All posts by ksnoddon

Elite Capture

Elite Capture by Olúfémi O. Táíwò is a slim book that grew out of a blog post for The Philosopher. With reference to protests against anti-Black racism and police killings, at the book’s core is the concept of “the elites’ tactics of performing symbolic identity politics to pacify protesters without enacting material reforms; and their efforts to rebrand (not replace) existing institutions, also using elements of identity politics” (p. 5).

Elite capture appears to be an insidious force co-opting various political projects, including those Dr. Táíwò might not name but that recur in my own life. However, at fault is not identity politics in itself—a phenomenon he traces to the Combahee River Collective of Black feminists who in the 1970s were sidelined by both women’s rights and Civil Rights movements, “as white women’s tokens or as Black men’s secretaries” (p. 7). In fact, as Dr. Táíwò affirms, identity politics was originally motivated by the desire for “diverse coalitional organizing” (p. 8), not the foreclosure of alliance-building. This is something that has long moved me about Audre Lorde’s work.

However, identity politics itself has also fallen victim to elite capture in that it has become co-opted in the service of dominant groups’ interests. This is a result of different groups of people having differential access to power and resources, to different rooms—“the Situation Room, the newsroom, the bargaining table, the conference room” (p. 69). Caught up in rooms that others have little or no access to, well-intentioned people are tempted to play the politics of deference and pass the mic to more marginalized people in the same room. However, Dr. Táíwò argues, this discourse focuses attention on the symbolic and performative at the expense of larger aims, such as building new rooms. After all, we are already in the room by virtue of our comparative advantages and thus less equipped to represent the most marginalized people with whom we may share facets of a particular social identity.

What does Dr. Táíwò propose? Nothing less than old-school critical pedagogy in the manner of Paolo Freire (and just like that, I am back in Jim Cummins’ classroom in the fall of 2005). Joining theory to action, Dr. Táíwò traces the history of the Portuguese Empire from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism to the rise of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde that won independence in 1973. As Freire predicted, the struggle for liberation frees the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Following the successes of the African Party’s revolutionary struggle in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, the Portuguese people threw off the fascist Estada Novo government.

In urging a constructive political culture focused on coalition-building, Dr. Táíwò reflects on his own trauma, not because he feels it confers him with special rights but because these experiences of suffering, in James Baldwin’s words, “were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive” (p. 121). Our vulnerability is part of what enables us to work together for larger aims.

On Voicing

This month, I will cycle through my fourth designated interpreter in nine years and begin working with a new interpreter. As the only tenure-track or tenured deaf university professor in Canada without speech privilege and who doesn’t teach ASL, the stakes of working with a designated or academic staff interpreter are different for me than from how they are for deaf professors who speak for themselves in meetings, lectures, and presentations. Some of these issues are discussed in Writing as Being: On the Existential Primacy of Writing for a Deaf Scholar.

A main feature of both being a deaf professor without speech privilege and being a designated or academic staff interpreter is that no one is really prepared for either role or for navigating around what these roles entail. Take an average student in a 3-year community college interpreter training program (give or take a year depending on program prerequisites and format). These programs generally focus on a machine model of English-to-ASL interpretation. Along with promoting ideologies regarding standard ASL varieties that signal affiliation with particular institutions, these programs generally seem to view deaf people as consumers, patients, and clients rather than as collaborators and professionals. Interpreter agencies further entrench these ideologies and regimes of behaviour.

In short, interpreter training program graduates are generally not prepared to work with deaf professors for whom the conveyance of information from ASL-to-English has particularly high stakes. In other words, the deaf professor may not sound (much) like a professor. However—and I cannot emphasize this too strongly—if interpreters only signed up for the jobs that they are trained for, then there would be even fewer deaf professors.

We learn how to be deaf people in this world not from normative standards for language and behaviour but from other deaf—and deafblind—people. This is why John Lee Clark’s Against Access resonates so strongly. All too often for deaf and deafblind people, access is placed at the centre as if it was the only aim of an encounter, instead of connection and dialogue. A machine model of sign language interpreting means that an interpreter can be a barrier to connection instead of facilitating it. Instead of confronting the world on our own terms, deaf people can be held hostage by systems that view us as a means to an end, of access for its own sake.

