Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The 'D word': Writing About Deaf Historical Trauma - as a Hearing Outsider

[Note: ISL Translation to Follow Soon]

There's a particular type of reaction I've been having this last year or two, when I post online about some new discovery I've made about the area of Deaf history I am researching. It's best explained like so: Deaf people are shocked at what I've found - but at the 'wrong' aspect of it; and I get peeved. This is not an emotion I am proud of at all, but it has to be acknowledged - and analysed; and in unpicking this emotion I've been feeling, it's opened up a lot of stuff for me about the place of the 'outsider' or comparatively-privileged researcher operating within a minority, oppressed community that I thought I'd share.

So let's say I find some newspaper story about a Deaf inmate in the workhouse. Let's call him Billy McEvoy. Billy McEvoy is a long term resident in the workhouse, as were many Deaf people in the period I focus on, and Deaf paupers are generally portrayed as lacking agency or capacity for resistance. But in this news story I find, Billy writes a long, well written and coherent letter of complaint to the workhouse Guardians. The letter is reproduced in full in the paper, and details in heart-rending fashion his version of the mistreatment at the hands of the authorities. Elements in Billy's letter speak of his missing other Deaf people’s company; a feeling of being victimised because he is Deaf; his application, say, for a position in the workhouse staff that he feels he is owed. There might be several other nuggets of detail illuminating aspects of life for poor Deaf people in the nineteenth century. Horrific experiences of marginalisation, and the dismissive - often callous - disregard for them as human beings by workhouse guardians. But also, resistance to hearing oppression and pride in their language and community. And not least, further proof that Irish Deaf people's written English during the nineteenth century was excellent.

And I light up! I excitedly throw up the article on Twitter and Facebook, hoping that a Deaf audience will see the same significance to this as I do - that same feeling of joy (mixed with sadness, of course) in discovering the previously unknown. But here's the issue: many, even most, of the replies from Deaf people on social media don't focus on any of this at all. Instead, they express their horror and sadness at... the use of the phrases 'deaf and dumb' and 'deaf mute', or even 'dummy' in the newspaper article. And that's all. This frustrates me. And it shouldn't, of course; I'm ashamed of the reaction, for many reasons.

I'm an outsider researcher,[1] a hearing person privileged to be able to explore the lived experiences and histories of a minority community. And though my work may help to illuminate issues of concern to Deaf people and coincide with their agendas, it is still, at the very least, unfair of me to set any agenda in terms of what aspects of my research should be perceived as more salient or important than others. It's not up to me how the Deaf community receives my work. How the work is received, in fact, should probably inform its direction.

But there's also this: after five years of looking at reams of nineteenth century documentation about Deaf people in Ireland, I’ve seen the phrases ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘deaf mute’ and the dreaded ‘dummy’ (hereafter written ‘d___y’) so often, that I have almost entirely lost that punch-in-the-stomach reaction to them that I get when I see them used in, say, a modern tabloid story. I'm at such a knee-deep stage of research that the use of these awful, outdated, and currently offensive, terms for Deaf people washes over me. I might occasionally wince at some headline using the above phrases; I smirk over some badly-written Victorian 'deaf humour' written by copy editors to stick in a spare half-inch of column, jokes that use language in a way that retrospectively lampoon the authors more so than Deaf people.


Case in point.

But I have lost - or perhaps more accurately, never really possessed - something visceral and deeply connected to identity and being, that reacted when I heard these phrases. I've been involved in the Irish Deaf community for nearly 20 years now as a researcher and interpreter, and so I can afford, in some sense, to have post-modern, detached conversations and musings about labels such as 'deaf and dumb' and 'deaf mute'; to wonder if maybe medical-model equivalents such as 'hearing impaired' are far worse, in some way, portraying people as intrinsically broken; to despair at hearing people who stutter and splutter and hem and haw when trying to describe a person's 'condition', when right-thinking people just say 'Deaf'. You could point out that Deaf people described themselves as deaf and dumb years ago (even if it appeared they had a preference for 'deaf mute'[2]). You can even excuse the older hearing members of your family who will still talk about the village 'd___y' of their childhood, because, well, they are old, they mean well, they don't really mean it in a prejudiced way.

But of course, I can afford to become inured to this terminology - because of my hearing privilege; because it's not about me. I will never have that instinctive hurt, that wound, that feeling I cannot even dare to try and guess at describing, that comes from being called something so dismissive. I'm especially thinking of ‘d___y’ and thinking in terms of equivalence with what I’ll call the ‘N word’ - used, despicably, to describe African Americans. I’m not saying it’s ‘the same’, but there are some ramifications to this line of thought that lead me to a comparison where my own reactions to words are concerned. Because what is my own personal reaction to seeing these terms used so consistently, so often?

My reaction to the ‘D-word’ puts me in mind of the movie Blazing Saddles, still a favourite of mine, where the 'N-word' seems deployed self-consciously, as a way to ridicule its users; the rednecks who drawl the word are painted as buffoons, and the racism on display is made to look as ridiculous as racism is, the use of the N-word being a hallmark of that idiocy. Similarly, I see nineteenth-century headlines with 'd___y' used in all seriousness, in headlines such as 'A D___y In Trouble', 'Sympathy for the D___y', etc. – and I have lost the reaction of rage; instead, confronted with these words in their historical context time and time again, this ridiculous bigotry, I snicker. It seems a cartoonish buffoonery in print, a jocular example of how awful the past was (and by implication how much better it is today); and eventually, I can get to the stage I don't even register the word when I enter d___y into a newspaper search archive, or note down that our friend Billy McEvoy is marked down in the workhouse register as being a d___y.

