Melissa Malzkuhn

Special Relationship (Virtual)
Melissa Malzkuhn
United States
Elected in 2020
Because of the pandemic, Melissa Malzkuhn was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.

Introduction

Melissa Malzkuhn is the Founder of Motion Light Lab, which uses technology and storytelling tools to create sign language learning and literacy materials for Deaf children. Melissa’s work is also creating a space for Deaf culture to be sustained, supported, and empowered.

The New Idea

Melissa Malzkuhn is the founder of Motion Light Lab, an interdisciplinary lab that uses emerging technology and storytelling to create sign language learning and literacy materials for young Deaf children. Through digital storybooks and cutting-edge motion capture technology, Melissa is helping deaf children and their families learn sign in order to close the literacy gap that many deaf children face, while also creating a space for Deaf culture to be sustained, supported, and empowered. Motion Light Lab also trains, employs, and empowers D/deaf* adults in digital skills. The far-reaching goal is to see the Deaf community take agency in storytelling and create more literacy materials for the benefit of young deaf children.

*(Deaf with a capital D here refers to people who are culturally Deaf, identifying as members of the Deaf community. The Deaf community has a vibrant and proud culture. D/deaf encompasses both members of that culture and people who are deaf but unfamiliar with Deaf culture, a group which currently includes many deaf children of hearing parents)

Melissa’s innovation, however, goes beyond the technology tools she and her team are developing. She is creating and building bridges between the Deaf and hearing communities and to support parents, doctors, and teachers who often make decisions for young deaf children to embrace sign language and the Deaf community. Deaf children have an opportunity to grow up bilingual in the Deaf community, supported by Deaf mentors and connected to Deaf peers, in a language rich environment.

Melissa’s work is on a global scale, as Melissa and her team are already working with over nine countries to help them develop their literature and storytelling materials in their own native sign languages. All of this work comes together in Melissa’s larger vision—one where sign language, Deaf education, and Deaf culture is elevated, celebrated, and accessible by Deaf and hearing communities alike, and one where all young D/deaf children have the opportunity not just to learn to read and sign, but to join a thriving culture that is ready to welcome them exactly as they are.

The Problem

Worldwide, only 2% of deaf children receive bilingual education, meaning that a child receives both sign language access as well as education in the local spoken language. 95% of deaf children are born to hearing families, who often do not have the time, opportunity, or resources to learn to communicate in sign language with their children and are sometimes told by hearing doctors that teaching sign language will impair their child’s ability to learn speech, a position not supported by research on neuroplasticity. Deaf children who do not receive early access to sign language, however, and whose access to spoken language is limited by their hearing loss, are at risk of language deprivation. Deprivation of early and natural language acquisition can result in lifelong academia struggles, difficulties in literacy development, and can have a lifetime impact on one’s quality of life.

Access to sign language and early sign language acquisition for young deaf children is of paramount importance to the Deaf community, which has been advocating for bilingual education for over 200 years. The Deaf community has always defended the right to use sign language, but decisions made over deaf children’s welfare are always entirely by people who hear. Oftentimes parents of deaf children are not familiar with Deaf culture, sign language, and do not realize there is a thriving and interconnected community out there, embracing their child’s deaf identity. Deaf mentorship programs are essential for new families but they vary greatly by state to state.

Sign languages are as rich a means of communication and expression of thought as any other language. There are over 300 known (and documented) sign languages in the world. The Deaf community is rich with stories and storytellers, poetry and puns - all the things one would expect from any language and culture - but sign languages are often undervalued and underrepresented, and often misunderstood. By showcasing the creativity and literary value of sign language, and through documenting through digital technology tools, Melissa strives for language equity. Storytellers and creatives in the Deaf community benefit from those tools to create content and connections with young deaf readers and their families.

The Strategy

Melissa’s strategy is guided by two overarching and interrelated goals: (1) guaranteeing early access to sign language and reading for all young deaf children to support their healthy development and (2) empowering Deaf people in storytelling and by showcasing sign language as a source of culture, knowledge, and opportunity.

Motion Light Lab is an educational nonprofit housed at the National Science Foundation’s Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning at Gallaudet University that serves as a hub for Melissa’s groundbreaking work. The lab creates new tools for expanding literacy and language access, designing bilingual storytelling platforms as well as building community partnerships. Melissa leads her team in creating new storybook apps by bringing in new and emerging deaf talents, and provides a training program to give Deaf creators tools. The lab uses motion capture technology to build 3D signing characters through animation and natural language data. Motion Light Lab is a synergic hub for learning, research, and development. The lab creates a space where the Deaf community can use resources, build resources, collaborate, create literature coming from the lens of a signing-centric community and Deaf culture.

Melissa’s work is centered around developing a growing suite of literature, storybook apps, digital resources that support literacy development for young children and make it easier for parents, teachers and others to embrace sign language and to accompany young deaf children along their educational journeys.

