Sign On For Literacy winners advance inclusive education for deaf children around the globe

Innovations provide sign language access to deaf children in Kenya, Rwanda, the Philippines and Nicaragua.

Sign On For Literacy winners advance inclusive education for deaf children around the globe
eKitabu's Georgine Auma works with children who are deaf in Kenya.

Georgine Auma, a deaf educator and director of Studio KSL, works with deaf children in a classroom in Kenya.

In the Jinotega region of Nicaragua, eight-year-old Luis sits at a desk in his classroom and studies dozens of words in Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) delivered through videos on a smartphone app.

Across the room, Manuel, a fellow student who is hearing, notices his friend Luis smiling as he learns the handshape, location and movement of the native language he uses to communicate.

Manuel walks across the room and pulls up a chair beside Luis, watching as his friend matches words in NSL to the correct words in Spanish. Manuel notices the name of the app, Señas y Sonrisas (Signs and Smiles), and grabs his pencil to write it down, with the intention of asking his mom to download it to her smartphone. Manuel wants to learn NSL, too, so he can better communicate with his friend. 

The interaction between the two boys is at the heart of the intention for All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development’s (ACR GCD) Sign On For Literacy prize: transforming access to language, education and literacy for children who are deaf in some of lowest-resourced regions of the world.

“I have seen parents using the app with their deaf child, and the parents are so excited about it,” says Kyle Duarte of Manos Unidas, one of three winners of the Sign On For Literacy prize. Their winning solution, Señas y Sonrisas (Signs and Smiles), offers resources for hearing families with deaf children in Nicaragua, including a dictionary of NSL.

Of the estimated 32 million children around the world who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf-blind (DHHDB), 80 percent do not have access to education, and only 2 percent receive instruction in sign language. This is particularly true in low-resource contexts, profoundly affecting children who already face tremendous barriers to economic and social advancement opportunities. 

A Positive Shift in Deaf Education

ACR GCD launched Sign On For Literacy in November 2017, calling on a global community of innovators to develop solutions that increase access to local sign languages and advance language and literacy outcomes for deaf children in low-resource contexts. Out of a field of more than 100 applicants, three rose to the top as winners of the competition: eKitabu, Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID), and Manos Unidas

These innovators, which implemented their solutions in Kenya, Rwanda, the Philippines and Nicaragua in 2019, confirmed not only an appetite for literacy content among deaf children and their families but witnessed a transformation in attitudes towards deaf education, in some cases at the education policy level of their respective countries. 

“Our work on Studio RSL [Rwandan Sign Language] is already bolstering efforts to recognize RSL in Rwanda and to fill gaps in accessible learning for Rwanda’s new competency-based curriculum and draft inclusive education policy,” said Matt Utterback, co-founder of eKitabu. 

The innovative idea piloted by eKitabu, called Studio KSL (Kenyan Sign Language) in Kenya and Studio RSL in Rwanda, focuses on the creation of sign language storybooks. In Kenya, the for-profit company produced 100 KSL storybooks packaged in EPUB and distributed them to four schools for the deaf.  They also documented 400 KSL signs to build glossaries of key vocabulary for each book. The project engaged 151 parents of children who are deaf, of whom 98 percent expressed a strong interest in using Studio KSL materials to help themselves and their children learn KSL. This learning resulted in the distribution of 150 DVDs with KSL storybooks as well as the creation of a WhatsApp group to support parents. 

“Engagement with parents of deaf children is key, as they are also hungry to learn and need resources in local sign languages,” Utterback said. 

In Rwanda, efforts are still under way, with plans to produce more than 20 books in Rwandan Sign Language in the coming months, Utterback added. 

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, RIT/NTID launched its World Around You (WAY) platform, which features 17 storybooks in Filipino Sign Language, English and Tagalog. Field testing of the platform was conducted prior to the launch with 84 participants at three sites in the Philippines. 

“The students really liked the platform – they liked the idea that they can have language choice, and that they can keep the written language [in the books] static while watching videos in loop,” said Christopher Kurz, professor at RIT/NTID. 

RIT/NTID also held two content creation events in Manila, where community members gathered in groups to create 16 stories, 10 of which were published on the WAY platform. 

In Nicaragua, Manos Unidas created a vocabulary list of 331 words in NSL in 22 thematic categories, plus quizzes to track the number of NSL words  users correctly match to Spanish words. Manos Unidas is also working with World Vision-Nicaragua to distribute the app to teachers and parents of deaf children.

“World Vision-Nicaragua has been a strong partner so far in ensuring we have a national distribution network available to us,” Duarte says. 

Next Steps for Deaf Education 

Looking forward, Manos Unidas will offer a training program to teach users in Nicaragua how to use the app. The nonprofit also seeks donations of used smartphones to distribute to families in Nicaragua. 

At eKitabu, next steps include conducting an assessment of the impact of Studio KSL materials, as well as distributing materials to more schools for the deaf and parents of deaf children. 

RIT/NTID hopes to raise funds to promote the WAY platform more broadly across the open source community, as well as conduct training of trainers workshops to support community members, education professionals and others to support content creation in the Philippines. 

“The community members found the creator interface easy to use, especially for content upload,” Kurz said. “They asked for more training in story development and creation.” 

All three innovators said the support of ACR GCD through Sign On For Literacy was paramount in making their sign language innovations a success. 

“In addition to benefiting from ACR’s Sign On For Literacy prize partnership with Deaf Child Worldwide, we also learned a lot from USAID guidance on local sign language education,” Utterback says. “And the ACR and World Vision team supported us to scale our work to Rwanda and included us in USAID’s Soma Umenye inclusive education workshop with government and education sector stakeholders.” 

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