For over a year, Mariella Satow has walked upwards of seven dogs a day around Sag Harbor, banking the cash with a specific goal in mind.
And despite “a really tight budget,” the 17-year-old said with a laugh, it has finally come to fruition.
Using her $3,000 in dog walking money, Mariella has developed and launched “SignUp,” a free Google Chrome Extension that provides on-screen American Sign Language signing, or ASL, alongside children’s movies on Disney+ — starting with “Frozen,” “Moana,” “Zootopia,” and her favorite film, “The Incredibles.”
With over 1,000 users in less than two weeks, the response has been nothing short of that.
“It’s definitely surreal. I didn’t think it would take off so much,” Mariella said. “I thought maybe a couple dozen people would use it, but I’ve had 20,000 hits on my website and just so many shares and likes. It’s just blown up in ways I didn’t think it would.”
The idea came to the British high school senior — who attends Rugby School in England remotely from her second home in Sag Harbor — during the COVID-19 lockdown last March. While baking bread, knitting and piecing together puzzles emerged as popular pandemic hobbies, Mariella decided to learn a new language, specifically ASL.
“The first experience I had with a deaf person was in a supermarket when I was 10 years old,” she recalled. “I had to ask him where something was in the store and we just couldn’t communicate. He had a big badge on that said, ‘I am deaf.’ And just since that moment, that year, I learned how to finger spell so I could communicate if something like that ever happened again.”
Inspired to advance her proficiency, she approached ASL how she would any other language. For instance, to learn Spanish, she watched English-speaking television shows with Spanish subtitles. But when she looked for a similar option for ASL, she came up with none.
“I looked into it and I thought, ‘Oh, this could be a really good learning tool for ASL students’” she said. “With more research, I found out there are so many deaf children who could also benefit.”
Delving further into the issue by polling various Facebook groups, Mariella learned that many young people from the deaf community don’t find written captions descriptive enough, she said. And a study from 2017 showed that 80 percent of children who sign face challenges with reading, often rendering written captions inaccessible, she said.
“I think accessibility is so important, in general, and this seems like quite a basic need,” she said. “So many comments have been, ‘I can’t believe this didn’t exist before,’ which is surprising, I thought, because it is so needed.”
Developed in partnership with India-based Softpulse Infotech, the team coded many prototypes before Mariella decided to focus on Disney+. “I’ve always been a huge Disney fan and everything on Disney+ is accessible to young children — it’s the most popular platform I could think of with solely kids movies on it,” she said.
To download the extension, users search “SignUp” in the Google Chrome Web Store and before visiting Disney+. Then, they can select one of the available videos and, in a pop-up “ASL Caption” box, click “Add” to the movie title. The pop-up video of the ASL captioning will appear, which can be moved or made larger to accommodate the watcher’s needs.
“I’m glad I could fill the gap in the small way I can,” Mariella said. “I hope it sparks a movement of ASL captioning on everything.”
In a couple weeks, Mariella will meet with PBS Kids to discuss a potential partnership, while simultaneously working to develop the extension for other devices, like tablets, and additional streaming services. Currently, volunteer interpreters are filming “Inside Out,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Luca,” which will be available soon, she said.
To cover her development and hiring costs, she has launched a GoFundMe campaign, “Support the Expansion of ASL Captions!” which has raised nearly $1,000 of its $10,000 goal.
“My hope is we’ll have a lot more movies interpreted — it’ll be on every platform,” she said. “I’m hoping to expand to a more adult audience, as well, and to other countries — to make it as big as possible.”
For more information, visit signupcaptions.com. To donate to the GoFundMe campaign, visit gofund.me/c7ae5940.