UW professor creates crowdsourcing site for ASL-STEM language

Computer science and engineering professor Richard Ladner spells out protein in front of a web camera to upload onto the ASL-STEM forum website.

Photo by Joshua Bessex

Deaf students are developing a science-friendly American Sign Language (ASL) vocabulary through a project led by UW computer science professor Richard Ladner. 

Working with professors at Gallaudet University and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), Ladner has created the ASL-STEM Forum, a site on which users can post signs for vocabulary for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. 

Due to the broadness of its use, ASL doesn’t have many standardized terms that are common in STEM fields. The forum boasts almost 3,000 signs that students can look through for their education. 

“More than half of universities in the U.S. have at least one deaf student; UW has about 20 or 30,” Ladner said. “A good number of them use sign language, and their access to science is somewhat limited. If there aren’t signs for terms, then they need to be spelled out; that takes a lot of time, so they’re missing out on information.” 

The project aims to help students who use ASL, who are widely dispersed across the United States, have a more standardized scientific dictionary. 

“English also has new terminology coming in, but in ASL, people tend to be resistant to change, and then they embrace it,” said Lance Forshay, ASL program coordinator and lecturer at the UW. “We want the evolution of ASL to be natural, but in reality it needs to keep going; we need to catch up. So I think [the ASL-STEM Forum] would be a good stimulus to help the culture move forward and keep up with a specific terminology.” 

Caroline Solomon, a Gallaudet biology professor assisting with the project, said it is not uncommon for different interpreters throughout the country to use different signs for the same word.

“The ASL-STEM Forum allows us to be in one place and see all of the signs that have been created for different scientific terms and allows the language to evolve,” Solomon said. “It has been very exciting as I love seeing all of the different signs that are coming in from around the country from different ASL users. It is interesting to see what signs some people have created that are pretty conceptually accurate while some aren’t.”

Although some words in ASL might be similar to the newer STEM vocabulary, sign language requires context to define a word. The sign for “alcohol” will be different depending on whether it’s referring to drinking or chemistry. 

“Unlike English, ASL signs change from sentence to sentence to show different meanings,” said Kristi Winter, an ASL lecturer at the UW. “The sign for uploading or streaming, for example, can change to mean downloading, uploading, or uploading for a long time.” 

According to Winter, Steven Jamison, vice chairman of a special interest group on computers for the physically handicapped, started collecting a list of signs related to computer science and technical fields in the 1970s. From Jamison’s work, researchers at NTID developed a dictionary. 

Ladner started developing the ASL-STEM Forum in 2008 after a conversation with a graduate student.

“At this time Wikipedia was getting really popular, and user-contributed websites were growing — and working,” Ladner said. “So it seemed like this might be an opportunity for a website that could fill a need.” 

Forshay notes that while the project hasn’t established universal terms, it’s still making strides for ASL and students who hope to pursue careers in science. 

“As a language teacher, I’ve seen some signs related to STEM that look pretty cool, and I’ve seen some that break the rules,” Forshay said. “I think that just throwing out ideas is a good way [for signs to] increase, especially with younger deaf people, but they don’t understand that it’s breaking the linguistic rule. Sure, it will become a new rule once it’s being used because language is evolving. It’s a challenge to expand the language, but to survive it needs to change and grow.” 

Reach reporter Zosha Millman at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @zosham

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