Sign-Language Whiz Rachel Coleman Inspires Children

By LISA SCHMEISER, FOR INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILYRachel Coleman's Two Little Hands produces "Signing Time" TV shows
Posted 02/08/2012 01:23 PM ET
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Rachel Coleman’s Two Little Hands produces “Signing Time” TV shows on PBS and Nick Jr., plus makes DVDs, board books and flashcards.

When Rachel Coleman’s daughter Leah was a baby, the singer-songwriter was writing music, performing with her band We the Living, and shrugging at the good luck of having a baby who could sleep through band rehearsals.

It wasn’t the best fortune after all.

By early 1998, when Leah was 14 months old, Coleman learned that the little girl’s calm through the noise came from deafness.

Coleman’s first impulse was to shelve her music, since she couldn’t share it with her daughter.

Yet the mom had a second, more positive, reaction. She began working on communicating with her toddler, first using the American Sign Language alphabet she remembered from her Girl Scout days, then the specific word signs that comprise the ASL vocabulary.

Soon, Leah was signing for all her needs, and Coleman noticed that her child’s ability to express what she wanted reduced the odds of a toddler meltdown.

Leah’s younger, hearing cousin Alex Brown had picked up signing simply from being around Leah, and Coleman noticed that he was thrilled to be able to communicate before he could even speak.

As Leah got a older, Coleman noticed her daughter was missing out on the normal activities other preschoolers enjoyed. The girl didn’t get invited to birthday parties, and her teammates on preschool soccer teams were uncomfortable being paired with her.

Coleman’s Keys

  • Built a company that has $3 million in sales annually. Her show, “Signing Time,” is the only children’s program airing on both public and cable TV.
  • “I try to live as if I have the circumstances, not as if the circumstances have me.”

Bridging The Gap

It came down to communication. Coleman was determined to help Leah in that area with her peers, so she started teaching a weekly sign-language story time at preschools around Salt Lake City.

From there, Coleman says, she and one of her sisters, Emilie de Azevedo Brown, started Two Little Hands Productions in 2001 to fill an unmet demand they themselves had: a network of signing preschool parents.

What happened instead: Two Little Hands launched a cult public TV hit with “Signing Time,” and Coleman redirected her musical career into teaching thousands of children how to communicate with ASL via the hundreds of songs she’s written for “Signing Time.”

Eleven years after Coleman started Two Little Hands with Brown, the privately held, 10-person company has produced a comprehensive portfolio of offerings across different media: 26 “Signing Time” episodes air on PBS stations nationwide, while the child-targeted cable channel Nick Jr. shows “Signing Time” music videos.

“Signing Time” fans can also pick up 32 DVDs aimed at audiences ranging from infancy to third grade, six different board books, 10 sets of flashcards, and digital products like streaming video rentals and smartphone applications.

The company has won more than 60 parenting-related awards. And in a nod to its original mission, its Signing Time Academy program has certified over 700 sign language instructors.

“Everything we created was born out of a need,” Coleman told IBD.

Initially, the sisters conceived of Two Little Hands as a mom-to-mom or party-sales business where the customers who benefitted from signing instruction could sell the training material and tools to other people. But, Coleman realized, that would require creating the supporting books and videos.

“We didn’t mean to start a company; we just wanted to make a video. It took our lives by storm, but at this point, there’s nothing I’d rather do,” Coleman said.

“Signing Time” inspires tremendous devotion among its fans, stoked by Coleman’s hands-on approach to communicating with her customers and audience.

She personally handles her own Facebook and Twitter accounts , which have about 15,000 and 2,500 followers, respectively, and until recently hosted live weeknight chats for her fellow parents and customers on her website.

These same customers come up with the grass-roots funding to bring Coleman to far-flung locales across America for the 23 live shows she performs annually.

Coleman says her connection with her audience comes from her innate honesty; she is the public face of the “Signing Time” brand, and she says that her public image reflects her personal life as the mother to a deaf child.

“I’m not pretending about anything. We didn’t come up with a show idea and cast it from there — (“Signing Time”) is really my life. I don’t stop signing just because the cameras are off,” she said.

“I think what we’ve created is relatable because what we’re dealing with are unexpected circumstances. I try to live as if I have the circumstances, not as if the circumstances have me.”

Going The Distance

Although her initial “Signing Time” focus was on teaching ASL to hearing children, after her youngest daughter, Lucy, was born with spina bifida and cerebral palsy, Coleman began advocating for sign language as a way to let special needs children communicate with the world at large. Continue reading