Watching various COVID-related briefings, I notice there is always a sign language interpreter. This is clearly necessary, yet thinking about all the conferences I've attended in the past, literally none of them have had a sign language interpreter.

How do conferences work for deaf scientists? Do deaf scientists simply not attend conferences? If so, how does one even work in fields such as computer science where conferences are an integral part of the academic experience?

  • This has led to an interesting discussion about how academia accommodates and could better accommodate the deaf; let us continue that conversation in chat. Comments here should be used to clarify or improve the question; please read this FAQ before posting a comment after this one.
    – cag51
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 17:52

6 Answers 6


I am neither a deaf scientist nor an organizer for conferences. However, I was a student and staff member at a university with a significant deaf population so I'll speak from that perspective.

The prevalence of interpreters and other accommodations for those with disabilities varied significantly. It was a given that American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters would be present at large scale events and presentations aimed at the community as a whole. Additionally, interpreters would be provided for deaf students taking classes taught in spoken English.

Beyond that, it was usually the responsibility of the deaf person to arrange for an interpreter; though many interpreters were employed by the university, there was no guarantee one would be available on short notice. This may explain why I seldom saw interpreters at club meetings and other smaller events, especially those that emphasized spontaneous direct communication. For example, interpreters were present at the anime club where much of the activities involved watching Japanese animation with subtitles, but I did not see any at the club for tabletop role playing games where interpersonal interaction was constant.

In short, students and staff had the accommodations necessary to fulfill their primary goal(s) but often not enough for secondary ones, such as socialization. I suspect a similar dynamic applies to scientific conferences.

Conferences that regularly have deaf people attending likely organize interpreters themselves but the rest will only provide accommodations when requested. (In other words, at a typical conference, you're not going to see an ASL interpreter unless there's at least one deaf person present!) The effectiveness of such accommodations are apt to suffer if the organizers lack experience and/or resources. This would discourage deaf people from attending unless the conference was essential - for example, a topic of particular interest is being discussed or a colleague is in need of material or moral support - or had a positive reputation of proper accommodations.

In summary, the attendance of deaf scientists at conferences is presumably dictated by the following:

  • The importance of the conference to the individual deaf scientist
  • The presence and quality of accommodations that enable deaf scientists to be productive
  • The number of people with whom the deaf persons can readily communicate with
  • Each deaf scientist's personal comfort level with attending conferences designed primarily for hearing people
  • 1
    Welcome to academia.SE This is a great answer! I'm also not Deaf, but my dad has done English/ASL interpreting for academic conferences, and based on my limited second-hand understanding, this answer is really good. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 1:57

In what was a very large astronomy conference I have seen a sign language interpreter (actually they had two, who round swap every few minutes during the talk) in certain sessions (presumably going to the sessions which the deaf scientist(s) was attending). I haven't seen this at other conferences, but whether that is because of their smaller sizes or because deaf scientists didn't attend I don't know.

  • Which conference was this?
    – Allure
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 12:36
  • 4
    I've seen this at my company's international conference as well. The person needing accommodation reaches out to the conference and work together. Additionally, conference management contacted the presenters with tips to help the interpreters.
    – mkennedy
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 16:34
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    This is highly unusual. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 1:14
  • 3
    @AnonymousPhysicist: Unusual in some fields, not so unusual in other fields. For example, the Linguistics Society of America's annual meeting routinely has ASL/English interpreters, and has information on its website for how and when to inform the LSA about which sessions will require an interpreter. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 15:14
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    @NoahSnyder That's also atypical. A conference full of people who study sign languages will be atypical. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 22:35

They do not work. Most conferences in most fields of science do not work well for people with any sensory/communication disabilities.

A few online conferences offer automatically generated captions. These help some but they are not very accurate.

Edit: The fact that conferences are ableist is not because they are intentionally ableist, but rather because of ignorance. Many conference organizers would be willing to adjust their conferences if they knew how to do so and had the funds.

  • 4
    I wonder how many people who upvoted have ever thought about whether or not "They do not work" is correct.
    – user111388
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 22:04
  • 9
    @user111388: They barely work for color blind people, in some cases.
    – Ink blot
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 23:18
  • 14
    It’s possible that “they do not work” is correct, but how do you know if that’s the case or not? Do you have a sensory disability, or have you discussed this topic with someone who does? If what you’re saying is just your opinion and not based on hard facts, I think it’s important to make that clear so that we don’t mislead people visiting this thread now or in the future (particularly people with disabilities who may make career choices about whether to go into areas like computer science based on the opinions they encounter here).
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 4:20
  • 8
    @AnonymousPhysicist Could you please provide some links to that research to back up your statements? I expect they are likely true, but I think the comments about assumptions are worth addressing.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 11:54
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    It is also worth noting that ASL doesn't (apparently) have the same status as English among sign languages. If you have an international crowd, you might need several interpreters to accommodate all of them. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 22:07

In spite of what Anonymous Physicist says, conference can work for deaf scientists. This is the case in my own area of work, digital accessibility.

