Deaf Kids Code with Shireen Hafeez

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In this episode, we’re talking to Shireen Hafeez, the founder of an organisation called Deaf Kids Code – and as you may guess, this organisation’s goal is to promote, inspire, empower, and spark the innovative spirit of people who are deaf or hard of hearing through the world of programming.

It was the diagnosis of her son, that made Shireen fully immerse herself into advocacy and activism for babies and kids who are deaf/ hard of hearing.

Images: Copyright Shireen Hafeez, – used with permission

On LinkedIn she writes, that her entire life’s sense of purpose is now focused on the betterment of this population. She started her own initiative called Deaf Kids Code, which is a registered nonprofit in the US. The mission of  Deaf Kids Code is to promote technology, computer science, and design thinking skills as an innovative tool to empower deaf/ hard of hearing students socially and economically. Shireen writes that with rapidly changing work environments, the increase in digital communication, as well as, remote working styles the barriers that existed before are fast dissolving. 

There is a long list of past events at their website and the first ones already took place in 2020 – which shows how passionate and also successful their mission has been implemented so far.


Interview Transcript

All right. Hi, Shireen. I’m very excited to have you on the show. How are you doing today?

I am good. How are you?

Yeah, also pretty well. It’s  late for me, the end of the day. And for you, its just lunch break, right?

Oh, yeah. Just beginning its 11:15 a.m.

Okay, so I hope you don’t have to push that back so far. So, Shireen, we’ve emailed quite a bit before, right? And you know that I’m aware of the fact that death people can’t hear podcasts. That’s why I’m gonna try to do something special for this episode, and that’s gonna be transcribing this podcast episode. I’ve tried this a couple episodes back, and the result wasn’t quite that good. But in the worst case I’m going to type it.  And I hope this will be a little helper that at least some deaf people, of course, can at least get something out of this conversation that we’re having.

I appreciate that. Thank you!

So before we talking about your organization, just wanted to ask one question. How many people in the Us, for example, are actually deaf or have problems, to hear?

The most recent data that has come out has estimated over 10 million people have some level of hearing loss. And for individuals that are 18 years or older, they’ve estimated 15% of the population have some level of hearing loss. So I think I’m so glad you asked that because people outside of the disability community somehow think of themselves as detached or separate that somehow that’s a different category. But the truth of the matter is, is that you know 20% of the population as they progress through life will have experienced some level of something that will cause them to be impaired in some way, shape or form. So disability, sensory loss of some sort, a variety of things. And so, yeah, but 10 million people are estimated in the United States to be deaf or hard of hearing.

Well, that’s a large number. And as you said, it could hit everybody, right? So nobody is safe. So can you outline a bit how deaf kids Code was founded, And I know there’s a personal story behind it, but could you explain it one more time, please?

Well, the catalyst for all of this was the diagnosis of my own son, who is now 15 years old, and when you know he was diagnosed, there were very few resource is that were available at that time. Which then, you know, got me involved with various grassroots organizations and advocacy groups, even leading us into the realm of lobbying the state Legislature for, you know, hearing aids to be covered by insurance and, ah, variety of things doing things in my life that I never imagined I’d be involved with the idea for deaf kids code actually existed for four years before I actually created the organization. Because in my mind, it was such a logical way off bridging the opportunity gap. And I didn’t do anything about it because I assumed that surely somebody in the world will do this. You know, I just I just made this very, ah, large assumption that somebody in the world will start something like this because it’s so obvious. And then as my son started reaching puberty, the sense of urgency suddenly came and nobody was doing it. And so it, you know, it was what I had to do it because I had nothing to lose by trying. And my background is that I’m neither a technologist or an educator. Um, you know, I studied political science, and you know so. But what gave me the gumption and the guts, you know, to to dive into this was, well, two things. The first thing was that there are incredible innovators around the world that are creating and innovating education platforms that make the non technical person be able to understand, learn and to share that knowledge. And so that was really the foundation that gave me the courage to be able to evangelize this belief system. Because if you look at the data of you know, the outcomes of people that fall within this you know this community, individuals like my son. If it was a data based decision, I had this much data to say Don’t do it. And I had no data other than, like, one study out of the Georgia Technical Institute that was about visual spatial abilities and help. People who are deaf have a outsized advantage of visual spatial abilities, which basically is visual problem solving and memorization. And that was the one seed that I had. That was enough. And then, you know, you have to remember that I’m a mother. And so my son, you know, was the greatest example that I had, which is that I knew what his abilities were. And with so many years of interaction with kids like him, I just knew that we were measuring ability very, very wrong. And that, actually is the fundamental, you know, crack in the system is that we’re measuring people with one brush stroke rather than looking at how everybody has the ability to contribute to society.

