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Saint Mary’s University releases Sign Language Place Names Map

Saint Mary’s University has released the Atlantic Provinces Sign Language Place Names Map. Discover how they used Esri Story Maps to break down accessibility barriers for Deaf communities.

If you’re wondering how Saint John, New Brunswick differs from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador in sign language, you can find that out quickly through the new Atlantic Provinces Sign Language Place Names map that’s been released by Saint Mary’s University.

The interactive map shows you how to sign Atlantic Canada place names — over 115 in total — in both American Sign Language (ASL) and Maritime Sign Language (MSL). More place names are being added. 

The map’s unique because it preserves ASL, which has French sign origins, and MSL, a regional language that draws on its Irish, Scottish and English sign heritage. This map release comes at a critical time when universities, businesses and other organizations have been required and are striving to be more accessible. (You can read more about how Canada has adopted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as a standard for web accessibility in this recent blog post by George Kouroupis, Esri Canada’s director of technology and solutions.)

And Saint Mary’s University is taking the lead.

Dr. Linda Campbell, a project member and environmental science professor, had the idea to create the map to help Deaf and interpreting communities articulate the local names of places in four provinces: Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. The map, powered by ArcGIS Online, is becoming an effective educational tool for interpreters, educators and researchers across Canada and beyond.

Together with the other project members – Betty MacDonald (sign language expert and deaf talent leader), Ashley Campbell (ASL-English interpreter) and Greg Baker (Maritime Provinces Spatial Analysis Research Centre technician) — Dr. Campbell shared some insights with us on the map creation process, benefits and future plans.

Why did you decide to use Esri Story Maps for your project?

ArcGIS Online is much simpler and easier to implement than hosting a map locally by using our ArcGIS Server or other open-source alternatives. Ease of use was definitely a main consideration for implementation.

Did you have any challenges with the development of the story map? If so, how did you overcome these challenges?

There were a few challenges. The Map Tour template has an arbitrary limit of 100 places, but our project contains over 100 place names. So, we split our map into a series of individual maps for each province to remain under this limit. We also had some difficulty using video hosting websites because of the cost, so we choose YouTube.

How long did it take you to develop the story map?

From concept to completion, it took almost a year. But most of that time was spent coordinating between team members and gathering data and materials. Putting all the information into map form and customizing the maps was actually a pretty simple task — just half a day or so. Map Tour had all the elements we needed: the map, a space for video and a thumbnail-based index of all places. The template fit the needs of our data, our maps and our story.

What has been the feedback from people (citizens and staff) on the story map? What benefits has it extended to the public and internal staff?

SMU: The overall response has been very positive. The Deaf communities across the Maritimes have been going online and checking out the names. Sign language interpreters are very happy to have a good resource to refer to for place names.

The benefits of the resource extend past the signing communities as well. People are now more aware about the cultural heritage of MSL and the value of our truly local sign language. Geographers have told us that they plan to use this resource in teaching and demonstrating the significance of place names. Linguistics, researchers and sign language teachers are viewing this as a valuable reference for future analyzing, teaching and conserving our MSL and ASL place names.

What future plans do you have for the story map?

SMU: We’re currently in discussions with our colleagues in Newfoundland and Labrador who would like to contribute sign language names to the maps.

While we have over 115 names in the database, we’re aware that there may be some gaps. As a result, we encourage Deaf communities throughout Atlantic Canada to let us know when they identify any other place names. If any good names come up, we hope to add those in parallel with the Newfoundland and Labrador place names.

We’re also hoping this project will inspire other Canadian provinces to consider starting up similar map projects for their sign language place names.  We’re happy to share tips and links to resources to make that happen.

How do you like the Atlantic Provinces Sign Language Place Names map? Tells us by leaving a comment below.