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SciComm is forgetting about sign language


TL;DR: Sign language interpreters at events such as STEM conferences are often misunderstood as having the role of a translator, whereas their role is more of a science communicator. Consequently, we must start incorporating sign language into SciComm, treating it as not just an accessibility add-on but as fundamental for equitable and inclusive SciComm practice.

Why I chose this topic: The beginning of March saw the AAAS’s 2023 annual meeting and, like many, due to technical difficulties I had to watch the event unfold over Twitter. But thread after thread made one thing evident: the AAAS had failed their D/deaf attendees and presenters. As a strong advocate for inclusive SciComm practice, this upset me. Still, it got me thinking about the role of sign language interpreters and how their role isn’t too dissimilar to a scicommer.


Science for Humanity was the theme of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting at the beginning of this month. But this became somewhat ironic when the event failed to provide suitable accommodations for their D/deaf* presenters and attendees.

Many D/deaf individuals use sign language as a primary means of communication; thus, access to sign language interpreters (SLI) is essential for enabling two-way dialogues, especially in large, noisy spaces like conferences. However, very little of our science communication is conducted in or accompanied by sign language, meaning at conferences D/deaf attendees have to request interpretation weeks in advance.

However despite requests, many of the AAAS talks were still not interpreted – and for the few talks that were interpreted, the interpreter was given little to no time to prepare. This was a massive issue as Alicia Wooten, a presenter at the AAAS meeting this year, described the experience on Twitter:

"We as deaf people have to work twice as hard to keep up. Instead of enjoying the conference. I was stressed. Instead of getting ready to present, I was rushing to get the interpreters ready. Instead of learning from others, I was already mentally exhausted.”

Wooten’s experience was mirrored by many other D/deaf attendees and presenters who also took to Twitter after the event to describe just how different their experiences were from their hearing colleagues.

The AAAS repeatedly has stated that fostering equity and inclusion for all scientists is a key strategic goal of theirs, and they have implemented many amazing public programs such as their IF/THEN ambassador network that help achieve this. So then how did the AAAS, an organization that has shown such commitment forget about the D/deaf community? Perhaps due to a wider phenomenon of D/deaf misunderstanding and exclusion within SciComm.

Interpretation not Translation

The common misconception is that sign language interpretation is simply a matter of word-for-word translation, something that can be done in real-time without preparation. This is not the case. Effective interpretation is a complex process that requires familiarity with the subject matter.

To explore this further I spoke with Khalid Ashraf, Director of Deaf Access UK and the Chair of the Institute of British Sign Language - an awarding body for BSL language qualifications. Ashraf explained that interpretation is most effective when said interpreter is an expert in the field they are explaining.

The role of an SLI is less about translation and more about giving sign language users the tools to understand what is being discussed. Not only do the grammar and syntax of STEM-related words, do not have a corresponding sign.

SLIs often have to first explain a STEM concept to be able to discuss it, something that is very hard without prior preparation and made even harder once a presentation has started since the SLI and presenter can no longer communicate. This is why Woolten struggled so much trying to get her SLI ready: imagine trying to help a reporter write an article on your research, in one draft, without any preparation.

Let's do it together

Ashraf told me that in an ideal world, sign-language interpreters wouldn’t exist; instead, doctors, teachers, conference speakers, and politicians would be able to communicate to D/deaf publics directly, without the need for interpreters. And perhaps in this ideal world, science communicators wouldn’t exist either. Instead, there would already be means for enabling equitable, effective STEM dialogues without any restriction to information access, or unequal power dynamics.

Yet, both the field of Science Communication and SLI exist as an acknowledgment that these supports are still needed and also as proof that they don’t come easily.

Sign language and science communication share many of the same skills, challenges, and audiences. Both are skilled communication processes that are more than the transferring of information despite common misinterpretations and both help enable dialogues between various publics. So why are Science Sign Language Interpreters not treated as specialised science communicators?

We also know to be good communicators we need to use all of the tools at our disposal and keep actively bettering our skills. But then why are SLIs and scicommers not learning from each other? As a Science Communication MSc student myself, I would love to see SciComm training programs teach sign language and raise awareness of the D/deaf community.

I would also love to see sign interpreted science become normalised across the field of SciComm because we can only achieve diversity in STEM when STEM starts to feel like a more welcoming space.

Science communication is powerful: it can bring communities together and actually can help achieve Science for Humanity, so let’s use all the tools in our arsenal and let’s stop forgetting about sign language.

*D/deaf terminology

deaf is used to describe or identify anyone who has a severe hearing problem. Sometimes it is used to refer to people who are severely hard of hearing too.

Deaf with a capital D refers to people who have been deaf all their lives, or since before they started to learn to talk. They are prelingually deaf. It is an important distinction because Deaf people tend to communicate in sign language as their first language. Sign Health Charity

Edited by: Sam Ridgeway and Kay McCallum

Cover image credit: Photo by ollis_picture via Pixabay


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