Making an Impact

by Michael Richardson

For the last two and a half years I have been researching the participation of Deaf people in theatre.  With only a few months remaining, I am currently writing up my PhD thesis, wondering what I am doing – and often, why I am doing it.  Of course, working bilingually in English and British Sign Language with a mixed group of Deaf and hearing actors for a week last summer was great fun.  Finding out what audiences thought about the finished work was fascinating.  Turning it all into 80,000 words of highly academic but readable prose?  Well, let’s just say, the 65,000 words I still need to write aren’t coming easily.  I can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Fortunately, my PhD journey started well, and I am regularly reminded of the benefit of academic research by emails I receive from people who have changed their practice as a result of my work.  It all started in my first year as a postgraduate, when I was invited by a theatre to conduct a small study for them, attempting to find out why the numbers of Deaf spectators were lower than expected for Sign Language Interpreted Performances (SLIPs).

SLIPs are performances of spoken language theatre that are simultaneously translated into sign language, usually by a single interpreter standing in the downstage corner of the stage at some distance from the actors.  They are the typical method currently employed to encourage Deaf sign language users to attend mainstream theatres.

In my research I interviewed Deaf and hearing audience members, as well as a theatre interpreter, and staff responsible for access in the theatre.  The results suggest that SLIPs do not provide Deaf spectators with an experience equivalent to that of hearing audience members.  Interpreters are inadequately trained and usually given insufficient resources to prepare for a SLIP.  Theatre companies are often uninterested in, if not opposed to, the presence of the interpreter on stage, and insist on her spatial separation from the main production, making it impossible for spectators to follow the show and the translation at the same time. Theatre venues, despite promoting a performance in sign language, often do not use sign language in their marketing materials or in front of house facilities.  As a result they do not present a welcoming image to the very people they are trying to attract.  Understandably my Deaf participants had little positive to say about the effectiveness of SLIPs in providing access.

The aim of a preparatory study such as this within the PhD process is to give an opportunity for postgraduate researchers to develop and refine their research skills; and for academic staff to ascertain whether their PhD student is ready to progress to the full-scale study on which their thesis will be built.  My work on SLIPs, however, has gone far beyond this.

My research was the first to ask Deaf people their views on SLIPs, and there has been significant interest in my results from the academic community.  I have spoken at several conferences in the UK and Europe on the challenges of delivering SLIPs.  Most recently I presented my thoughts on the need to establish a separate professional speciality of performance interpreting to support the development of quality provision of SLIPs, at the Third International Conference on Interpreting Quality in Granada (http://qinv.ugr.es/iciq3-en.htm).  I have also written articles based on my research.  A paper on interpreting and theatre translation was published in 2017 in the online journal TranscUlturAl (https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/tc/index.php/TC/article/view/29265). A second paper, ‘The Sign Language Interpreted Performance: A Failure of Access Provision for Deaf Spectators ‘ will be published in March in the journal Theatre Topics (volume 28 (1), pp. 63-74).

Whilst spreading awareness of my work within the academic community is a desirable part of the PhD journey, I am also pleased that my research is having impact in the real world.  I have been invited to speak at events aimed at cultural managers, theatre practitioners and interpreters throughout the UK:  at the South Bank Centre in London with Deafinitely Theatre; in Ipswich with the Pacitti Company; at Manchester Art Gallery for the Greater Manchester Cultural Group for Deaf People; and as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Each of these events is part of the work in progress towards adequate access to cultural events for Deaf people, as is my ongoing contribution to a working group in Edinburgh that aims to develop opportunities for Deaf-led arts and cultural activities.

More tangible results have followed from discussions with individual practitioners.  Zane Hema, an interpreter trainer based in Australia, is using my ideas about performance interpreting in Continuous Professional Development sessions that he leads.   ZooCo (https://wearezooco.co.uk/), a small touring company that works to make theatre accessible to diverse audiences, is using my research to inform their thinking about how to engage Deaf audiences.  In Gloucester, the Strike a Light Festival took on a number of the recommendations that I made, including having staff Front of House who could greet Deaf patrons in sign language; and keeping seats for Deaf spectators at SLIPs that give the best possible view of interpreter and stage.  Previously they had not attracted any Deaf people at all; having made these changes, they estimate that approximately 5% of their audience during their 2017 festival was Deaf.  In the March 2018 festival they will also use the Difference Engine, a piece of technology that streams captions onto an individual’s smart phone or tablet, for their production of Lucy J Skilbeck’s Joan (https://www.strikealightfestival.org.uk/events/joan/).

As I write this, I am in the middle of slowly redrafting the first half of my literature review, and thematically coding the seemingly endless hours of video data that I generated in my main research project last year.  Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the fact that the work I did in the first year of my PhD is already having an impact, not only in universities, but also in the real world of cultural provision.  My research is contributing to an improvement in the lives of Deaf people, at least in the arts.  And that, I remember, is why I am doing it.

Heriot-Watt BSL team wins Guardian University Award !

