By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


In the 21st century, with technological advances, and an increased understanding of the importance of inclusion, it would be easy to imagine that there is a welcoming environment in higher education for deaf young people. In fact, the numbers of deaf students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at university level have stalled in the last decade.

Striking underrepresentation

A 2021 report for the Royal Society found that the percentage of undergraduate and postgraduate STEM students who were deaf or had a serious hearing impairment stayed at just 0.3% between 2007/8 and 2018/19. In the UK, 1.3% of the population are severely or profoundly deaf.

(A 2014 study into diversity in STEM found that numbers of deaf students in STEM fields also fell between 2001 and 2012.)

And not only are deaf students significantly underrepresented in higher education STEM courses, they’re also far less likely to attend top universities. Despite deaf students who took A Levels attending university at around the same rate as their hearing peers, just 9% of them are admitted to a Russell Group institution, compared to 17% of students with no disabilities.

Florence Grieve, a profoundly deaf student at the University of Birmingham told the National Deaf Children’s Society: “Being less likely to go to a Russell Group university is not a reflection of deaf young people’s ability, but reflects the barriers we face. We need to have the right support, but also the confidence to aim high.”

In the general workforce, deaf people are underrepresented (65% of working age deaf people are in employment while the figure is 79% for the general population). It seems likely therefore, that deaf people are underrepresented in the STEM industries.  

Lack of support

When deaf students reach university, a shortage of the assistance they need, such as interpreters and specialist note takers, can mean they consider leaving their course. Students can wait months for the provisions that they are entitled to, a poll by the National Deaf Children’s Society found.

Habiba Bernier, who was a student at an Essex university at the time of the poll in 2018 told the Independent, “I was turning up to lectures half understanding what was being said, which made me feel like I didn’t belong there”.

An essay published in Life Sciences Education, entitled ‘Welcoming deaf students into STEM: Recommendations for University Science Education’, gave some real-life examples of other ways deaf students studying STEM have been made to feel unwelcome. They included being assigned to cleaning glassware while hearing peers were given research projects, and being told by a lecturer that having a sign language interpreter in the room was “very distracting”.  

The leaky pipeline

Children and young people in school may have intentions or thoughts of becoming scientists, but harmful stereotypes, a lack of role models and discrimination along the way often mean these intentions aren’t realised. This phenomenon is known as the leaky pipeline. It is clear that deaf students are facing negative experiences such as the ones mentioned above around higher STEM education (and school education) which may mean they decide to choose a different path.

Tom (Lok Ming) Tam, a hard-of-hearing postdoctoral researcher writing on the barriers deaf and hard of hearing (hoh) people face in STEM education, said:

“The biggest barrier for hoh/deaf people to succeed in science stems from the stereotypes, misconceptions, and unconscious biases that exist against us in the dominant hearing world.

Since diversity is key to progressive innovation, as scientists, like everyone, are guided by their own experiences and unique perspectives, a lack of deaf voices at the table is a big issue.  

A hopeful future

Nevertheless, we are seeing the opportunity to improve and hope for a brighter future; there are young deaf scientists paving the way for those who will come next.

Liam Mcmulkin started an undergraduate degree at the University of Dundee in 2015 studying Cell and Development Biology. Liam is deaf, and speaking to the BBC in 2019, he explained that watching sign language interpreters for an hour an can be tiring, especially when you’re learning new and complex scientific words. When there isn’t an existing sign for a word, each letter needs to be spelled out.

In response to this issue, Liam developed brand new signs for scientific terms, to aid his own learning, and also help future deaf STEM students. He developed over 100 new signs which have been accepted into the British Sign Language cannon.

Liam told the BBC:

“I feel really happy because I know from my own experience how difficult it is to learn during lectures. Now the new signs have spread, I feel it will be better for future students.”  

Liam went on to study for a  Master’s degree in Regenerative Medicine Research at the University of Dundee, who have a comprehensive plan to ensure they are inclusive and supportive of British Science Language users.

Be part of the solution

Deaf STEM students creating an easier path for those who follow them, that is inspired by their own experience and that enables and empowers themselves, is powerful. However, the work of increased understanding and inclusion must fall at the feet of the hearing population.

Tom (Lok Ming) Tam said:

“I believe mutual understanding between the hoh/deaf community and the hearing world, in conjunction with advancements in technology, will be the pivotal booster to further the inclusion of STEM education to hoh/deaf people.”

The previously mentioned Life Sciences Education journal entry includes advice for higher education faculty members to make deaf students feel more welcome, such as:  

  • showing more understanding
  • providing all students equal opportunities for research projects
  • keeping an open mind about the student’s abilities
  • avoiding shows of pity and/or condescension.

Being deaf or having an hearing impairment should not be a barrier to achieving great things. Throughout the history, there have been scientists who are deaf and inspired mankind: Thomas Edison, most famous for inventing the lightbulb, Olaf Hassel, a Norwegian astronomer who discovered Hassel’s comet, biochemist Nansie Sharpless who encouraged deaf people to consider a career in scientific research, bacteriologist Charles Nicolle who was the first deaf recipient of a Nobel Prize, and many others standing alongside Edison as deaf scientists who made significant contributions in science over the past two centuries.

As Tom (Lok Ming) Tam writes:

The emergence of deaf professionals clearly showcases that hoh/deaf people do not have a lesser intellect, and emphasizes that the inaccessibility to STEM education is to blame for the underrepresentation of hoh/deaf scientists around the world.

The next generation of Thomas Edisons is sitting in a lecture theatre today, the hearing world excludes them at our peril.

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