Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Because there is no universal sign language, several sign languages exist, and vary by country and region. Because of this variance, there exists a need for a unifying strategy to ensure access to sign languages from around the world through a highly accurate and international sign language portal. Without such a portal, the incorporation and sharing of words, terms, and expressions across sign languages is near impossible. This type of platform is also critical for increasing the global status of sign language as a viable form of communication. With increased access to translation of signs across languages, more people can learn, be influenced by sign language, and recognize its wide array of applications beyond being a tool for the deaf to communicate.
Today, learning new sign languages is expensive and is often taught through books, CD’s, or classes that are rarely individualized or specialized in their content. Free and open access to new sign languages expands vocabulary in a national sign language, particularly in sign languages that lack sufficient signs. For many fields of work, specialized and individualized learning of sign language is critical for refining communication with key target groups. For example, public sector workers in unemployment or disability offices as well as grade school teachers frequently need to communicate with deaf clients or students. In addition, ear, nose and throat doctors and other medical professionals, as well as interpreters who want to learn new sign languages, are in need of a tool for individualized learning and language maintenance. In fact, mastery of American Sign Language (ASL) has become increasingly important for interpreters to remain competitive in the job market, similar to the way in which English as a spoken language serves this purpose.
The prevalence of illiteracy among the deaf is a growing concern that prevents sign language users from integrating fully in society. Of the 70 million deaf people globally, 80% are not able to read or write. 500 million people learn and communicate through signs, including the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as their family members. Due to limited existing methods of teaching deaf children to read and write, as well as poor funding to support these efforts, parents and family members are often denied the tools needed to engage with their loved ones. In addition, insufficient education for sign language users in much of the developing world contributes to the illiteracy and exclusion from school and social activities for many young people. Education and communication for deaf children in their mother tongue are human rights that are too often denied. Learning one’s own mother tongue is fundamental to a good education in order to live and work on equal terms in a global community.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Although multiple sign languages and sign language dictionaries have long existed, Dennis envisions a world in which these tools are newly accessible to a larger number of sign language users globally. Through the European Sign Language Center (ESLC), Dennis responds to the lack of a vital enterprise that can serve, connect, and expand the number of sign language users. Dennis has created a movement in which every sign language user has the tools needed to learn to read and write, changing the face of sign language by making it accessible, free for all, and legitimized as a language. Without such a mechanism, a large number of people will continue to be excluded from society; 80% of those who are deaf globally cannot read and write. Dennis removes the barrier to learning by mobilizing deaf organizations and universities in two-dozen countries to improve interactions across and within different sign languages.
Dennis’ approach is multi-faceted. He has created several products and services, including the ESLC Spread the Sign online dictionary of over 100,000 signs from 24 countries, a phone application, eLearning platforms, an international network of deaf organizations and universities, and a text-to-sign tool to transform comprehension for illiterate deaf. Dennis is building a new generation of people who understand the relevance of sign language as a resource for society. Not only has the ESLC enabled improved communication among the deaf, it also serves as a powerful purpose for family members, teachers, the public sector, universities, and citizen sector organizations who now have the tools to learn and teach sign language, as well as to integrate sign language into existing social norms.
Dennis’ non-profit organization, ESLC, meets the deaf and the hearing world where they are, using creative and simple methods to spread the powerful possibilities that sign language offers. The ESLC network now exists in 24 countries, primarily in the European Union, although spreading globally to incorporate new target groups, countries, citizen sector organizations, and universities. Dennis is positioning sign language as a tool to address social needs beyond those associated with the deaf and hard of hearing alone.