Thinking this way, as John wrote to me, can we abandon the idealized notion of equivalence? What if the goal is not (only) to sound like a hearing professor but to construct understanding as a mutual endeavour on all sides? What would “fumbling toward articulation, toward a message” look like in the classroom, faculty meeting room, or conference room?

Writing and Epistemic Injustice

When my paper “Writing as Being: On the Existential Primacy of Writing for a Deaf Scholar” came out last January, there was an immediate effort to have the paper retracted (or whatever it was that was being attempted).

The journal editors sent the complaint to the publisher’s legal team to see if the paper could be viewed as libelous. After a period of time, the legal team responded. It is worth quoting at some length from the lawyer’s email that was shared with me by the journal editors.

  1. While remarking on the “vociferousness” of the complaint, the legal team noted there was no basis for the legal complaint of libel (i.e., my paper does not assert as a statement of facts something that hurts another’s professional reputation or is not true).
  2. In the context of an analytic ethnography article, my approach to not naming the source of a comment on Twitter was reasonable since the comment was not particularly novel or innovative (the broad consensus on Twitter indicates that the position taken in the comment that I cited is generally accepted).
  3. The comment was not substantial to the main point of my article but rather provided a contrast to my autoethnographic work about my experience as a deaf scholar and writer.
  4. My reference to the comment was not disparaging. (Rather, I stated in my paper that the position taken in the comment was sensible and understandable.)
  5. I do not represent another’s ideas as my own (i.e., the paper does not plagiarize).
  6. I was not being unethical or dishonest not to specifically cite the comment in my brief reference to the exchange.
  7. The complainant is/was attempting to bully me (as a minoritized scholar) into changing or retracting my paper.

Over the course of this past winter and spring, I have given some thought to the reactions to my paper and its claims for writing as freedom as speech in both the Derridean sense, “the freedom to bring forth the already-there as the freedom to auger,” and in the sense I describe in the paper about writing as being less mediated for me than face-to-face encounters. To understand the reactions, something needs to be said about audism and epistemic injustice.

Miranda Fricker coined the term epistemic injustice to describe what happens when a person’s testimony is discarded because of the person’s standing. Fricker refers to testimonial injustice, where members of a certain social group are seen as having less credibility, and to hermeneutical injustice, where some area of a person’s experience is excluded from the common stock of knowledge due to prejudice.

I was seen on Twitter as lacking credibility because of being a deaf scholar with less social capital (the 600+ likes that the complainant garnered for their tweets attacking my paper as compared to the approximately 9 likes that I received for mine announcing publication of my paper are evidence of this). In addition, the claims I made in the paper about my own experiences as a deaf writer and about writing as (a) language for many people with communication disabilities were rejected out of hand because of ableism and audism, and because the claims I made were different from the general consensus. As the disabled poet Jillian Weise has remarked, most (nondisabled) audiences prefer to read about disabled (and deaf) people rather than reading work by a disabled person.

Happily, “Writing as Being” will remain published.

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.

Plurilingualism and (In)competence in Deaf Education

This is a re-post of a blog post originally written for Channel View Publications and Multilingual Matters.

This month, Multilingual Matters published Critical Perspectives on Plurilingualism in Deaf Education edited by Kristin Snoddon and Joanne C. Weber. In this post, the editors explain the inspiration behind the book.

This book was inspired by what we see as an unbalanced revitalization of sign languages. Around the world, national sign languages are increasingly popular as second language courses in schools and postsecondary contexts. At the same time, their learning and use by deaf children is in decline in countries that previously afforded the congregation of deaf children in some form, whether in special education settings or (more rarely) bilingual education classrooms and schools where a national sign language and written/spoken language are languages of instruction.

In many global North countries, this decline in deaf children’s learning of sign language is due to their medicalization in a framework of hearing screening and early intervention and policies that restrict families’ learning of sign language when a child receives a cochlear implant. In both the North and South, however, the way that governments and policy-makers have interpreted the tenets of inclusive education has meant the dismantling of deaf schools and other settings where deaf children can gather. Deaf people’s gathering inside and outside the classroom is critical to the transmission and maintenance of sign languages, even when teachers in these settings do not use a national sign language. Without sign languages, deaf children are at risk of language deprivation, which leads to poor educational and health outcomes.

