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What are the experiences of deaf academics working in UK HEIs?

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By Dai O’Brien


This year, there have been several media reports on Kate Sang’s work on the effects of disability on academic careers, with many picking up on the idea that being a disabled academic is akin to working two jobs at once – the academic job you are paid for, and the extra time and effort of fighting for the support and access provisions you need to actually perform that job (see, for example, Pain 2017).

Sang points out that there has been very little work on the experiences of disabled academics working in the UK, but there has been even less focusing specifically on the experiences of signing deaf academics. One of the earliest was published by Jones and Pullen in 1992. Others include Trowler and Turner (2002), O’Brien and Emery (2014), De Meulder (2017), and Gulliver (2017). There are others which look at the experiences of non-signing deaf academics, or at deaf students, but these are not related to the main focus of this research. The project I am currently running, thanks to the award of the SRHE Newer Researchers prize this year, attempts to explore the experiences of signing deaf academics in the UK through gathering data on both how they navigate the physical space of their institution, and also how they navigate the social relations and networks which exist both within and between different HEIs in the UK and overseas.

The research is using a combination of two methods. Firstly, walk-through interviews in deaf academics’ places of work, to see how they navigate and relate to the physical spaces and places in which they work on a day-to-day basis. Secondly, participatory mapping interviews will be used to create maps which show the social networks and spaces of collaboration/communication they have both within and outside their own HEI. So far, a number of walk-through interviews have been conducted around the UK, with the mapping interviews to take place in the New Year. A number of interesting themes have already arisen from the data gathered so far.

Signing deaf academics face a number of additional challenges in their professional lives in HEIs. One of the most obvious is that of communication. They use a language which is not only a minority language, but one which has been actively oppressed for the last 130 years. Communication with other staff and students who cannot sign relies on the work of BSL/English interpreters, the booking of whom often becomes part of the ‘second job’ mentioned by Sang, above. Use of sign language brings with it a host of additional differences compared to the experience of academics using a spoken language. As a visual language, it can be very difficult to hold a private conversation anywhere you could be overlooked. On the other hand, as a minority language, it is also perfectly possible to hold a private conversation in clear sight, if no-one else around understands the language. Use of sign language can also mean physically navigating the space of the HEI in a different way to that of hearing people, for example, if a corridor is too narrow to pass along two abreast, signing people cannot easily hold a conversation when walking together. On the other hand, sign language is more easily transmitted across large distances than speech, so it becomes possible to hold conversations on very different spatial scales.

Differences in communication can also lead to different feelings of belonging, or not belonging, to a team, department, or HEI as a whole. Without regular, unproblematic communication with their hearing, non-signing peers in their home HEI, it is possible that signing deaf academics form much stronger bonds, both personal and professional, with their signing deaf peers who work at other HEIs, either elsewhere in the UK, or internationally. If this is the case, then the concept of what is academic space, and what sort of area it covers, can be very different for a signing deaf academic compared to their hearing peers, or to their managers’ expectations. Navigating these academic spaces can become very complex. Navigating the space of their home HEI can become almost entirely virtual, in which most communication is done via email or over the phone using interpreters (in contrast to hearing academics, whose everyday interactions in their home HEI are more dependent on physical co-presence and face to face interaction), whereas national and international meetings with signing deaf peers and mentors are much more likely to be in shared physical space, due to the importance of face-to-face interaction when using a visual-spatial mode of language.

These are just some of the themes which have come from my research so far. The ultimate aim of the project is to be able to publish some guidelines for HEIs which will offer some advice on how to ensure that signing deaf academics are valued (and are made to feel valued) and are included at both personal and institutional level within their home HEI.

Dr Dai O’Brien is a Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies in the School of Languages and Linguistics, York St John University. 


De Meulder, M. (2017) The emergence of a Deaf academic professional class during the British Deaf resurgence. In Kusters, A., De Mulder, M., and O’Brien, D. (Eds) Innovations in Deaf Studies: the role of deaf scholars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gulliver, M. (2017) Seeking Lefebvre’s vécu in a ‘Deaf Space’ classroom. In Ares, N., Buendía, E., and Helfenbein, R. (Eds) Deterritorializing/reterritorializing: critical geography of educational reforms. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Jones, L., & Pullen, G. (1992). Cultural differences: Deaf and hearing researchers working together. Disability, Handicap & Society, 7, 189-196.

O’Brien, D., and Emery, S.D. (2014) The role of the intellectual in minority group studies: reflections on Deaf Studies in social and political contexts. Qualitative Inquiry 20(1) 27-36.

Pain, E. (2017) Survey highlights the challenges disabled academics face—and what can be done to address them. Science May 15 2017 downloaded from Last accessed 21.11.17

Trowler, P. R., & Turner, G. H. (2002). Exploring the hermeneutic foundation of university life: Deaf academics in a hybrid “community of practice.” Higher Education, 43, 227-256.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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  1. Pingback: Being deaf in disability studies spaces – Kristin Snoddon

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