Faces Behind the Screen: ASL App

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American Sign Language (ASL) is the third most-spoken language in the world among both Deaf individuals and non-deaf individuals. It’s communicated not only with signs but also with facial expressions, hand movement and position, gestures, and body language. (Note that in addition to ASL, there are hundreds of national sign languages spoken around the world such as British Sign Language, Spanish Sign Language, and many more.)

The ASL app is all about teaching you to converse in ASL. There are over 1,500+ signs and phrases for you to learn, with new ones continuously being added.

They have a plethora of interesting and engaging ASL teachers who clearly show you the correct way to sign words and phrases – so you don’t accidentally sign something you didn’t mean to!

We sat down with the founders of the app to learn more about their mission, future plans, and work in the community.

founders of the asl app

To start, tell us about the team’s background and how it eventually lead you all to create the ASL app?

We wanted to create The ASL App because we wanted people to learn from Deaf people who use ASL all our lives and we wanted them to learn ASL realistically, easy, intuitively, and have fun.

Melissa has a background in creative literature, storytelling, and digital technology. She leads development at Motion Light Lab, at Gallaudet University. Matt is a faculty member at the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies and is working on his doctoral dissertation on ASL home videos. Megan is an ASL specialist at the Horace Mann Public School in Boston, where she works with students of all ages, supporting their ASL and literacy development. She is also one of the few certified ASL assessment trainers in the U.S. Tim has over 20+ years of experience in programming and loves to do app development work. He currently works at Lyft as a developer.

Altogether, the combination of design, technology, ASL, pedagogical approaches, and years of experience makes this team stellar and highly qualified to produce the best ASL resources.

What has been the response to the ASL app? Has it been all positive?

We’ve received a tremendous response to our work. People love The ASL App, and it has become a bridge for non-signers and the signing community to connect. It’s for everyone.

Since creating the ASL app, what has been the best thing about this journey?

Meeting people, randomly, and seeing their delight when they are talking to one of us – a developer of the app! And, also to be able to tell people when they ask “how can I learn ASL?” that we have the best solution for them, right away! This is very satisfying.

On the production/development side, it’s always a pleasure working with our signers, and our Deaf talents.

What’s in store for the ASL app and your team this year? What should we look out for?

We are working on more bundles! Our newest bundle is an important one – “Emergency Signs” which we hope will help facilitate communication in any urgent situations.

Who uses your app more?

It’s a mix of all people!

What do users have to say about the app?

“I love that this app has Deaf creators. There are a variety of lessons for conversational ASL on different subjects. The app is easily searchable and has different Deaf people presenting the ASL lessons that help students see a variety & nuance of ASL. Presenters are engaging & help students understand ASL is more than just what hands are doing.”

“This is a great tool to add on my journey towards mastery.”

What’s a phrase in ASL everyone should know?

“How do you sign …. This / that?”

This phrase is empowering! You can learn how to sign 300 new words based on that. It’s never-ending! :)

What else has your company worked on that people should check out?

We have more apps!

We worked with American Greetings to bring ASL with CareBears for young kids. We have Cardzilla – a superb note writing app. We have Stickers apps, where you can converse in ASL via iMessage stickers… very fun!

What’s are some common misconceptions people make about ASL that should be cleared up?

ASL app logo

That ASL is just for “communication”, like a method or a technique. ASL is a language, just like any other languages in the world regardless if it is signed, written, or spoken.

Because ASL does not have an official written form, it does not mean it is not a formal language.

For young deaf children, the big misconception is that ASL can be taught later. No, research shows that early exposure to sign language builds healthy cognitive development and supports literacy development.

What’s one thing you would like to change in regards to accessibility in the world?

We need more funding and investments and projects that invite Deaf teams to become a part of the development and design process.

If you could flip a switch and change one thing about the internet, what would you change?

High-quality automatic captioning for all types of languages, signed or spoken. Well, I believe people are working to improve that.

To have automatic captioning of signing content, computer vision will need to improve drastically! (It’s going to be exciting!)

Faces Behind the Screen would like to thank the ASL app for participating in our storytelling project. If you’re interested in sharing your story with us, fill out our nomination form.

Pictures of four people who were interviewed for the Faces Behind the Screen project

Faces Behind the Screen is a storytelling project focusing on members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community.

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