Sunday Longread: Studying STEM through Irish Sign Language

Learning technical or scientific subjects through ISL presents unique challenges, says Trinity graduate Micheál Kelliher

Irish Sign Language (ISL) is used as a first language by around 5,000 people in Ireland, and approximately 45,000 hearing people also use ISL to some extent. However, the nuanced and historic language, and its speakers, are not always given the resources and respect they deserve. Only last December, with the commencement of the Irish Sign Language Act 2017, did ISL users become entitled to access public services in their first language. Aside from this, there is a general lack of resources and funding to help the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (DHH) to thrive in educational environments.

Some sign language basics for those of us outside the Deaf community: sign languages in different regions are as varied as spoken languages. Speaking ISL will not enable you to converse with an American Sign Language (ASL) user in the United States, as the languages have evolved completely differently over time much the same as spoken language. In fact, though we predominantly share the same spoken language as the UK, ISL is closer to Langues des Signes Française (LSF) spoken by the French Deaf community than British Sign Language (BSL). Irish sign language is made up of both the ISL alphabet and ISL signs. The ISL alphabet is used to spell out names and places that do not have a designated sign, in a process called fingerspelling. The Deaf community encompasses a huge range of people, some with some degree of hearing, and many bilingual in ISL and English.

ISL is ever-evolving, living and breathing, like any language. It is an important part of the diverse and intricate culture of the Deaf community in Ireland. ISL users are found in every part of our society and our workforce, including in STEM careers. In 2018/2019 DHH students made up 2.6% of all students registered with disability services at third level. The Students with Disabilities Engaged with Support Services in Higher Education in Ireland 2018/19 Report found that there is actually a higher proportion of the DHH community studying Natural science, statistics and mathematics subjects than their hearing counterparts (10.4% of the DHH student community versus 9.4% in the total student population). There is a slightly lower proportion of DHH students studying engineering, manufacturing and construction (8.1% of the DHH student community versus 9.4% in the total student population). 

Micheál Kelliher is a Trinity Civil Engineering graduate, a member of the Deaf community and an activist. He graduated from Trinity in 2012 and went on to study software development at Dublin Business School (DBS). Kelliher also ran in the 2019 local elections in the Cabra-Glasnevin area and was Ireland’s first Deaf political candidate. Originally from Kerry, Kelliher moved to Dublin at 12-years-old and attended St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra (now Holy Family School for the Deaf). The jump from an all-signing environment at second level to Trinity, where he was in a small minority, was a difficult one. “Looking back at my time at Trinity College, it was a tough time for me. Before going to Trinity College, I was in a deaf school where everyone was signing. For me, it was a huge transition to a non-signing environment and I struggled to be involved, especially at clubs. It’s like going to a place where no one speaks my first and preferred language.”

“Unfortunately, Irish Sign Language has a very, very limited vocabulary for STEM areas. I presume that it’s probably due to the oralism system where Deaf children were not allowed to sign in schools.”

Trinity, as a public college, however, had funding to give Kelliher the support he needed for his studies. Kelliher had access to an ISL interpreter for all his lectures to interpret the lecturer’s speech, and a notetaker. “Notetakers are people who write down notes for me because I can’t simultaneously look at the blackboard, interpreter and take notes at the same time.” It was a world of difference when he went on to study in DBS, which as a private college did not have public funding. “I got zero support from the college. I had to rely on books and my classmates for important information about assignments etc. I couldn’t follow the lecturers at all.” This was the case for all students with disabilities in private third level education until very recently. Only in September of this year were all disabled students granted funding regardless of the public or private status of their third level institution. This was sparked by a Twitter campaign started by Dr Tom Clonan, whose son Eoghan was initially denied funding because he was attending a private higher education institution. 

There are other barriers to education for the DHH community in STEM. Kelliher describes how STEM vocabulary in ISL is not moving at the pace at which its speakers are advancing in STEM, and how ISL speakers have to adapt to this discrepancy. “Unfortunately, Irish Sign Language has a very, very limited vocabulary for STEM areas. I presume that it’s probably due to the oralism system where Deaf children were not allowed to sign in schools, segregation between Deaf signers and Hard-of-Hearing non-signers, and very limited opportunities for Deaf people to study and work in STEM sectors,” Kelliher says. 

When there is no established ISL sign for a scientific term DHH students and scientists have to be creative and adapt. “Whenever there was no sign for the STEM word, interpreters and I invented signs for them. They were just for me as a STEM student, and they may not be reused again with other Deaf people. If the word is short, we could fingerspell it.” This is an issue much wider than just in ISL but is seen across the board in all sign languages. Daniel Lundberg, a Deaf chemistry professor at Gallaudet University in the US, estimates that about 80% of chemistry terms have no established sign in ASL. Many Deaf scientists and their interpreters take an approach similar to Kelliher’s, developing their own signs and fingerspelling. But this solution really remains between them and their interpreter and doesn’t solve the problem in the long run. Sometimes signs for homonyms with different scientific and everyday meanings can be utilised, however, this results in signs that don’t truly capture the essence of the concept and its contextual scientific meaning. 