So you could kind of say that we measure everybody with the same standards while we should be looking for the good thing in everyone.  Everybody has some strengths, right?

Everybody has some strengths. I think there’s a philosophical, you know, notion of you know how we measure ability. And then there’s the practical side, right? So, yes, you know, we if you are a believer in humanity then you will believe, as I do, which is that everybody has the ability to contribute to society. Everybody is born with strengths and weaknesses, but from the practical side, at least here in the United States, you know, we have in the last ah, I don’t know the last two plus decades, we have developed standardized testing that has become so stringent, and really it has not successfully. It has done nothing other than become more of a detriment because it’s a one size fits all measurement off certain educational milestones. But the problem with that is that it doesn’t have it doesn’t use universal design principles, and that’s where it fails is that you know, it’s a one size fits all measurement, right? And rather, you have a disability or not. You know, you may be a more auditory learner. And your friend, maybe a more hands on, you know, learner and I may be a more visual learner.

So I guess the niches to fit into these kinds of these standardized  tests are getting smaller and smaller and more people at some point, actually, well will realize that this might not be the right path. So I don’t want to interrupt you but could we come back a little bit more to Deaf Kids Code,  to the mission. And how much you think you have so far reached the goal off deaf kids code.

I would say we have a lot of work to do. We’ve barely scratched the surface. I mean, I mean, I’m very humble with how far the organization has come, because when I started it, the intention was that it would be just a very local grassroots organization where I was going to host programming in just within a 300 mile radius. Um, and that was it. And we didn’t solicit, um, our program because, you know, primarily for the 1st 2 years, we were a self funded program running on a very, very modest budget. And, um and he was through the word of mouth that the demand to scale happened. It happened in a very organic way. And even now we do not solicit schools around the country. So all the places that we’ve been have been through the network, um, and not through us sending pamphlets, emails or anything because our model is that you know that zero barrier toe access So we do not charge schools, educators, students, parents. Nobody pays anything to bring programming into their classroom setting, and we bring the like infrastructure into the schools. So it is very humbling with the idea that since we’ve started, we’ve hosted over ah 100 workshops in I haven’t Even I haven’t even caught up with our data yet in how many locations across the country, Um, thousands and thousands of Children, you know? Ah, and people worldwide that looked to seek, Um, you know, we’ve become sort of the, ah, the experts in in this, you know, hyper specialization of, you know, population and education or work force development, which is really what it is. It’s about workforce development. So the so you were asking about, you know, what do we what do I consider, as you know, achieving the mission. So there were there were no pre existing organizations that I could take the infrastructure from and adopted into a deaf kids code model. So everything about deaf kids code from the very beginning was, um, how to be. It’s still a scaffold in process, so constantly building on infrastructure on top of the other, you know? So it is It is a completely authentic process because there is nothing that I could have replicated from that. Would that translated into what we were doing? So the ultimate goal, The pie in the sky, You know where I would feel OK, we’ve done it is actually having a streamlined ecosystem where from the time that the kids are exposed, to you know the belief system right? That you know the digital age is a great equalizer and then progressing onto igniting that curiosity and interest to want to learn more right, seeing themselves as, um, participants then acquiring real world skills that can apply towards employment and then being employed. So until so, we’re still like building out. I mean, the first thing was having to sell a belief system. So that’s what we sell. That’s where we were, you know, in the in the early years. And, you know, we still are there in some respects. But now we’re building out thes 2.0 experiences, which is now where, you know, creating more teen and tech days where we’re taking students that may be on the verge of transitioning out of high school on to the next thing. So we’re putting them in these, you know, tech environments there, engaged with, you know, real world professional curriculum. They’re meeting real world professionals asking questions. So what did you study? So what is your day to day look like? It’s so important to bring those experiences because it’s not just for the students to believe that the world sees value in them. But it’s the other way around as well, Which is that companies often have, you know, anxiety or preconceived notions off, you know? Well, well, what are we going to do if we hire a deaf person like we wouldn’t even know where to begin? And then once that experience happens, they realize that it’s it’s so not a big deal and that these, you know, that this mindset I’m thinking the first thing you you know that mainstream society thinks about when you use the word death is they think of barrier. And so the mindset is a very powerful thing that has to be changed in society because it’s actually not a barrier, especially when you have had some actual experience with this population. You see that how savvy you become and how the majority of communication within the institutions are digital anyways. 

