This teen science whiz in Mexico develops app to help her deaf sister communicate

NEZAHUALCOYOTL, Mexico – Estrella Salazar, a 17-year-old science expert from a working-class town near Mexico City, was inspired by her sister to create an app to make it easier for deaf and hard of hearing Mexicans to communicate.

Salazar’s older sister Perla was born with a rare disorder that affects mobility and hearing called MERRF syndrome. The 25-year-old has undergone nearly a dozen surgeries, followed by years of physiotherapy. A sign language school told her that because of her condition, she would not be able to learn signs.

Salazar, whose academic skills enabled her to graduate from high school three years early, said that after seeing the discrimination she faced, she asked herself, “What am I doing to help my sister?”

Last year she started developing an application to connect Mexican Sign Language (MSL) speakers with the hearing – so that people can switch from sign language to text or speech and vice versa.

According to the Mexican National Statistics Service, an estimated 4.6 million Mexicans are deaf or hard of hearing. 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 formed a community of nearly 90 participants – including native speakers and interpreters – to develop the app called Hands with Voice, which she plans to release later this year. In the past few months, the family has started to learn signs as Perla’s mobility has improved.

Estrella Salazar’s academic skills enabled her to graduate from high school three years early.Luis Cortes / Reuters

“I’m proud of my sister,” said Perla. “And I liked to find a community along the way.”

As well as juggling app development and university studies in biotechnology, Salazar also gives science classes near her home in Nezahualcoyotl, 5 km northeast of Mexico City.

“I think it is time to change the way people think,” Salazar told Reuters: “In order to be able to create a culture in which many children will work on scientific and technological projects in the future.”

Salazar’s mother, Leticia Calderon, said she was taking a young Estrella to her sister’s therapy sessions and noticed how quickly she realized about it. To practice Perla’s speech, Calderon asked her 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 teachers in Nezahualcoyotl could offer, she said. When she was 15 years old, Salazar passed her high school diploma and was determined to apply her knowledge.

Salazar was one of 60 young people selected to participate in the International Air and Space Program, a five-day camp this spring run by a NASA contractor in Huntsville, Alabama, home of the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Estrella Salazar with a self-made astronaut helmet.Luis Cortes / Reuters

To cover the cost of the $ 3,500 camp, Salazar launched a crowdfunding campaign on her Instagram account. She still has weeks to go to reach her goal and she says she is 75% there.

Now, Salazar said, she is looking for a US university that will allow her to continue her research on the neurological effects of Covid-19 both during active infection and after illness.

“I know young people, children, who have a mindset that says, ‘It doesn’t matter where I come from, what matters is what I’m going to do,'” said Salazar.

“I’m really proud to be from here, from Nezahualcoyotl, and to see children learn and give everything to achieve what they want to do.”

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