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Advancing scientific discourse in American Sign Language

Deaf scientists who use American Sign Language (ASL) need to be able to communicate specialized concepts with ease. Because deaf individuals — here we use ‘deaf’ broadly to refer to the full kaleidoscope of deaf experiences — have historically been under-represented in science, the linguistic capabilities of ASL have yet to be fully explored for scientific discourse. As a consequence, deaf scientists may not have the necessary tools to effectively articulate their work. Nowadays, with improved educational opportunities and communication access, there are more deaf ASL users who are experts in scientific fields. Through their scientific work, these researchers finally have opportunities to expand ASL by incorporating new technical signs and experimenting with best practices for communication. In this Viewpoint, four deaf scientists — a quantum physicist, a marine ecologist, an immunologist and an organic chemist — discuss their experiences in developing scientific lexicons and the resulting shift in their science communication.

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Fig. 1: New American Sign Language signs for scientific concepts.

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Colin P. Lualdi is a physics PhD candidate in the group of Paul Kwiat at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he studies optical quantum information science. Colin holds an AB in physics and certificates in computer science and linguistics from Princeton University.

Barbara Spiecker is a deaf marine ecologist at the University of New Hampshire. She is actively developing STEM-specific educational resources in American Sign Language and co-founding Atomic Hands (a non-profit hub for ASL STEM resources), consulting on bilingual K-13 STEM instruction and interpreting and performing standardized test translation. She has a PhD in Integrative Biology from Oregon State University, an MSc in Marine Biology from Northeastern University and a BSc in Biology from Rochester Institute of Technology.

Alicia K. Wooten is a deaf immunologist and biology professor at Gallaudet University. She has a PhD in Molecular and Translational Medicine at Boston University and a BSc in Biomedical Sciences from Rochester Institute of Technology. Alicia is a co-founder of Atomic Hands, a non-profit that focuses on engaging the community in STEM through American Sign Language.

Kaitlyn Clark has a BSc and MSc in Chemistry from Rochester Institute of Technology. Her BSc focused on organic chemistry, and her MSc is in organometallic chemistry. Kaitlyn is a part of the Sign Language Incorporation in Chemistry Education (SLICE) team. She currently works at Rochester Institute of Technology as a Visiting Lecturer of Chemistry.

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Correspondence to Colin P. Lualdi, Barbara Spiecker, Alicia K. Wooten or Kaitlyn Clark.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Information


Supplementary Video 1 Existing and new alternative signs for “electron”. On the more utilitarian side of the spectrum, electron is sometimes signed along the lines of “E-minus” (Signs #1 and #2). On the more artistic side, some signs for electron evoke the particle orbiting an atomic nucleus by having either the letter “E” (Sign #3) or one finger (Sign #4) going around a balled fist. The new alternative sign is an index finger wiggling up and down.


Supplementary Video 2 Existing sign for “ecosystem”. The existing sign combines the letter “E”, the letter “C”, the letter “O”, and the word “system”.


Supplementary Video 3 New alternative sign for “ecosystem”. The new alternative sign depicts a community with all parts interrelated.


Supplementary Video 4 Existing signs for “states of matter”. Existing signs for the three basic states (gas, solid, liquid) are initialized and disjunct. Signs did not exist for the phase changes between these three states.


Supplementary Video 5 New alternative signs for “states of matter”. The new alternative signs include individual signs for the three basic states (gas, solid, liquid) as well as the six phase changes between them (melting/freezing, evaporation/condensation, sublimation/deposition). All of these signs use the same root sign and have proper movements that reflect the relationships among the states and phase changes.

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Lualdi, C.P., Spiecker, B., Wooten, A.K. et al. Advancing scientific discourse in American Sign Language. Nat Rev Mater 8, 645–650 (2023).

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