, RIT/NTID is also transforming reading and language learning experiences in early education for children who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) in

Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines through an award under the ACR GCD Ready2Read Challenge.

The Transforming Reading in Early Education (TREE) Project will design a multi-layered signing-reading curriculum using Sign Language Rhyme and Rhythm (SLRR) and Shared Multilingual Reading Strategies to help address the signing and print literacy gaps that frequently exist for DHH students.

“We are looking forward to implementing the curriculum with deaf younger children and their families in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines,” said Dr. Christopher Kurz, professor of a graduate program for deaf educators at RIT/NTID. “Language play and shared reading are critical to increasing social-emotional learning and executive functioning skills.”

Leading the ACR GCD Sign Language Storybook through online collaboration

To help promote the collaboration, learning and adaptation (CLA) approach among Begin With Books Prize awardees and their local disabled persons organizational (DPOs) partners, ACR GCD established the Sign Language Storybook Cohort (SLSC), an online working group using Slack as their communication platform to share ideas and support each other. Recognizing the value of peer-to-peer learning and the need for deaf-led expertise and mentoring, ACR GCD is also funding RIT/NTID to convene and lead the group.

The cohort is spurring co-learning between the awardees and strengthening their capacity to create high quality storybooks in local sign languages by pivoting the provision of technical assistance from in-person training events to virtual support and recorded sessions. The collaboration and learning between awardees is also creating new content that addresses social inclusion and heightens the visibility of children and family members who are disabled

In 2022, the cohort will continue to validate these standards as they conclude their book production, and the lessons learned will be incorporated into the final version of the Minimum and Gold Standards, which will be open source and available for global distribution to support inclusive education and the creation of more sign language teaching and learning materials.

“From a modest $25,000 award under ACR GCD’s Sign on for Literacy Prize in 2018 to now, RIT/NTID has skillfully accelerated from piloting their World Around You open-source platform, to sustainable sign language storybook production through DPO partners in 6 countries, to leading peer organizations to develop Minimum and Gold Standards to scale the production and use of sign language storybooks through the Sign Language Storybook Cohort,” reflects Senior Program Manager, Shelly Hartman Sunyak.

Be part of the solution to improve reading outcomes for children with disabilities

Without new and innovative solutions like WAY, we risk leaving the most marginalized children even further behind their peers in learning–especially reading, a foundational skill for a child to learn and succeed in school and a proven driver in reducing poverty

At ACR GCD, our mission is to advance EdTech innovation and research to improve reading outcomes for marginalized children in low-resource contexts–and at this critical time for children with disabilities, we encourage you to take action to increase literacy opportunities for these children in your work and programming. Learn how you can be part of the solution to improve reading outcomes for children with disabilities.

To get the latest updates about RIT/NTID’s projects and other innovations that are increasing literacy for children with disabilities, sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this page. You can also read more about the work of our innovators and the scaling of solutions like WAY on our blog


ACR GCD is a partnership between USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government.

The Zero Project is committed to supporting the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) by researching, identifying, communicating, and supporting innovative practices and innovative policies globally and across all sectors of society. The Zero Project will present and promote the awards during the Zero Project Conference 2022 at the United Nations Office in Vienna.

A RIT/NTID news release contributed to this article.