However, there are new directions in plurilingual education for deaf children and youth in terms of classroom pedagogy, programming, and curricula. This research is driven by deaf ontologies, or what deaf people do with language. There is a need to further explore what concepts such as plurilingualism and translanguaging mean in the context of deaf people’s self-determination and empowerment.

Hannah Arendt (1961) wrote that in spite of efforts to build a new world through the education of children, children are introduced to a pre-existing world that has been constructed by those who came before us. Our book chronicles the history of education for deaf children and the suppression of sign languages in several contexts, including the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, and Canada.

As this book went to press, both of us learned that the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan, where we respectively live, are rolling out American Sign Language (ASL) curricula and classes for hearing high school students. At the same time, deaf children and youth across Canada are unlikely to receive broad support for learning in ASL via early intervention systems or schools. It is in these contexts and others that new directions in plurilingual sign language-medium education are needed, driven by the agency of signing deaf people.

For more information about this book please see the Multilingual Matters website.

Notes Toward an Ethics of Non-Normative Communication (or, Why Can’t a Writing System be “(a) Language”?)

Deaf and autistic people actually draw upon a wide range of semiotic and communicative repertoires and communication modalities. This is an area of productive overlap as both deaf and autistic people confront normative language ideologies about what language is and how it should be produced as well as the role of other people, machines, and technology in mediating communication.

michele friedner & pamela block

We would do well to abandon the pretense that it’s possible to reproduce base things in realms other than those that gave birth to them. Instead, we can leave those things well enough alone where they belong, or, moved by possibilities, we can transgress, translate, and transform them.

john lee clark

Access and affordances

These notes are in part inspired by a disastrous Twitter exchange where I was unsuccessful in attempting to argue for a view of writing systems as (a) language. As Twitter may not lend itself well to scholarly dialogue or extrapolation, I will here attempt a longer essay.

First, part of what I was attempting to address was what I saw as the underlying perception of language as a formal linguistic system that is a priori to what takes place when someone writes (in other words, the modality of writing is an expression of the named language as a complete linguistic system, which a priori resides elsewhere than in the act of writing and is just being borrowed or channelled in one modality when writing takes place). This argument also requires some dexterity since many scholars see the hegemony of written language as what needs to be challenged rather than what needs to be defended.

Most of us are born into a world where language is already there. We hear sounds and voices in utero and are born to parents and caregivers whose sensory ecologies are reciprocal with ours. Other uses of language, including writing, that we acquire are subsequent to and follow from this initiation to the world. However, if we are born deaf or deafblind, we may encounter language not immediately but elsewhere. Such language and our mastery of it may not (ever) be viewed as complete in normative terms. If we become, instead of being born, deaf or deafblind, we may need to give up the mastery of language and begin anew. Other uses of language, including writing, may not be adjacent or subsequent, but primarily how we interact with and interpret the world. Thus, a writing system may be (a) language for some people. In writing, we can become a writer, which is a way of being in the world and not simply representing it.

This is the idea: The world contains instruments, which we grasp in terms of their affordances for action. In performing actions habitually, we take on roles, and in routinely taking on roles, we have an identity. Represented schematically:
affordance > instrument > action > role > identity
This process yields a way of residing in the world and is distinct from, but related to ways of representing the world.

terra edwards (interpreting kockelman, 2006)

The process of  “going tactile” and figuring out a language that deafblind people can use directly with one another and that represents the tactile world is a way to confront the problem of existence. It means figuring out a way that the world can work for us. This process means reinterpreting the affordances of the tactile world and of language. Language is not there a priori but is created in the act of use.

By bumping into, sniffing, tapping, brushing past, we are gathering intelligence of our own. 

john lee clark

Applied linguistics and new materialist views of language may better account for the complexity of what language means for different people with differing access and different affordances. We can look at how languages are understood from the perspective of the local, situated, and emergent, and think of language in terms of practices and distributed semiotic resources. Language is relational and entangled. In these terms, we might embrace the fumbling that takes place when people try to interact, communicate and understand.

Orientation and sociality, and power

This is the awful function of access: to make others happy at our expense. 

john lee clark

Autistic studies can contribute new understandings of the creative (and communicative) potential of refusal to engage in normative communication; refusal … can be an agentive act.

michele friedner & pamela block

Where should we disclose our discomfort with normative communication and sociality? Whose problem is it? 

