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//

Deaf Crows

This blog was originally published on February 19, 2017 under a different site.

I saw Deaf Crows in Edmonton last night and read Judith Butler’s essay “Being Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy” on the flight home today, so I’ll try putting them together in this review.

Deaf Crows is the artistic creation of Regina high school teacher Joanne Weber and her ensemble cast that includes her students and deaf elder/master ASL teacher Allard Thomas, along with various other supporting characters. The play grew out of an arts-based intervention by Weber to try and reach her students, all of whom grew up in mainstream elementary settings without exposure to ASL or deaf culture and experienced significant academic and language delays as a direct result.

We come into the world on the condition that the social world is already there, laying the groundwork for us.”

The play begins with the image of a tree cast on the wall beside the stage using light and shadow. With Thomas narrating, the tree is a metaphor for the R.J.D. Williams School for the Deaf in Saskatoon, which closed in 1991. Where formerly birds had gathered on each branch of the tree, they became dispersed after the school closed and the tree was chopped down. Soon, the birds can no longer fly.

If we are not recognizable, if there are no norms of recognition by which we are recognizable, then it is not possible to persist in one’s own being, and we are not possible beings; we have been foreclosed from possibility.

The six students in the play, wearing black clothes and crow masks, dramatize their experiences as deaf children in elementary school. These episodes highlight the students’ neglect, exclusion, and tormenting by teachers and other students. At the close of each scene, there is a single student left alone on the stage, whom Thomas the narrator approaches and attempts to engage with. He gives each student in turn a single black feather to represent their brush with ASL and deaf culture.

Fantasy is what allows us to imagine ourselves and others otherwise; it establishes the possible in excess of the real; it points elsewhere, and when it is embodied, it brings the elsewhere home.”

In a sense, this is Thomas’ play. Slim and erect in dark suit and tie with white hair pulled back, his clear and classical ASL narration draws parallels between the students’ childhood experiences of isolation and his own of being fully immersed in language, culture, and community. In this way, he insists on the lived experiences and knowledge of deaf community elders. My initial reaction was to think that Thomas and the students are worlds apart. Yet Weber told me that he has been involved in every aspect of her intervention with her students, from the beginning. Unsentimental and dry-eyed, Thomas’ discourse was mirrored in the faces and signing of other deaf elders in the Edmonton audience last night. It is important to raise awareness. It is important to support the kids.

It may be that what is right and what is good consists in staying open to the tensions that beset the most fundamental categories we require, in knowing unknowingness at the core of what we know, and what we need, and in recognizing the signs of life in what we undergo without certainty about what will come.”

I have not yet begun to explore the relationship between art and language revitalization. In a world bound up with assessments and normative benchmarks, perhaps art is the sole remaining hope of freedom for no-longer children who have been deprived of childhood. Discourses of language deprivation are concerned with prevention; they offer no guidance for how we may attempt to address the present needs of an entire generation who have been deprived of language. At the end of the play, the students stand onstage and sign about their dreams for themselves and their futures. They admit they have forgotten their lines, and there is no script for them.

Some History is in Order

Yesterday, CBC News reported that the province of Manitoba and its Human Rights Board of Adjudication had denied Cody Zimmer’s application to have the full cost of his studies covered at Gallaudet University. Social media has been largely silent regarding this matter. I do not recall seeing a Facebook vlog or Twitter thread on this subject. In fact, what social media discussions I have seen and participated in have tended toward criticism of and indifference to Zimmer and his family—for not paying his $56,000 per annum way, for not pulling himself up by his bootstraps, for seeking what used to be available to some prospective deaf postsecondary students in Canada but is no longer, or not to the same degree.

I worry that for deaf communities, seeking access to higher education has become an exception when it used to be a norm, at least for some of us. In 2014, the Canadian Hearing Society reported a 70% increase since 2002 in deaf Ontario Disability Support Program recipients. The numbers of Canadian students at Gallaudet have declined from 119 in 1989—the year following the Deaf President Now protests—to 13 today, with all but one student coming from Ontario. (If my math is correct, this is a 91% drop in enrolment.) In statistical terms, this is known as a negative correlation. Mike Harris-era cuts to vocational rehabilitation supports for deaf students have been accompanied by expectations that deaf students are to get by with uneven and precarious access to often unqualified sign language interpreters in mainstream postsecondary classrooms, where they are often the only signing deaf student in their classes and program and faculty, if not the entire university or college. Since my own undergraduate days at the University of Toronto and since working at four different universities across Canada, I have not personally witnessed an increase in deaf students at Canadian postsecondary institutions. I can count on one hand the number of signing deaf students that I have taught or supervised over the course of a decade.