In your Ted talk you spoke a lot how the the society and in the current workplace we use a lot of messaging tools – all tools where deaf people have no problem to use them. Right? So, do you see this as a big equalizer? 

Our Children’s first language is technology. This generation is already born into the digital age. They’re not born in a cave, right? So, like my own son, before he was not diagnosed till he was almost four, he was already going on to the desktop turning, turning the computer on, logging on at the age of two, knowing exactly what website he wanted to go to and was engaged, you know? And and so imagine, like kids in his age group today, right? Cause I’m a kn deaf program’s all across the country, you know, they all you know are using, you know, chromebooks and tablets and smartphones. How do you think they’re communicating with their peers with the I mean, technology has bee has actually opened the doors.

Yeah, they must be living on technology…

And then even the rest of us, you know, the dependency and the savviness, the sheer savviness of how they use technology. They have an outsized advantage over my own generation because off by virtue of that.

So let me ask you specifically about how such a workshop works. What happens when when you come with the teachers or the trainers to a school? And how do you basically set up a workshop and what what kind of tools to use in? Are you using special tools that might be especially appropriate or are you using scratch, for example?

So it’s not a one size fits all because no. Two schools and no. Two classrooms have the same capacity. So what I have learned in the process is that you have tohave a good size arsenal off different types of curriculum so that you can adapt to whatever environment you’re going into. I mean, I have conducted workshops in schools that don’t even have Scotch tape in the world’s most wealthiest country, right? The capitalists, you know, Ah, poster child of the world. And I’ve worked in schools that nobody confined Scotch tape. So you know. So it’s never been a one size fits all, Um, and the way before I talk about like specifics, I think what’s important to note is the way we teach is that we do deconstruction or we build and then we discuss so everything that we dio is not language based. We don’t put emphasis on words. That’s something that’s revisited after they’ve done it, right? So if they’re building a command sequence, you know, creating an algorithm by programming a robot or, you know, just, you know, scratch or block Lee programming or you know things along those nature after they’ve build the program and they see its execution and they run it, so rather it’s created a video game, it’s created a nap. It’s, you know, created command sequence for a cause and effect. Then we go back and say That was an algorithm. That was a command sequence that’s called a loop. You know, that’s called a conditional. So those So So that’s, you know, one of the one of the differences, like so say that there building a website so as you know as a starting point, will already have the code for a built out website. And then we manipulate the code so you can see visually that when you manipulate this, this is what happens when you manipulate this. This is what happens. So it’s it’s very visual based, but it’s also very practical that even if you’re not a deaf person and you’re a novice, Lerner, that’s like a great fundamental tool. Um, I don’t understand why more educators don’t utilize that way of teaching because everybody benefits from it. You know, not everybody thinks in technical terms, you know, But everybody can be, you know, a design thinker. And once you know how you could deconstruct and you know how to construct right.

So you also really are using the techniques of design thinking in these workshops. That kind of means thinking in personas, I believe, right? And then coming up with this brainstorming cycles to to get an idea what you actually want to build?