But this is not the reaction of Deaf people, who do not have the luxury of comforting themselves that ‘this is all in the past’. This is not a ‘past’ that has disappeared. The D___y word still has currency. ‘Deaf and dumb’ still has currency. Terms that have become, for me, a familiar - and eventually, unremarkable - feature of the historical territory, something to chuckle off, something to historicise, remain for millions of Deaf people viscerally hurtful words, an abnegation of their humanity, labels that can traumatise and re-traumatise. I do not want to shrug off or become immune to these terms. And I need to realise why this is crucial.
______________

All this puts me in mind of recent controversies that connect to these considerations of language, and my ‘outsider’ status. I have always been aware of the profound unhappiness of much of the stories I have stumbled upon. If you exclude the positivity and community that has been found – and is still found – by Deaf people in residential schools in Ireland, each kind of institution I look at in my dissertation is a place where no-one wants to be. More often than not, there is compulsion – directly in the case of courts and prisons, as well as mental institutions; indirectly in the case of workhouses. Deaf people ended up there due to a series of cataclysms, marginalisation, missed opportunities and mistreatment. Many times, these stories end after years behind walls, still in these institutions, buried in featureless makeshift graveyards.

But if I am proposing – as I think I must – that these experiences were to some degree, unique to Deaf people – uniquely Deaf experiences of pain and suffering – what does that make me? How can I justify or explain my role in their documenting? A grandiose part of me feels a responsibility to ‘uncover’ and ‘share’ these stories. An emancipatory and reflective historiographical approach would seem to require that I acknowledge my self in the process. And not that I’m an unconditional fan of their work, but postmodern historians might insist that in constructing these narratives based in historical sources, that I am in some sense constructing, not a scientifically ‘neutral’ and ‘impartial’ account of events, but something more akin to an intensely personal work of art.[3]


With these in mind, I want to look at two recent enough news stories around the idea of 'cultural appropriation' that have caused me to think about the nature of my work, given my outsider status. Firstly, the Vanessa Place controversy. Place is a conceptual artist based in Los Angeles, who hit the headlines in 2015 when she opened a Twitter account that aimed to tweet, line by line, every word of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind. The aim behind this was provocatively stir up discussion of the racist heritage of the United States, the legacy of the book and movie in relation to racist caricature and language, and explore the nature of ‘clicktivism’ and social media in relation to discussion of arguments around these issues. But Place is a white, queer female, and her project generated vociferous criticism from African-American activists infuriated at her apparent recycling of racist language and imagery, regardless of purpose. In the subsequent Twitter-based furore, activist groups demanded that Place’s work be boycotted, that she be disinvited from conferences and removed from academic panels.[4]

Place’s project raises questions about the artistic use of imagery and language that is considered unacceptable and deeply offensive to people of colour regardless of ‘benign’ intent. Some of Place’s critics asked whether “these works successfully perform an anti-racist critique, or do they unnecessarily retraumatize people of color (and black Americans in particular) for sensationalist purposes?” Critic Lillian-Yvonne Bertram describes Place’s piece acting in a “nonchalant” way, which “implies carelessness, a lack of sincerity when confronted with thoroughly traumatic material”. The project raised “any number of questions about the ethics of engaging with traumatic materials at what seems to be little or no risk to oneself”, and Kim Calder wonders if these 

engagements with black trauma raise the question of whether a person who does not ‘own’ a trauma, so to speak, has any right to engage it, despite, or because of, their historical responsibility for that trauma… How could someone who doesn’t authentically know an experience have something to say to those who have an embodied sense of that experience? In addition, if a work is to commit the sin of representing a trauma that is not one’s own, which might cause pain to readers whose direct experience it is — does such work not have a responsibility to tell us something new, or make a difference in the world somehow? [5]


Of a similar vein, but dealing with perhaps more traumatic content, is the painting of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth lynched in 1955. Till’s mother had urged that her son’s body be displayed in an open casket at his funeral to ‘let the people see’, the resultant fury helping to spark the Civil Rights movement among black Americans. After listening to tapes of Till’s mother, white female artist Dana Schutz created a piece of art depicting Till in his open casket. “‘I don’t know what it is like to be black in America, but I do know what it is like to be a mother,’ she said, explaining her desire to engage with the loss of Emmett Till's mother. ‘In her sorrow and rage,’ she wrote, ‘she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.’”[6]

But the artwork met with a fiercely negative and outraged reaction from sections of the African-American community. A petition was begun to not only have the work removed from the Whitney Museum, but destroyed; “Detractors argued that a white woman ought not render such a subject... protester Hannah Black, a black artist from Britain, [argued] that a white artist has no right to paint a lynching victim.” Jonathan Blanks of the Cato Institute’ Project on Criminal Justice felt that “[a]s far as artists are concerned ... risk is inherent to what they do...  Slavery is America's Original Sin, and the racism that evolved to perpetuate it is an inextricable part of our social fabric. Whenever any artist tries to confront that, they inherently invite expressions of the often chaotic, almost inarticulable pain that exists as a part of black experience in America.”

So here I stand, a member of the hearing majority, with our own Original Sins against Deaf people. - oralism, language deprivation, institutionalisation, disempowerment. Can I afford for a second to be 'nonchalant' with words and language that can still cause such pain?

______________

How to relate this, then, to my writing of experiences that are not mine, that are so traumatic and so particularly Deaf, as I have myself defined them? What are the boundaries and considerations I need to have? Or should I walk away?

It isn’t a new consideration for me. Shortly after I began as a registered PhD student, I made a decision to restrict the scope of the dissertation to pre-1924. Prior to thia, I had in mind a grand historical tour between 1800 and the 1950s, going right the way up to the changeover to oralism in Cabra. But that changed for a number of reasons. First, and probably foremost, was the sheer workload that would be involved in covering both British-administered and Free State Ireland in the one work.

I also had concerns about methodology – as well as some of the things I’ve mentioned above. It made no sense to write about 1950s Irish Deaf people without interviewing people, using an ‘oral’ history approach – which when applied to elderly Irish Deaf people, especially Deaf women, throws up all kinds of considerations in terms of procedures, language, confidentiality and trust. And there would be the huge responsibility of portraying the potentially traumatic, non-shared (with me) lived experiences of people that were still alive, and able to be potentially deeply hurt by my treatment of their stories. Which is not to say that after restricting my period to 1816-1924, that I just say, ‘everyone I research about is dead, so it’s grand’. Methodologically, and ethically, yes, it gets easier to deal with the issues. But there remains a very strong feeling that I need to do the memories of these individuals – this community, or communities – justice.

