This is how you can give the gift of reading to a deaf child this Christmas

As Christmas is approaching, we look forward to spending quality time with our children. 

One of the special moments we can't wait for is to read festive bedtimes stories with our little ones and capture the magic of Christmas through the books. 

However, could you imagine this precious story time with your child being taken away?

This is the reality for deaf children and their parents around the country, as they miss out on the incredible part of childhood, the bond with their parent and discovering the fantastic world of books.

So when a Huawei employee approached their team with an idea to change this, a Star was born.  

The brainchild of Huawei and Aardman Animations, Star is a world's first. She is a clever character who can sign a storybook to deaf children in ten different languages on a free app called StorySign.  

However, the companies couldn't have achieved this ground-breaking technology without the help of sign language experts, publishing partner Penguin, performers and in particular, Mark Wheatley.

Mark is the Executive Director of the European Union of the Deaf (EUD) and he said that all members of the EUD were involved in the project. 

The app creators had their work cut out for them as Mark explained that there are 31 sign languages in use throughout Europe and sign has no written form as there is no direct English word-for-word translation, which poses a huge challenge to deaf children learning to read. 

Never to shy away from a challenge, Huawei used the power of artificial intelligence to change the lives of deaf children and their families, and the free app, StorySign opens up a world of books to these children.

Peter Gauden, a senior marketing manager at the tech company explained how it works: "We are using artificial intelligence optical character recognition to read the words in children’s books and translate those words into sign language, for the children to read."

"It’s a very simple concept, for a parent or a child, they take the StorySign application on their Huawei device, opens the app and selects a book from the StorySign library, next they simply point the camera at the words on the page."

The smart technology can read, understand, and translates the words into sign language. As Star signs the words, the words on the screen are highlighted.

"This gives the child the ability to understand the connection between the sign and the word itself. What we are creating here is a really natural reading experience, and giving both child and parent the capability of learning to read and sign together, at their own pace," he added.

And they've designed the app to be kid-friendly, so they can take the phone and even read the book from a 45-degree angle, they don't have to be precise. 

Mark explained why it's so important for this technology to reach these children as, throughout Europe, 90 percent of children are born to hearing families. This means that there's a "communication difficulty" from the very start of their lives. And depending on where you are in the world, you may as a parent, receive no help at all for learning how to sign. 

"People who are parents themselves you know that connection is vital and you can do that through reading bed stories every night. When you're reading that story to them, and you're together you feel that connection, but without that, you're losing that connection straight away, so we need to try to make sure that is established," Mark added.

"When they see it visually [on the app] and it's translated into sign language at the same time the parents see that, they'll be able to learn sign language at the same time too. So it's beneficial for both parent and child too. "

The app was no easy creation as sign language is 70 percent facial movements and 30 percent hand gestures. Neil Pymer from Aardman gave a little insight into the complex, lengthy process it took to get Star to come to life. 

"Every little facial movement is really, really important and that’s coupled with very nuanced body movements and very complex finger movements, we wanted to capture that - other people had tried to create other avatars before for the deaf community, but it’s always been lacking that facial movement, because it’s very difficult to do, and that’s something we really wanted to work on." 

Star has also been made to appeal to both young boys and girls with her big eyes, colourful buns and her slightly bigger hands, which are perfect for signing.

"We made her slightly older than a target audience, make her a bit aspirational, in a big sister way. We made her a little bit tom-boyish, so she appeals to both boys and girls. Most importantly, we have given her a hearing aid," said Neil. 

"I have seen Star as a superhero and her superpower is the fact that she can sign, and we want to make children proud that they share in this unique skill and be proud to be a part of the deaf community," he added.

You may recognise Shirley Higgins and her famous DeafTones choir from the likes of Ireland's Got Talent.

Shirley and some of her students were given the opportunity to try out the app and she gave her thoughts on the new technology. 

"The app gives that opportunity for parents to learn sign language, it’s so hard to get a sign language tutor in Ireland."

The app will also give parents a chance to get started on their sign language whilst their waiting for an ISL tutor added Shirley, which is "key."

For deaf children, she thinks it will give them a love of books and the opportunity for them to read with their parents. 

Despite the app being life-changing for deaf children, they need your help.

To give the gift of reading this Christmas to these children, you can donate and support the additional creation of more books being translated into sign language, as they currently have the book 'Where's Spot' for Ireland.

You can donate here and the app is now available to download now in the PlayStore for all Android users.