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Guiding Star: how the team behind StorySign created the first literacy platform for the deaf

Last year, FCB Inferno’s collaboration with Huawei brought the world of storytelling to 32 million deaf children and their families by creating the world’s first global literacy platform for the deaf community – a feat for which it won the Grand Prix at The Drum’s Social Purpose Awards 2019.

StorySign was created by an alliance of international partners, including 11 deaf charities, Academy Award-winning animators, and the world’s leading publisher; with the aim of helping deaf children (age 0-5) improve their literacy.

Learning to read can often be a struggle for children who are deaf, as traditional education methods rely on phonetics. Furthermore, lack of literacy in deaf children causes harm and can have an negative impact on a child’s upbringing. Research shows that 90% of deaf children have hearing parents; most of whom do not sign and so can’t share bedtime stories. 57% of deaf students fail to achieve basic school qualifications, and fewer than 40% of deaf adults are employed.

To aid this issue, the StorySign app scans the words in children’s books and translates them into sign language, using the most advanced signing avatar developed to date.

Tech enabling accessibility

Speaking on the work at The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, Laura Visick, head of innovation at FCB Inferno told us more about StorySign works.

“At a very basic level, what StorySign does is translate words on a page and coverts them into an avatar which signs the words and reads through these books. It’s based around insights around illiteracy in those who are deaf, who often don’t learn to read to the same level as those with hearing do because they struggle to connect the symbols to the phonetic sounds.

“What we did was create an application that literally takes those words, and turns them into signs that creates a new way of reading. It opens up the wonderful world of books to anyone who is hard of hearing and enables us to really boost literacy within the deaf community.”

Aiding communication

One of the various consequences of poor rates of literacy in the deaf community, explained Mark Wheatley, executive director of the European Union of the Deaf, is that communication at home can become strained.

“StorySign has been incredible, as it’s not just a reading tool for deaf children” Wheatley told The Drum. “It’s something that creates a bond between parents and children, so both of them, through the stories, can learn to enjoy reading books through the avatar that’s been created.”

Wheatley explained that therefore, the creation of the avatar was crucial, as it allows adults to improve their sign language on top of its merits of teaching children to read.

“Her name is Star, and the real importance was the bond and that we made Star quite cool and interesting. So, at the same time as the parents who are watching the story in sign language are learning to sign, they’re also getting better at communicating with their children. So that’s the real power of the technology behind StorySign.”

Creating an avatar

Neil Pymer, creative director at Aardman animation studios, outlined how the character of Star was initially developed.

“We looked at lots of different websites and spoke to lots of different people, we looked at journals about how deaf children to read and obviously, importantly we spoke with the British Deaf Association to really get a feel of what we could make.

“We spoke to lots of different families with children at different reading levels, and that really initially informed how we thought about our approaches to AI and AR characters.”

He also emphasised the importance of Star as representation for deaf children, providing a character with whom they can identify.

“We really wanted to make a character that would be inspirational to deaf children, that they would see the character of Star as a superhero with a special superpower. That was something we took into the design and into the whole product. On top of that, the avatar had to be functional. Star had to have five fingers, where normally characters might be simplified to only have three... she’s a wonderful character and we’re really proud of her.”

Visick, Wheatley and Pymer spoke with executive editor Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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