It’s easy, at a surface level at least, to counter the assertion that ‘hearing people should not write about Deaf historical trauma’ by offering the observation that historiography is not art, like that of Place and Schutz, but a form of quasi-scientific inquiry; relying on facts supplied by critically evaluated sources. However, the position of ‘history as science’ has taken a pounding by postmodernists, who insist on the impossibility of objectivity in history writing, and the historiographical text as a literary construction - a text - and so in ways as amenable to analysis as a form of art as any painting or poem.[7]

Another argument of mine might point to the profusion of hearing authors who have written, and continue to write, about the suffering and oppression of Deaf people at the hands of hearing society – and are lauded by the Deaf community for having done so: Harlan Lane, for example, wrote When the Mind Hears, still a core text for Deaf history,[8] which details the injustice and oppression towards Deaf people in the switch to oralism in America and elsewhere. Lane is hearing, and still to this day is not a fluent signer. Owen Wrigley, who grumbles about Lane’s work as representing a form of ‘hearing Deaf history’ that focuses more on hearing ‘benefactors’ than Deaf people themselves, is  himself a hearing historian.[9] Closer to home, Edward J Crean’s passionate and polemical work Breaking the Silence was one of the first books in Ireland of its kind to document the linguistic abuses experienced by Deaf children in the Cabra schools from the 1940s onwards – writing unashamedly and proudly as a hearing parent of a Deaf child, who did not sign.[10]

The world is certainly a better one because of the work of Lane, Wrigley, Crean, and others. The involvement of hearing historians in documenting the darker aspects of Deaf history continues today. Gunther List feels that hearing people have a kind of duty to do Deaf history that lays bare past structural inequalities and oppression of Deaf people. He states that Deaf historians should not be expected to shoulder the “burden of presenting, entirely from their own resources, historical record of negative interaction between majority and minority… minority historians should not have to provide the necessary revision of the history of the majority”. List conceptualises his interest as an outsider to Deaf culture as a “focus on deaf people’s historical conflicts with that group to which I myself belong”.[11] List’s formulation is one that I agree with and utilise.

There is a third counterpoint: the fact that to date my own research has been met with near-universal welcome from Irish Deaf people themselves. I have presented often, almost always in ISL, and from a local or regional Deaf perspective whenever I could. I’ve been requested to present at Deaf clubs and events on the strength of word of mouth/hand. That’s not to say there may not be some disquiet; I’ve talked previously about the danger of becoming theeverblogger, drowning out the quiet, consistent work of Deaf historians with constant social media barrages, increasing ‘presence’ at the expense of the true experts in Deaf history - community insiders with a rich pedigree of research experience. I am keenly attuned to suggestions that I may be ‘colonising’, and am thankful that no such accusations have come toward me as yet – but aware that indeed they may. I keep in touch with Deaf Irish historians and offer support and collaboration where it is wanted, and above all, notify people about sources.

Here is another counterpoint that is weaker, but deserves discussion: that the traumas I research and describe arise from old patterns of Irish institutional behaviour and practice, which have become extinct as the institutions have shuttered, and represent a Deaf experience that is in some way ‘over’ – and by implication, perhaps more ‘safe’ to discuss and analyse. But is this really the case? It is true that in Ireland today, no Deaf child is placed in a forbidding concrete residential institution, returning to their families twice a year only, and educated purely through signed language;[12] nobody Deaf or hearing goes to a workhouse or poorhouse; courts provide interpreters, as do prisons in Ireland;[13] Deaf inpatient numbers in residential mental health care facilities seem to be dropping, and Deaf psychiatric care is improving, with a recognition that Deaf people have specific language needs within the healthcare system.[14]

But to insist that the horrors of the past have passed for deaf people obscures the fact that this history is not history. Deaf people are often still poor and unemployed;[15] are still chronically underserved by the justice and mental health systems, and cannot expect to have an appropriately skilled professional interpreter in the courtroom or therapist’s office as a matter of course.[16] Given the injustice that persists – institutionalised injustice, if not exactly occurring within bricks-and-mortar institutions - it would be incredibly inappropriate for me to encourage Deaf people, even indirectly, to ‘look on the bright side – things were worse 100 years ago’.

None of these counterpoints is on unassailable ground, and my thinking process and action needs to constantly be reviewed in light of all the above. I do not see myself walking away from the project, and in all of my honesty, I think it would be the Deaf community’s loss if I did. It may be true that the individuals I research may be discovered and written about by other historians – I positively plead for it to happen – but I feel that in my work, I can bring a perspective that is new, that is my own, that is also of benefit to the Deaf community in its current struggles against oppression. There is some vanity in that, but also many examples I can refer to, to back it up. The research is still mine, the process mine; and while I intend that non-possessively, I cannot not own and not embed myself in what I am doing.

My dissertation, along with any papers, vlogs or blogs that come from my PhD research, are always going to be creatures of fierce contradiction: intensely personal reflections on, and treatments of, some of the darkest and most painful moments and suppressed memories of the Irish Deaf community, moments and memories that will resonate viscerally with Deaf people - in a way they will not, with myself. Therefore it is not - cannot be - an unthinking process of finding, documenting, disseminating. The subject matter deserves more humility, consideration and reflection than describing myself as someone who ‘brings these stories to light’; I have no wish to display any purloined Elgin marbles in a ‘dark tourism’ museum of my own making, especially if they speak directly to the trauma of those who have suffered, as a class, as a culture, as a community - and continue to suffer. The journey continues.

Some minor edits and corrections made, 4 April, 10.10pm GMT.
 _____________________________________________________
[1] Gill Harold makes good use of this term and explores its implications: Gill Harold, ‘Deafness, Difference and the City: Geographies of Urban Difference and the Right to the Deaf City’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, National University of Ireland, Cork, 2012), passim.

