Creation of sign language storybooks expands world of reading and storytime to deaf children and their families

All Children Reading Grand Challenge’s Sign Language Storybook Cohort, including Disabled Persons Organizations, advances inclusive education

Creation of sign language storybooks expands world of reading and storytime to deaf children and their families

In the opening pages of the storybook Talking with My Mum, two children are welcomed into a friend’s home by the mom who, using sign language, greets her son’s friends and asks them to wash their hands before serving them food.

When the son’s friends ask him, “Why do you make signs with your hands?” he replied that his mother is deaf and that their family communicates using sign language. After talking and enjoying the meal, the friend asks how to sign “thank you,” to show appreciation for the mother’s cooking in the language she uses. It’s a timely tale for International Day of Sign Languages on September 23, which falls during International Week of the Deaf. 

Cover of book called "Talking with My Mum"Talking with My Mum was purposely and collaboratively created by Malawi National Association of the Deaf (MANAD), the Disabled Persons Organization (DPO) partner of eKitabu, a winner of ACR GCD’s Begin With Books prize. By featuring a family with hearing and deaf members who use sign language to communicate, the story seeks to open the minds of young readers to the world of children of deaf adults.  

The Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Institute for the Deaf, another Begin With Books awardee, contributed feedback throughout the creation process through ACR GCD’s Sign Language Storybook Cohort (SLSC). ACR GCD established the SLSC to provide technical assistance to — and bring about shared learnings and peer mentoring among — the Begin With Books awardees to enable them to develop high-quality sign language books, all while developing and validating sign language book production standards during this process. The SLSC also includes two other Begin With Books prize awardees, The Asia Foundation and SIL LEAD, and their DPO partners. 

Over two years, the four prize winners will collectively create more than 2,000 books in 19 underserved languages, nine of which are sign languages, serving regions of the world where preschool through primary students have little or no access to books. The books will be uploaded to the Global Digital Library (GDL), a web-based platform that offers free, high-quality early learning resources in more than 83 languages, as well as the World Around You (WAY) platform, which features stories in more than 20 sign languages. 

Talking with My Mum, with its focus on Malawian Sign Language (MSL), is an outcome of building the capacity of DPOs like MANAD to create representative books in and for their own communities through their full engagement. It also demonstrates the mutual benefit experienced by book creators through the SLSC as they collaborate to create inclusive and engaging stories for all children and work toward meeting a gold standard in sign language book production for Deaf children in low resource settings.

The SLSC is “a vital resource not only in developing guidelines for creating books that are accessible in local sign language, but also in developing and promoting standards for high-quality sign language video production,” said Georgine Auma, who directs eKitabu’s Studio KSL (Kenyan Sign Language) project to create sign language storybooks.

These are standards “that can help ensure learners who are deaf have access to quality materials for them to acquire a first language they can use and understand,” she added.

Deaf children in Malawi face multiple barriers to gaining access to sign language storybooks, according to Sekerani Kufakwina, MANAD’s advocacy committee chairperson. These barriers, often intertwined, include internet access, bandwidth limitations and limited awareness of how and where to access digital materials.

Lack of Malawian Sign Language skills among parents and caregivers is another issue, as is difficulty in reaching homes and families in rural areas without electricity and secure means of keeping and maintaining ICT devices. There’s also the battle against an inaccurate common view that not everyone can learn and use sign language and that “sign languages are not ‘real’ languages that can be used to instruct learners,” Kufakwina said.

On the positive side, “some understand that Deaf learners can learn — that is, learn to communicate and even to build literacy — using sign language and visual materials such as video storybooks, with deaf Malawian signers as the storytellers,” he said.

ekitabu and MANAD’s collaboration in MSL storybooks also includes Kambuzi Kanga, a video storybook in MSL with Chichewa text. A sign language adapted version of Talking with My Mum is under production along with 50 Malawian sign language storybooks that will be available later this year. 

Auma said the creation of Talking with My Mum showed eKitabu and MANAD the need to address stereotypes of Deaf people, include positive portrayals of Deaf characters, and bring hearing and deaf characters together in the story. “The understanding that the story development itself is part of creating and telling the story, that communication is present when persons who are deaf are involved in an inclusive development process, was a major lesson,” she said.

eKitabu is working with MANAD not only to produce high-quality, age-appropriate sign language video storybooks, but also to contribute to local advocacy efforts to improve Deaf and inclusive education and formal recognition of MSL as a national language.

For MANAD, “Talking with My Mum is a milestone,” Kufakwina said. “The skills imparted to digital material production will help us to do more books as demand and advocacy for accessible materials gradually grows.”