June 15, 2024


Science It Works

Signing the way for science in deaf education

What or who inspired you to work in deaf education?

When I was growing up in Co Monaghan, I saw a film in school called The Miracle Worker about Helen Keller. I was about seven or eight years old and her story captivated me.

That interest never left me, and I learned sign language and studied deaf education in college. I’ve been working in the area ever since, as an advocate, a researcher and university lecturer.

What kind of research are you doing?

We have come a long way in the last 10 years or so in the deaf education system in Ireland, but in order to continue to campaign for and drive change, we need research and data.

I recently published research where we found that about 42 per cent of a sample of more than 100 deaf children in Ireland had challenges with socioemotional development, which is in line with international findings.

It’s important that we know this, given that there are about 2,500 deaf children receiving supports here. Unless you have information about what deaf students and teachers need, it is hard to enact change. I am also working on the Irish Sign Language Stem Glossary, where we are building a free, online resource of suggested signs in Irish Sign Language for technical terms.

Don’t signs for technical terms already exist in Irish Sign Language?

Some do, and we include those in the glossary. But in other cases there may not be an established sign. This means that school teachers in deaf schools may come up with an agreed sign with their students, or interpreters with their clients.

That’s not ideal for when the students go on to the next year in school or to university, or the clients and interpreters go into new environments, and they may need to figure out new signs for these terms.

So for the last few years, with funding from Science Foundation Ireland and more recently also the Institute of Physics, we have been working with the deaf community and with technical experts to suggest new signs for terms in maths, environmental science, biology, physics and chemistry. We also want to expand the offering for deaf participants in science communication events.

How do you decide what terms to include in the ISL Stem Glossary?

We consult with deaf teachers, community representatives, interpreters and experts in the technical areas. Our timing has been interesting too – we started developing the biology section of the glossary just before the pandemic started, so we were sure to include signs relating to that.

What’s your hope for the glossary in the future?

That it helps deaf teachers and students and encourages more deaf people to engage with science and science events. We were heartened to start to see some of the signs have been coined for the ISL Stem Glossary start to show up on the news and weather with signing, and we know from speaking with teachers that they are using the signs with their students.

We also notice a lull in the use of the online glossary during school summer holidays, and that’s another indicator that the resource is being used in schools.

And what do you do to take a break from research?

My partner and I have an 18-month-old son, so the moment I finish my meetings and work on lectures or projects for the day I have no more space in my brain for research, it’s straight into playing with building blocks and reading stories – which is great.