The right to sign: Deaf culture and language access

Melissa Malzkuhn on digital storybooks for Deaf children and why the future is 3-D



Motion Light Lab founder Melissa Malzkuhn, alongside the character protagonist of The Baobab, her team’s first digital storybook for Deaf children, now available in 10+ languages.

Last weekend, the Academy Awards lifted up Deaf creatives across the movie industry — from “Sound of Metal,” a film about a drummer who learns American Sign Language after losing his hearing, receiving two Oscars (nominated for six), to Deaf actress Marlee Matlin presenting an award in ASL. Movie fans can continue to see this excitement with the release this month of “Godzilla and Kong,” which also features a young Deaf character.

Films are just one touch point for the growing interest in (and curiosity about) Deaf culture and language, says Melissa Malzkuhn, founder and creative force behind Motion Light Lab that creates digital storybooks and literacy tools for Deaf children. This week at our news hour, Ashoka’s Kennedy Patlan connected with Melissa for reflections on the moment and game-changing projects coming up at the Lab. Here are a few highlights:

An exciting moment for Deaf culture

Melissa shares that while there’s been an uptick in Deaf representation in film and media, we’re just scratching the surface of the talent that’s out there: Deaf writers, creatives, stories reflecting the full breath of Deaf people’s journeys and experiences.

How Motion Light Lab started

Some 95% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents — as a result, many don’t learn sign language early in life when it matters most for cognitive and emotional development. This gap drew Melissa’s attention a decade ago and led her to formalize the Lab as a space of experimentation in technology and storytelling.

The power of stories and visual language

Melissa is 3rd generation Deaf, from a family of storytellers — in fact, her grandfather is a celebrated Deaf storyteller and signmaster in the Deaf community. She shares more about her experience growing up, visual language as the foundation for literacy, and the power of stories for memory, learning, and connection.

A global digital library

Housed at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., Motion Light Lab works with Deaf collaborators across the globe to surface and translate many cultural traditions and stories, including folklore and fables. Learn about Co-Labs, a global exchange opportunity.

Be a storybook creator

The pandemic and school lock-downs have meant that many Deaf students have been home this year — not always an ASL language-rich environment, if parents or other family members do not know fluent ASL. Over 3,500 families are using storybook apps and accessing ASL Literacy Activities. The Lab also built a storybook creator tool for those interested in build-your-own opportunities.

Listen up, hearing folks

How can hearing people support Deaf inclusion? Ask yourself: Who’s affected by this discussion or policy, and are they at the table? Maybe learn two or three signs — that little bit of effort to connect makes a difference. And it’s fun! From Melissa: “Inclusion is a process… the world is really interesting, and human diversity is amazing.”

Look ahead: ‘the future is 3-D’

Integrating and even creating new technologies is a strong dimension of the Lab’s work. Motion Light Lab is pioneering fluently-moving signing avatars, motion capture for 3-D signing, and more. Melissa shares some of the game-changing projects coming up, and an opportunity to join a worldwide network curious about sign-related technologies.

Bonus: Learn conversational ASL (and vote!)

Interested in connecting with a neighbor who is Deaf, or your Deaf barista? With collaborators, Melissa created the award-winning ASL App for everyone who wants to learn conversational American Sign Language. And good news, it’s up for a Webby Award — vote today!

You can watch the full discussion here (30 min, includes audience Q&A). Special thanks to Jen Vold and Lynnette Taylor for joining as interpreters.

And follow on social media:

Motion Light Lab on Twitter @MotionLightLab | Instagram @MotionLightLab

Melissa on Twitter @mezmalz | Instagram @tosignishuman

This conversation is part of Welcome Change, Ashoka’s weekly “news hour” that taps the expertise of social entrepreneurs on timely topics. Browse upcoming and past conversations here.




We bring together social entrepreneurs, educators, businesses, parents & youth to support a world in which everyone is equipped & empowered to be a changemaker.