Nothing about us without us: Building capacity and sustainability in blind and deaf communities worldwide

Resource Type

This blog was originally posted on All Children Reading  // BY CARMEN ANDRES, on NOVEMBER 30, 2022


Of the 240 million children living with disabilities in the world, UNICEF reports that half are not attending school–and more than 85 percent of primary-age children with disabilities in developing countries have never attended school. According to the World Health Organization, 90 percent of the estimated 285 million people worldwide who are visually impaired live in developing countries.  Out of the estimated 34 million children who are deaf, more than 80 percent do not have access to any type of formal education and less than two percent receive education in a sign language they understand. 

The disparities around lack of access to school and learning for children with disabilities was further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UNICEF, mass closure of schools and the move to distance learning had serious consequences for all children but especially for those with disabilities, who were less likely to have access to school and continue to face societal stigma and discrimination.

All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD), a sandbox for innovation, is empowering innovators to advance EdTech to provide access to school for children with disabilities in their homes and communities. Over the last 11 years, ACR GCD has established a much needed focus on inclusive education and technology aid to make inclusive education a reality, so children with disabilities have an equal opportunity to learn, which makes them more likely to gain employment and have better health outcomes.

As one of the world’s largest development funds for children with disabilities, ACR GCD has funded a range of solutions to increase literacy for children who are blind and deaf such as:

  • High quality digital books and online libraries for children who are deaf or with visual disabilities, like Bookshare (the largest online library with accessible content for people with print disabilities in accessible formats like braille, large print and audio), Deaf World Around You (WAY) (an online library of sign language storybooks in local and national sign languages).
  • Free tools to create accessible books, like Bloom software (create books with accessible features and translated them into multiple languages), eKitabu’s Accessible EPUB Toolkit (a guide to create books with image accessible navigation, dyslexic fonts and sign languages), and WAY (an online platform to create books in local and national sign languages).
  • Learning apps and games, like Señas y Sonrisas (Signs and Smiles), a Spanish-language app offering resources for hearing families with deaf children and a dictionary of Nicaraguan Sign Language.
  • Adapted Early Grade Reading Assessments (EGRAs). ACR GCD has seen thousands of children with disabilities in the Philippines, India, Lesotho and Nepal demonstrate their true aptitude or achievement level when using inclusive assessments. In addition, ACR GCD coordinated the first known Early Grade Reading Sign Language Assessment for children who are deaf/hard of hearing in Morocco.

Integral to these high-quality solutions and the overall goal of fueling accessible and equitable access to education and literacy for children who are blind and deaf has been the leadership of innovators who are blind or in the Deaf community and the engagement of disabled persons organizations (DPOs). 

Integral to these high-quality solutions and the overall goal of fueling accessible and equitable access to education and literacy for children who are blind and deaf has been the leadership of innovators who are blind or in the Deaf community and the engagement of disabled persons organizations (DPOs). 

Nothing about us without us

The above phrase became the mantra for the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and, in 2004, the United Nations used the phrase as the theme for International Day of Persons with Disabilities. People with disabilities and different abilities must be front and center in leading the way towards inclusion and equality, with people without disabilities as allies and partners who share that journey.

In our funding and awards, ACR GCD prioritizes collaborations with organizations staffed by experts who are deaf and blind–like the Institute for Disabilities Research and Training (IDRT), Resources for the Blind, Inc. (RBI), Rochester Institute for Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID), and local disabled persons organizations (DPOs) around the world–to help ensure EdTech solutions and tools meet the needs of children with disabilities.

These collaborations not only provide world-class technical guidance and advice in developing inclusive and accessible strategies, platforms and content but also help build, through the work in each country, the capacity and sustainability of local DPOs serving the deaf and blind communities.

For example, through two ACR GCD awards, RIT/NTID is using its WAY software to create accessible books in the sign languages of Indonesia (Jakarta), the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, the Fiji Islands and Samoa and transforming reading and language learning experiences in early education for children who are deaf and hard of hearing in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines–all regions where deaf children lack deaf signing models in school settings and often do not have books in their local signed languages.

Through RIT/NTID’s Begin with Books award, a team in Somali is collaborating with the Somali National Association for the Deaf (SONAD), who has been instrumental in providing advice and guidance in translating the children’s storybooks into Somali Sign Language.