Earlier this month, my department had a large meeting via Zoom. For background, I am the only deaf and ASL-using person in my department. There were two sign language interpreters booked because we anticipated a longish meeting, but I did not turn on my video camera when I logged onto Zoom. Over the past year of virtual meetings, I have learned to ask that participants turn off their cameras in order not to have a large gallery of faces taking up screen space, although this mostly means that the person everyone looks at is the interpreter. 

At the beginning of the meeting, attendees were asked to individually type our names in Zoom chat for the benefit of the minutes-taker. I was relieved because I thought this would take care of the introductions that hearing-speaking people seem to insist on at the beginning of every large meeting. However, after this, the faculty member chairing the meeting started to ask individual attendees to one by one turn on their video cameras and introduce themselves—name  rank, title. I couldn’t bring myself to turn on my camera to “introduce” myself (i.e., move my hands to have the interpreter speak while everyone else watched) and instead typed in the chat that I had already done so. I knew, however, that I had violated a fundamental convention of department meetings and made myself appear rude and uncooperative. I felt shaken and worried. I couldn’t sleep that night.

Others who may resist or stumble during this performed approximation of the norms of hearing-speaking-seeing-in-person communication include not only deaf and neurodiverse people but also racialized people who may not seamlessly pass in terms of normative white sociality. For most or all of our lives, we may strive to approximate normative communication because we want to be loved (by our families) or liked by peers or colleagues or at least not seen as disruptive. An ethics of non-normative communication considers what kinds of engagements are taken for granted and whose perspectives and identities are excluded, lost or overlooked.


My thanks to colleagues who shared their writing and experiences, and commiserated with me in writing these notes: Terra Edwards, Michele Friedner, Jason Nolan, and Jo Weber in addition to the contributors to the Twitter exchange on 22.4.2021.


Clark, J.L. (fothcoming fall 2021). Against access. McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, 64.

Edwards, T. (2021). The Protactile Movement. In Going tactile: Life at the limits of language. Manuscript in preparation.

Friedner, M. & Block, P. (2017). Deaf studies meets autistic studies. The Senses and Society, 12(3), 282-300.

Kockelman, P. (2006). Residence in the world: Affordances, instruments, actions, roles, and identities. Semiotica, 162, 19-71.

Why Should Deaf People Teach ASL?

This post was originally published on February 26, 2018 under a different site.

Discourses of native speakerism have been pervasive in the teaching of English as a second, additional, or foreign language. As Bonny Norton[1] has noted, these issues are tied to power and identity, and the perception that white speakers from what Kachru called “inner circle” countries possess a superior variety of English, which renders native speakers uniquely qualified to teach English. This perception of language ownership devalues the identities and teaching abilities of nonwhite English speakers, particularly those who have firsthand experience of learning English as a second or additional language. As Flores and Rosa argue, people of colour who are classified as English learners “can be understood to inhabit a shared racial posi­tioning that frames their linguistic practices as deficient.”[2] In other words, native speakerism in English language teaching is a proxy for racism.

In the field of ASL teaching in Canada and the USA, arguments against native speakerism in teaching ESL/EAL/EFL have been appropriated by white, hearing, able-bodied, native English-speaking people who defend their right to teach ASL and accuse of “discrimination” any deaf people or deaf advocacy organizations that may protest. In the way of white people, they smell a profit. Universities employ hearing instructors of ASL because deaf bodies are fewer in number; deaf people face barriers to language and communication from the cradle and are thus seen as inherently less qualified and intelligent than hearing people; deaf bodies are unruly and difficult to accommodate and communicate with. The latter is a main reason why quality ASL teaching by deaf instructors is important if you take the position, as I do, that learning ASL may imply a goal of eventually learning how to communicate with deaf people in some fashion.

One may also point out that hearing able-bodiedness is not a protected class in any human rights or anti-discrimination legislation, and it is ludicrous for individuals in positions of hegemonic power to accuse of discrimination an oppressed minority that daily faces social and epistemological violence. This is akin to accusations of “reverse racism” made by the alt-right against advocates for persons of colour. Indeed, hearing ASL teachers and their advocates seem disturbingly unaware of the historical and present-day social positioning of deaf people.

