The ability to communicate with others using the language we grew up with is something most of us take for granted. The fact is that the human brain is hard wired to learn languages from birth, and babies from a very early age are able to assimilate information and identify patterns in language—signed or spoken. For most children, as they progress through school, these skills further develop, allowing them to understand and communicate increasingly complex ideas and become fully engaged with the world around them.
However, for a large portion of the global Deaf Community, access to language is uncertain at best. Most deaf children are born to hearing parents, the majority of whom are not exposed to or are misinformed about local sign languages.
As a result, many deaf children are not able to access language easily and readily in their homes and communities during the critical language acquisition period in their first years of life. Of the estimated 32 million deaf children around the world, the World Federation of the Deaf estimates that 80% have no access to education at all. Even when educational opportunities are present, just 1 to 2% of deaf children receive education in sign language.
Why sign language?
Research shows that our brains have no inherent preference for language input, and for deaf children, the most accessible pathway for full access to linguistic formation is through a sign language. Early exposure to language, signed or spoken, provides a foundation for acquiring literacy.
The lack of sufficient resources to support sign language instruction, along with long-standing stigmas, too often play a role in limiting deaf children’s access to sign language. This is due in large part to a misguided notion that learning sign language may interfere with anyone’s ability to learn other languages.
In fact, children, both deaf and hearing, who simultaneously learn a sign language and a written language experience the same benefits of bilingualism as hearing children learning two spoken languages.
Leveraging technology to make sign language accessible to all children
This is the impetus for Sign On For Literacy, a global prize competition seeking technology-based innovations to increase access to local sign languages and develop literacy interventions for deaf children in low-resource contexts.
Led by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, in collaboration with the World Federation of the Deaf, Nyle DiMarco Foundation and Deaf Child Worldwide, Sign On For Literacy represents one of the first large-scale efforts to develop technology that makes sign languages more accessible.
We encourage experts throughout the global deaf and hearing communities—including researchers, innovators, technologists, and literacy and pedagogical experts, to participate in this competition as it provides an opportunity to change the trajectory of millions of deaf children’s’ lives. The first deadline for submitting your innovation idea is February 16, 2018.
Up to five of the most promising innovations will be awarded seed funding to develop a prototype of their solution. After subsequent demonstrations, the top three prototypes will receive an additional cash prize to refine their innovation and test it in the field. The highest scoring innovation which meets all of the criteria sought will be awarded a final prize.
We know that solutions are out there, particularly from within the deaf community itself, and are excited to provide a means for these individuals to rise to the challenge. Together, we look forward to unlocking the potential of all people and creating a world in which everyone has the chance to live up to their full potential.
Full competition details, including deadlines and how to apply, are available on the Sign On For Literacy website.
All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, established in 2011 as a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), World Vision and the Australian Government, is a series of competitions that leverage science and technology to source, test and disseminate scalable solutions to improve literacy skills of early grade learners in developing countries.