BUENOS AIRES – When she was young, Rita would browse through books in her house and not understand a thing. Why did Sleeping Beauty wake up? Why did Little Red Riding Hood open the door for the wolf?

Rita would stare at the illustrations but her mother and father didn’t know how to tell the stories: like 95% of deaf children, she was deaf but her parents were not, and they didn’t know sign language.

But now there is a solution to help children with hearing disabilities to learn about fairy tales and stories like other children. Canales, a non-profit organization created to help deaf people in Argentina, has launched a videolibros (video-books) project. A group of women – mostly deaf, mostly grandmothers – have recorded videos in which they read and comment on classic fairy tales – in Argentinian Sign Language (SLA).

“Most deaf children have grandparents who are not deaf and who can’t read stories to them. Video-books allows these children to hear the stories from deaf grandparents,” explains Silvana Veinberg, Canales project leader.

Beyond the emotional effects, the project’s goal is to promote reading: according to numbers from the Argentine Confederation of Deaf-mutes, 80% of deaf people are functional illiterates – they don’t understand what they read.

“In general, it is very hard for them to read and write, because their parents and teachers do not master sign language beyond basic expressions,” says Veinberg. The video-books project aims to “break the barriers of linguistic isolation and exclusion.”

“When I was a girl no one ever told me a story. My mother didn’t know what to do with me, she only knew a few signs,” recalls Hilda Croci, 74, one of the grandmothers who participated in the project.

“I believe this project will help deaf children, and can serve to motivate these children’s parents, encourage them to learn sign language,” says Pablo Baldrinch, an LSA interpreter.

For Celia Salas, 80, the experience was different: she had the care and support of her mother, who learned sign language. “I needed to learn how to read like the other children. And I was able to, thanks to my family’s help. It was hard, but they taught me how to read. Unfortunately, most deaf children don’t have this kind of support,” says Salas.

An essential part of culture

The video-books are available online and can be downloaded for free so that schools can also use them as learning material. The stories are told in LSA and every video also includes optional voice-overs to encourage conversation between deaf children and family members, teachers etc.

“In this way, the books serve not only as a way to promote literature, but also for children to be able to converse with hearing adults, something that is uncommon. They can now talk about the fairy tales, comment on the stories and ask questions,” says Veinberg.

It is also about making sure all children have access to the stories that form an important part of culture. Some of the deaf grandmothers only learned the stories as they were reading them in sign language. Stories like The Ugly Duckling and Puss in Boots.

“We want to prevent children from going through the experiences we went through in school,” explains Rita Andreotti, 57, born deaf and speech impaired. Fellow volunteer Emilia Machado, 78, says they jumped at the opportunity of participating in a project aimed toward children: “As deaf adults, we really appreciated to be able to do something for the children, to be able to be ‘grandmothers’ for them by telling stories, giving some of our time and reading to them. Today there are many parents who work and have no time for it.”

Alicia Ares, 68, whose parents did not let her use sign language as a child, is also proud of feeling she is part of being part of an initiative led by the deaf community.

Photo: Materiales de Canales Facebook page

There is much enthusiasm for the project among these deaf grandmothers who grew up without knowing Snow White, Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel. “I want to bring books to deaf people,” sums up Dora Riego, 61, who grew up without any deaf family members or friends.

Her and the other volunteers are happy to participate in the project because they believe in the importance of these stories. They remember how much they would have loved to hear these stories as girls, and are convinced that having access to these children’s books and fairy tales makes the world a less lonely place.