The lab’s bilingual storybook apps are designed based on fundamental research on bilingualism, visual learning, and sign language acquisition. Research has shown early sign language acquisition and exposure supports healthy cognitive growth, and development of strong literacy skills. In other words, to see deaf children read and write on grade level, early sign language acquisition is the key because it builds a language foundation that makes learning a second language natural.

This is the core of Motion Light Lab’s storybook apps program, and the national training program that supports the expansion of quality bilingual content by Deaf authors.
The developing motion capture technology will allow new ways of designing interactive and immersive learning experiences, with signing characters that can be used in games, TV, and in other media to provide young deaf children sign language rich environments. Melissa envisions a world with television shows for children that expose them to ASL and reading, much as hearing children can learn reading skills through educational media.

Yet, this technology also aims to reach a broader systemic goal: to create a world where hearing families wanting to learn sign have ubiquitous resources and all young deaf children have exposure to Deaf role models, mentors, and plentiful Deaf representation. Tools and resources for Deaf children that are the same quality as and similarly accessible to the digital learning tools available to hearing children. By sharing and telling vibrant and rich stories will help parents see Deaf community, Deaf culture, and their deaf child in a new, positive light. Their deaf child is a link to a rich new culture and community ready to welcome them.

Though Motion Light Lab’s work is targeted towards young deaf children, the organization is also giving Deaf adults new opportunities. Currently, over 40% of D/deaf* adults are unemployed in the United States. Melissa and her team are working to help curb this, by launching a national training program on storybook app development, to help elevate Deaf adults’ digital skills and connect them to more opportunities. Motion Light Lab’s digital approach to documenting Deaf culture also has profound impacts for Deaf creatives and storytellers who have not had access to tools like this for making and sharing art in sign language.

Since 2013 when their first storybook app, The Baobab, came out - at the time the only bilingual English/ASL storybook app available for children - Motion Light Lab has, to date, launched twenty additional storybook apps.
However, the work doesn't stop in the United States. Motion Light Lab is replicating and scaling their programming initiatives around the world. Motion Light Lab has partnered with leaders of local Deaf communities around the globe, providing digital tools for them to share stories in their own sign language. They have replicated in nine countries including Thailand and Turkey.

Motion Light Lab is providing crucial resources that will help improve the literacy rates of deaf children. But Melissa’s work is also demonstrating the value of sign language and showcases the beauty of ASL storytelling, allowing both Deaf and hearing communities to embrace Deaf culture more broadly. Her work is validating sign language as a site for creativity, knowledge, and pedagogy in the same way that spoken languages have been for centuries. In this way, Melissa is creating a cultural shift that will have lasting positive impact for the relationships between Deaf and hearing communities. Her apps and tools will help parents and children embrace Deaf culture, and provide means for language access and acquisition for young deaf children.

Motion Light Lab has a nine-person team and works with numerous international partner organizations run and spearheaded by Deaf people. They are part of Gallaudet University in Washington DC, the world’s only bilingual University for deaf and hard of hearing students.

The Person

Melissa is third-generation Deaf and grew up in a thriving Deaf community in the Bay Area, California. Melissa largely cites her grandparents as major influences. Her grandfather, Malz, was a storyteller, and was highly regarded as a Signmaster, someone who has an aptitude for translating English and ASL. Her grandmother, Mary, was the first Deaf woman to get a doctorate in American Government, and her work focused extensively on human rights.

In college, Melissa had the opportunity to work with the World Federation for the Deaf, (WFD)—an international human rights organization established by and for Deaf people. Melissa considers this moment “the start of the rest of her life”. Melissa continued her involvement with WFD’s Youth Section, focusing on leadership training of deaf youth through international camps. That led Melissa to establish Deaf Youth USA, an organization for Deaf youth ages 18-35 to engage and build civic participation.
In 2008, Melissa was hired to be the managing editor, and helped launch the first peer-reviewed academic journal in sign language, the Deaf Studies Digital Journal, at Gallaudet. By leveraging digital literacy and encouraging the use of ASL in an academic context, Melissa and the team’s work re-shaped the way that people perceive the academic value of discourses in sign language. All this work would eventually inform her next steps with the Motion Light Lab, connecting and translating research findings to tangible resources.

After her MFA experience at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Melissa and her siblings, and a friend went on to create The ASL App, an app that teaches you conversational sign language. Melissa creates Hu apparel that celebrates sign language as the core part of humanity and to raise awareness on sign language access. Melissa pursues projects and creative ideas that all addresses the core of her work: sign language equity, Deaf participation and representation, and human rights of the deaf child.
Melissa was selected as an inaugural Obama Fellow, out of 20,000 applicants, in 2018. Melissa resides in Maryland with her family.