By Kylie Madry
NEZAHUALCOYOTL, Mexico (Reuters) – Estrella Salazar, a 17-year-old science ace from a working-class town near Mexico City, was inspired by her sister to develop an app to help deaf and hard of hearing Mexicans communicate more easily.
Salazar’s older sister, Perla, was born with a rare condition that affects mobility and hearing, called MERRF syndrome. The 25-year-old has undergone nearly a dozen surgeries followed by years of physical therapy, and a sign language school told her she would be unable to learn to sign due to her condition.
Salazar, whose academic prowess allowed her to graduate from high school three years earlier, said that after seeing the discrimination Perla faced, she asked herself, “What is it? what am I doing to help my sister? “
Last year, she started developing an app to connect Mexican Sign Language (MSL) speakers with hearing users, allowing people to switch from sign language to text or voice, and vice versa. .
An estimated 4.6 million Mexicans are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the Mexican Statistics Agency. There is a chronic shortage of certified MSL interpreters, although many Mexicans act as unofficial interpreters for deaf or hard of hearing family members.
Estrella has formed a community of nearly 90 participants – including native speakers and interpreters – to develop the app, called Hands with Voice, which she hopes to launch this year. In recent months, the family has started learning the signs as Perla’s mobility has improved.
“I am proud of my sister,” said Perla. “And I liked finding a community along the way.”
In addition to juggling application development and university studies in biotechnology engineering, Salazar teaches science classes near her home in Nezahualcoyotl, 5 km (3 miles) northeast of Mexico City.
“I think it’s time to change the way people think,” Salazar told Reuters: “to be able to create a culture where in the future there will be a lot of kids working on science projects and technological “.
Salazar’s mother, Leticia Calderon, said she would take a young Estrella to her sister’s therapy sessions and noticed how quickly she picked up. To practice Perla’s speech, Calderon would ask his daughter questions about what she was learning in school.
“I would put (Estrella) in the high chair, and from there she would tell her sister the answers to her exams,” Calderon said.
Salazar’s appetite for learning quickly exceeded what the teachers at Nezahualcoyotl could offer, she said. At the age of 15, Salazar passed his high school exams and was eager to start applying his knowledge.
Salazar was one of 60 young people chosen to participate in the International Air and Space Program, a five-day camp hosted this spring by a NASA entrepreneur in Huntsville, Alabama, which is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center.
To cover the cost of the $ 3,500 camp, Salazar launched a crowdfunding campaign on his Instagram account. With weeks to reach her goal, she says she is 75% there.
Now, said Salazar, she is looking for an American university that will allow her to continue her investigation into the neurological impacts of COVID-19, both during active infection and after illness.
“I know young people, children, who have a way of thinking that says, ‘It doesn’t matter where I’m from, what matters is what I’m going to do,’” said Salazar.
“I am really proud to be from here, from Nezahualcoyotl, and to see children learning and giving their all to accomplish what they want to do.”
(Reporting by Kylie Madry in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)