Things That Matter

This Mexicana Teen Created an App To Help Her Deaf Sister Communicate With Hearing Speakers

While many communities have made strides in making the world more accessible for people with disabilities, we still have a long way to go. 

Thankfully, there are scientists and innovators out there who are using their talents to make the world an easier place to live for everyone. 

One of those innovators is 17-year-old Estrella Salazar. Born and raised in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico, Salazar grew up with an older sister named Perla with MERRF syndrome, a rare multisystem disorder that affects a person’s mobility and hearing. 

Not only was Perla hard-of-hearing, but she also wasn’t able to rely on the traditional route of communication that so many other deaf and hard-of-hearing people rely on: sign language.

In fact, one sign language school told Perla that, because of her mobility limitations, she wouldn’t ever be able to use Mexican Sign Language (LSM) to communicate. But, in recent months, Perla’s mobility has gotten better, so she and her family began to use sign language with each other. 

Seeing how her sister struggled to communicate with others, Salazar took matters into her own hands, literally. According to Reuters, teenage Estrella asked herself: “What am I doing to help my sister?” 

You see, Salazar isn’t your average 17-year-old. In fact, she is actually somewhat of a child prodigy, having graduated from high school three years early after outpacing her school’s curriculum. 

Salazar’s mother, Leticia Calderon, detailed her daughter’s early signs of genius to Reuters. According to Calderon, she would bring Estrella along to Perla’s speech therapy sessions. In order to help Perla practice her speech, Calderon would ask Perla questions about her schoolwork. But instead, Estrella (who is 8 years younger than her older sister) would give the answers to Perla’s exam questions.

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

After she finished her high school education, Salazar believed she could use her knowledge to make it easier for her sister to communicate with others. Thus, the app Hands With Voice was born.

While there are over four million deaf and/or hard-of-hearing people in Mexico, there aren’t enough official LSM interpreters to go around. Hands With Voice connects native LSM speakers and interpreters with hearing users. The app’s aim is to promote communication by allowing people to switch between LSM, text, and voice speech.

Salazar recruited almost 90 people to participate in the app, which is still in development but which she hopes to officially launch later this year.

And that’s not even where Salazar’s impressive list of accomplishments ends. Not only is she developing Hands With Voice, but she is also a participant in NASA’s International Air and Space Program camp in Hunstville, Alabama (which she raised money to attend via crowdfunding). She also teaches science classes in her hometown of Nezahualcoyotl.

Next up? She is searching for a University in the U.S. where she can study the neurological impacts of COVID-19 on the brain.

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