In April, Ardsley High School junior Lucas Vaidean, who’s been hard of hearing since age 7, placed second in “The Next Big Idea: High School,” a national competition for deaf or hard-of-hearing students in grades 9-12.
Organized by the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, the goal of The Next Big Idea, as stated on its website, is “to come up with a product, business, service, or technology that solves a problem or eliminates an existing challenge for potential consumers and/or users everywhere.”
Vaidean’s idea, Little Signers, “is a technology and education company that can teach sign language to hearing families and their deaf or hard-of-hearing children,” he explained with the help of a sign language interpreter. “It would help connect them with freelance tutors and teaching resources to tackle the issue of language deprivation in deaf children who don’t know how to sign.”
Vaidean has oratory neuropathy, “a type of hearing loss that manifests itself mostly through poor word recognition,” he said. “Sound enters the inner ear normally, but on its way to the brain the signal gets distorted, therefore it is hard to understand speech.” He attends school with a professional interpreter who uses American Sign Language.
Language deprivation was Vaidean’s prime motivator behind Little Signers.
“It’s a big issue in the deaf community,” he commented. Language deprivation, according to Wikipedia, is defined as the “[absence of] accessible language exposure during the critical period [ages 1 to 5] of a child’s language development. Late learners that miss the critical period can still obtain basic syntactic abilities along with good use of vocabulary, but they will not achieve native-like abilities when it comes to grammar.”
That makes exposure to sign language all important.
“Ninety-five percent of deaf or hard-of-hearing children are born within a hearing family,” Vaidean noted. “These are families who have not been exposed to sign language and therefore have a great challenge ahead. The parents might turn to audiologists who recommend cochlear implants [small electronic medical devices that improve hearing loss]. These are commonly perceived as the ultimate approach to mitigate deafness. But it takes hours and hours of adjustments of the cochlear implants in audiologists' offices. By the time they’re activated and the child learns how to actually ‘hear’ with them, precious time is lost in which the child doesn't acquire language skills.”
Vaidean went on to extol the virtues of sign language.
“Through sign language deaf children are able to absorb the entire language before the critical window of language development closes,” he stressed. “Signing is its own language with its own grammar and syntax rules. It’s basically like learning a foreign language.”
Vaidean wants signing to be more accessible to families.
“What makes Little Signers unique,” he remarked, “is that it will be a one-stop place for families of deaf children to search for services.”
Little Signers would include an in-person component as well as a website. According to Vaidean’s business plan, it would “provide a marketplace platform for freelance tutors to connect with customers; create and distribute teaching materials; connect financial resources (early intervention, private donors, etc.) with end users; advertise and promote services and raise awareness, and offer individual family or group classes.”
As for dollars and cents, Little Signers’ structure is reminiscent of the ventures presented on the TV show “Shark Tank.”
“I had a pretty basic financial plan on how I would cover expenses,” he recalled, “such as paying tutors and paying for learning materials as well as profit and revenue goals for each year.”
Vaidean received guidance from his father, Onorius, an engineer. His father, his mother, Simona, who teaches German, and his twin sister, Mia, all have normal hearing.
For The Next Big Idea, contestants submitted “signed” videos. Finalists were chosen, and then required to make presentations on Zoom. For his second-place finish, Vaidean was awarded $2,000.
“I definitely plan on holding onto this idea and making it a reality for the future,” he said. He wants to attend RIT’s NTID after he graduates from high school in 2022.
Vaidean has a lot in common with “hearing” teenagers, including listening to music and watching movies. His favorite sports are basketball and football.
“Most people think that deaf or hard-of-hearing people cannot enjoy music, but that's not true,” he stated. “Profoundly deaf people can feel the vibrations and enjoy music that way. Hard-of-hearing people, like me, can hear the music, but not understand the words. It's just a different experience.”
The Next Big Idea allowed Vaidean to champion the needs of young people who struggle with hearing issues.
“I hope this company will serve as a realistic solution to a pressing issue in the deaf community: language deprivation,” he concluded. “Language is freedom. Language is power.”