How Deaf Entrepreneurs Teach a Language That Can’t Be Heard

Starting a business is challenging enough, but deaf entrepreneurs face their own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Siblings Melissa and Matt Malzkuhn are third-generation deaf co-founders of Ink & Salt, LLC, a creative productions company in Washington D.C., San Francisco and Boston. 

After being repeatedly asked “How do I learn to sign?” they discovered a significant need in the market.

After being repeatedly asked “How do I learn to sign?” they discovered a significant need in the market.

Traditional American Sign Language education applications were designed as static reference guides, similar to a dictionary. But just like learning any language, it’s best to learn in a community with real people. Sign language, especially, is a dynamic, movement-driven language. Words and photos don’t communicate the complete experience.

“Our vision became more defined after we researched other apps that taught ASL,” said Matt. “We saw that there were many scattered videos on YouTube with all different types (and levels) of ASL signers.”

At the 2014 Media Rise Festival in Washington D.C., the cofounders pitched the idea of a video-based, community-driven mobile application for teaching ASL.

“We wanted to make learning ASL easy, accessible, and realistic,” Melissa said. “What kind of conversations are the most likely to happen when you first meet a deaf person? After pleasantries are exchanged, what next?”

“People often want to ask questions but aren’t sure if it’s ‘culturally appropriate’ or not,” she added.

At the end of night, the team won the People’s Choice Award (audience’s choice) and within a few weeks began the initial production of The ASL App. Eighteen months later, in May 2015, app launched officially.

“We wanted to make learning ASL easy, accessible, and realistic”

“We put in an extensive FAQ that answers every kind of question,” Matt told Opportunity Lives. Questions and answers included scenarios at restaurants and stores, as well as emergency or medical situations.

The app features a touch-interface that allows users to drag back and forth through videos to learn signs. Users can enter slow-motion mode, tag and favorite signs, view a video library of the alphabet, and learn from six different signers.

The signers include Kriston Lee Pumphrey, a news anchor for DPAN TV; Bobbie Jo Kite, a professor at Gallaudet University; April Jackson, a nationally known fifth generation deaf black woman leader and inspirational speaker; and actor and model, Nyle DiMarco, a creative collaborator and the first deaf person to win “Dancing with the Stars” and “America’s Next Top Model.”

The ASL App has grown swiftly. At the beginning of 2017, it approached 800,000 users.

The ASL App has grown swiftly. At the beginning of 2017, it approached 800,000 users.

“There is a strong, vibrant, beautiful global deaf community,” Melissa said. “We have deaf people of every kind, every race, every country — all connected by our deaf experience. Such a tight knit and well-connected community helps to get the word out about the ASL App.”

But being an all-deaf team doesn’t make the road easy for Ink & Salt. “Business is founded upon communication, and when it’s expensive to hire an interpreter or other communicative mediums, it creates challenges that take time to learn how to handle,” Matt said.

Credit: Ink & Salt

Filming a signer for The ASL App

Even with the obstacles, Matt and Melissa and their team are on a mission to make language deprivation non-existent for deaf children. “A big wish for us is to see parents of deaf children learn ASL and sign with their children,” said Melissa.

With other projects on the way, they’re just getting started. Receiving the question “How do I learn to sign?” was once a frustration but is now a happy moment for the team to answer.

“A big wish for us is to see parents of deaf children learn ASL and sign with their children”

“People assume deaf people want to be fixed,” they pointed out. “‘Deafness’ is a medical perspective. We want to help shift that to a cultural viewpoint where deaf people are known as a unique contribution to human diversity.”

To learn more about The ASL App, visit http://theaslapp.com

Dave Schools is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveSchoools.

Don't let Education get lost in the din of campaign talk.

Education is undoubtedly the most important issue facing Americans. Don’t let it be drowned out by politicians. Sign up to stay informed and up-to-date.

X