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July 18, 2003 a virtual meeting place for deaf children

From:, Canada - Jul 18, 2003

Canadian Press

TORONTO (CP) - Imagine a place where signing is the primary language and hearing people needed translators to communicate.

Seem like a role reversal from our current social structure? On Deafplanet, a fictional world that exists on the World Wide Web, citizens use American Sign Language, or ASL, instead of the spoken word.

The site,, brings to life the adventures of Max, a hearing student who accidentally launches himself into space while visiting a rocket display at a museum. His adventures on the deaf planet are brought to life in 10 six-minute episodes with live actors as well as interactive games and activities.

Intended to bring up ASL literacy levels among deaf students aged eight through 12, the site goes live Friday at a launch party at the World Congress of the Deaf in Montreal.

Educators of deaf children have been lamenting a lack of resources for teaching ASL for quite a while, says Joanne Cripps, project director of the Canadian Deaf Heritage Project who was a consultant on the Web site.

Cripps, who was born deaf to hearing parents, said Deafplanet lets children learn science, math, health and history while practising the language.

After arriving on Deafplanet, Max is befriended by Kendra, a teenager who lives on the planet. Using a robot to translate, Max and Kendra try to repair the ship, meeting various characters along the way, including a physics professor, a florist, a meteorologist and a cowboy, who teach viewers about their area of expertise.

"Many deaf children enter school with little or no language and then start with the printed word," said Cripps in an e-mail interview.

"This creates a kind of dependency, asking the teacher what each word or topic means instead of finding and researching information independently."

She said deaf children would benefit from seeing more people using ASL in mainstream mediums, like TV and Internet.

She gave the example of a 15-year-old deaf girl who was awestruck by seeing someone signing in a fictional series.

"Her eyes lit up at having a deaf role model using her own language on the Internet," Cripps said. "This means we are doing the right thing."

Along with streaming 10 six-minute episodes - which will air on TV Ontario and Access Alberta in September - the site has a strong focus on education.

Under the heading Discover, users are able to access an ASL video glossary if they don't understand a sign gestured during the episode. Games teach about such things as using leverage to throw melons in the air or diving under water to collect sea objects. Since some deaf children are not fluent in ASL, text captions can be turned off and on to supplement the learning process.

"It's a learning tool although we disguise it as being entertainment," said Matt Hornburg, a producer at MarbleMedia, the Toronto company that brought the site and characters to life.

The community section includes a message board which Hornburg plans to expand to allow for ASL using Web cams.

"The biggest challenge is that we're trying to create an atmosphere in which everything stems from ASL," he said.

And so far, he said, they seemed to have succeeded. Students who helped test a prototype of the site were thrilled with the images, Hornburg said.

"(Deaf children) were amazed and excited about seeing deaf role models for the first time - and not just a tiny circle that you see on the parliamentary channel," he said.

In a few months, a weekly spoof news show - a la This Hour Has 22 Minutes - will be added to the site, with ASL-speaking anchors.

© Copyright 2003 The Canadian Press