There are two main methods to make conferences accessible for deaf attendants:

  1. Sign language interpretation: this means that a sign language interpreter translates the spoken words into sign language. If the conference is a local or national event, the sign language interpreter will translate into the national sign language, e.g. American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (unrelated to ASL), German Sign Language, etc. However, if the conference is an international event, there won't be sign language interpreters for each of the nationalities represented in the audience. In that case, sign language interpreters will translate into International Sign. Sing language interpreters take turns every 20-30 minutes. It is also helpful if they know in advance what the talk will be about, so they can prepare for it.
  2. Live transcription into text: the talk is transcribed live and the transcription is displayed on a large screen at the front of the conference room. The transcriber can be physically at the conference or connected remotely. The transcription is in the same language as the talk.

For congenitally deaf persons, sign language translation is preferable, since that represents translation into their native language (except if the translation is into International Sign), whereas written language is essentially a foreign language.

Research into sign language avatars has been ongoing for quite some time, but I have never seen them in action at conferences.

The above is about deaf scientists in the audience. What about deaf scientists giving a talk?

In 19 years of research in accessibility, I have seen this only once. It was a congenitally deaf researcher from Finland who gave a talk in English. His pronunciation was only marginally harder to understand than that of many other non-native speakers of English, i.e. something one could get used to within minutes. The only issue was that he did not know how loud he was talking, so he asked he wasn't talking to loud. After feedback from the audience, he started talking less loudly.

(The conferences I am referring to include ICCHP / International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs, where translation was into International Sign, the e-Accessibility Forums in Paris (transcription), events organised by the Swedish organisation Funka/FunkaNu (transcription) and conferences organised by EU-funded projects in the domain of digital accessibility.)

  • The frequency of Deaf presenters may vary considerably by discipline and geography. For example, linguistics is a discipline with a larger number of prominent Deaf researchers, some of whom present in ASL with an interpreter. A notable example is Macarthur fellow and UCSD full professor Carol Padden. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 15:06
  • @NoahSnyder Geography may play an important role, since support for Deaf persons (like support for people with disabilities) varies significantly from country to country. For example, Greece reduced its support a lot after the 2010 financial crisis. With regard to variation based on disciplines, I can only speculate.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 15:25
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    "In spite of what Anonymous Physicist says, conference can work for deaf scientists." Actually, I strongly agree with you. Conferences can work. Just they generally do not. A conference of accessibility experts would be an outlier. Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 22:45
  • Conferences vary hugely in all sorts of characteristics. But the ones I know are one off annual events where the organisers are happy if they can print the name badges. There is just no time or money to provide disability support. It’s more like going round to someone’s house for a dinner party. It’s unlikely there will be deaf sign translators.
    – Simd
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 5:52

In most disciplines and in the larger more developed countries it's perfectly straightforward to provide real-time transcription where the speech is transcribed into text on a big screen (or streamed to a delegate's laptop or tablet).

Many deaf and hearing-impaired people do not have sign language, or fluent sign language, and as with translation between any two languages, nuance can be lost and ambiguities can be introduced in the translation from English to Sign. Sign interpretation also requires that a student maintain continuous eye contact, usually necessitating additional notetakers. Students using real-time transcription can take their own notes; the last dozen or so lines of the lecture are displayed on the transcription screen for easy reference.

(adapted from Mirabai Knight Stenography)

Using computer-assisted realtime transcription (CART) is useful not just for people with hearing impairment; people whose first language is not the same as the speaker's, or people with some specific learning difficulties, may find it useful to have a real-time transcript.

In the USA, one in seven people have hearing loss. For people over 65, that rate goes up to one in three. Events at most conferences seat hundreds of people, so statistically it’s a sure bet that at least some of those people would benefit from captioning. Even people with mild hearing loss, who do quite well in one-on-one social situations by using a combination of residual hearing, lip reading, and context clues, often have trouble with conference audio, which can be distorted in the amplification process, and which puts the speaker so far away from the audience that lipreading becomes impossible. There’s also the benefits that captioning can offer people without hearing loss, who may be more comfortable reading written English than understanding spoken English (very common when English isn’t a person’s first language), or who may have central audio processing issues (very common in Aspergers and autism) or attention deficit issues such as ADHD.


And the transcript forms a useful record of the conference, and can be used by people who couldn't attend the conference because of cost or distance, or who have disabilities making travel impossible or difficult, or who are unable to obtain visas. The transcript can also be translated (or machine-translated, which may be good enough for getting the gist or deciding whether ot order a paid-for translation).

All this widens access to and participation in the conference, and means that the cost of providing the transcript can be covered by the general budget rather than being a specific cost for one or two delegates.

An example of a conference video being transcribed


And a picture of a conference with, it appears, both transcription and sign.

delegates on a conference stage, with a presentation video screen and a transcription video screen behind them; the transcription screen is showing the words spoken by a delegate

  • 1
    To what extent is this actually used at the moment?
    – Tommi
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 12:19
  • 2
    @Tommi I can't find statistics quickly, but it's standard technology and skills, and fairly widely available, so almost any conference organiser should be able to do so if given reasonable notice.
    – Owain
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 14:26

COVID briefings are aimed at the general public (and many Deaf people have poor English skills due to a history of bad Deaf education) and are low on jargon (hence fairly straightforward to interpret). Interpreting into the local sign language is the right choice for maximum accessibility.

For a high-jargon scientific speech to an audience of scientists, transcription may be the better option. You would need a specialist interpreter to manage such a speech; and it would be tricky for the Deaf audience member to view both the interpreter and the slides at the same time.

  • Qualifications: dropped out after two years of a Deaf Studies degree; training to become an interpreter.
    – TRiG
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 9:20

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