Moralistic hand-wringing over Zimmer’s request also overlooks the history of Canadian attendance at Gallaudet, starting in 1888 with one Michael James Madden of the Ontario School for the Deaf, Belleville, who received his B.Sc. in 1893 (Carbin, 1996). David Peikoff of Manitoba, who received his B.A. from Gallaudet in 1929, started the McDermid Scholarship Fund in 1928 to raise money for other deaf Canadian students to attend Gallaudet. In 1949, this became the Canadian Deaf Scholarship Fund under the Canadian Association of the Deaf. Eventually, some provincial governments across Canada began to provide vocational rehabilitation support for deaf students to attend Gallaudet. Today, however, only British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia provide funding for this purpose. The limitations of current Canadian government support for deaf students are evident in Gallaudet graduate Jasmin Simpson’s ongoing legal challenge of the Canada Student Loan program that results in some disabled students graduating with astronomically higher debts than nondisabled students.

We overlook the significance of losing a critical mass of university-educated deaf signers who, as in past decades, can take professional positions in our communities as teachers, lawyers, accountants, members of parliament, and deaf advocacy organization and service agency staff and board members. We overlook the importance of having deaf researchers and instructors in Canadian postsecondary institutions. We forget that deaf children and youth today continue to need educated first-language models in order to thrive. Investing in Canadian deaf students’ education reaps more awards than are visible at first glance. Gallaudet University provides essential resources and has immeasurable value for deaf people who have never attended this institution, myself included.

We overlook that according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, education in sign language is a human right for deaf learners, including in tertiary education. This does not only mean providing a sign language interpreter in a mainstream classroom; such access and inclusion measures are often limited and illusory. Rather, environments that maximize academic and social development include instructors and students who communicate in sign language. As Patrick Kermit writes, “Inclusive communities must be communities where everyone has the opportunity to express, and to receive, recognition in the form of solidarity. But this might only truly work between peers.


Carbin, C. (1996). Deaf heritage in Canada: A distinctive, diverse, and enduring culture. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd.

Thinking About Teaching Online as a Deaf Faculty Member

Pure and unconditional hospitality, hospitality itself, opens or is in advance open to someone who is neither expected nor invited, to whoever arrives as an absolute foreign visitor, as a new arrival, non-identifiable and unforeseeable, in short, wholly other.

-Jacques Derrida

We all want to be Frye at the podium. Standing in a sunlit classroom, the windows open to a September breeze wafting across the ivy-covered quad. Students sit rapt at their desks, nary a phone or laptop in sight, as the sonorous tones of our voice fill the room, later to be transposed for posterity as a Massey Lecture.

The fiction of professorial authority has been challenged by the COVID-19 crisis and the abrupt shift to online teaching. Some colleagues may panic at the demands of online technology; others, like Mark Kingwell, may mourn the loss of “face-to-face Socratic engagement, the special benefits of group interlocution with nothing but a shared text before us.” But what happens when our Socratic dialogue is interrupted by a sign language interpreter’s requests for repetition of what are to them unfamiliar terms or names? What happens to group interlocution when a deaf student is 60 seconds behind in the discussion due to the time lag in interpreting from English to ASL and the student’s own processing of information? Is this really engagement with special benefits for everyone if no allowance is made for communicative stops, lapses, multimodality, or multidirectionality?

Officially, during the COVID-19 crisis, instructors are doing “emergency teaching online” without purporting to teach online courses. As much as possible, our teaching is supposed to be an approximation of what Kingwell calls “real seminars and lectures,” while acknowledging our online efforts are “poor shadows of the real thing.” But what is here posited to be “the real thing” is predicated on the assumption of a typically hearing/speaking body and the emulation of normative communication standards. Thus, there is a strong orientation toward synchronous lectures and class meetings via Zoom or Google Meet, which, as safeandsilent, Kusters et al., and the World Federation of the Deaf note, present new barriers for deaf learners and deaf faculty members. There is much less of an initiation into the capabilities of online learning and the myriad possibilities and responsibilities for human communication.

For example, I need to develop and teach a brand-new M.A. course that will be wholly online for the foreseeable future. I will assign students the responsibility of moderating online discussions of course readings; these discussions need to be accessible to me as their instructor. In thinking through the ways in which this may be possible, I hit on the idea of asking students to add captions (or a transcript) if they decide to produce a video about a given topic. When I broached this idea with colleagues, I was met with scepticism. It’s too hard! It takes too long! Is adding captions a course objective? Incidentally, however, few colleagues seemed familiar with the range of ways that captions can be added to a video.

I have since determined that I will offer my students step-by-step instructions regarding how to add captions and/or produce a transcript of a video or audio presentation, even if they decide not to complete the moderation assignment via either mode of delivery. Aren’t captions just another mode of human communication that happens to be enabled by the online environment? And shouldn’t a university environment committed to principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion be open to facilitating access by and for everyone involved?

For deaf faculty and learners, access to online teaching and learning may require thinking beyond the provision of sign language interpreters, who can have more limited utility in a remote format but who are often assigned sole responsibility for the deaf person’s access. As De Meulder and Haualand note, this view of interpreters as a quick fix has consequences that are borne mainly by deaf people. Online learning can enable more text-based, direct communication between participants: an affordance not always available in the face-to-face classroom. Online learning should facilitate a shift and an expansion in our repertoires, a discovery of new ways of communicating and engaging.