The number one problem with American Sign Language for deaf students taking courses in technical fields is the lack of sign standardization. Want to know what the sign for surjective is? You might run into a problem in that no sign exists or there will be some unusual sign that hasn’t been adopted in standard practice. (By the way, simply spelling out the letters of a technical term is a big no-no in ASL unless it’s the first time an interpreter is expressing that word.) And I can’t blame ASL for that; most people won’t use technical terms like homomorphism or even the word cache on a regular basis. So there’s little motivation for ASL to include esoteric words in its common vocabulary.
So how can we fix this problem? Or, perhaps, is it even necessary to fix this problem? As someone taking a myriad of undergraduate math and science classes, I am fairly used to having my two ASL interpreters collaborate with me to decide on signs for a variety of technical terms. Typically, if we can’t agree on a sign for a term, we settle for a one-letter representation of that word. The word chromosome, for instance, would be signed by just slightly shaking the letter “C” in the dominant hand along with a lip motion of the word. But even if we were able to come up with a sign, it’s highly likely that it will differ from what another student composed at a different university, so there’s a clear lack of standardization.
How has this issue been addressed? Possibly the best single resource on the web is the ASL-STEM Forum, which has done a tremendous job recruiting sign language users to share and distribute signs for terms commonly used in math and science. But there are some glaring pitfalls.
That website allows multiple users to upload different signs, so you might see three or four different signs for the same term, which defeats the purpose of having one sign for one word. Another downside is that this website does not provide an index for subjects that are beyond the level of college underclassmen. Math, for instance, has nothing beyond calculus, which is often the first course required for math majors. This is not as big of a problem as it seems, though, since there probably is not a large enough segment of deaf students taking advanced math and science courses at the upper-undergraduate or graduate level – which is definitely a prominent factor in the lack of signs for technical terms.
But even worse is that we are still nowhere close to providing signs for all the technical terms. One look at the listing of terms in the “Algebra” subsection of the Mathematics section reveals that just five of the twenty-one words have signs! And this is a subject that I hope all deaf students should take before graduating from high school.
The possible benefits of this website, though, leave me optimistic. It’s a user-contributed website, so its data could theoretically grow exponentially. I have contributed one sign to that website, and I hope to contribute more depending on my access to a PC. (For some reason, Macs cause issues with creating videos.) I’ll also try to spread the word to other people I know who may find the website a long-overdue resource.
What can I conclude? It would be nice to have the ASL-STEM Forum more widely known across the ASL community, and it would definitely be great if interpreters were required to know about that website as part of their job. They wouldn’t have to learn all the signs there – they would just need to keep the site in mind to act as a possible reference. Alternatively, perhaps only interpreters with the special R.I.D. (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf) certification should be required to contribute or incorporate signs from that website since they are typically the ones interpreting undergraduates, who take more advanced courses than secondary school children.
Ultimately, though, this is not going to make or break a deaf student’s undergraduate career. College students should generally be prepared to understand terms on their own and actively collaborate among others to make sure that no comprehension is lost when an ASL sign is missing.