[2] Graham O’Shea, ‘A History of Deaf in Cork: Perspectives on Education, Language, Religion and Community’ (Unpublished M.Phil. Thesis, University College Cork, 2010).

[3] See Peter Brickley, ‘Postmodernism and The Nature of History’, International Journal of Historical Learning Teaching and Research 1, no. 2 (1999) for a discussion of the debates between such writers as Evans, Hayden White, Keith Jenkins etc. on these points.

[4] Edward Helmore, ‘Gone With the Wind Tweeter Says She Is Being Shunned by US Arts Institutions’, The Guardian, June 25, 2015; available from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/25/gone-with-the-wind-tweeter-shunned-arts-institutions-vanessa-place; Kim Calder, ‘The Denunciation of Vanessa Place’, Los Angeles Review of Books, June 14, 2015; available from https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-denunciation-of-vanessa-place/.

[5] Calder, ‘The Denunciation of Vanessa Place’.

[6] Conor Friedersdorf, ‘What Does “Cultural Appropriation” Actually Mean ?’, The Atlantic, April 3, 2017; available from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/cultural-appropriation/521634/.

[7] See Hayden V White, ‘The Burden of History’, History and Theory 5, no. 2 (1966): 111–34; Perez Zagorin, ‘History, the Referent, and Narrative: Reflections on Postmodernism Now’, History and Theory 38, no. 1 (February 1999): 1–24.

[8] Harlan Lane, When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (New York, 1989).

[9] Owen Wrigley, The Politics of Deafness (Washington, D.C., 1996); Wrigley declares that“[p]ainting psychohistories of great men struggling to attain a place in the history of hearing civilizations has little or nothing to do with portraying the historical circumstances of Deaf people living on the margins of those hearing societies.”

[10] Edward J Crean, Breaking the Silence: The Education of the Deaf in Ireland 1816-1996 (Dublin, 1997).

[11] Günther List, ‘Deaf History: A Suppressed Part of General History’, in Deaf History Unveiled: Interpretations from the New Scholarship, ed. John Vickrey Van Cleve (Washington, D.C., 1993), 116.

[12] Marc Marschark and Patricia E Spencer, Evidence of Best Practice Models and Outcomes in the Education of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children: An International Review, National Council for Special Education (Trim, Co Meath, 2009); available from http://www.nabmse.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/07/1_NCSE_Deaf.pdf; accessed 2 August 2014.

[13] John Lawrence, ‘Irish Jails Home to Prisoners of 66 Nationalities’, Irish Times, December 5, 2016; available from http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/irish-jails-home-to-prisoners-of-66-nationalities-1.2892735; accessed 4 April 2017.

[14] Brendan Kelly, Hearing Voices: The History of Psychiatry in Ireland (Dublin, 2016). Despite the title, this is a general history of psychiatry in Ireland, but does cover recent developments for services for Deaf people over four pages.


[15] John Bosco Conama, Carmel Grehan, and Irish Deaf Society, Is There Poverty in the Deaf Community?: Report on the Interviews of Randomly Selected Members of the Deaf Community in Dublin to Determine the Extent of Poverty Within the Community (Dublin, 2002); Pauline Conroy, Signing In, Signing Out: The Education and Employment Experiences of Deaf Adults in Ireland (Dublin, 2006).

Friday, September 23, 2016

Progress Review is done ...

Well, my second year progress review in Trinity College Dublin yesterday went very well, and I am now confirmed on the PhD register. Still three or so more years to go, but am glad that I at least seem to know what I am talking about.

Now to refine my draft chapter on Irish Deaf people in the courts 1816 to 1924, hopefully into an academic paper, then finish off my Deaf people in Prisons chapter, and maybe start on that fascinating Workhouse chapter.

Huge thanks are due to my two very supportive supervisors Prof Patrick Geoghegan and Dr John Bosco Conama.

It's been a stressful year and a half but feel now it's been worth it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

First Entry... March 2014


[Note: this is an old reflective journal entry, but I'm not able to find a Blogger option to backdate it - still, it makes for interesting reading now more than two years on from the start of this whole odyssey, and especially with my last post in mind... - CL]

Wed 12 Mar 2014

So this is the first entry in what I hope will be a regularly kept, private journal of my thoughts, experiences, epiphanies, regrets, and joys relating to my postgraduate research. I’m aware I was about to write ‘my PhD research’ there, but as confident as I have been in recent months about where this is all going, the sheer volume of work and the complexity of some of the issues I’ll have to untangle make me think…. Nope, let’s wait a second before I unthinkingly say to myself. ‘A PhD is what I’m getting out of this’.

So. My research.

I guess in a way it really all started in earnest yesterday, after meeting the Director of TEaching and Learning to discuss some very brief technicalities. Upon hearing I would be expected to put in a LOT of hours a week of work, I had a little panic attack – fearing overspill of it all into work, affecting income, and personal life, affecting relationship and physical well being – and it wasn’t until I’d timetabled it all out for myself that I calmed down. Yeah, it was possible. I almost didn’t to think about giving up any work at all! Mind you, it also meant one weekend day gone, sacrifices to study. Plus, nearly every weekday evening holed up in the study (now finally becoming a ‘study’). But, it was feasible. And it wouldn’t bankrupt me, plus, my partner has been amazingly supportive.

So after that little kick, and the realization that almost every spare second I would need to be doing something, I popped into TCD library and took out six books, most relating to disability research and how to ‘do’ it. A lot of Mike Oliver, Barnes and Campbell. And I was dreading it, in a way, because I envisaged a lot of blank staring at pages as concepts failed to deliver themselves to my easily distracted brain.

Instead, I was on fire! I’d decided to look specifically at issues relating to reflexivity and research production; I decided if I was going to tout myself as carrying out ‘emancipatory research’ then I might as well know what the hell it meant. And in my readings I realized there was so, so much to draw on  here, so much relevance to myself. (I haven’t quite worked out the thorny relationship between disability research and Deaf historical research – indeed, the whole social science–history overlap or opposition – but this stuff jumped out at me.)

