Technology opens literacy opportunities for Moroccan children who are deaf/hard of hearing

A team of Moroccan and American deaf and hearing researchers create assistive software to easily create and publish Moroccan Sign Language-supported educational materials for students who are deaf.

Technology opens literacy opportunities for Moroccan children who are deaf/hard of hearing

By Corinne Vinopol

Education of deaf and hard of hearing children in Morocco is extremely limited. More than 95 percent of primary school-aged children in Morocco attend school, but only about 15 percent of deaf children attend school.  Most teachers who work with this population have no training in special education and there are few sign language interpreters to assist in classrooms.  Almost no data is available, but the estimated literacy rate among the deaf population is very low.

For several years, a unique team of Moroccan and American deaf and hearing researchers has united to enhance the literacy of deaf students in Morocco by creating assistive software that incorporates Moroccan Sign Language (MSL). The Moroccan team is based at the Center for Languages and Communication at the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Rabat, and the American team is based at the Institute for Disabilities Research and Training, Inc. (IDRT).

The research team chose to focus on MSL as no software had ever been built to incorporate MSL, which is distinct from the spoken and written languages of Morocco.  Translation from MSL to Arabic is quite challenging—MSL is a visual/gestural language that has no text representation while Modern Standard Arabic is a spoken/written language. In school, deaf children are asked to read in Modern Standard Arabic, based on auditory principles. This is akin to asking someone to decode symbols for a sense he or she does not have.

“I think this project will alleviate the struggles of parents, educators, and the children. [Children who are] deaf learn in three ways: signs, images, and words. If those three ways are integrated into education, then education of children who are deaf won’t stop at primary education.”

–Hafsa, an educator and parent of a child who is deaf

At the outset, there was little documentation of MSL. Consequently, one of the first software products the team developed was a dictionary of 3,000 MSL graphics and video clips representing 5,500 words in Modern Standard Arabic. Within a few years, the team also produced software that translates Arabic text to MSL graphics and video, and developed electronic storybooks, games, and quizzes. This enables deaf students to access learning materials that incorporates their native language, thus making the content more comprehensible. Funding for this portion of the work was provided from USAID Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research as well as the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The software bridges the gap between MSL and Modern Standard Arabic and can translate in either direction. It can be used in real time or to create education resources. This gives it the potential to revolutionize teaching for children who are deaf/hard of hearing.

The work is expanding with a grant under Round 2 of All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, a partnership of USAID, World Vision, and the Australian government. Through All Children Reading, the project will work with the Moroccan Ministry of Education and local service entities, such as deaf associations and educational programs, to:

  • develop software that helps teachers and parents easily create and publish educational materials with MSL graphics;
  • train teachers, parents, government and deaf association representatives, and other stakeholders in the use of the software;
  • train teachers and other educators on reading instruction techniques for children who are deaf/hard of hearing.
  • develop a sign language-friendly Early Grade Reading Assessment for MSL.
  • evaluate software effectiveness in improving best practices in teaching reading to deaf students and using sign language-accessible materials.

Teachers, family members, and students have been astounded by the software.  It has generated hope and advocacy on the part of parents.  Many children and parents have felt stifled by the lack of services and educational opportunities, but this technology helps break social barriers through greater access to education.  Importantly, this software also holds great potential for children with hearing disabilities living in other countries that use Modern Standard Arabic as video clips and graphics of Moroccan Sign Language can easily be substituted with those depicting signs from other countries.

Corinne Vinopol is the President and CEO of our grantee, Institute for Disabilities Research and Training, Inc. 

This blog was prepared by a contributing author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the ACR GCD Partners. Photos are provided courtesy of Center for Languages and Communication, École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Rabat.