Yes. So the sense of ownership is why the design thinking is at the core of everything that we d’oh. So rather, they’re building out something using hardware, they’re building out something using software. The design thinking processes, the core center off it all so that no two outputs are the same, that everybody has their own way off expressing and having some sense of ownership. Right, because if we’re trying to change a belief system of these individuals from seeing themselves as creators of technology versus just being users of technology. Then they have to see their own sense of ownership in what they’ve created. We have a very short period of time to send this message. So the workshop will usually entail the whole ecosystem where you know they’ll be introduced to basic, you know, block programming. Them will gravitate to maybe, you know, Java script where they’re building a basic app and then, you know, will, you know, dive into the hardware and the the internal. You know, analog, you know what is a servo? What is a DC Motor? How can we, you know, plug in an led light and make a dazzle? Um, you know, and so it’s it’s the fundamental mission after we’re gone is that they would understand the ecosystem of innovation.

How important is it in this case to actually train the teachers? Because those are the people who have the power to continue teaching these things, right?

Right. So So here’s the thing. So So we don’t solicit what usually a champion from within the school is the one that reaches out right so it may be the librarian of a school that’s been developing a maker space. It could be, um, an English teacher that now has started or wants to start a robotics club. But, you know, but it doesn’t know where to start or is concerned about garnering interest. It’s a variety of things, right? So whoever is the person that reaches out and says, Hey, you know, would you be willing to bring ah, workshop to our students? I considered that individual as the champion because you have to have that. You know, if you don’t have a believer, the nothing I do after I leave is going to do anything. But one of the caveats is because our programming is free. Is that, um, we require that we have support stuff, attend our workshop. And what happens is, is that that becomes an informal immersion training for the teachers.

Yeah, very cool, because I really imagine that’s also true in normal schools, of course, for nomral students that if the teachers in the end don’t want to continue doing that right, then it’s just a drop on the hot stone. In your TedX talk, I heard you talking about deaf people that are currently caught in the “school to couch cycle”, which I found interesting. What do you mean with that?

So it is a metaphor and its literal at the same time. Which is that if you if you look at unemployment for an underemployment, for people who are deaf and hard of hearing in the U. S. You know, workforce, it’s really bad. It’s, you know, um, I mean, it could be up to 70% depending on what region you’re in.

So so it really means that those kids end school without having a chance of employment and basically end up on the couch?

Yeah, I mean, it’s they end up on, you know, public government subsidy. They become subsidized by the government. And and part of the problem is that We haven’t caught up to the demands off current day occupations. So school is an institution that is like outdated compared to the demands of the modern age and the demands in the workforce. The talent gap, right? So that is fundamentally like where we are now. Now, in the past, in generations previously, that kind of a gap, I think, was just the status quo. But in today’s world, with all the  advancements we’ve made and the connective ity that exists, this generation has no reason to be part of that large percentage of disparity. There’s just no reason for it. Um, and and so part of the the Plan for Deaf Kids code is to provide a platform that bypasses traditional education routes. So a lot of you know, technical certification courses and things do not require a post secondary degree. You don’t have to, you know, have a bachelors or post doctorate or anything to be able to contribute your talents. You know you can, you know, if you have the know how and the right foundation, you have the ability to get, you know, in AWS certification, that is, that’s, you know, one of the important, you know, problems within within the system is that it’s not. We have the standardized testing. So then a lot of people get, you know, caught. They fall through the cracks and then it’s also not modern and updated to the demands of the modern world. So we have, we have a lot of catching up to do.

I agree with you. Wow! And I was so amazing to talk to you. I guess if someone wants to get in touch with you and maybe drive this forward in their school locally we have lots of links in the show notes. I guess it’s to visit. That would be the main address that people should have in their heads. Any special goal for 2020. What are you hoping for? Tell me anything. So what’s What’s the number one thing you want to maybe change in 2020 or so?

Oh gosh…

What are you wishing for?

I’m wishing to discover the right pathway. I’m constantly striving on the, collaborating on the quest of discovering the right formula. And you know, the dream scenario is that we set up, you know, actual courses that could be integrated within, you know, deaf education that before our kids graduate high school that they have enough in their arsenal that they can go straight into the workforce with high demand skills, a great portfolio and be incredible contributors to the digital world.

There was a perfect ending. Thank you so much for this interview. Enjoyed it a lot! I Wish you all the best for the for the rest off this journey and lots of power!

Thank you so much Sven!

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