Face to Face with the Fellows: Melissa Malzkuhn

A Storybook Beginning

Melissa Malzkuhn grew up in a third-generation-signing deaf family. However, not all deaf children have early sign language acquisition and an immersive literacy experience. Through her digital media space, Motion Light Lab, she’s reinventing the storybook and building immersive apps for deaf children to change that.

Melissa Malzkuhn, 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow.

This work is global work because deaf children all over the world have the same need from birth–they need access to sign language.”

—Melissa Malzkuhn,
2018 Obama Foundation Fellow

Melissa Malzkuhn started Motion Light Lab in 2009, to use digital technology to create immersive learning experiences that create new possibilities in sign language, learning, and literacy. The lab creates various digital products and experiences—from storybook apps to interactive avatars—to expand the library of signed content available for deaf children. A pioneer in using technology in the campaign for deaf literacy, Melissa is using creativity to provide equal access to reading and expression, a core human rights issue for the deaf community.

Q: What is the Motion Light Lab and what inspired you to start it?

A: The Motion Light Lab is a space at Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., where creative literature and digital technology meet to create immersive learning experiences for deaf children.

At the lab, we develop bilingual story book apps that incorporate both sign language and text, to support the development of literacy in young deaf children from ages 3 to 8. We also explore different interactive experiences from a signing, visual perspective, and we believe in fostering deaf participation and leadership in the design of technology.

Our goal at the end of the day is to help young and emerging readers become skilled readers so that they can read to learn anything.

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Q: What would you say inspired you to get involved in this work?

A: I grew up in a third generation deaf family, and the language we use is American Sign Language. I attended a school for the deaf, with strong leadership that promoted and practiced bilingual education, which means everyone—the teachers and the staff—signed. I had total bilingual immersion growing up; we used ASL and written English.

However, my experience is an exception. I’m one of the three percent of deaf children who receive bilingual education, worldwide.

Over 90% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents, and often receive their access to sign language at a later age. The result of early language deprivation can impact their literacy skills, academic performance, and opportunities.

Acquisition of sign language at an early age builds a strong foundation that leads to literacy and second language learning, in a written language. With language, we are human.

My inspiration is my community, and knowing that we have tools and new possibilities to bring rich resources to deaf children, and share information with their families, so they will have the resources to learn sign language and foster healthy relationships.

My passion is in storytelling, representation of deaf people, community mobilization and involvement.

Q: Let’s dig into the apps you and your team build. Can you tell me a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes to bring these stories to life?

A: Sure! It starts by assembling a strong team, we map out the story, then we work with a storyteller and an artist. We bring the stories to life in sign language, and the artist renders visuals that support the story.

We film the storyteller in front of a chroma key background—think of a green screen. Then in post production, we put in the artwork, to create compelling visuals that excite and engage young children. And adults as well!

Melissa serving as a motion capture model to create a 3D avatar.

Melissa serving as a motion capture model to create a 3D avatar.

We are also exploring immersive 3D experiences through the use of motion capture technology to create avatar characters that sign. This can be transformative for deaf children—to have their favorite storybook characters using sign language! So, we are working towards that goal.

We need a wealth of resources in order to excite this new passion for literacy in young deaf readers.”

—Melissa Malzkuhn

Q: You mentioned involving the younger generation in your work. Are there any meaningful moments or experiences that stand out in your mind you could tell me about?

A: There are many hidden talents and creatives in our community. Many of our students have extraordinary ideas, and I’m always excited to learn from them and collaborate to bring these ideas to fruition.

For instance, we had a student who came from Italy to study at Gallaudet. She is very creative and talented, and had so many ideas for children’s stories inspired by her favorite Italian author growing up.

My team and I had never heard of the specific author that she was so inspired by, so we were really intrigued. He was a famous author in Italy and very well known for his language play, and that led us to experiment and wonder what we can play with in sign language.

We ended up incorporating different funny and linguistically rich elements in the story that would make sense in both American Sign Language and Italian Sign Language. The result of this was a new storybook app, called “Museum of Errors.” The best part? The Italian version is coming out soon!

Storytelling is powerful, we have an opportunity to be part of the process and to develop technology to document stories in our native language. We are empowering our future.

Q: What other kinds of stories are featured in your mobile storybooks?

A: We create our own original stories in addition to the more classic stories most people read when they’re young. Our flagship app, “The Baobab,” was an original story that was conceptualized in ASL first, then written down in English. People from other countries approached us about creating this story in their respective sign languages and written languages so we worked with teams to translate it into over ten languages and we’re still working on more.

We also had a great collaboration with a team in Russia through a project with a nonprofit called Communication Service for the Deaf, to bring Russian folk tales into our storybook apps. Deaf kids in Russia now can access stories from their own culture, but we also created versions in ASL and English, so American kids can enjoy and learn from them, too.

We’d love more collaborations of this kind—to take treasured traditional stories, and tell them in sign language.

Often, after a deaf child reads one storybook app they ask me “Where’s the next one?” That’s my favorite question—it means they are growing interested in reading. We need a global, digital library. We need a wealth of resources in order to excite this new passion for literacy in young deaf readers.

Our storybook apps are a way for families who are learning sign language to read with their children, and enjoy literacy in both languages. They can have a really rich and engaging experience by simply sharing a book. Our aim is not for parents to feel intimidated, but to feel inspired, excited, and supported.

Q: Since we’re talking about you and your work on International Literacy Day, what are your thoughts on literacy as a whole? What role do you see your work playing in ensuring young people and children around the world have equal access to language?

A: This work is global work because deaf children all over the world have the same need from birth–they need access to sign language. The only difference between a deaf child and a hearing child is that deaf children are visual learners and that’s their natural way of learning and absorbing information. They need to have sign language exposure to then develop solid literacy in a written language.

Research from our center at Gallaudet University shows that a deaf child hits the same language development milestones in sign language as a hearing child; there is no difference in the brain, as long as the child has early sign language exposure. That research serves as a guide in designing the apps to provide robust, immersive literacy experiences in both languages: sign and written.

Accessibility to sign language for a deaf child is not always readily provided. Remember, almost 90 percent of deaf children are born into hearing families, therefore they lack the immediate exposure to language. We must examine and understand family structures and the support and resources they need to ensure deaf children are immersed in language at a young age.

We are striving to educate people on why this work is so invaluable, and we’re helping them open their minds. Placing a high value on access to language is crucial to my work and the work of literacy around the world.

Q: And just to close out, how do you see your work at the Motion Light Lab changing as a result of the Obama Foundation Fellowship?

A: In this work, the impact is felt over the long term—it’s not immediate. However, what makes me satisfied about the work we do, is when I see connections being made. When parents discover the apps and share a reading experience, and when deaf children absorb the stories and want to read more. It’s when teachers tell deaf students that deaf people made these apps, and their eyes light up.

Being a part of this Fellowship means helping build new valuable connections that will bring in greater awareness, respect, and understanding of what sign language acquisition, access, and learning to read can mean for deaf children. This Fellowship program has really helped me to see my work—and community involvement in general—through a new lens.

At the end of the day, if the world can listen to—not hear—what the deaf community has to say, they would understand that the need to support full access to sign language, starting from birth, is a human right.

Melissa speaking at a reception of 2018 Obama Fellows

You can learn more about Melissa and Motion Light Lab and meet our other current class of Fellows here.

Applications for the next class of Obama Fellows are now open if you’d like to apply.

To find out what we’re looking for in a fellow, you can read this post.

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