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The Music Of Signs

At last month’s launch of Signed Stories (
http://www.signedstories.com ),
an online treasure-house of children’s stories in British Sign Language created by broadcaster ITV for free use by teachers, parents and carers of deaf children, the excitement was palpable.

G. P. Taylor, author of the best-selling ‘Shadowmancer’ series of children’s books, said the service was “the most exciting thing to happen in children’s reading since the invention of the book.”

With first-hand experience of the communication and attainment gap faced by deaf people, as the child of deaf parents, Taylor said the site “hit on something all kids are in love with – the internet,” and would have enormous benefits for all involved.

The creators of Signed Stories, the non-profit accessibility agency within ITV known as SignPost, hope it will grow into the largest online library of contemporary children’s books fully accessible in sign language, sound, animation and text.

Around 25 stories are already available, with a plan to offer 150 by the end of the year, and 300 or more by the end of 2010.

ITV is contributing funds, staff – including signers – and technical facilities to the project, but the broadcaster is also looking for sponsorship for individual stories, which cost around £5,000 each to produce. The service will remain non-profit however, and will never carry advertising.

Book publishers have been invited to contribute the rights for use of their books on the service free of charge, and have responded positively. Around a dozen major publishers have already signed up including Macmillan, Penguin, Hachette Children’s Books and Walker Books, and the service has also gained support from charities and other organisations including the National Literacy Trust and the National Deaf Children’s Society.

Eileen Young, Manager of ITV SignPost, told E-Access Bulletin that “All major publishers we’ve approached have agreed to sign over rights, though some are still working on the paperwork.”

Young said her team now wants the site to grow and eventually to become more interactive, with possible future features including book reviews by children; forums for deaf kids; and the ability for teenagers to communicate with each other by signing using webcams.

Technically the service does not demand a high specification of computer to receive the video streams, Young said: although the files cannot be downloaded for copyright reasons, they are streamed at four different rates and the service will automatically optimise to suit the computer used to access it.

Although there are problems to overcome with some schools – one SignPost technician told E-Access Bulletin that getting around the blocking of the service by the firewalls used by some schools was a “major challenge” – the early feedback from those schools that are using it is that they love it, Young said.

It is easy to see why: as well as being free, the service is valuable, imaginative, creative and fun to use. Story categories include ‘fairytales and folktales’, ‘families and friendships’ and ‘slimy scary’, and within each zone a ‘story tree’ with different coloured interactive branches helps guide users through books by level of reading difficulty.

The service has emerged from the combination of a few strands of work by ITV SignPost over the past few years. ITV already runs an online news service for deaf people in BSL. And the children’s stories project was first considered as a TV format, with a series of ‘sign a story’ programmes mooted for broadcast over ordinary channels.

Within the emergence of the internet, however, online seemed the logical home for it, allowing greater flexibility, interactivity and ease of access.

Malcolm Wright, Managing Director of ITV SignPost, said the initiative was born from a sense of deep frustration at a widening inequality between deaf children and hearing children in an area – reading stories – that might seem as if it presented no barrier for the deaf.

“The attainment gap was getting wider, and I was astonished that in a caring, first world country this could be happening,” Wright told the launch. “It was clear that the biggest problem was one of literacy in English – deaf children just don’t read stories that much. So I went out and bought the domain signedstories.com, and then wondered what on Earth I was going to do with it.”

What Wright eventually did was to assemble an eclectic and stellar supporting cast of publishers, story-tellers and celebrities – stars backing the project range from Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen to Dame Helen Mirren, Robbie Coltrane, Zoe Wanamaker and Sir Trevor McDonald.

He said the site, which had its soft launch on 15 December last year, is “Fantastically well-watched already by thousands of kids in schools,” and that “by the end of 2011 I hope that Signed Stories will be a repository of the best of children’s literature not just for deaf children but for all children.”

An important subsidiary function of the website is its ability to provide other information to those working with deaf kids, Wright said. “The back end of the site contains a lot of advice and resources for deaf parents, parents with deaf children and teachers of deaf children.”

Asif Iqbal, Founder of Deaf Parenting UK
( http://www.deafparent.org.uk/ ),
told the launch that some 90% of deaf and hard of hearing parents have hearing children, a situation which presents further barriers and parenting problems.

The new service “enables deaf parents to sit with their children, a fantastic opportunity where all family members can access the stories without barriers,” he said.

David Lloyd, chairman of Walker Books
( http://www.walker.co.uk ),
said the possibilities of story-telling through signs were about more than just access to words, but had their own magic, and sense of theatre, that was compelling for hearing as well as deaf readers. “It turns the music of words into the physical music of signs. It’s a wonderful way to tell a story,” he said.

“What an extraordinary medium it is – the internet – with such power to include us all,” said Walker. “But don’t forget the book itself – made out of trees and vegetable juices of all kinds and full of surprises, and it lasts – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I – I’m a publisher.”

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