Power, power, power. I’m so much more comfortable with that term than privilege, though of course they no doubt refer to vastly different concepts. But It was very enlightening to think, really think hard, and critically, about not just how I intend to proceed with this, but what I have done so far. I’ve tended to see the last few years as beginning with a lot of reflection and consultation followed by progress and success. But. To what extent did I consult? Or think?

There are numerous traps to be fallen into, and just because I haven’t been caught in a pit by any hunters, doesn’t mean I haven’t fallen prey. Yes, I have avoided – have gone to lengths to avoid – secrecy or hoarding of sources, I’ve tried to avoid definitive interpretations in how I present material… but don’t I still fall into the Saviour trap? ‘Hey, I’ve found out all this info that you didn’t know – now let me tell you about it all!’ There’s real power in that.

I’ve thought a good bit about ‘native’ Irish Deaf historians, their profile and the ways in which they disseminate findings, and realized that young, tech-savvy and adaptive as I am, I have huge advantages in getting my message out to the Deaf community … over Deaf historians.

And I’m an interpreter. Not just a hearing person good at sign. I’ve been privy to, and privileged to be at, countless intimate discussions, major meetings of decision makers, and occasions where Deaf people recount their memories, their experiences, their cultural selves. Nine years of that incidental but nonetheless intensive information-gathering has resulted in what I see now as being in the nature of a huge cultural resource. I know Deaf people have gone through this stuff. I know how it manifested itself, I know about the atmosphere in the schools and how it can be remembered fondly and with horror.  I’ve seen stories about what it was like to be a boarder, or to arrive as a small child in the pre-oral days to be confronted by tall, strange, intimidating black-clad figures moving their hands. I’ve seen those stories, but I’ve also seen more of them by virtue of my occupation, and not only that – I’ve become those stories, empathized with them simply through voicing them. I come away from those nine years and yes, it’s contributed to a pretty good level of ISL in terms of storytelling and community networks, but it is nonetheless something I have gained through working in the Deaf community. It is a benefit that I’ve got from my job, that I cannot but utilize and exploit in my research. Again, I have that power. I have the use of resources here that other hearing researchers do not. So while few enough people would quibble with using this as a research resource in this field, the responsibility is huge. This is what I have been given, this is what I have.

Again, Oliver’s point about emancipatory research is worth bearing in mind. I cannot emancipate Deaf people. Deaf people must, by Oliver’s definition, emancipate themselves. The very best I can do is assist that process.

But, really and truly, HONESTLY – how will this thesis, this process, really help to do that?

Thankfully. Trickles of answers have begun to come from discussion with Deaf colleagues, who really need to be where I get a lot of my inspiration. My colleague Teresa Lynch’s notion, which I’ve already considered, of this research creating the potential for new cultural resources. If new narratives are uncovered, then the Deaf community can utilize them in any fashion they can – drama, poetry, writing…

I guess in a way it boils down to ‘how this will benefit the Deaf community’. What I really need to be doing is thinking, what benefits can I bring that change things so that the next big shift in Irish Deaf historiography doesn’t come from another hearing person… How can I change the system?

Monday, April 25, 2016

…I never wanted to be ‘that hearing guy’.

Reflective Journal 25th April 2016


Yeah, I don't want to be this dude


Part of my formula for going about my research for my dissertation was a commitment to not repeat the mistakes of the past. This wasn’t only in relation to my own Masters dissertation, which was poorly researched, rushed, and hampered by my lack of experience at the time, but also in relation to the baggage I inevitably bring with me to the table as a hearing, non-CODA interpreter. The chief component of that is the legacy of hearing research on Deaf communities. That legacy has often been marked by a scepticism about the linguistic and cultural status of signed languages; a following of an agenda unconcerned with the contemporary political needs of the researched community; lack of fluency in signed languages, or failure to present to either Deaf or hearing communities in signed languages; lack of feedback to the community about the results of the research; the gaining of academic plaudits and indeed, financial gain, while apparently giving back no credit or benefit to the community of the researched – all this could be described at best as a lack of respect on the part of researchers for those being researched, and at worst as a form of colonialism.[1]

This legacy is by no means irrelevant when it comes to doing Deaf history, in terms of the scope and the subjects of its inquiry. Deaf people should, in the first instance, be the chief subjects of the Deaf historian, not hearing people; Owen Wrigley has railed against the focus on hearing benefactors in what he termed ‘Hearing Deaf Histories’, saying “Painting psychohistories of great men struggling to attain a place in the history of hearing civilizations has little or nothing to do with portraying the historical circumstances of Deaf people living on the margins of those hearing societies.[2] Indeed, Gunther List implies that hearing people have a kind of duty to do Deaf history of the kind that lays bare structural inequalities and oppression of Deaf people in the past. He states that Deaf historians should not be expected to shoulder the “burden of presenting, entirely from their own resources, historical record of negative interaction between majority and minority… minority historians should not have to provide the necessary revision of the history of the majority”. List conceptualises his interest as an outsider to Deaf culture as a “focus on deaf people’s historical conflicts with that group to which I myself belong”.[3]

It’s a worthwhile exercise to do what List feels it essential to do, and ask ‘what exactly is it I am doing – and why?’ It’s something I have tried to do many times in my approach to this thesis. By studying the lives of the twice-marginalised – Deaf people who were criminals, paupers, mentally ill – and others whose lives touched the working of the great Victorian Irish institutions, I hope to reveal more about Irish hearing society’s treatment of and view of Deaf people in general, as well as revealing details about how these people, and ideas around poverty, crime, and mental illness, were viewed by other Deaf people. One of the strands to this is to help prove, if I can, the existence of a literate Deaf community in Ireland who were educated almost entirely by signed language. This is a pretty overtly political goal, one that aligns with current goals of Ireland’s Deaf community in the field of education for Deaf children. It is my hope that whatever I find can be of use to, and utilised by, Deaf campaigners to help in today’s struggles, as well as providing more rich detail and analysis to further show the Deaf community is one with a history in this country.

