Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Learning language can be a challenge for some, but none more — maybe than for those who cannot hear.

In tonight's Brief But Spectacular, Melissa Malzkuhn, who was born deaf, uses her experience to build human connections through storytelling and technology.

Malzkuhn is the creative director of Motion Light Lab. It's a research center at Gallaudet University.

Melissa Malzkuhn: When you think about language, it's something that you were exposed to from birth. It's assumed that it's a given, and that language then in turn is your key to opening up doors to different worlds.

It's your key to understanding who you are, your way of thinking, your self-expression and identity. That's so integral to having language. If you don't have access to language, you don't have access to your humanity.

I grew up as a person who comes from a family with three generations of deaf people. That means my grandparents are deaf, my parents, and my siblings are deaf. I come from a long line of storytellers.

And so I grew up in a family of storytellers, which became a part of who I am. My inspiration goes back to my grandmother. I see her as a pioneer in so many ways. She was a deaf woman who was born in a time when captioning wasn't available.

She was always pushing for human rights, and she often said: "Don't wait for tomorrow. Start today."

And she talked about the human rights of deaf children and asked, who will protect deaf children? Who will speak for them? Who is going to advocate for them?

I acquired language just like any other child acquires their language from their community and family. You start learning single words, and make them into phrases and then sentences. So that's how I learned to sign.

Having access to sign language from birth is an experience that only 5 percent of deaf people have. The remaining 95 percent of deaf children are born into hearing families. What that means is that language access is not a given. It's not granted. You have to build it.

It's just a matter of connecting their parents with the community, so that they can learn to sign and give their children everything. And that can build the bond that all children should have with parents who love them, care for them, and can communicate with them.

I adopted my son when he was 4 years old. He didn't have any language then. I understood up close and personal the realities of language deprivation in trying to communicate with him. It was a full-on family effort to have him develop language.

I saw firsthand his experiences and how he would copy signs from the story. And to get to see that in my own home drove home the point of what happens when someone doesn't have language, to see the degree of frustration that they experience and to see how they change as they're able to use language to engage in conversations with people.

Seeing his experience has been really emotional for me.

My name is Melissa Malzkuhn, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on human connections through language and storytelling.

Judy Woodruff: And next week, our Brief But Spectacular series will bring you a different take on language and deafness with a woman who has turned to technology to help her speak.

You can catch up on other episodes on our Web site. That's at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.