Communicating new space science terms to deaf people

Currently, British Sign Language (BSL) includes limited astrophysics terms, but Dr Olja Panic will develop 50 new signs that will make it more accessible to the deaf community.

Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow Dr Olja Panic, School of Physics and Astronomy, is leading ‘Astrophysics for all', which is in the top two of select projects chosen by the Royal Society as part their recent scheme that enables elected researchers to run exciting, innovative public engagement projects.

By enriching BSL, will Dr Panic will give deaf people the chance to grasp research advances in modern astrophysics. The project will also offer the means for two-way communication from people in the deaf community, which is a key aspect of BSL.

It is made by the Royal Society public engagement fund, which provides up to £10,000 for the select Research Fellows to create and lead new projects that support the public.

At present, a selection of scientific terms are included in BSL. Now, as a result of Dr Panic's work, resources that enable researchers to communicate with the deaf community will be advanced. Dr Panic will work with experts to develop new signs for scientific terms, such as: ‘protoplanetary disc’, ‘exo-Solar planetary system’ and ‘interferometric telescope,’ to name a few.

Erin McNeill, Physics Outreach Officer at the University of Leeds, will work alongside Dr Panic to support the project’s delivery. Erin, who is an astrophysics public engagement specialist, has a specific interest in initiatives that promote equality and diversity.

Making two-way interaction possible

The deaf community is among the most inhibited when it comes to accessing specialist scientific knowledge. Ultimately, the project’s aim is to involve the deaf community in active communication about Royal Society-funded research.

About 100 signs for scientific British Sign Language (BSL) exist at the moment, and these were only recently developed. However, this range does not include essential scientific terms belonging to current astrophysical concepts.

Dr Panic’s new signs will be communicated through public talks and workshops, including video material that will aid the users’ ability to understand the new terms. They will also be added to the BSL glossaries and encyclopaedias.

Dr Panic said:

“Scientific discoveries are consolidated into knowledge and understanding through active communication. In the hearing community, this is a given, but the deaf community is deprived of this possibility because signs for the vast majority of the new scientific concepts do not exist.

She continued:

“This is a major barrier that the deaf community faces: to explore knowledge as deep as one's dedication and intellectual abilities allow.

Language is a vessel for the proliferation of knowledge, and when language does not exist, knowledge is inaccessible.

Dr Panic’s team will work in partnership with linguists, scientists, teachers, and outreach practitioners from the deaf community with the aim of growing the new directory if signs over the next two years. The signs will also be distributed globally.