One of my earliest decisions on this was a determination to be open with my sources. I wanted the information I uncovered (where possible) to be as accessible to other Deaf researchers as it could be; I was not going to have accusations of hoarding historical treasure thrown at me. And so I organised open online databases where my transcriptions, scans, and Irish Newspaper Archive articles could be put up for all to see; I met Deaf organisations, pledging to cooperate in terms of sources more apt for, say, Deaf female historians to be aware of. I presented in ISL at every turn. And above all, I used social media, time after time, to alert the Deaf community of new findings; a curious article from a newspaper, or a book featuring Deaf Irish characters, or a vlog in ISL talking about a particular character from the past I had come across. My rationale was simply this: If everyone knows what I am doing, then my research is not hidden, as with those maligned hearing researchers of the past. How could I be accused of stealing, when I was only placing publicly available material online every couple of days?

I’ve learned in the last six or so months that things aren’t that easy. I think two issues that arise are privilege and visibility, especially in relation to social media. We tend to think of the Internet as an infinite space; if I don’t like this e-group or website, I can go find another one, or I can set up my own. But if one person occupies the online-or-IRL ‘space’ of a group to the exclusion of others within that group, then you can be perceived as stealing something; the limelight – the microphone – the momentum built up for decades by others before you.

I’ll make an admission here that I think I need to be honest about, which is that discussion of the term ‘privilege’ can make me deeply irritable. But it is not that I disregard the concept. I profoundly agree with the fact that my status as a hearing person gives me life advantages that Deaf people do not have, for the most part, and I have seen enough in my years as an interpreter to know that those imbalances are deep and heavily consequential. I know that this is not just a case of me being ‘lucky’, and that there are things I can do – as an interpreter, as a researcher – to help balance those power disparities, even in small ways. As my supervisor reminded me recently, it’s no bad thing to have privilege – as long as we use it to assist those who do not have it, and be an ally.

It would be foolhardy of me to deny my privileges as a white, male, hearing interpreter researching the Deaf community’s history (and that point – specifically that I am an interpreter – is a very important one, leading to a set of privileges as a researcher that I’m not aware have been dealt with by Deaf studies writers yet). Let’s look at some of my privileges as a historian: I have fluent English as my first language, and also am familiar with and comfortable with the kinds of older vocabulary and expression used in nineteenth-century documents;  I have studied Irish history since I was a small child, through Leaving Cert and Degree level, in environments that were not in any way restrictive in relation to language access; I am extremely computer literate and social media savvy, and have been since I was a kid; I have access as a registered PhD student to vast arrays of databases of newspaper articles, scholarly journals, and more; I have the financial wherewithal to support the purchasing of other documents or resources (it is certainly untrue that interpreters have a well-paid job, but nonetheless, I get by relatively comfortably). I am a hearing person; I don’t even think I need to elaborate on the myriad ways in which this privileges me. I also have a very confident level of ISL skills and metalinguistic knowledge, which gains me a certain amount of privilege too – I am probably far more able to discuss the linguistic properties and categories of ISL than the average Deaf ISL user. But more specifically, I am an interpreter, so I have had eleven years of access to the most private and personal moments in the lives of Deaf individuals and families. The incidental learning in these situations about Deaf culture and history is immense. Would a non-signing hearing researcher have been a fraction as immersed in this culture as I am now?

That’s an impressive list. And it is worth asking the question – do Deaf historians, or Deaf people wanting to become historians, share all these advantages? I have been filled with wonder at the work done by Deaf Irish historians; I am aware that so many of them pioneered the field in the days before the Internet made it easier for anyone to become a historian of sorts. I have been deeply impressed by the standard of their work. Much of the basis for my own work – conceptual, factual, methodological – is derived from the work of Irish Deaf historians. Truly I stand on the shoulders of giants. And it is often the case that despite the list of privileges I enjoy, any absence of these has not necessarily hindered the production of wonderful pieces of Deaf history which form the canon I now lean on. Indeed, some Deaf historians may be indignant at any suggestion they labour under a disadvantage. It is more the relative advantage I enjoy that I’m querying.

Particularly relevant are my internet research and social media skills. Friends have commented to me more than once that I’m all over Facebook. I have one Facebook group devoted to Irish Deaf history, I run another for an interpreter association, and keep a close eye on what’s going on from posts of friends, news items and bulletins on culture and politics. (But I don’t do Twitter, and vow that I never will.) The Irish Deaf History Archives egroup isn’t ‘mine’, in the sense that hundreds of others are members and can post. But I am the major contributor. Every week at least, I’ll post something up there. Generally giving a short description and source, offering no interpretation for the most part.

So, I Post on Facebook about Irish Deaf history; I vlog about Irish Deaf history; I present often on Deaf history. I’ve gone to at least half the counties of Ireland presenting to local Deaf clubs in ISL about Deaf people and prisons, as well as other related topics. Not only that but I am often requested to interpret for events that are related to history.

So I scoop up dozens of articles and locate hundreds of online sources using all my privileges and skills to do so; and it’s not a bad thing to do so, given my aim of being an ally through my work and its findings. But there may be a danger that in my own relentless use of social media to broadcast my own work, and the time I have to travel the country signing about it, that I am putting the ongoing work of Deaf historians who don’t use these methods of dissemination, in the shade. The constant advertising of my ongoing work results in a kind of noise pollution. In the Deaf community, the association with me is very much: the history guy. But how can even dare to claim this title when Deaf people themselves, the chroniclers of their own history and culture, are still working on their books, projects, classes, dramas, and online discussions?

