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Breaking barriers: Emily Quinn Smyth and Dr Andy Leigh on Auslan, communication and science

by | May 2, 2017 | Practice | 5 comments

For Emily Quinn Smyth, a eureka moment on a field trip for an undergraduate subject led her to an important research question - the lack of scientific vocabulary in Australian sign language, or Auslan.

Channelling this interest into her final project, which consisted of a written report titled ‘Falling on Deaf Ears: Effective Communication of Science and the Current Gaps in Auslan in the Scientific World’ along with an explanatory video featuring Auslan interpreter Linda Finucane, Emily has shed light on a gap that prevents many from participating in scientific education.

Emily tells us, “I look back at the excursion now and I think ‘wow, that was just one of those lightbulb moments’, because from then on I’ve just been thinking about it constantly. But throughout my life I’ve always had an interest in inclusion, and getting everyone involved“. As a member of the deaf community, Emily also has firsthand experience of the communication challenges faced by people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Associate Professor Andy Leigh, Emily’s teacher for the subject, says that her discussions with Emily about the project felt like a process of discovery too. “I was talking to Emily, and hers was just completely different from all the other projects, because we just started talking about how we could incorporate the deaf communication aspect. I said to Emily, ‘well, are there even AUSLAN words for science?’ and she said ‘you know, I don’t know!’. And I said, ‘does that mean they have to fingerspell everything?’ and she said ‘I’m gonna find out!’. And it was such a lightbulb moment, as [Emily] describes it, when we both just went ‘oh my god!’. As it turns out, the most basic scientific words that I just take for granted, like ecology and biodiversity, have to be fingerspelled.”

A loss for science

So, what are the consequences of this? Emily says “you’re missing out on having way more insight into lots of different perspectives. So if you were an Auslan speaker, and you couldn’t access the world of science – you’re missing out on that whole audience. It’s certainly a big perspective that the science world just misses out on. And people would be interested in it!”

Andy adds, “I think the science world is missing out on communicating their science! If they’re thinking in a narrow communicative tunnel, they’re really only going to be targeting a fraction of the audience that they would like to reach”. But it’s not just a small audience that could be assisted by making science more inclusive. “By thinking about making your science more accessible to even one section of the community, such as the Auslan speakers, you are automatically starting to think about ‘how accessible is science more broadly?’. You can’t help but think about that. So I think that the science community is fundamentally missing out on a huge chunk of the population.”

And as Emily points out – “The thing I always thought about too was that if you broaden your audience, because you’re working with an environment that’s really fragile, if you get an audience that’s more aware of what’s going on then you have more of a chance of actually saving it from damage as well“.

Developing a scientific vocabulary for Auslan

Emily says of the experience: “The one thing that came out when I was talking to Auslan speakers at the time, it really became clear that the Auslan speakers themselves would have to create the signs for those scientific words. So like a Spanish speaker, if an English speaker started speaking Spanish words for them and saying ‘this is going to be your new language’ – they wouldn’t like that. So it would have to include Auslan speakers and scientific people in the discussion, in order to make a resource. I think that’d be definitely something, in my biggest dreams that would be awesome to be able to do. And certainly since doing this assignment I’ve talked to my mum about it, I’ve also talked to my special needs person in UTS, I’ve talked to people that I work with, so even though it just started out as an assignment, it’s become a bigger thing which I’d love to be able to contribute to”.

Immersive and inclusive learning is good for everyone

As Andy says, “The thing I find really valuable about the excursions, is that not just deaf or hard of hearing people, but a lot of people who certainly wouldn’t register with special needs, but still may find learning in the classroom particularly difficult for a whole raft of reasons that aren’t listed on the normal list of access issues, often would find this way of learning more accessible anyway. Because you’re experiencing it on a whole lot of levels. You know you’re hearing it, if you can hear, you’re seeing it, if you can see, you’re smelling it, you’re even tasting it!”

On approaching accessibility in learning and and teaching, Andy said “I’d really strongly advocate going to as many different workshops as we can on access issues. So, for example, Breaking the Binary, and I’ve been to Cultural Competency ones, and I think we should all be going to Unconscious Bias training too. It’s incumbent upon us to understand all the different access issues there are. And to communicate with the special needs branch (now the Accessibility Service) or the equivalent at your university, so that you understand even at a baseline level, the issues and potential biases that could be out there”.

Listening to the voices and experiences of people with disability is important in many ways. For example, on navigating her education with the cochlear implant she’s had since the age of 2, Emily says “You actually have to learn to hear with the implant … you have to literally learn each sound of the alphabet, and each group of sounds in the alphabet”. All in all, a cochlear implant requires “a lot of work”. Ultimately, it’s the assistance of well-informed accessibility policies and a willingness of the community to embrace a culture of diversity that can help to mitigate these factors.

Many thanks to Emily Quinn Smyth and Andy Leigh for telling us their story for this post.

 

5 Comments

  1. Peter Jones

    Remarkable and wonderfull things come from field-based learning and this “light-bulb moment” is just one of many. Diversity of educational practice is essential for our diversity of students at UTS.

    Reply
  2. Sean Tubridy

    Hi I’m strong auslan speaker and native cuer under cued speech! My 6 yrs old bilateral ci son and I are The Shepherd Centre graduates. I’m happy to give you interview with you. Contact thru TSC to contact me easier cheers.

    Reply
    • Rhiannon Hall

      Thanks for your comment Sean – wonderful to hear from other Auslan speakers!

      Reply
      • Sean Tubridy

        Welcome cheers!

        Reply
      • Sean Tubridy

        I would like to tell you in USA. cued speech have increased popular thru deaf schools to improve spoken language thru cued speech. I’m rare native cuer survivor! My old deaf school was the first country outside of USA then closed down due cochlear implants spread out. I’m grateful for deaf kids to hear and speak now. Thank you

        Reply

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