Teaching ASL is not the same thing as teaching English. For one thing, acquiring proficiency in a minority language is always more difficult than acquiring proficiency in a majority language. What it means to be a “native ASL speaker” is diametrically different from what it means to be a native English speaker. One wonders if the same individuals who accuse deaf people and advocacy organizations of “discrimination” would do the same to Indigenous language activists, if the former somehow figured out a way to make money from the teaching of Indigenous languages and if Indigenous speakers protested this cultural exploitation.

As a linguist colleague of mine has noted, ASL classes at postsecondary institutions in Canada and the USA are a big draw for students needing a modern language credit to graduate. Learning ASL is perceived as easier than learning other modern (spoken) languages, especially if there is no curriculum or rigorous assessment in place, and if deaf instructors do not have formal academic credentials. The devaluing of ASL means universities do not care about the quality of the classes they provide, the ASL proficiency of instructors they employ, or the ultimate impact this has on the deaf community, which has the most to lose and least to gain from the wholesale appropriation of ASL.

[1] Norton, B. (1997). Language, identity, and the ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 409-429.

[2] Flores, N. & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149-171.

The Chickens are Coming Home to Roost

Last Friday, my daughter came home from the school for the deaf she attends to tell me about a supply teacher her class had that day who, according to my daughter, couldn’t sign and who pulled down her mask in order to compel another student to lipread her. When the other student told the teacher in ASL that she needed to keep her mask up, she didn’t understand him. When my daughter followed up by voicing the other student’s utterance, the teacher pretended to drink from a water bottle.

In addition to the several layers of violence inflicted by a nondeaf adult on deaf children, what this episode underscores is the grave shortage of signing teachers at schools for the deaf (as the one place where these kinds of teachers are supposed to be available). The COVID-19 pandemic and the Ontario government’s construction of virtual schooling that is separate from in-person learning has also made this shortage more visible. This is because the Provincial and Demonstration Schools Branch is unable to provide signing teachers for at least some virtual school classrooms (as well as for some in-person classrooms, as my daughter’s experience shows). In order to staff teaching positions in virtual school, the PDSB has deployed home visiting teachers who are used to promoting and working only in spoken English and who are unprepared to teach signing deaf students online. As a consequence, the PDSB’s roster of sign language interpreters has also been deployed for virtual school and is thus unavailable to interpret for deaf students in classrooms such as the one where my daughter and other signing deaf students were present last Friday.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are not enough signing teachers of the deaf and not enough services to support signing deaf children in the classroom. This should have been apparent in 2002, when Dr. David Mason, the first and only deaf full-time faculty member in York University’s deaf education program, retired. This early retirement, soon after Dr. Mason’s successful appeal of a bid by deaf education program faculty to deny him tenure, followed years of tormenting and bullying by the same program faculty who are currently employed in ensuring signing deaf people don’t become teachers, and ensuring nondeaf teachers of the deaf don’t gain enough ASL proficiency to teach in it. All of this is chronicled in my paper Sign Language Planning and Policy in Ontario Teacher Education. During the eleven years of Dr. Mason’s tenure, three to eight deaf teacher candidates were accepted each year at York, and these graduates went on to fill teaching and administrative positions at schools for the deaf and in some school boards across Ontario. When he left, these numbers declined precipitously so that today, barely any new ASL-proficient deaf or nondeaf teacher candidates graduate from York.

It is ironic that the decline in qualified teachers of the deaf is accompanied by a steep rise in ASL education for nondeaf learners. Instead of focusing on an ASL language arts curriculum for deaf children as first-language learners, work that began in 1991, deaf teachers from the provincial schools are currently employed in developing an ASL curriculum for second-language learners for the Ministry of Education. Doubtless this curriculum, unlike the one for deaf children, will be published and shared widely across the province. Whenever I remark on this irony in the presence of a deaf teacher, the first thing I am told is that the L2 curriculum is “also for deaf children who learn ASL as a second language!” This statement, made repeatedly to me by licensed deaf teachers of the deaf with decades of classroom experience, leaves me incredulous. As if it has been empirically established by the same group of teachers that a majority of deaf learners in school board programs today have the same first-language development as nondeaf learners in English and/or French or another spoken language. As if there is no such thing as language deprivation, including among immigrant, refugee, and minoritized deaf children and youth who make up a significant proportion of deaf students today in both provincial schools and school board programs. As I remarked in my Introduction with Maartje De Meulder to our special issue about ideologies in sign language vitality and revitalization, what seems most prevalent among many deaf children and youth today is often not language shift from a sign language to a dominant spoken language but language shift to partial or no language.

