Mexican teen creates app ‘Hands with Voice’ to help deaf sister with MERRF syndrome communicate

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  • The app, Hands with Voice connects Mexican Sign Language (MSL) speakers with hearing users, without the need for a certified interpreter
  • It will allow users to shift from sign language to text or voice, and vice versa
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Estrella Salazar, 17, is developing a sign-language translation app to connect Mexican Sign Language (MSL) speakers and interpreters with hearing users. Photo: Reuters

Estrella Salazar, a 17-year-old science whizz from a working-class town near Mexico City, was inspired by her sister to develop an app to help deaf and hard-of-hearing Mexicans communicate more easily.

Salazar’s older sister, Perla, was born with a rare disorder that affects mobility and hearing, called MERRF syndrome. The 25-year-old has undergone close to a dozen surgeries followed by years of physiotherapy, and was told by one sign language school that she would be unable to learn to sign due to her condition.

Salazar, whose academic prowess allowed her to graduate three years early from high school, said that, after seeing the discrimination Perla faced, she asked herself: “What am I doing to help my sister?”

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Last year, she started developing an application to connect Mexican Sign Language (MSL) speakers with hearing users – allowing people to shift from sign language to text or voice, and vice versa.

An estimated 4.6 million Mexicans are deaf or hard-of-hearing, according to Mexico’s statistics agency. There is a chronic shortage of certified MSL interpreters, though many Mexicans act as unofficial interpreters for deaf or hard-of-hearing family members.

Estrella formed a community of nearly 90 participants – including native speakers and interpreters – to develop the app, called Hands with Voice, which she hopes to launch this year. In recent months, the family has started to learn sign as Perla’s mobility has improved.

“I’m proud of my sister,” said Perla. “And I’ve liked finding a community along the way.”

Estrella talking sign language with her sister Perla (right), who was born with a rare condition called MERRF syndrome. Photo: Reuters

In addition to juggling the app development and university studies in biotechnology engineering, Salazar gives science classes near her home in Nezahualcoyotl, 5km (3 miles) northeast of Mexico City.

“I think it’s time to change the way people think,” Salazar told Reuters: “to be able to create a culture where, in the future, there will be lots of children working on scientific and technological projects.”

Salazar’s mother, Leticia Calderon, said she would take a young Estrella to her sister’s therapy sessions and noticed how quickly she caught on. To practise Perla’s speech, Calderon would ask her daughter questions about what she was learning in school.

“I would put (Estrella) in the highchair, and from there she would tell her sister the answers to her exams,” Calderon said.

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Salazar’s appetite for learning quickly outpaced what teachers in Nezahualcoyotl could offer, she said. By the time she was 15, Salazar passed her high school exams and was keen to start to apply her knowledge.

Salazar was one of 60 young people chosen to attend the International Air and Space Programme, a five-day camp this spring run by a Nasa contractor in Huntsville, Alabama, home to the Marshall Space Flight Center.

To cover the cost of the US$3,500 camp, Salazar launched a crowdfunding campaign on her Instagram account. With weeks left to reach her goal, she says she is 75 per cent there.

The 17-year-old finished school three years early and is currently looking for a university that will allow her to pursue her passion. Photo: Reuters

Now, Salazar said, she is on the hunt for a US university that will allow her to continue her investigation on the neurological impacts of Covid-19, both during active infection and after illness.

“I know young people, children, who have a way of thinking that says: ‘It doesn’t matter where I come from, what matters is what I’m going to do,’” Salazar said.

“I’m really proud to be from here, from Nezahualcoyotl, and to see kids learning and giving it their all to accomplish what they want to do.”

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