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Sign Language and Science: Challenges and Opportunities

By: Inas Essa

It is easy to ask someone to rephrase a sentence you are unable to get until you understand what exactly they want to say. They may make some tweaks like using more accurate words and perhaps use body language to convey their message and intensify it. This is essential in communication; to have the tools that allow you to express your thoughts and convey the meaning precisely; yet, this is not that easy for everyone.

Sometimes language turns out to be the barrier that hinders conveying the message; a struggle that many deaf students who have the potential to study science and pursue a career in it face. This is a multifaceted problem that stems from lacking equivalent signs for many scientific terms in sign language on which deaf students mainly depend for communication. This problem impedes their journey into the scientific field besides isolating deaf scientists from their hearing peers.

Additionally, this leads to another challenge;  when fewer deaf people major in science, this leads to fewer deaf professional scientists. That becomes discouraging for other deaf students when they do not see people who communicate in their way, which may make them assume that it is impossible to do.

To help those students succeed in learning science and pursue their passion without many limitations, efforts in different ways should be exerted in enhancing the study material, developing a better environment, and developing more equivalent signs for scientific terms.


Study Material

There is a lack of studying material that suits deaf students’ needs; developing additional science materials that are written so that younger and older deaf readers can read is necessary to increase deaf students’ enjoyment and learning of science concepts. This should start from the early learning stages, which would make their learning journey flow much more smoothly without too many interruptions.

For example, some science books are written two or three grade levels above the students’ reading levels so students cannot read them. Some science teachers address this problem by rewriting sections of science books for the students to read. This is one way to address the problem and more still should be done.



To help deaf students thrive in science, it is essential to first set up the environment that makes the information visually accessible to them and enhances their ability to absorb information and communicate well. Here, the importance of the DeafSpace concept emerges.

It utilizes five principal concepts: sensory reach, space and proximity, mobility and proximity, and acoustics with consideration to the visual sign language that they communicate in.

It refers to removing architectural and physical barriers and provide adequate lighting in the classroom. Also, it is about eliminating the visual noise embodied in too many colors or objects so that deaf children can see the signing around them from teachers and their peers.


Science Sign Language

Finding a way to get science terminology in sign language is another challenge for deaf students. Science is packed with complex terms, symbols, and abbreviations, many of which do not have equivalents in sign language. This means that deaf students, their teachers, and interpreters need to create the signs for these words.

Although using fingerspelling, improvising, and describing the meaning of the word in several signs in these cases appears to be a somehow satisfactory solution, it is very tiring for deaf students to receive complex information in this way. Also, in highly specialized fields, sometimes interpreters do not have enough knowledge, which makes it hard to use accurate signs, which may lead to confusion. As such, deaf people become unable to communicate specialized ideas easily.

As a result, researchers and science communicators have worked on several projects to develop new signs and enrich the lexicons for sign language.

  • In quantum physics, a project called Quantum Science in ASL is developed by a group of deaf physicists and scientists to devise signs that represent the concepts behind the terms. Through this project, they evaluated existing signs for conceptual and linguistic accuracy, created new signs where appropriate, and modeled ways to discuss these topics in ASL (American Sign Language).

In the collection, there are several modules; each has a mini-lecture, associated signs, definitions of these signs, and example sentences of how the signs are being used in context.

This work is not easy as it goes through many stages, starting from sharing possible signs and evaluating whether the sign complies with the linguistic rules of ASL, to examining to what extent conceptually accurate, relevant, useful, and adaptable the sign is to decide if it would be acceptable.

  • In physics and engineering fields, researchers at the Scottish Sensory Centre’s British Sign Language Glossary Project, added 116 new signs, including signs for light-year, mass, and X-ray.

The researchers spent more than a year collecting ideas from deaf science workers, circulating lists of potential signs, and ultimately gathering for final voting. Some of these signs were adopted and others were not accepted.

Of course, standardization of signs would make it easier for deaf students to keep pace with their hearing classmates during lectures and not make them distracted by choosing between following the interpreter, the blackboard, screen, material, or taking notes.

  • Another initiative is introduced by Lorne Farovitch, a graduate student in translational biomedical sciences at the University of Rochester and an infectious disease epidemiologist. Lorne is one of the deaf scientists whose first language is ASL.

Lorne is involved in a couple of ambitious projects called ASLCORE and ASL Clear, each aimed at creating new ASL signs for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) disciplines. His projects on DNA, RNA, electron, discuss terms that have no widely spread signs yet are fundamental in the scientific field.

All of these promising projects are helping deaf students catch up by finding new solutions to make science more accessible to them, which is a priority to enrich the scientific field with more aspiring scientists.