It has become a popular discourse, shared by Gallaudet University president Dr. Roberta Cordano and others, that “everyone” should learn sign language and that this massive effort to teach ASL to nondeaf learners will achieve equity in education and life chances for deaf children and adults. I do not think this will ever be the case. For instance, in my previous university’s modern languages department, there are more ASL students enrolled than students in any other language course, but this does not result in or contribute to an environment where deaf children have access to ASL. I know this because I was unsuccessful in my appeal to the city’s public school board to provide a signing EA or interpreter for my daughter; hence, our departure to a town where a signing deaf school was located. But the same school board established an outside-of-school ASL heritage language class for nondeaf learners overnight. Incidentally, there are also not enough deaf ASL instructors in the region where my former university is located to provide ASL courses for over a thousand university students, resulting in the hiring of nondeaf instructors for most full-time teaching positions. This has a consequential impact on program quality, since acquiring proficiency in a second, minority language in a different modality requires more investment than may be apparent at first glance.

In terms of sign language maintenance and revitalization efforts, it is counterproductive to deploy the relatively few signing deaf adults with teaching licensure in the service of developing curricula and teaching ASL to nondeaf children. While Gerald Roche rightly observes that language endangerment is a result of oppression of speakers and signers, I also think that in the case of deaf communities, minority-language users bear some complicity in their own oppression. In their efforts to achieve legal recognition of sign languages, deaf advocacy organizations can erase diverse sign language varieties. In the excitement of having Ontario government support for teaching ASL, deaf teachers can overlook that their efforts have been diverted to serving the interests of the nondeaf majority. Perhaps it is not having deaf children of their own that leaves some deaf teachers feeling as if they have no skin in the game. Soon, there may be almost no signing teachers of deaf children left. What will we do then?

Reflections on the Indigenous Hands and Voices of African Identity Conference

Among my favourite writings by Jan Blommaert, who died last Thursday, involve his debate with Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Robert Phillipson about linguistic human rights. Two notable articles in this debate appeared in 2001 in the Journal of Sociolinguistics and referred especially to language rights in Africa. I was reminded of this last week when I attended the Indigenous Hands and Voices of African Identity: Discourse on Language Rights conference, a 2-day international virtual conference on indigenous African signed and spoken languages. I thought of Dr. Blommaert not only related to his position on issues of Indigenous language rights and language revitalization but also because of what he had to say about being a white European scholar working with African peoples.

For me, the most salient matter in every academic conference that is not led or organized by and for deaf scholars is how to gain access to it. I am a privileged person in that it was possible for me to arrange for American Sign Language interpreters for the conference (other scholars and colleagues facilitated the arrangement of British Sign Language interpreters through UK Access to Work provisions). And so, when the conference met virtually for the general sessions and sign language strand of presentations, the Zoom gallery featured ASL and BSL interpreters alongside Nigerian Sign Language interpreters and the presenters. With few notable exceptions, the majority of the presenters were African, non-deaf, and presented in spoken English. In other words, deaf academics and community members occupied a comparatively liminal role at this conference. The names of a number of mostly white deaf academics (who mostly had video turned off to save bandwidth) from Canada, the USA, the UK and Europe were visible in the gallery. Several of these deaf academics have conducted fieldwork in African countries and published research about sign languages in Africa. Participants also utilized the chat feature in Zoom to relay comments and questions in English text. On the first day of the conference, some time was taken up by discussion of the role of nondeaf scholars vis-à-vis deaf communities and the absence of deaf African scholars, such as Nyeleti Nkwinika, Sam Lutalo-Kiingi, Bonnie Busingye, and Noah Ahereza, from the conference. On the second day, Marco Nyarco, a deaf African scholar, appeared as a co-presenter, and several African and African-American scholars appeared as commentators.