It may be that as yet I have not found the balance needed to assist Deaf historians in their vocation in the best way I can. And so maybe for now, I need to keep it down, just in case I am not giving others the chance to breathe. My lack of patience with discussion of privilege may come from the times I have seen it as a basis for ad hominem attacks on someone’s point of view; to me, the call to ‘check your privilege’ often resembles telling someone to shut up. And no one likes to be told to shut up. It’s not conducive to positive interaction. That said, maybe, in some ways, I need to shut the hell UP. It’s far nicer to come to the realisation yourself than to be told in anger. And maybe I should also be more explicit in acknowledging the debt I owe to such Deaf Irish historians, archivists and researchers past and present such as Liam Breen, David Breslin, John Bosco Conama, Anne Coogan, Fergus Dunne, Stan and Christy Foran, Alvean Jones, Teresa Lynch, Patrick A Matthews, Noel O’Connell, Josephine O’Leary, Graham O’Shea, Rachel and Henry Pollard, and James Woulfe.



[1] Among the many authors to have written on this topics are Dai O’Brien and Steven D Emery, ‘The Role of the Intellectual in Minority Group Studies: Reflections on Deaf Studies in Social and Political Contexts’, Qualitative Inquiry 20, no. 1 (2013): 27–36; Rachel Sutton-Spence and Donna West, ‘Negotiating the Legacy of Hearingness’, Qualitative Inquiry 17, no. 5 (April 28, 2011): 422–32; Lesley Jones and Gloria Pullen, ‘Cultural Differences: Deaf and Hearing Researchers Working Together’, Disability, Handicap & Society 7, no. 2 (January 1992): 189–96; Charlotte Baker-Shenk and J. G. Kyle, ‘Research with Deaf People: Issues and Conflicts’, Disability, Handicap & Society 5, no. 1 (1990): 65–75; David Parratt, ‘Working with Deaf People’, Disability & Society 10, no. 4 (December 1995): 501–20; Alys Young and Ros Hunt, Research with d/Deaf People (London, 2011); available from http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/41800/; accessed 2 August 2014; Rob Kitchin, ‘The Researched Opinions on Research: Disabled People and Disability Research’, Disability & Society 15, no. 1 (2000): 25–47; Jenny L Singleton, Gabrielle Jones, and Shilpa Hanumantha, ‘Toward Ethical Research Practice With Deaf Participants’, Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics (2014); Raychelle Harris, Heidi M Holmes, and Donna M Mertens, ‘Research Ethics in Sign Language Communities’, Sign Language Studies 9, no. 2 (2009): 104–31.

[2] Owen Wrigley, The Politics of Deafness (Washington, D.C., 1996), 43.

[3] Günther List, ‘Deaf History: A Suppressed Part of General History’, in Deaf History Unveiled: Interpretations from the New Scholarship, ed. John Vickrey Van Cleve (Washington, D.C., 1993), 116.

Monday, October 5, 2015

If English Leads... Does ISL Follow?


I remember being hugely excited when I started off my PhD, and something I really wanted was: if I was ever to present my historical research, that it would be done through ISL – that I would sign my presentations. For me, that was number one. Regardless of whether my audience was Deaf, hearing, or both, this is the way I wanted to do things.

I felt this way for many reasons: firstly, what I was researching was the culture and history of the Deaf community, going back generations. The language of this community in the present day is ISL.
So what I didn’t want to happen is that I’d end up speaking about this community - where signed language was central. That felt wrong to me. I can’t stand situations where information about Deaf people is being presented in a way that becomes hearing people talking amongst each other about ‘them’. Forget that – I wanted to sign.

It also would mean that Deaf people coming to any presentation of mine would have full access to what I was presenting on. And also, ISL, Irish Sign Language, is a language. A full language, not something half baked or inferior. And I wanted to make this point to hearing academics out there. I wanted to show historians out there with no experience of Deaf people that ISL was a language that you could discuss and present issues in a complete, academic style, a language to discuss any content whatsoever in intellectual discourse. And of course Deaf people know this – but hearing academics don’t tend to, and this is something I wanted to get across to them.

There’s also a point that Mike Gulliver makes in a blog entry of his, when he talks about deciding whether to use sign or speech when your audience is Deaf. What if your level of sign language isn’t exactly fluent enough? Should you go on whatever level of sign language you have? Or should you stick to your first language, speech – and use an interpreter? It’s interesting to consider; I would never call my ISL perfect by any means, but I’d think it was at a level that I’d be able to deliver a lecture… at least I think I can… And then of course there’s the fact that presenting in sign language is FUN! For me, it’s enjoyable and pleasurable to use this language when presenting. It's just a really great language to use.

But what happens if you have a hearing audience - or a mixed Deaf / hearing audience - and you decide to sign? Well, you're going to need an interpreter. And that can be a problem. Who is the interpreter going to be? Are they going to have a knowledge and comfort with the area I study - 19th century Ireland? Or are they going to be clueless about that? And of course, when I'm signing, they're voicing. And I can hear that voicing. That can be distracting. If what's in my head, and coming out my hands, doesn't match what I am hearing them say - it can be very distracting and off-putting. I have presented in ISL before and been voiced over, and wasn't distracted; as far as I was concerned, I let them do their job. But occasionally this was distracting.

There's another online article, by Darren Byrne, who says that hearing people who present in ISL possess privilege - they are able to catch when they are being misinterpreted. And they can then step in and correct mistakes. Deaf people aren't in a position to do this. Deaf people cannot hear and so cannot tell when there are mistakes in the voiceover. So they have to place trust in the interpreter. And it's a big issue - if the interpreter gets it wrong, the Deaf person has no idea. So I'm lucky, or maybe lucky' is the wrong word - I am privileged.

And... I'm an interpreter myself. I'm not trying to criticise interpreters or saying they always make mistakes. I like to support other interpreters, to be positive and encouraging. But at the same time, I might give them preparation materials to read through, let them ask questions. Give them whatever they need, but once I'm up on that stage, does what I hear bother me? Maybe the voiceover has the same overall meaning that my ISL does, but the words they choose might not be exactly the ones I had in mind. Do I correct them? Leave it be? Or... what?

