How did DeafEducate come about?
The concept of DeafEducate began about 10 years ago when I was teaching at Doncaster College for the Deaf. I had a student wanting to gain a grade C for his GCSE Maths so that he could go to university. We had a weekly tutorial and he was really anxious that he should be well prepared when the exam came up.
Our weekly tutorials weren’t really enough and I thought he could supplement his learning by trying out a GCSE Maths CD promoted by Carol Vorderman. However, this presented difficulties for him, as he struggled to understand the English involved. People still need good understanding in English to learn Maths.
He had to ask me to translate what was on the computer screen into British Sign Language for him. When I thought about this, I realised that the process of learning for many people is to repeatedly read pieces of text until understanding is achieved. How could this student fully understand the numeracy concept on the screen if I translated for him only once? Supposing he wanted to take the CD home; he still needed BSL translation and there would be no one around to sign to him.
I used to be a programmer and have a computing degree. I looked at the technology available at the time – the internet was not booming as it is now – and I realised that it was possible to create some sort of ‘eBook’ on CD. Deaf learners could then insert the CD into a computer and get the eBook on screen. They would read pieces of English text and see video clips in BSL by clicking icons at the end of each sentence.
The biggest advantage of this technique is the repeatability – Deaf learners can watch the BSL clips over and over again until understanding is achieved.
I had to start from scratch and create Visual Basic code to produce eBooks. That wasn’t difficult. The difficult part was the video work – the studio, the lightning, the many different formats of videos and the codecs. Really a steep learning curve!
Initially I thought of doing a GCSE Maths eBook but when I realised of the amount of work needed, I changed my mind. A typical Maths textbook would consist of 250 pages and the amount of BSL video work needed would be huge. I estimated that the purchase cost of a GCSE Maths eBook would be in the region of £100 or more in order to cover production costs. Furthermore, I figured it might take me a couple of years to complete. This was simply not feasible.
So I turned to producing short eBooks with a word length ranging from 80 to 5,000 words. Short eBooks would enable Deaf learners to acquire and develop literacy skills to Key Stage 3 for Deaf children and Level 1 for Deaf adults. Once Key Stage 3 or Level 1 is achieved, the Deaf learner would be able to read and understand English well enough not to need BSL translation.
My first set of eBooks was the Brian and Simon series – a set of 8 stories where two boys get up to all sorts of antics. You can see an online demonstration of one of the stories by clicking the green ‘Demo’ icon. That was 5 years ago and to date, I have published 47 eBooks.
What’s your background?
I am Deaf and BSL is my main mode of communication. At present, I run DeafEducate and sell eBooks. I support Deaf students in their degree courses at Sheffield Hallam University.
I used to work as computing tutor at Doncaster College for the Deaf and as a Numeracy/Literacy tutor at Sheffield College and Manchester College. My first job was a programmer with British Gas.
Have you written books?
I wrote the Peter and Kerry series. In that series, I tried to portray what it was like for D/deaf children in mainstream schools. Peter is oral, deaf and has a cochlear implant. He desperately wants to be part of the hustle and bustle in the playground with hearing boys and girls, yet he finds it difficult.
Kerry is Deaf, uses sign language and is very assertive in her outlook. She is in a different school from Peter where there is a Deaf unit and so she has Deaf friends. She has high aspirations and finds herself frustrated at the lack of support at her school.
The story develops when Peter and Kerry meet twice, with the former trying to avoid contact with Kerry and her Deaf friends. The series relates problems and issues of Deaf culture.
At present, I am writing The Portrait - a story from way back in the 1960s where a Liverpudlian Deaf boy obtains a place at an elite residential Deaf school down south where oralism prevails. There is a portrait of the founder of the school hung on the wall. Little does the boy know that not only was the founder Deaf, but is in fact his great grandfather, long forgotten by his family. The school has been earmarked for closure, and the Deaf boy, with help from the founder in the portrait, fights to keep the school open.
To my mind, writing stories is really not so easy. You definitely need to have a fervently imaginative mindset, combined with a never failing determination to keep going.
Where did you find your production team?
I don’t have a production team at the moment. But, one day..!
I work from home and have an adapted studio in my living room. I had to sweet talk my wife into allowing this!
With regard to authors, signers and illustrators, I met Deaf people by word of mouth. I am very fortunate to have Frank Essery and Ian Townsley as signers; you can see their creative signing in the eBooks. I am also pleased to have got hold of the illustrator, Peter Handy – his work is in the second set of Tales from Signtown, the forthcoming Sid and His Family and James Herriot.
I like to try to bring Deaf people in to contribute to the creative processes involved in the preparation and publishing of eBooks.
Is the advent of the Sony e-reader making a difference to your work?
I don’t think I have the technical expertise to adapt eBooks so that they work on the Sony eReader, but who knows; one day, this might be possible. However, we have apps able and working on the iPhone and coming soon for the iPad!
What is Tales from Signtown?
Tales from Signtown is a set of fairy tales with a difference; they have Deaf characters in them. You see, through teaching in colleges for many years, I have learned that many Deaf people are not aware of fairy tales such as Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Three Little Pigs. This cannot be right. Fairy tales are part of our folklore and culture, Deaf or not.
Tales from Signtown will enable Deaf readers to read and appreciate fairy tales with a twist; they will be able to identify with the Deaf characters and learn more about Deaf history too. In Puss in Boots, we have a Deaf cat writing on a piece of paper to communicate with a hearing ogre.We have Goldilocks telling the Little Boy Bear that she went to the same school as him. Then, there are the three little pigs named Pig Maginn, Pig Miner and Pig Miles. We have streets in Signtown called Charles-Michel Street and Ayliffe Street, a Victoria Place market and a Burwood High School. Furthermore, we have characters like Cochella and Orellano, the two ugly sisters in Cinderella, and Balestra, the ogre in Jack and the Beanstalk.
Nick Sturley is such a proficient writer to be able to capture the very essence of Deaf culture and tradition in these stories.
What is Nick Sturley like to work with?
In short, I am glad to have met Nick. I knew of his work regarding Milan 1880 and admired his extensive knowledge of Deaf history, relating to oralism and the fall and rise of BSL. You should see his website - www.milan1880.com - you cannot fail to applaud his writing and attention to detail.
I want to see more stories using deaf themes so that Deaf readers can identify with them and take pride in their Deafness. There aren’t many books around involving Deaf characters and Deaf culture.
This was how I got to work with Nick and we came up with Tales from Signtown.
Nick is from London and I from Doncaster, and we have worked together well via email; he sent me draft stories, asking for my comments and views. Now we have 8 stories published and are looking forward to the third set of Tales in Signtown. Whenever I am in London, we meet up for a pint and a chat.
Precisely what are you working on now? A History of Britain looks interesting!
A History of Britain is our next project. I feel it’s important that Deaf people should be made aware of Britain’s history and culture and then they will feel part of the larger world and not being excluded.
Along with A History of Britain, we are doing a story on Romeo and Juliet, a Shakespeare play, and will launch this eBook at Off The Shelf, a Sheffield literary celebration, in October. This will enable Deaf children to understand Shakespeare as part of the National Curriculum.
Finally, we are in the process of doing children’s stories; Sid and His Family. This will be part of the DeafEducate Reading Tree, where Deaf characters are firmly part of the narratives. I remember reading books from the Oxford Reading Tree to my four children and they all loved them; it would be good for Deaf children to read similar books with Deaf characters in BSL and English.
Biff, Chip and Kipper have the Magic Key to transport them to different worlds in their stories; Sid, Dot and Rex will have the Magic Sign!