Discussion points: at the intersection

Our article was intended to provoke debate, so thanks to everyone who has contributed so far.

Putting aside access issues for the time being, I really feel the need to bring discussion to the article. Mainly also because some of the contributions are going into areas which I feel are not quite ‘getting it’, as Alison put it. It was also something that cropped up in the lifeinlincs debate a few months back, so I am going to take this opportunity to clarify, as briefly as I can, what we are trying to get at.

I’m also sure people will recognise that the issues we address in the article are as relevant to other fiends of work too.

First, our article isn’t intended as a contribution to the practicalities about how Deaf and hearing academics can work together, although there is a strong overlap. Nicola Nunn is currently doing her work in this field and will have far more to contribute than we do. Do please keep an eye for the presentations and work she’s doing in this field.

Second, as has become apparent, it’s a *reaction* piece. As Alison, Sarah, and others have pointed out, reading the original gives our article its crucial context. It reacts to an article by two authors.

Thirdly, while we do elaborate on how and why hearing academics are able to advance their careers in relation to Deaf academics, our key concern is the fact that this situation risks remaining unchanged in spite of a growing number of Deaf academics. [It greatly concerns us when some have written that they didn’t feel as supported as they could have been. I also know several had to withdraw academic studies through lack of support.]

To us, the original article can best be visualised as follows. Imagine a newly born dog, yapping and yelping and learning to live its life: the article was the equivalent of kicking the poor mite cos it is constantly barking at them. Of course, the authors in no way intended that, but that’s how it came across when we read it (the barking dog in question? ‘Deaf academic power’). Where do hearing academics stand in this new power development, they stated? We think there are problems with the questions, but you really have to read their article to form an opinion, I will not be doing those authors any justice by trying to sum it up here.

Two things: one we do recognise there is a growing Deaf academic elite in the UK, but, like we say, it’s a yapping little dog right now. Nevertheless, we do have to think about how that might develop into a confident, assertive, self-reflective, transparent, forward-thinking, truly diverse, intersectional breed. We want to encourage Deaf academics to think about their relationship to academia and the community: these academics (yes, Dai and I included) get prestige and advantages from our positions and publications [more on that later].

Secondly, without in any way meaning to discredit or alienate people who are working hard in unity with Deaf and hearing academics, it’s painfully hard to ignore the fact that this discussion is taking place against a background where privileged hearing academics are able to gain prestige, experience and status through hard-to-fund research projects. When we see yet another project that either excludes Deaf academics, or sees them situated in a lesser status in relation to it, we feel it.

A more appropriate question is: what tools can be created to enable Deaf academics to lead Deaf-related research projects, departments, and funding? The balance of hearing-Deaf academic power is hopelessly outweighed in favour of the former; nobody will deny that, but the question is: are you willing to find ways of relinquishing power to enable us all to redress that imbalance?

Now, of course, we have been very careful to qualify that when we say ‘Deaf Power’ we don’t mean some oppressive ruling structure that simply replicates the one that already exists, to replace one with another. We also certainly don’t mean it excludes hearing people as we have been at pains to say. And Deaf academics have a huge responsibility too, because looking around at us, the majority are white, middle-class, and our research is barely accessible to those who are not English literate; men outnumber women, and there is a glaring lack of black women and men, disabled deaf people, and many others.

Crucially, also, what is the nature of most of the research, another question altogether, but an important one.

These brief but key points are the thrust of our article. Within these thrusts we can find space to address ‘on the ground’ issues such as hearing/deaf relationships in academia. Owning up to privilege is key for us all: not to push people into some guilt trip, but to seek ways in which we can all drive research into the direction which recognises and encourages Deaf community self-determination, at the intersection.


  1. Good stuff, Steve. So here’s a question: supposing I am willing but not able to find “ways of relinquishing power to enable us all to redress that imbalance”. What would you advise me to do? And here’s another difficult one: what’s the optimum balance between getting the best quality of research done, and having Deaf-led research? Of course these beg a hundred ‘well, that depends…’ replies – but I think you’ll get my basic thrust, ie when there are compromises to be made around these issues, how can we navigate them to best effect? I ask in the constructive spirit of your implied challenge – you know me well enough to appreciate that – trying, as you are, to advance the discussion.

