25 April 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.

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