This video series revives the Saturday morning cartoon — with American Sign Language
Canada has a long way to go on accessibility, artist Dawn Jani Birley says
Artist Dawn Jani Birley wants to bring back the Saturday morning cartoon — but with American Sign Language (ASL).
This summer, she worked with an animator and directed and starred in a three-part digital children's series called I Am Puff.
It's based on a character she created for the stage in Finland in 2013. There, she performed in Finnish Sign Language, but eventually travelled to France and tried it in International Sign.
The kids "went wild," she says.
Birley is Finnish and Canadian and says Canada, in particular, is behind when it comes to accessibility, particularly for young people.
There are sign language programs in Europe and in other countries, while Canada has none, she says.
"I come from a three-generation-deep deaf family," says Birley. "My sister and I always would get up at five or six o'clock in the morning to watch those cartoons. We would just sit with our eyes glued to the screen. And at this time, of course, there was no captioning.
"But at that time, the cartoons that were available were so expressive. The faces were so mobile. We didn't require captioning to follow the plot. We filled in with our imaginations what we were missing in terms of dialogue."
Birley says cartoons have changed dramatically since she was a child, with more reliance on listening and auditory information.
"Now, I wouldn't be able to watch and follow a cartoon without captioning because it's changed," she says.
To remedy that, she spent the summer (stuck in Finland due to the pandemic) creating a digital video version of her stage character Puff.
The idea is to bring physicality and expressiveness back for kids in a blend of live-action and animation, along with both ASL and spoken English.
"As we are talking about diversity more and more in society, deaf people are never mentioned," says Birley. "I think that we aren't considered. We are always [at] the bottom of that list.
"It is so rare to actually see myself represented in media.… I think it's really important for deaf children to be able to see themselves."
The episodes are about five minutes long and serve as an introduction to deaf culture, something Birley thinks most Canadians don't know much about.
"I think that many hearing people don't even realize that we have our own culture and our own language — that we have our own way of life," she says.
Ideally, Birley wants to see the series live on television with new episodes and full seasons so more Canadian children can see it.
"I'm very concerned about deaf children who are now staying home," she says. "It's important to know that 90 per cent of deaf children come from hearing families. Those children don't have early access to sign language. You can imagine the isolation that comes [from] that."
You can watch Birley's series here.
This story is part of Digital Originals, an initiative of the Canada Council for the Arts. Artists were offered a $5,000 micro-grant to either adapt their existing work or create new work for the digital world during the COVID-19 pandemic. CBC Arts has partnered with Canada Council to feature a selection of these projects.You can see more of these projects here.