    1. Just to add my 2p’s worth to this… I think that Steve makes a fair point of the idea that some people can “play the game” better than others. Obviously, in a hearing-dominated institution like the university, hearing people have an advantage over Deaf in this respect. In this sense, maybe collaboration is the only way to approach it. Having hearing ‘mentors’ or ‘PA’s for the Deaf staff to help them navigate the system in a way that they would be able to if the institution was truly accessible (I have to admit, this isn’t my idea, my wife came up with it). Alternatively, and maybe more realistically, should the Deaf and hearing people be working together in the same department, then regular update meetings could take place, a more formal version of the water cooler talks, just to make sure that the information that Deaf would usually miss out on really is being passed on.

      I think a way forward initially would be to try and set up a kind of network (mentioned already on facebook I believe), so that Deaf academics and hearing academics can contact each other and network in an accessible fashion. I know we have Deaf academic groups, but because they’re segregated from the hearing academics that we work with, it means that they aren’t really effective ways of passing on information. If we want to learn from each other, we have to communicate with each other. The communication aspect is something that I really think is missing. We’re all working in relative isolation, physical and informational.

  2. Graham, thanks for replying, I’ll try my best to respond to the challenge, and probably raise more challenges in the process!
    This issue was discussed at a BDA event in Preston around 10 years ago; the same question came up and 10 years on, I’m not sure much has changed…ok maybe a bit. (In that discussion, if my memory serves me right, it was about why there was a lack of Deaf people in positions of leadership within Deaf organisations and deaf academia though there were plenty capable. There was some uncomfortable shifting in seats that I recall.) Basically I don’t want to be here in another 10 years writing about the same question. It’s a systemic, institutional, problem: plus of course the University is now becoming commercial and more profit-minded, which there is nothing we can do about (well other than occupations and strikes I guess). It’s easier to talk about working together on research projects within those institutions to try find a place for individual Deaf people; much harder to talk about how the institutional culture can be changed so that in 10 years, doors really are open. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing collaborative projects, just saying. I don’t have all the answers, I think that could come better by an effective discussion without us all taking it too personally. The article Dai and I critique would be valuable if that’s what it leads to. I do hint at the end of my PhD: a Deaf perestroika, a means of challenging and changing the structures of the system that deny bright, representative, intellectual, intelligent Deaf people to take their place as ‘leaders’ within services that come under their names. (Incidentally the same experience in Social Services, in ‘user-involvement’, huge expectations on local people to work to the service structural rules – which never stopped changing – little evidence of those structures making accommodations, hence the endless cycle of questionnaires ‘what do deaf people think health services need to do to improve their services for deaf people’, etc….that I was writing out in 1993 thinking it was a new and novel thing to be doing!) We see Deaf people populated within academia (at least in the UK, well, those who still have their jobs), but not primarily as Dr’s, Professors, Principle Investigators, and the like. (Ok credit to DCAL, lots of Dr’s coming out from there.) The support I personally had has been great, but I feel a strong need to speak out when I read articles like the one in QI, see the debate in lifeinlincs (which was good by the way), and see what others are saying/signing/feeling. I think academia is itself a contradictory beast anyway. I guess I’m suggesting that different kinds of spaces are needed to enable those Deaf ‘voices’ to be the mainstay of Deaf studies related research and education, hence my continual reference to Kaupapa Māori principles, which incidentally I learnt about from Dai. I’m sure it’s not perfect but there’s more info here: http://www.rangahau.co.nz/research-idea/. As they say:
    “Just because you are Māori, or your topic and/or participants are Māori, doesn’t necessarily mean you are conducting or engaging in Kaupapa Māori research”
    I was inspired by Gallaudet I guess: Deaf native’s in leadership roles in a balanced working environment that can have hearing departmental heads. (Not that I’m saying Gally was perfect, but it’s a start!) So maybe there is a need for a Deaf University rather than us all working isolated, competing against each other for limited research funding, where those who are likely to succeed….you get my grift. Incidentally, I still struggle to understand how we approach the Peer Review process. It’s heavily against us all, but some seem to have the knack of cracking it. The imbalance is prevalent in other areas of work too when it doesn’t need to be. Bob Duncan has illustrated it in the case of Deaf Interpreters, which in many ways is far more indicative of the continued glass ceilings.
    Happy thinking!

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