May 7, 2020
Christopher Kurz and his team at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID) and School of Interactive Games and Media share a passionate energy to promote sign language acquisition and literacy skills for every deaf child around the world. This is driven by their belief that acquiring sign language and developing literacy skills empower deaf children to share their own stories and advocate for themselves and their peers in their communities.
As a winner of our Begin With Books prize, RIT/NTID will provide the storybooks needed for deaf children to begin their path to language and literacy. World Around You, a web-based platform, enables deaf communities to create storybooks and learning content in local and national sign languages to be shared via an open content digital library of storybooks.
The platform—funded previously by ACR GCD’s Sign On For Literacy prize for piloting in the Philippines—will be used to expand RIT/NTID’s work as a winner of Begin With Books, our global competition which challenged global innovators to create cost-effective packages of accessible books in one or more of 30 selected languages in which few to no books exist.
With the prize funding, RIT/NTID will create 200 leveled books in six sign languages (Filipino, Indonesian, Somali, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Samoan), for a total of 1,200 books. These accessible books, leveled from pre-primary up to grade 2, will be uploaded to the Global Digital Library (GDL), a platform that provides free access to thousands of children’s books in more than 40 languages and growing. RIT/NTID’s contributions will be among the first sign language books uploaded to the GDL.
“We want to build international content using sign language and a community for these regional stories to be translated by other Deaf communities around the world,” says Chris Kurz, a professor at RIT/NTID. “This helps deaf around the world to understand how they are the same and how they are different, and that becomes a vehicle for the preservation of Indigenous Sign Languages and a platform for deaf communities to learn each other’s sign languages.”
Of the estimated 32 million deaf children around the world, 80 percent do not have access to education, and only 2 percent receive education in sign language, the most accessible pathway to a language foundation for deaf children. This is particularly true in areas of the world with limited resources, profoundly affecting deaf children who already face tremendous barriers to economic and social opportunities.
These statistics are representative of the experience of deaf children in all the countries RIT/NTID will target. In Indonesia, only 10 sign language books exist; in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, only one bilingual English and Fiji Sign Language book exists, and it’s appropriate only for upper elementary grades. In Somalia, deaf children have no books in Somali Sign Language at all.
RIT/NTID also will work with local disabled persons organizations (DPOs) to create roughly 350 books about the deaf experience or that include deaf characters. The team also plans to adapt or create 40 books with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) content.
Creating such a volume of content across several countries, regions and languages is possible through RIT/NTID’s development of partnerships, including De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in the Philippines, Somali National Association for the Deaf, as well as linguistic experts in Indonesia and the Pacific Islands.
“Collaboration among countries is very important, as it helps develop strong networking, partnerships, and a support system,” Kurz says. “Although the deaf world is small, we need each other and hearing allies, like sponsoring and funding agencies, to make the world accessible for deaf children through storytelling.”
RIT/NTID hopes to expand the countries and languages beyond the funding of the Begin With Books prize, and seeks additional funding to support that work. The team will train others how to use the platform to adapt stories in their written languages or local sign languages, Kurz says.
RIT/NTID will also join ACR GCD’s new Sign Language Storybook Cohort, consisting of other Begin With Books prize winners and ACR GCD awardees and their partners from DPOs to determine standards for sign language storybook production in underserved languages. The cohort will inform the creation of a toolkit for creating sign language storybooks, with the hope of changing publishing models among book producers to incorporate accessible features.
“It’s always great to have a cohort of people to share each other’s goals,” Kurz says. “It will be interesting, on the technology side, to learn how other innovators are accomplishing their goals and looking for opportunities to improve all the systems we’re building to improve literacy and language acquisition for deaf children.”
It was ACR GCD’s initial investment in World Around You that positioned RIT/NTID to expand and scale its work through Begin With Books, Kurz says .
“Through the Sign On For Literacy prize, we built an internet-based platform and an open source template driven for users to create both books and games,” he says. “That makes it easy for us, the users of our system, and perhaps other Begin With Books awardees to contribute to the work we’ve already done, share improvements, or build their own version. This project will help strengthen the platform by making it more compatible with the GDL.”