Signing Savvy: Talking with Our Hands

By Jane Whitttington on September 21st, 2017 / Comments

American Sign Language or ASL was developed as early as 1817 at the American School for the Deaf in New England. Since then, it has grown and evolved into a unique language used by the deaf community, their families, friends, and co-workers.  Before the development of ASL, deaf people may well have used idiosyncratic signs which they had devised on their own within their families and among their friends, but ASL has become the language used throughout the United States and Canada and is recognized as the “official” communication for the deaf.

In 2009, Jillian Winn and John Miller co-founded Signing Savvy, a sign language resource for both deaf and hearing individuals. This innovative business has proven so successful that in 2016 it was honored as one of 15 Pure Michigan businesses, and a video developed by  Pure Michigan/Michigan Economic Development Corporation is available to see at:

Winn, the technology lead at Signing Savvy, says, “Our company was founded to provide an all-inclusive, digital resource not only for the deaf but also for those who are interested in learning ASL.  On our website, if the user types in a word like ‘apple’, they will be shown the sign for ‘apple’. In that way, it is much like a dictionary only in our case, it is visual. In addition to that, users can build custom word lists and use them to learn the signs using our digital flash cards and quizzing tools. It’s a good way to learn ASL for people who might be taking a class. It’s also good for parents who have deaf children; over 90 percent of deaf children are born to non-deaf parents. Besides using the resource for themselves, parents can make lists of essential words for grandparents, friends, or babysitters to use to interact with the deaf child. On our website, users can sign up for a ‘savvy chat’, a one-on-one signing session with our employee Marta Belsky.”

She continues, “We do have pre-built word lists that align with curricula that would be common in an intro to ASL class. We are now adding courses, so people can actually take an online sign language class. This option will be available in the next few months.”

Signing Savvy has been live since 2009 and has continued to add features to their website to enhance the learning experience. Adding the class component is just the latest innovation.

Winn’s background in technology and media gives her the expertise to manage the technical functions of the website, while her co-founder John Miller and their partner Brenda Cartwright bring their knowledge of ASL to the table. Cartwright is head of the Sign Language Interpreter Program at Lansing Community College; that program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and is one of most well-regarded sign language programs in the nation. Miller is also known as ‘the man in the blue shirt’ because he always wears a blue shirt as he demonstrates signs on the website. Signing Savvy also has an advisory board consisting primarily of those who are deaf themselves or are children of deaf parents who learned to sign early.

Winn says, “We are constantly updating our website as newer technologies become available, and we feel we have one of the most comprehensive and user-friendly websites of its kind. Since we began, we have had over 16 million users.”

According to Winn, “Michigan is a great place to work and has a strong network of entrepreneurs. Support for startups, new ideas, and small businesses helps us all do better.”

For more information on Signing Savvy, go to

About the Author

Jane Whitttington

Jane Whitttington

Jane Whitttington is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Grand Rapids. A Michigan native and Michigan State University grad, she enjoys reading, travel, politics and volunteering.