So I have given this a great deal of thought. And what I realised is that what is important to me is ... CONTROL. If I'm presenting in sign language and dismiss any thought of the voiceover being important, It means control is taken from me - well, not taken fully from me, but I'm surrendering control of half my presentation to someone else. Do I trust the interpreter with that? It might be the best interpreter in the country but how do I feel about giving them control of half of what I am presenting? I prefer to be fully in control.

Of course, even if it is the world's greatest interpreter, regardless whether the presenter is Deaf or hearing, they give 100% of their own message. But an interpreter voicing this over into English can very rarely get across 100% of this message. I read an article before that says if an interpreter is really good, they can get across something like 80%. Some information is going to be lost. Not deliberately lost - it's just a result of the processing in the interpreter's brain, part of the translation and interpreting process. It happens. The message is lessened when it's interpreted. Some words and vocabulary might go. Sometimes, some of the emotional affect. That's an important point to hold for the moment.

So I did wonder what to do about all these issues. I wanted to sign for presentations, but would I use an interpreter? I wanted audiences both Deaf and hearing to get the most out of what I was presenting, to enjoy it fully. And I wanted both to understand completely what I wanted to say. If I was to use an interpreter, Deaf audiences would understand and have full access to my content; but would hearing audiences enjoy and appreciate it as much - or a little bit less?

At one stage I attended a conference, and I saw something that looked like it was the answer.
The presenter - Andy Long, a Scottish researcher, was hearing, and an interpreter himself, and the way he presented was really interesting. He presented in sign language - but also played audio clips of his own voice on his laptop computer. He had recorded himself speaking clips of his presentation, and would click to play them as he went. As he played each clip, he would sign the next piece. I thought this was fantastic! I'd never thought of this! So I asked him if he wouldn't mind if I used that method sometime. Work away! he said. It's not my method, it's not something I own!

And so recently I finally got a chance to use this method of presenting. I prerecorded clips of my voice, and signed what I heard. After the presentation, I reflected a little... I thought a lot about how I had done the presentation. I wasn't completely happy about it. That was for a few reasons.

Firstly, time was a factor. I started off by writing an English 'script' for the presentation. Then for each section of the script, I recorded a separate audio clip where I read out that section. All these clips were recorded onto the computer. It was a long process. Plus, I sometimes made little vocal slip ups and had to go back. So it was complicated, and ended up adding two hours worth of work to the presentation!

Secondly. The presentation happened just last week. I played the sound clips, signed them, and so on. I was lucky with the room, as I could plug my laptop into speakers with good sound quality, and my voice could be heard well by everyone. Had it been somewhere else, I may not have been so lucky. One issue was that sometimes as I was going through the clips, the audio would cut out towards the end. I hadn't finished signing the whole thing, so it was off-putting. There happened to be two interpreters there anyway, and I had to ask them to voice the missing bits.

And then there was something else. I happened to be able to record the session on video that evening.
So I watched it afterwards, perfectionist that I am, seeing how I could improve for next time - I'm never happy. When I was recording the clips I thought my pace was set nicely. But when I actually presented, the pace was realy fast - I was straining to keep up! I had to rush like crazy to keep up with myself, and my signing was a little confused and all over the place. This happened each time I went onto a new clip. And when I re-watched my presentation, I didn't feel my ISL was as smoth and clear as it should have been. I was racing to catch up. Time was a factor.

So in the aftermath I did a lot of thinking. Of course I had limited time anyway. Signing against time like that, it might always have looked rushed. I had 30 minutes - speaking or signing, you're tight on time, and you'll look OR sound rushed. But reflecting on the whole thing, I let the English lead. English was in control. The English script, transferred to an audio form, was in front, taking the lead. And ISL was behind it, chasing afterward - almost left behind, scurrying to catch up in the rush. I think this has some links to notions of power. The English language had power in this situation. Obey the script! All hail the script! The script must be followed! The English script strides on in front. And ISL struggles behind it.

In several previous presentations I've given, there wasn't this problem. I stood up and presented in ISL comfortably without sticking to any script. Audiences either understood my signing, or there were interpreters there to voice me - I didn't worry about the English side of things being perfect. My focus was on the ISL. That meant that previously, for me, ISL had been in the lead - and it was English that had to hurry along to keep up with its leader! But last Thursday, at my presentation, this was reversed. English became a bossy and arrogant front runner, barking at its pet dog to keep up...

This doesn't mean I think an English script is a bad idea, though. I'm not blaming the script. Scripts do help me. Before the presentation, a script helps me gather and structure my ideas and points that can often be jumbled, and puts a clear shape on them. And English is of course my first language, the language I have grown up with. But having this fixed, rigid script that cannot be deviated from, means it is in control. English takes the lead. And ISL is caught in its slipstream.

Perhaps it's better for me to focus on the ISL part. Let English step aside and allow the flow of ISL to take over. Let the wave of my thoughts go straight to my hands and body. To not force everything to be mediated through English, but to ask English to step to the side. English can take a back seat while sign language takes the lead for a change. How interpreters deal with 'my words' is something I might have to just not deal with. Give them my script in advance and let that guide them. And let that be it. Not to concern myself with the interpreter at all, but to absorb myself in my ISL presentation.

Now this doesn't mean I've jettisoned the idea totally of a prerecorded script; I might do it again for a large conference with only hearing people present. I'd do the pre-recording again and sign each segment. But I'd give a lot more consideration to time; I wouldn't allow the ISL to suffer. I'd practice beforehand each segment and how it would play out in ISL, so that each language is given equal merit, and there is no leader and follower, but instead, teamwork and parity between languages.

So overall I think there is a lot to think about there. Language, translation, power, and relative ranking. And just to let you know about this vlog: I'm not listening to a prerecorded script while signing all this to you! These are just thoughts that I'm signing directly... Mind you I did sit down and make a list of all these points before recording the vlog; the list is on another computer to remind me as I am recording and signing it! So ISL isn't meekly struggling to bring up the rear right now! ISL and English are more or less.. working together.

Here is my presentation ...