The Current

Deaf academics say a lack of ASL interpreters specialized in STEM is holding them back

Deaf professors and researchers working in STEM want more opportunities for ASL interpreters to develop their language skills in specialized fields, allowing for better collaboration between colleagues.

Association representing interpreters in Canada says the profession is facing an overall shortage

Smiling blonde woman poses for a selfie in front of a merry-go-round ride.
Kathryn Woodcock, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University who is Deaf, researches amusement park rides. She says that when ASL interpreters are unaware of terminology for things like roller-coasters, it creates barriers to communicating with her colleagues. (Submitted by Kathryn Woodcock)

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Without the right interpreter, following along in a meeting or at an event can be a "puzzle" for Kathryn Woodcock.

The Toronto Metropolitan University professor, who is Deaf and communicates in both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English, works with interpreters who sign the spoken parts of conversations.

She typically relies on a designated interpreter — someone familiar with her specialization in amusement park ride engineering — but often, she'll work with a secondary interpreter with less experience in the field, which can leave things lost in interpretation, she says.

She points to sweeps, a structural element of a roller-coaster, as an example.

"If somebody doesn't even know anything about the terminology of the ride, they might think we're talking about sweeping — like, you know, janitorial sweeping," Woodcock, a professor of occupational health and safety and digital media, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"ASL is a language with its own grammar," she said. "If you sign signs in English word order, it just creates a huge amount of cognitive workload for me to understand it."

WATCH | Kathryn Woodcock on interpreting for STEM professors:

How conversations about STEM get lost in ASL interpretation

2 months ago
Duration 3:47
Kathryn Woodcock, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, explains how conveying STEM concepts can be a challenge for American Sign Language interpreters who are unfamiliar with the terminology.

Deaf professors and researchers working in STEM want more opportunities for ASL interpreters to develop their language skills in specialized fields, allowing for better collaboration between colleagues. Meanwhile, individual efforts to build a STEM-specific ASL lexicon are helping to reduce barriers for those working in academia.

"Right now, often we're left to fingerspell different vocabulary," said Jamie Finley, a research assistant studying natural health products at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Fingerspelling is a common approach for words that don't have designated signs, but can slow down a conversation and hamper sharing work with fellow academics, he says.

"Some scientists have never met [a] deaf scientist," Finley told Galloway. "And so they're nervous, they don't know how to communicate with [deaf scientists], and how to go through an interpreter and what that looks like."

Limits to interpreter training

Canadian college diploma programs teaching ASL to English interpretation run between two and four years of training. Meanwhile, spoken word translators typically require at least a bachelor's-level degree.

Linda Campbell, a professor of aquatic ecosystem health at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, says there are gaps in that training. 

Two years "is seen as, well, that's good enough, and so that's a disparity," she told Galloway. "This is a systematic barrier."

Woman wearing waist high waders stands in a pond. She is looking straight into the camera.
Linda Campbell studies aquatic ecosystems as a professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. The visual nature of ASL gives her the opportunity to create a 3D representation of the ecosystems she works in. (Aaron McKenzie Fraser/Saint Mary's University)

Students in interpretation programs are often learning interpretation skills while also honing general ASL proficiency, according to emailed comments from the Canadian Association of Sign Language Interpreters (CASLI), a non-profit professional association for interpreters. 

"As a result, the primary focus of interpreter education tends to be on general language rather than specialized terminology for specific fields. This is due to the constraints of time, typically spanning 4-8 semesters," wrote the association's board.

While there is no specific data, the association acknowledged that the network of Canadian interpreters specialized in STEM is very small.

"The need is great yet the resources are limited," the association wrote.

Ashley Campbell, an ASL to English interpreter who frequently works with Linda Campbell (no relation), says limited training and a lack of interest in STEM topics among interpreters are contributing factors.

As manager of interpretation services at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Campbell says she finds "you have this pool of people who are interpreters that are interested in general language … I'm going to go help people. I'm going to go serve this population."

With little exposure to STEM and academia, Campbell says interpreting unfamiliar topics in a lecture hall or at an academic conference can be overwhelming and has left her feeling "not very competent."

"There's a lot of onus on the deaf person to spoonfeed you language in a level that I can understand," she said. "It's a lot slower. It's more pausing, but it's working with the interpreter's limitations, and so you don't feel great about that."

WATCH | Deaf students need to be welcomed in academia, says Linda Campbell:

What's lost if deaf students aren't welcomed in universities

2 months ago
Duration 2:25
Saint Mary's University professor Linda Campbell says deaf students bring diversity of thought and language — but that academia isn't making space for them.

Opportunities to improve interpretation, like encouraging interpretation students to survey courses in STEM disciplines during their studies and offering ongoing professional development after graduation, would benefit everyone, say Woodcock and Campbell.

CASLI notes interpreters have an ethical responsibility to accept assignments for which they are qualified, and the association encourages its members to engage in professional development. The association says it is working to provide more training opportunities to its members.

It adds that the profession is facing a shortage of qualified interpreters as a whole.

Creating an ASL lexicon for STEM

Finley says a standardized ASL lexicon for STEM terminology can help bridge the gaps. A lot of his vocabulary are "home signs" — signs familiar to a person, but not consistent across a field. 

That lack of standardization makes it more challenging to confer with fellow deaf scientists, and for interpreters to accurately describe what is being signed.

"STEM in and of itself has different fields, and each field has their own kind of jargon or language," he said. "So if you set up ASL signs for each of those fields, I think it would become much easier to communicate."

WATCH | How science terms have evolved in ASL:

How to sign 'atom' in ASL

2 months ago
Duration 2:43
Jamie Finley is building a lexicon of STEM terms in American Sign Language. The British Columbia Institute of Technology research assistant says standardizing signs will reduce barriers for deaf scientists and interpreters.

Campbell says the nature of ASL allows her to visually express information, like the way water flows, where rivers and wetlands connect and the position of the sun, while she's in the field.

"The three-dimensional nature of ASL is such a benefit because, really, all STEM topics and disciplines are three dimensional," she said.

Finley has already begun collecting videos and definitions of some signs, primarily for his own use with interpreters. But a lack of funding has made it difficult to formally record videos and maintain a public lexicon.

Without better interpretation supports, particularly at the university level, the academics worry young deaf students won't see themselves in higher education and fields will lose out on diverse ways of thinking and communicating. 

"If young people can't see the potential for themselves, then they might decide to go somewhere where the resistance is less," said Woodcock.

"I think seeing success breeds more success, so I would hope that, you know, a university would accept that this is an opportunity rather than a liability."


Jason Vermes


Jason Vermes is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital, originally from Nova Scotia and currently based in Toronto. He frequently covers topics related to the LGBTQ community and previously reported on disability and accessibility. He has also worked as an online writer and producer for CBC Radio Day 6 and Cross Country Checkup. You can reach him at

Audio produced by Amanda Grant