Exploring the Struggles of Deaf People in STEM

April 01, 2021

Written by: Vanessa Hennessey

March 13th-April 15th is Deaf History Month, a time to celebrate and recognize the accomplishments of people who are deaf and/or hard of hearing. Here in Canada, according to The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada (CAD-ASC), there are 350,000 culturally Deaf Canadians and over 3 million hard of hearing Canadians. It is estimated there is a higher percentage of deaf people in Inuit communities (5.7 in 1000) than in all of Canada (1 in 1000). Sign language has been part of Indigenous linguistic landscapes for centuries, and American Sign Language (ASL; predominantly used in English-speaking North America) was developed in the 1800s. Quebec Sign Language, known in French as Langue des signes québécoise or Langue des signes du Québec, is the predominant sign language of deaf communities used in francophone Canada, primarily in Quebec. There are also a myriad of other dialects and colloquial uses of sign language, including Maritime Sign Language in Eastern Canada, and Black American Sign Language (BASL), used by Black communities across North America.

Source: verywell health

With all of these sign languages, one would think that deaf and hard of hearing people would be welcome and thriving in areas such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), but it turns out that industry and our educational institutions have a long way to go in terms of supporting even the most basic of deaf and hard of hearing employees’ and students’ needs.

In 2018, Braun et al published a study entitled, “Welcoming Deaf Students into STEM: Recommendations for University Science Education” in The American Society for Cell Biology’s Life Sciences Education journal. In the article, they follow a hypothetical deaf student, Emily, as she navigates her STEM major and describe the challenges that she will most certainly face, supported by empirical evidence in published literature. (Fun fact: 8 of the 10 coauthors of this article are deaf, with a combined 101 years of experience in teaching and mentoring deaf students in higher education! Talk about not only inclusion, but having a real seat at the table.) In this article, the coauthors conclude that deaf individuals have made many contributions to science and technology throughout history, but deaf students like Emily often feel unwelcome in the hearing (ie, non-deaf people) STEM community and often have to work harder than their hearing peers to achieve similar opportunities. Culturally sensitive faculty who are willing to advocate on their behalf can be hard to come by in post-secondary settings, and it can be difficult to find networking opportunities and research experiences for deaf students. The article gives a host of recommendations, broken up in easy-to-read tables with real-life examples of communicated preconceptions, explanations about why these preconceptions are problematic, and positive actions that faculty can take to make students feel welcome. Importantly, this article underscores the lack of support that many deaf and hard of hearing students face: not having access to individualized accommodations, putting extra time into meeting with interpreters outside of class settings and difficulty finding interpreters who are well-versed in STEM topics, and not having the same access to networking opportunities in order to conduct required research for their degrees.

Source: Yahoo!

This article gives a glimpse into the life of a deaf or hard of hearing student who attends a university that only offers accommodations for these students. The United States has a private university exclusively for deaf and hard of hearing people called Gallaudet University, but Canada does not have such a post-secondary environment. Gallaudet offers a wide variety of academics taught in ASL, including STEM areas of study, but as it is a private school, it is not as accessible because of high tuition costs. Here in Canada, there are many elementary, middle, and secondary schools which offer programs in ASL, but when students move on to university, they are often faced with the issues mentioned in the Life Sciences Education article above and more.

Once deaf and hard of hearing scientists move beyond university, there are problems as well. In an article in Science, Natasha Hirst, a deaf scientist in the United Kingdom says she was “viewed as a potential hazard--to herself and to others--and not as a promising young scientist” in her training, and that it is actually due to the UK’s health and safety laws. Iain Poplett, a research fellow at King's College London working on nuclear quadrupole resonance spectroscopy, says he has missed out on jobs because employers used health and safety regulations as an excuse for not employing deaf people. The article also explores how deaf and hard of hearing students are also at a disadvantage in universities in the UK, and that deaf people in STEM are leaving the UK for better opportunities in the United States.

Source: University of Alberta

There is some hope, however. Research is being conducted in the elementary, middle, and high school levels to determine the best methods for teaching STEM subjects to deaf and hard of hearing students. Universities such as the University of Ottawa are taking stock of their current systems and are taking steps to improve accommodations and integrate deaf and hard of hearing students better. This year, the Government of Canada named the first Canada Research Chair in Deaf Education, awarding the position to Dr. Joanne Weber, a deaf assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, Faculty of Education, at the University of Alberta. She says in this article in the Regina Leader-Post, “In the education system, I really saw over and over again the problems related to language deprivation. Language deprivation is when you are exposed to language … but you don’t necessarily understand it.” She will be using her arts-based research approach to enhance educational experiences for deaf students. With this kind of research, the education community can begin to make big steps for Canada’s education system to become more inclusive to deaf and hard of hearing children and youth, not to mention those at the university level. 

The struggles that deaf people in STEM face cannot be summed up in just one article alone. While the difficulties deaf and hard of hearing students face will not disappear overnight, the increased awareness of these accessibility issues will hopefully lead to improvement. Check out these related links to read more and educate yourself on how you can support your deaf and hard of hearing friends, colleagues, or family members in STEM:

Please note: This article refers to deaf and hard of hearing people with lower case spelling, so as not to assume that all deaf or hard of hearing people are culturally Deaf, meaning those who embrace cultural norms, beliefs, and values of the Deaf Community. For more information on this, please visit Verywell Health.