How can we create more inclusive communication between young Deaf people and their friends, families and carers, by making Auslan more accessible, understandable and useable for people across the entire hearing spectrum?

An app that provides learners with highly relevant and current video-based Auslan tutorials, all created and curated by the Deaf and hard of hearing community themselves.

This is the story of Auslan Anywhere, a huge step forward in empowering Deaf and hard of hearing people and their hearing parents, friends and peers to inclusively communicate with each other. Built on engaging, bite-sized educational content created and curated by the Deaf community, this incredible app puts Auslan in the hands of anyone who has an interest in learning it. With the right level of critical mass it may also be the key to Auslan’s more widespread societal adoption.

Let’s start with a statistic that shines a light on one aspect of the challenge: 9 out of 10 Deaf children are born to hearing parents. In such households, communication between family members can be a daily challenge. There is an increasing demand of parents and adults who want to learn Auslan for their children but do not have enough support or resources. Auslan Anywhere provides a solution to assist parents with continuing to build their vocabulary in Auslan.

As Auslan evolves like all languages, it can become less accessible and intuitive for hearing parents, siblings, friends and carers to use. In the household context illustrated above, the hearing parents of a Deaf child may fall behind in their ability to clearly communicate using Auslan, leading to broken conversations and strained relations.

My 10 year old son is Hard of Hearing and is nonverbal. I’m keen to learn his language more and communicate with him better.

– Parent of Hard of Hearing child

Auslan Anywhere was the concept of Expression Australia, the leading peak body for the Deaf and hard of hearing community in Victoria. It seeks to break down the barriers of communication between hearing and Deaf/hard of hearing people, and one of its principles is that both communities have a shared role in communication. When Auslan Anywhere was conceived in 2018, it was imagined to come to life as a two-way conversation. On the one side, the Deaf community as the content creators. On the other side, the hearing community as the content consumers.

Through their participation in the Tech4Good Challenge, Expression Australia deliberated a great deal with the program coaches and Telstra experts on how to best engage content creators within their community. The more they deliberated, the more they realised just how fundamental the aspect of community creation and curation would be to Auslan Anywhere. It ensures that any video tutorials uploaded are truly reflective of Auslan at any given moment in time. This is important for a language that is constantly evolving and means learners have the best possible opportunity to practice language that is current and resonant with Deaf and hard of hearing Auslan users. Community-led content also gives the app the credibility it needs to succeed–this is Auslan content genuinely created by the community, for the community.

We can’t understate the importance of deaf people producing this for the deaf community. We must stay true to this value proposition.

– Christiane Langenberg, Expression Australia

However, the app’s reliance on the community has also been its greatest risk. Content creators are generous with their time and cannot be taken for granted. They deserve and need appreciation and motivation in equal measure. A special relationship has been developed between Expression Australia and the creators. As Product Manager Christiane Langenberg explains, “we’re co-designing this with the creators, staying in close contact so we can constantly understand their motivation levels, and working on enhancements to the product that will prompt them to keep contributing to the cause.”

The co-design element of Auslan Anywhere has been a revelation for Expression Australia. Previously community engagement was always a priority but always unstructured. The approach to engagement for Auslan Anywhere set a new benchmark–it was built around a co-design approach that more meaningfully factored for community participation, and truly empowered creators to bring forth their ideas. Such has been the impact of this co-design approach that Expression Australia is now developing its own co-design framework and toolkit. Their ambition is for this to be used in a standardised way across the organisation, which will help them forge ever closer connections with the community.

The commitment to co-design is not the only lasting impact on Expression Australia from their participation in the Tech4Good Challenge; there have been broader all-of-organisation impacts as well. Most notably perhaps, the discipline of Product Management–an essential backbone for any digital product launch–has been adopted and woven into Expression Australia’s working rhythms. A Project Management Office has been established with investment in the appropriate people, processes and governance. Product-led thinking has been embraced by every level, not least by the organisation’s leadership. In all, the lessons learned through the Auslan Anywhere journey are being applied throughout Expression Australia, and they are creating a distinctly modernising effect on how the organisation thinks and works.

Let’s return to discuss the impact of the Auslan Anywhere app on its users. It’s early days but there are 1,606 learners in total across all states in Australia signed up to Auslan Anywhere. There are 46 creators signed up and over 650 videos have been posted. This ‘double-sided’ platform is shaping up well. Since the public launch of Auslan Anywhere in April 2021 the anecdotal response has been overwhelmingly positive, suggesting that the app is already being received as a much-needed tool for families and others to improve their Auslan so they can interact with the Deaf community.

Recognition as a finalist in the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards provided additional confidence that the product is primed to make the right impact. Kudos to Today Design for their stellar digital design work in helping bring the app to life. Let’s hope this is a sign of more to come.

This is exactly the type of project Tech4Good aims to fund – such a progressive, impactful product for our community. The innovation shown and co-design approach taken are just two of the reasons that Expression Australia’s Auslan Anywhere is a deserving finalist of the Premier’s Design Awards.

– Jackie Coates, Telstra Foundation