Blommaert and Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson debated the matters of indigenous African language rights and the development of African languages. While Blommaert states that he is “in principle sympathetic” toward linguistic rights, he notes problems with the linguistic human rights approach. As he argues, a linguistic human rights paradigm can neglect other issues of inequity, such as the distribution of social and economic resources, and ignore data regarding speakers’ and signers’ language attitudes and practices. In particular, there are issues with named languages and diversity among these languages; languages are not “pure species.” Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson issue a solid rejoinder that I will not detail here but encourage you to read. Together, these writings bear relevance to the main substance of the sign language strand of the conference regarding the presence of ASL in (west) African sign languages and the need to revitalize and develop indigenous sign languages that are free of ASL influence. In the meantime, there are issues with the lack of early intervention and education services provided to young deaf children, and deaf children and young people’s lack of access to education. One presenter, Chikondi Mwale, who is also a sign language interpreter, delivered his presentation in sign language (and answered audience questions in sign language!) Mr. Mwale addressed the current state of sign language interpreting services in Malawi, including the situation of deaf people who became very ill and suffered the death of an infant due to lack of access to communication in health care. So, on the one hand it is important to revitalize and further develop indigenous sign languages as a matter of principle. On the other, in practice it is vitally important for deaf people to have access to a language. And then there is the matter of the sign language varieties that deaf people in Africa know and use, and how they regard their language varieties. Mr. Nyarco’s co-presenter Victoria Nyst also pointed out the benefits for deaf people of multilingualism in multiple sign languages.

In discussing what was important to his academic life, Dr. Blommaert talked about being both democratic and available to colleagues who lacked equal access to resources. He calls for “knowledge activism … in which knowledge is activated as a key instrument for the liberation of people, and as a central tool underpinning any effort to arrive at a more just and equitable society.” In my role and status as a white deaf academic from the global North, with access to interpreters and the unlimited resources of my university’s library, I hope I can also make my academic life more valuable to others.

Doing Deaf Studies in Theory and Everyday Life

This post was originally published on May 1, 2018 under a different site.

The title of this blog is borrowed from Tanya Titchkosky’s disability studies course (which, regretfully, I have never taken). I was inspired by my winter 2018 Introduction to Deaf Studies course, which I attempted to revamp to a greater degree than in the six previous years when I have taught the course. I still included my usual readings and lectures about Deaf Gain, ASL and early intervention, and inclusive deaf education. What was different was how I tried to seize what felt like harder issues, with classes focused directly on sign language vitality and cochlear implant discourses. But I also availed myself of new people and sources that offered themselves to me: Robert Sirvage talking about deaf epistemology, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke’s online resources about bioethics, Annelies Kusters’ generous production of Ishaare: Gestures and Signs in Mumbai and related documents. In having the privilege of including these resources, I felt that was in part able to further theorize Deaf Studies and bring it into everyday life in a way that felt new.

I say “in part” because the success of my class also depended on having its largest ever cohort (35 students!) In a class of this size, there was new diversity and new perspectives to draw on as my mostly hearing (but also deaf) students addressed and engaged with Deaf Studies in their own way. As one student put it in their annotated bibliography, the class began to view Deaf Studies not (just) as a fringe anomaly or a tired series of tropes about an imaginary, romanticized, self-contained “Deaf culture,” but “as a manner of life.”

I am still taken by one student’s final paper about intersectionality. My student wrote about the experiences of African-American students at Gallaudet that were “made invisible” by white students’ agendas: “when discussing inclusion programs it is unproductive to view the issue with a binary standard. In other words, analyzing an inclusion program should not be merely based on either including minorities-with-intersecting-identities or white deaf students; it is not one or the other.” This student’s paper helped me to see how Deaf Studies can relate to everyday life: “social injustice is a concern due to the fact that it drastically impacts those in society’s margins but also because it is the basis of many of society’s institutions and systems. Thus, concerns of inclusivity go beyond the institutions in which a student is enrolled in, rather, it is a major part of the real world and its outside affairs, thus it is important knowledge that should be disseminated in education.”

Reading this paper made me feel that Deaf Studies can offer something, despite the extreme low incidence of signing deaf people that leaves us, in Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’ words, “more or less outside the rights system in most or all countries.”[1] Teaching Deaf Studies as a standalone course completely outside of sign language interpreter or teacher of the deaf training programs (which don’t exist at my university) or even ASL classes (which do exist at my university), it is my challenge to make my issues relevant to my students as others who often have no vested interest to draw on aside from an opening in their schedules and a credit to fill. We (not I) do so in relationship with each other.

[1] Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2002). Marvelous human rights rhetoric and grim realities: Language rights in education. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 1(3), 179-205. http://https//