"Somali sign language is still a developing language, which has made it challenging for the Somali team to translate stories,” says Bakar Ali, a lecturer  at RIT/NTID. “However, with the help and guidance of SONAD, the team is making progress in translating stories. The Somali team created two groups that are working on creating stories. Team members based in the USA are working on creating Somali sign language stories with the collaboration of team members inside Somalia, enabling Somali team members to make progress on achieving their project goal.”

ACR GCD’s UnrestrICTed Challenge supports literacy solutions for children with disabilities and requires inclusion and collaboration with local DPOs as part of the projects. The goal is for awardees to actively support and work through local DPOs to build up their capacity even as they work to increase literacy.

For example, though the Yumi Read Together project in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Save the Children Australia worked with SIL LEAD–a long-time ACR GCD supporter and awardee–to facilitate a book creation workshop with local DPOs to develop stories in local PNG languages featuring children and persons with disabilities. The PNG Deaf Association, PNG Assembly of Disabled People, PNG Blind Union, Callan Services and the National Department of Inclusive Education all took part in the workshop. 

Twenty new and amazing stories were created, and were all authored or co-authored by local people with disabilities,” says ACR GCD Senior Project Manager Valerie Siwotso.

The books include characters that reflect the deaf and blind experiences, which helps to raise understanding and nurture a more inclusive environment. For example, Deaf Women in Business, written by a woman entrepreneur and interpreter who is deaf, and features examples of professional deaf women, including entrepreneurs, a banker and construction workers. Wewak Boy is written by the president of the PNG Deaf Association, who is also an active soccer and rugby player; he tells the story of growing up in Wewak, his love of sports and how he became deaf. In Aunty’s Eyes, a woman with visual impairments depicts the mutually supportive relationship between a young girl and her visually impaired aunty. 

"We know that storybooks can inspire and challenge us, and these 20 new stories do just that,” says Siwotso.

In Nepal, The Asia Foundation collaborated with the National Federation of the Disabled (NDFN) and National Association of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (NADH) to adapt 50 storybooks into Nepali Sign Language (NSL) as part of the ACR GCD-funded Let’s Read Asia project under Begin with Books.

Through the project, young signers were trained, ensuring additional resources for the community in the future, and locally adapted best practices were established, helping to increase the quality and efficiency of the storybook creation process.

“We see our role as one of a supporter and facilitator, helping to bring resources and move conversations forward,” says Kyle Barker, director of Books for Asia at The Asia Foundation. “Working with NADH and NDFN on the Begin With Books project was incredibly enriching for our entire Let’s Read team. It was important to us to be able to move beyond focusing just on the deliverables of the sign language videos and ensure both teams had the tools and connections to create a sustained impact.”

Building leadership capacity

Recognizing the need to support deaf-led expertise and mentoring, ACR GCD established the Sign Language Storybook Cohort (SLSC), an working group that uses Slack as their communication platform to share ideas and support each other and their local DPOs, and is funding RIT/NTID to convene and lead the group.

The cohort spurs co-learning between the awardees and across teams and strengthens their capacity to create high quality storybooks in local sign languages by providing technical assistance through in-person training events as well as virtual support and recorded sessions. The collaboration and learning between awardees is also supporting the creation of new content that addresses social inclusion and heightens the visibility of children and family members who are disabled

In 2023, the cohort will continue to validate these standards as they conclude their book production, and the lessons learned will be incorporated into the final version of the Minimum and Gold Standards, which will be open source and available for global distribution to support inclusive education and the creation of more sign language teaching and learning materials.

“These Minimum and Gold Standards will provide guidance as a ‘how to’ manual for sign language book production, in any resource setting,” says ACR GCD Senior Program Manager Erin Williams. “Additionally, it will also provide examples of Gold Standard storybooks, created using Universal Design for Learning principles, that incorporate multiple accessibility features, such as audio along with video and captions. The inclusion of such Gold Standard features can serve to overcome barriers related to low levels of parental literacy or sign language fluency to engage in and support their child’s learning.”

Launching a new blog series

In the coming months we will be using this space to highlight these and other ACR GCD projects that are helping to build capacity and sustainability both locally and globally as we work towards accessible and equitable access to education and literacy for children who are blind and deaf. 

In the meantime, learn how you can be part of the solution to fuel accessible and equitable access to education and literacy for children who are blind and deaf. Explore our solutions and tools to help you increase literacy opportunities in local languages for children in your work and programming or partner with us to pilot or scale a solution or innovation in your community or region. Together, we can transform and enrich literacy learning spaces to build resilience and ensure quality, equitable and inclusive education for all.

Key Area
deaf children
blind and low vision


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