Deaf Student Expands Sign Language Lexicon for Clinical Lab Sciences

Deaf Student Expands Sign Language Lexicon for Clinical Lab Sciences

August 29, 2014

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

Spelling and understanding words like “cytoplasmic” or “electrophoresis” can be hard for clinical laboratory sciences students. But for Betsy Bañuelos, who was born deaf, learning vocabulary that is specific to science is more difficult when those words are absent in American Sign Language.

Instead, Bañuelos, a junior in the Clinical Laboratory Sciences (CLS) program at The University of Texas at El Paso, has had to invent her own sign language lexicon of medical terms. A trailblazer, Bañuelos is the first deaf student in UTEP’s CLS program.

Bañuelos planned to become an X-ray technician, but a career in clinical laboratory sciences offered her the opportunity to help others in a health care setting, without having to interact directly with patients.

This fall semester, Bañuelos is working with four sign language interpreters from UTEP’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services (CASS) to generate new signs for words like “parasitology.”

“At first, I was apprehensive because of the technicality of the CLS program, but also there are so many requirements,” said Bañuelos, who also works as a research assistant on a lupus study led by Jacen S. Moore, Ph.D., an assistant clinical professor. Bañuelos presented her research during a poster presentation at the COURI Summer Symposium Aug. 2.

“It’s not just medical education or calculus, it’s also communication,” she added. “Communication is key. And we lack in communication as deaf people.”

In class, two interpreters and a notetaker help Bañuelos communicate with her professors and classmates.

The interpreters take turns interpreting the lecture, alternating every 15 minutes.

While one interpreter is signing, the other interpreter writes down unfamiliar or obscure words. Bañuelos then develops a sign for those words based on their definitions or descriptions.

“Some words are not difficult, some are,” explained Bañuelos, who is taking classes in hematology, serology, urine and body fluids, and clinical chemistry this fall semester. “Some parasites and some fungi have pictures that relate to it. But if there’s no visualization or picture to match the word, then we turn to the definition of the word or I break down the root word and make that into the sign.”

For example, Bañuelos came up with the sign language equivalent for the word “parasitology” by combining the sign for study, which stands for “ology,” with the sign for bug or parasite. She also added the letter “P” to the sign for blood to indicate plasma.

“There’s so much going on in my brain all at once,” Bañuelos joked. “It’s a lot of thought for one word.”

The interpreters meet with Bañuelos 30 minutes before class to learn the new signs. Faculty members like Lorraine Torres, Ed.D, Clinical Laboratory Sciences program director, provide the team a list of clinical terms so they can prepare in advance.

Hector E. Flores, manager of American Sign Language services at CASS, is one of Bañuelos’ interpreters. This fall, he is interpreting Bañuelos’ clinical chemistry class and its corresponding laboratory.

CASS provides students with disabilities a full spectrum of services, including note taking, sign language interpreting, reader services, auxiliary aides and adaptive technology, for free. Students must register with CASS and present medical documentation before they can receive services. Currently, CASS provides services to 600 students.

As part of his role, Flores explains to faculty and staff how the process works. He reminds people they are speaking directly to Bañuelos through the interpreter and there is no need for them to say, “Tell her,” or “Ask her.”

“I remind them to just speak directly to the student,” Flores said. “(Interpreters) are present because obviously we’re human beings, but in a way we are not present. We’re just there to relay the information.”

Interpreters usually wear black to blend into the background and they stand behind the person Bañuelos is talking to during a conversation.

In the bench lab where students conduct experiments, Moore installed a mirror on Bañuelos bench so she can see the interpreter relay instructions or read Moore’s lips when he makes suggestions, without her having to look away from the microscope.

After knowing Bañuelos a few months, Moore said the future clinical lab technician is capable of doing everything a hearing person can do.

She has learned to develop scientific questions, search and interpret scientific literature, write and follow scientific protocols, and perform experiments such as cytoplasmic protein isolation and quantitation, and Western blotting techniques.

“The reason I decided to get involved in research is because as I was growing up, many people don’t give deaf people a chance to show themselves or prove themselves,” Bañuelos said. “Not only hearing people, but deaf people themselves. They use deafness as an excuse that they can’t do X, Y and Z and they can’t go too far in life. My parents have taught me not to be like that. They taught me to challenge myself and never give up.”

Moore encouraged Bañuelos to participate in the COURI Symposium to boost her self-confidence and further develop her communication skills.

“Having attended many scientific meetings both nationally and internationally throughout my career, this was the first time I had ever experienced a hearing-challenged person present their scientific research,” Moore recalled. “I find that to be a significant milestone and a huge achievement for Betsy and the deaf community.”

Bañuelos has three children and is grateful for the support she receives from her husband, mother and stepfather, which has made it possible for her to pursue her dream of earning a university degree.

The CLS program also has provided Bañuelos with several opportunities, like writing a book about the new terminology she created that can be passed on to other deaf students.

“I would try one or two classes, then I thought I would just give it up or that people would not accept me, but I was totally wrong,” Bañuelos said. “Once I stepped into it, so many doors have opened. It’s been a bit overwhelming, but it’s been a great process.”


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