Posted by Carrie LeZotte
In March of this year, my business partner, Diane Cheklich, and I launched oicmovies.com with the support of a team of four. Our vision is to provide the best available resource for news, information, and entertainment in American Sign Language. We do this by producing original programming in ASL and organizing available ASL content from the web.
Five months later, the site has 4,000 members and continues to grow. We began production of original OIC movies content about a year ago, and it took us about a year before that to figure out how we were going to make this site happen. It’s progressed in fits and starts as we’ve funded it ourselves and our team has largely been volunteers who believe in the service we are working to provide.
There were normal business reasons to start this venture. The deaf and hard of hearing community demographics cite 28 million deaf or hard of hearing Americans and at least 500,000 ASL users. While the government mandates closed captioning and relies on it as a compliance standard, English (and thus, English captioning) is not the first language of the deaf. When Gallaudet research supports a median literacy rate of 17 and 18-year-old deaf students comparable with 4th grade hearing students, delivering information and entertainment in their first language, American Sign Language, seems like a worthwhile idea.
With the developments in video and Internet technology and the ability to provide access to this underserved audience, the possibility to capture this market grabbed our attention. From the beginning, I imagined the service as a cable station for the deaf, entirely in American Sign Language.
This channel is something the deaf have been looking for, but, until now, the technology hasn’t been affordable enough to make it possible to serve this audience. If you check out sign language videos on Youtube, you’ll see how the deaf are using it to create a dialogue with each other and share information. Videophone systems enable the deaf to talk on the phone with an immediacy that hearing folks take for granted.
Content production for a niche market is one of the many beauties of Internet distribution. So why did I pick ASL? Why not sailing, triathlon training, natural childbirth, healthy cooking, or some other niche that I’ve obsessed over and fallen in love with?
As a visual artist relying on images and pictures, American Sign Language makes sense to me. But like most hearing people, I always thought that ASL was a direct, word for word translation of English. That is not the case. ASL is its own language, and most hearing people don’t know that. Helping create a bridge between the hearing and deaf worlds using new technology is really appealing to me. The Americans with Disabilities Act gave some rights to the deaf population, but the deaf and their advocates continue to fight for rights to access and education in a world that has not fully embraced ASL as its own language.
I grew up with my uncle, Russ, who had Down’s syndrome. He was one of the first generations of Down’s kids who didn’t get institutionalized, but were raised in homes with their families. My grandmother dedicated her life to creating opportunity for Russ and other kids like him. Eunice Kennedy Shriver started the Special Olympics, but it was people like my grandmother who made it possible through her day-to-day dedication in helping change attitudes about people with intellectual disabilities. My grandfather was an active UAW member who fought for the rights of working men and women in the ’30s and ’40s. So fighting for rights, fairness, and equal treatment is something that has always been in me, even if I didn’t know it.
Beyond combining my production skills and entrepreneurial interests, creating OICmovies.com tapped into something personally rewarding. Any niche you can think of will be filled by an Internet channel in the next twenty-five years. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, this is the time to create it.