Deaf scholars take the lead with new book and conference

Volume is first to be written and edited entirely by deaf academics

June 20, 2017
Woman using sign language

A new book and conference represent “a major leap forward for the discipline” of deaf studies.

Innovations in Deaf Studies: The Role of Deaf Scholars, edited by Annelies Kusters, Maartje De Meulder and Dai O’Brien, is the first volume to be written and edited entirely by deaf academics. 

A tie-in conference, held at Heriot-Watt University on 14 to 15 June, brought together more than 200 delegates from 26 countries, who communicated through British Sign Language and International Sign. All the main presentations were by deaf scholars who were speaking about the chapters that they had contributed.

Although deaf scholars in the field are still outnumbered by hearing scholars, who also tend to secure more senior positions and place more articles in high-impact journals, the editors point out in their introduction to the book that universities are witnessing “a gradual increase in the number of deaf studies scholars who are deaf”. Innovations in Deaf Studies is the first title to take this important development fully on board.

“The book is definitely a precedent in that there are no other deaf studies edited volumes entirely written and edited by deaf scholars,” said Dr Kusters, assistant professor in sign language and intercultural studies at Heriot-Watt. “This book thus definitely sheds the spotlight on deaf researchers’ contributions and how their lived experience as deaf persons influences their research theories, frameworks and methodologies.”

Dr Kusters described the conference as “a major leap forward for the discipline” and said that it “redefined the terms and conditions in which we have been doing research for the last decades”.

Attendees debated topics including autoethnography, deaf studies in the US and Global South, deaf queer ontologies, deaf theology and intergenerational responsibilities.  

In her own presentation, Dr Kusters noted that deaf scholars in universities “often work in physical isolation from deaf peers” and “have to spend a lot of time organising access”. They “lack[ed] access to (informal) university discourses” and their work was often dismissed as “too native, too activist, too radical”.

She stressed that the editors of the book were “not saying that hearing scholars cannot do deaf studies research”. Nonetheless, the continuing dominance of hearing academics would be quite “unthinkable” in the parallel cases of black studies or women’s studies, Dr Kusters argued. It was not enough for such scholars to be able to “sign, [to] have ‘a good attitude’ and to work with deaf research assistants”. Instead, they had a moral responsibility to “use hearing privilege to support deaf researchers’ careers”, as increasing numbers were doing.

By examining “who gets to define the field”, Dr Kusters told Times Higher Education, the book and conference should help ensure that the future of deaf studies is “truly deaf-led”.

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