Like every language in the world, ISL has had a flux of new high-frequency words throughout the pandemic. “I would say it is a worldwide phenomenon rather than ​a national issue,” Dr John Bosco Conama, Director of Trinity’s Centre for Deaf Studies and an Assistant Professor of the School of Linguistics, Speech and Communication Sciences, says. “Perhaps due to the urgency of dealing with the Covid situation, it gave us no time to discuss the signs for Covid. Also, the sign for Covid-19 is much similar across the countries.” On the ways that ISL users have developed new signs during the pandemic, Conama remarks: “There are a few new related but social signs in relation to Covid-19, but they are the subject of many debates within the community. For example, ‘lockdown’, ‘restrictions’, ‘vaccines’, ‘close contacts’ – you can see a variety of signs for these words. Some prefer a compound approach like ‘lock’ and ‘down’, ‘re-strict-ion’. There is no general consensus on these words but there is a general acceptance of these varieties as long as they are comprehensible and intelligible​.” 

To work towards more standardised STEM vocabulary in sign language generally, glossary projects have been set up. For ISL, work is ongoing on the ISL STEM Glossary Project in Dublin City University (DCU). The project brings together scientists in the Deaf community, linguists, education specialists and ISL users to brainstorm and develop new ISL STEM words. This process is detailed and lengthy. “We consider things like the linguistics of ISL (ie does this sign follow rules of ISL?), if the sign works for this concept from a simple level to a complex one (ie we try to avoid a sign that is a simplified version that would not allow it to be used in third level), and if the sign has semantic independence (ie can it be understood on its own or does it need a lot of context in ISL to be understood?),” the project’s website says. The project began initially in 2018 with the development of some basic mathematical signs and, in 2019, environmental science terms were added. The signs can be viewed as video recordings in the glossary, accompanied by their English translations. The project is a work in progress, and it will take a number of years before the glossary accurately reflects the breadth of scientific vocabulary both hearing and Deaf scientists use. It could then take a good while again for these words to become commonly used by Deaf scientists and students. “It often depends on various factors such as contexts, filming and ease of signs etc. For example, the Covid-19 sign was quickly accepted given the emergency situation, and it does not bend many unwritten rules and would not cause inconvenience etc,” Dr Conama says. 

“There is a growing number of Deaf people becoming highly skilled and specialised in their fields, and they may be too advanced for some interpreters.”

Another issue DHH students and scientists face is a lack of ISL interpreters with backgrounds in STEM. In many ways, the interpreter has to learn the scientific topic themself along with the student, so that they accurately convey what is being said by the lecturer. “A vast majority of interpreters don’t have a background in STEM,” Kelliher says. “I was fortunate to have an interpreter with a postgraduate background in Chemistry. The second interpreter worked so hard and did homework before interpreting for me. One year, we were struggling to find more interpreters to fill-in and when new interpreters joined to help out, they were struggling with the STEM course, especially at Trinity College.”

This issue only becomes more prominent as Deaf scientists move up the career ladder. “There is a growing number of Deaf people becoming highly skilled and specialised in their fields, and they may be too advanced for some interpreters. We would love to see more people with STEM backgrounds interested in becoming interpreters.” Aside from this, Deaf people in STEM fields often face unnecessary challenges and obstacles at work. Kelliher describes the lack of supports in some of the workplaces he has been in since graduating: “Having an interpreter in the workplace is an ongoing issue. From my and other Deaf people’s experiences here, companies are often very reluctant to provide interpreters and may not want to pay for them. I don’t have interpreters for team meetings, and I use Microsoft Teams (ie chat and video calling software) where they have auto-captions. They are so bad sometimes and I’m often lost in meetings.”

“The companies can then hire Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people without any consideration for ‘extra costs’.”

Ireland falls behind many other countries considerably in respect to workplace supports for Deaf people. Kelliher explains that in the UK an Access to Work scheme has had great results for the Deaf community. “It’s where interpreters are funded by the government for Deaf people in workplaces. Instead of companies being hesitant to pay for interpreters, they are being paid by the government. The companies can then hire Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people without any consideration for ‘extra costs’.” A great watch for more information on this scheme is “London Calling” which follows the lives of five Irish Deaf people who moved to the UK to access the employment supports, without which they are not empowered to do their jobs to the fullest. This is available on RTÉ Player currently. Kelliher hopes that similar schemes will be put in place here soon: “Rónán Lowry [Chairperson of Sign Language Interpreting Service] is leading a very important campaign to encourage the Irish government to copy the scheme and set it up here. We are very hopeful to see it happening here very soon.”

Being a member of the Deaf community in STEM comes with many challenges that will take time and effort to change. The hearing community, particularly the hearing community in STEM, need to step up to the task of ensuring that supports and services are in place to allow Deaf scientists to thrive and to take the onus off them for changing dysfunctional systems which were created without them in mind. Attitudes need to change to allow DHH STEM students across the board the same opportunities their hearing peers take for granted. “For me, it is not only the physical or communicative barriers that need to be addressed, it is more of an attitudinal barrier. For example, requests for ISL interpretation are often met with an air of reluctance (sighs or negative facial expressions), knowing it would cost money – conveying the message to us. To sum up, we need to recognise the use of ISL as a right rather than a necessary ‘crutch’ or a mere communicative tool,” Conama says. Systematic barriers to accessibility and stagnant attitudes and apathy from the hearing community need to be dismantled. 


Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the SciTech co-Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.