Sign of the times - making science accessible to the Deaf community

Emily Clarke discusses an exciting new initiative aimed at making science more accessible to the Deaf community

Throughout our careers, we’ve often been taught to use plain English when communicating scientific terms to members of the public or anyone outside our area of expertise. This is to ensure that the content is more accessible and easier to understand for the audience.

Now try to imagine explaining something you work on without having words for the key terms you want to describe. Imagine having to rely on spelling out the terminology letter by letter – how time-consuming this would be and how frustrating it would be to both communicate and understand. This has long been the reality for British Sign Language (BSL) users and has made access to science for the Deaf community incredibly difficult.

Sign language uses hand gestures, facial expressions and body language to communicate visually with others. Globally, there are more than 300 different sign languages, each with their own unique culture.

BSL is the preferred language for the UK’s Deaf community. Despite existing for hundreds of years, it was only recognised as a language in its own right in 2003. It was legally recognised as an official language in Scotland under the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 and in England, Wales and Scotland in April 2022, under the BSL Act.

Last year, in order to make since more accessible to the Deaf community, BSL users and linguists through the Scottish Sensory Centre (SSC), in collaboration with scientists through the Royal Society, created new signs for more than 200 environmental terms as part of the BSL Glossary Project. The signs are focused on common environmental terms associated with the physical environment, pollution, ecosystems and biodiversity.

The terms, including “carbon footprint”, “greenhouse gases”, “rewilding” and “climate change”, were taken from the GCSE and A-Level curricula. The signs were created to help users visualise these scientific concepts and more easily understand their meaning.

For the first time, members of the Deaf community have the signs to communicate these scientific terms in their language, removing barriers that forced BSL users to rely on fingerspelling complex terminology. Creating the signs will support students in the Deaf community to study and engage with these topics and better equip them to progress into a career in science.

The new signs will also enable Deaf voices to be heard and better represented in conversations about the climate and ecological emergencies. There’s a glossary of the new terms on the SSC website, providing a helpful resource for BSL interpreters and acting as a huge step forward for accessibility and inclusivity at global summits.

Videos for each of the signs have been created, along with a video of a definition for the term and a written-English definition. The BSL Glossary Project is ongoing; a second set of signs is being developed focusing on sustainability, energy and the impact of environmental change on humans.

Further advancing inclusivity for the Deaf community, secondary school students will soon be able to study BSL at GCSE level. Thanks to campaigners including Daniel Jillings, plans have been under development since 2019 and it is aimed for teaching to begin from September 2025.

The GCSE, which will be open to all pupils, will include at least 750 signs, how to use them, the history and evolution of BSL and how to effectively communicate with other signers in academic, work and social settings. This is another great step forward for the Deaf community and a fantastic way for hearing people to learn about Deaf culture.

CIWEM junior president Emily Clarke FCIWEM C.WEM is principal flood and coastal consultant at Binnies

Dates for your diary: Deaf History Month takes place in April every year. Deaf Awareness Week 2024 will take place from 01 to 07 May

Find out more:

Environmental science in BSL:

Scottish Sensory Centre:

British Deaf Association:

Royal National Institute for Deaf People:

National Deaf Children’s Society:

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