Chemistry Show in British Sign Language

Project aims:

The first event came about after a colleague of mine mentioned a newspaper article about the BSL science glossary project. As an organization one of our aims is to make science accessible to all and I was on the lookout for something to do at Manchester Science Festival so I tracked down the research team and got in touch. They were very keen to do something for us. They wanted to get the glossary out to local deaf people and also their funding was coming to an end so it was an opportunity to do more and promote the glossary. My main motivation was to make science more accessible to a hard to reach group. I have a personal interest in BSL as a language and feel that the format of many public science events is particularly inaccessible to completely deaf people. It felt that it should be relatively straight forward to translate an event for a deaf audience; or in this case deliver an event for a deaf audience but translate it for a hearing one.

Summary of activity:

2008: We put on a Chemistry show delivered in BSL and translated into English orally and by an electronic note taker. It formed a part of the Manchester Science Festival and was aimed at improving accessibility to a hard to reach audience. The event was fairly successful with an audience of around 40 people which was enormously diverse not just in ability but also in age and ethic origin. I have never experienced such as diverse audience at a public science event. On the same day we held a second event which was a talk focused on the linguistics and challenges of developing a science glossary in BSL.
2009: The Chemistry Show was delivered again publicly at Newcastle University as part of the Newcastle ScienceFest. In addition to this event the team also went to a Newcastle deaf school and performed the show there also for the school audience.
2010: Once again we brought the same team back to Manchester Science Festival for the Chemistry Show. Since the first show in 2008 the presenters have been developing the show to be more of a performance with two characters and some new experiments. They have been taking this show out more as part of their regular activity. They performed the new show which was translated into English (a separate translator for each of the two characters). This time we got 80 people and again an even split of hearing and deaf people in the audience. The overall composition was a little less diverse than in 2008 in terms of ethnic origin but the age range was still very broad.

Evaluation approach:

At both MSF events we monitored audience composition. At the 2010 event we took informal feedback (write your comments on a post it!) which was overwhelmingly positive from deaf and hearing alike. The only negative comment was a request that we have a translator for each character, which we actually did!

What went well:

The diversity of the audience was the most striking outcome and everyone seems to enjoy the event. There is a lovely atmosphere at the events with everyone joining in to do the new signs.

What was learned:

I’d like it to be bigger and better! I’d like to expand the project by allowing more events at the festival to be translated rather than necessarily putting on more specially formulated events. Ideally such festivals should have a core programme of events translated for accessibility. I’d like to be better able to cope with promotion which has consistently been a bit of a struggle. It would be great to have some external funding for a programme of events though I don’t have time to research and apply for any.

Top tips and advice for others

It’s crucial to have deaf people involved in the event. Besides the event being delivered by deaf people I absolutely could not have learnt what we needed to do to make the event accessible nor have had access to contacts to help with recruitment of translators and to promote the event.

There’s a lot to think about, especially for the first event when it’s all new, so make a good list of all the different people to hire and factors to consider when choosing venues etc.

Budget well in advance to make sure you have sufficient funding.

Hire enough translators – they can’t do it for longer than an hour without changing over – and consider their comfort by supplying chairs, water, audio equipment etc.

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