Our newly published article out now: Deaf academics and academia

The long awaited article written by Dai O’Brien and I is now available online, in the latest issue of Qualitative Inquiry.

It feels poignant to read it now, the first draft was written towards the end of 2011, two years ago. At that time, the Centre for Deaf Studies, Bristol was under threat, and it has now actually been closed. Poignant because it was a response to an article written in the same publication, which wrote of the growing Deaf academic power, and how hearing people might work to negotiate their place within this new power. The quote: ‘be careful what you wish for’ was never more relevant. Gone are the ‘powerful’ Deaf academics that the article were concerned about; nine deaf jobs lost, an equal number of hearing jobs also gone, one of the most effective interpreting services dismantled, 35 years of research and academic work knifed to death.

That’s what I call power!

We have great respect for the authors of that article, but it was, bluntly, difficult to read. The authors contacted (highly regarded and very well respected) non-Academic Deaf people, whereby the hearing research leaders were the project leaders, and Deaf laypeople were participants. We make no excuse for flagging up Deaf/hearing divides: we aren’t the ones who started that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with involving non-academic Deaf people, for those Deaf people have far more expertise in the subject area (poetry) than we can ever hope to hold. They were ideal people to contact for that article.

But what was very saddening and disappointing was the fact that the article took a horribly vicious swipe at Deaf academics, and yet did not bother to consult with those they were attacking in the first place. That, in our mind, was an imposition of academic privilege.

Certainly, there are some very privileged Deaf people working in academia, and we are two such people (although I am unemployed). It’s always critically vital that we look at ourselves and check what we do, how we act and behave, and work hard to ensure we do not overstep our privileges. There is no question at all that we will never get it always right, and being white men, English literate, we have the responsibility to be transparent and communicative.

To that extent we have written what we hope will be a balanced response, particularly critical of the postmodern perspective the authors champion, with an invitation to open dialogue on these matters involving other academics, particularly those who are undertaking research in this subject, e.g. Nicola Nunn at the University of Central Lancashire.

The starting point is the nature of academia itself. Deaf academics are as guilty of failing to address the nature of the beast they work within; there is an unwritten, unexposed assumption that we do so to improve and increase knowledge about the communities within which we work. There’s lots of talk about ‘working together’, but we do so in a highly politicalised environment. Individuals continue to work independently because that’s how they are systemically expected to. There is no political will to work together in practice, because it is far easier to work within the constraints of the system,and to splinter ourselves within our ‘discipline’.  Win research funding and conduct research first, through the networks you know; the involvement of the community comes next.

I hope our article lays down some challenges and markers. We are academics, whatever our audiological and cultural status. We have enormous power. And the doors are far more closed for some than others.



  1. Can someone define who, or what a deaf academic is ? Someone who can’t hear ? someone born deaf ? someone genetically deaf related ? someone who signs ? someone who went to a deaf club ? Someone who is an authority on deaf issues and history ? Surely most of those categories are hearing dominated ? There is also the kick-back of if the academic signs or not…

    1. Meldrew, yes that is the whole point really: most are hearing dominated. They are not all bad of course 🙂 In terms of what an academic is, I think Gramsci had it spot on when he said that we are all intellectuals, but some of us have the ‘status’ of an ‘intellectual’. For intellectual read academic. He also distinguished between ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’ intellectuals – the former are those who work in medicine, science, that kind of research, or who have roles such as a priest or government official (well he was writing in the early 1900’s) and other important sounding people who government liked people to think of as important; the organics are those who work with communities or have some connection to them in the research they are doing. Most (and I mean a HUGE amount!) of the money, alas, does indeed go to traditional academics, in the form of science to find cures for deafness, such as genetics, technologies, and the rest. The organics get very little in comparison, the competition for it is getting harder and fiercer, given the emphasis on science and medicine and profit margins. And, yes, signing is a very big issue, for those undertaking research in sign language linguistics particularly. There remain people who do not sign and study sign language communities, alas, and get their PhD’s, and yet Deaf native signers working in uni’s for years…well, there you go…

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