Being in the Room

The first time I attended and presented at the Multidisciplinary Approaches to Language Policy and Planning Conference was in 2015 in Calgary with Jennifer Paul, where we presented what became our paper “Framing Deaf Children’s Right to Sign Language in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” That year, I experienced some conflicts with the conference chair vis-à-vis the University of Calgary’s inadequate provisions for conference access for deaf participants. Mentorship and support from more well-established Canadian deaf academic colleagues is what helped me negotiate this process. As a result, Jennifer and I had the experience of attending the conference in those halcyon pre-COVID days. Here we are with the interpreting team:

The second time I attended the same conference was in 2018 at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, where I was an invited keynote speaker (this presentation became my paper “Sign Language Planning and Policy in Ontario Teacher Education”). The third time was the following year at the same venue, where I organized a colloquium presentation with two deaf Ph.D. students from different Ontario universities about critical approaches to the future of American Sign Language policy and planning in Canada. Both students presented their Ph.D. research (one has since graduated). Both years the conference organizers provided a team of interpreters, and this enabled me to offer some semblance of mentorship to other deaf scholars from my comparatively more well-established position without simultaneously needing to struggle for access to the conference itself.

I find myself constantly returning to Olúfémi O. Táíwò’s article, “Being-in-the-room privilege: Elite capture and epistemic deference” wherein Dr. Táíwò defines “elite capture” as “the control over political agendas and resources by a group’s most advantaged people.” He also critiques “standpoint epistemology” that seeks to center the most marginalized voices. As he argues:

Some rooms have outsize power and influence: the Situation Room, the newsroom, the bargaining table, the conference room. Being in these rooms means being in a position to affect institutions and broader social dynamics by way of deciding what one is to say and do. Access to these rooms is itself a kind of social advantage, and one often gained through some prior social advantage. From a societal standpoint, the “most affected” by the social injustices we associate with politically important identities like gender, class, race, and nationality are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, underemployed, or part of the 44 percent of the world’s population without internet access – and thus both left out of the rooms of power and largely ignored by the people in the rooms of power. Individuals who make it past the various social selection pressures that filter out those social identities associated with these negative outcomes are most likely to be in the room. That is, they are most likely to be in the room precisely because of ways in which they are systematically different from (and thus potentially unrepresentative of) the very people they are then asked to represent in the room.

While I may have managed to get into this particular conference room these few times, based on aspects of my social position that render me different from those deaf and nondeaf people who were not in the room, the welcome did not last.

The last time I attended the Multidisciplinary Approaches in Language Policy and Planning conference as an elite room in the Canadian applied linguistics academy was in August 2021 via Zoom. I was supposed to co-present with a deaf research colleague, Krishna Madaparthi, who turned out to be unable to attend. Unfortunately, this year there was not only no interpreter provision by the conference itself—a hurdle I am able to clear relatively easily from my privileged position of having access to a staff interpreter—but also there was a more or less outright refusal to support access by helping the interpreter obtain preparatory materials from presenters. Below is representative of the communication we received from the conference chair:

I gave a presentation at this conference regarding our research on piloting an online American Sign Language teaching model to parents of deaf children during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, to do so I needed to push past the epistemic injury inflicted by this exchange and others (I am not a legitimate participant but an interloper).

What this experience, and the silence that followed, made clear to me is that my place in the room of the Canadian applied linguistics academy remains tenuous. It is also a room where I, like other deaf people in the academy, have had few mentors to guide me. The academy, or at least the one I saw last summer, is largely silent on matters that it doesn’t see as relevant to its own interests or falling under the purview of “mainstream” (i.e., spoken-language) language policy and planning. Yet this deprives the hearing-speaking academy, as Dr. Táíwò puts it,

from engaging empathetically and authentically with the struggles of other people – prerequisites of coalitional politics.

In the room of the Canadian academy, signing deaf people are underrepresented as faculty and students, as mentors, and as creators and agents of epistemological inquiry. If instead, as Dr. Táíwò writes, the academy were to refocus its collective project:

It would focus on building and rebuilding rooms, not regulating traffic within and between them – it would be a world-making project: aimed at building and rebuilding actual structures of social connection and movement, rather than mere critique of the ones we already have.