 

Impact is notoriously difficult to quantify in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. How can researchers really *prove* that their work has led to a change in policy, social attitudes or people’s lives in general? And how can this change be measured and evaluated?

In the case of the LINCS BSL team, this is pretty straightforward. Their work has contributed to the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act, which received Royal Assent in October 2015, a change in legislation that is set to improve the lives of British Sign Language users. And it is precisely this role in shaping life-changing legislation, aimed at securing the future of Scotland’s signing community, that has earned Heriot-Watt the Guardian University Award 2017 for Social and Community Impact.

The Guardian reports:

“The law – the first of its kind in the UK – aims to raise awareness of British Sign Language (BSL) and improve services for those who use the language. For BSL users many public services are inaccessible, resulting in isolation and exclusion for the hearing impaired. The new bill will prompt local bodies to produce plans for improving accessibility for BSL users, although the legislation will initially only apply in Scotland.

HWU performed a pivotal role in shaping the bill by leading a forum in parliament defining BSL’s future in an inclusive Scotland. HWU research was essential to this forum, as it investigated ways to improve the rights of BSL users. The follow-up briefing for members and corporate staff of the Scottish parliament, researchers and deaf community representatives helped define the direction of the subsequent bill.

Mark Griffin MSP, who tabled the bill, commented: “[This research] has been particularly critical in providing fundamental underpinning analyses which framed the consultation process leading towards this bill.”

Following the legislative changes, HWU instigated the 2015-16 Scottish Universities Insight Institute venture. This has enabled BSL teaching to be offered as a language subject to every primary and secondary school pupil. Learning resources are grounded in the digital corpus of BSL material – the centrepiece of a 2008-10 Economic and Social Research Council project where HWU was the Scottish partner.

In partnership with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the General Teaching Council for Scotland, HWU is currently progressing the initiative by creating the real prospect, within a generation, of BSL users being routinely present in every street and institution across the country.

In 2016, HWU embarked on a new phase of BSL development after Annelies Kusters, a postdoctoral researcher specialising in social and cultural anthropology and deaf studies, was awarded a prestigious European Research Council grant of €1.5m (£1.3m) over five years.

Kusters will bring her all-deaf academic team to HWU to undertake the MobileDeaf project, which aims to explore the correlation between the status of being deaf and other statuses of ethnicity, nationality, education, religion and gender.”

This highly prestigious award, which was awarded to HWU at the Guardian University Awards official ceremony in London on March 29th, constitutes an important recognition of the role of BSL research taking place at Heriot-Watt, as well as its impact in communities across the UK and beyond.

Professor Graham Turner, Director of CTISS and Gary Quinn, Head of BSL in LINCS received the award on behalf of the BSL team.

Watch the short clip with Gary Quinn‘s acceptance speech:

VIDEO_GUARDIANUNIAWARDS

Professor Graham Turner said, “We’re thrilled to have won this prestigious award and that our work has been recognised for its contribution to British Sign Language users in Scotland. The new legislation helps to overturn the widespread, chronic social disadvantage experienced by BSL users, and is transforming the prospects of deaf and hearing people nationwide.

The Act is also crucial to addressing the severe shortage of interpreters because, by committing the Scottish Government to promote the use and understanding of BSL, it is expected to inspire an increasing number of people into the sector’s workforce.

This will serve to increase opportunities for BSL users, making it part of the everyday linguistic landscape for everyone in the country, something deaf people have waited generations to see.”

This award is a result of decades of hard work from a dedicated team of BSL researchers, PhD students and teachers, who all play their part in building the research evidence that contributes to the social and community impact. Specifically:

  • BSL section staff

Gary Quinn (Head of BSL section)

Prof Graham Turner (Director of CTISS)

Prof Jemina Napier (Head of Department, LINCS)

Stacey Webb (Assistant Professor)

Dr Jordan Fenlon (Assistant Professor)

Dr Svenja Wurm (Assistant Professor and Director of EUMASLI programme)

Dr Annelies Kusters (Assistant Professor)

 

  •  Former PhD students (completed)

Dr Robyn Dean

Dr Jules Dickinson

Dr Xiao Zhao

 

  • Current PhD students

Robert Skinner

Emmy Kauling

Heather Mole

Clare Canton

Yvonne Waddell

Danny McDougall

Michael Richardson

Mette Sommer Lindsay

 

Congratulations to all!!

 

 

17th September 2015: A momentous day for the BSL Community

by Graham Turner
On a most extraordinary afternoon last week (17th September 2015, a date to be remembered), it seemed that half of Heriot-Watt’s Department of Languages & Intercultural Studies re-located to the Scottish Parliament for a few hours. Why? It was the Stage 3 (final) reading in the chamber of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill.
 
The Bill passed with unanimous support from the assembled Members of the Scottish Parliament, and will be fully ratified following Royal Assent in 4-8 weeks’ time.
 
We can state it dispassionately in the clear light of a later week, but this was anything but a calm and sober occasion. For evidence, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u61__M7dUS4. You can watch the whole debate from about 1:03:00. But you really only need to see the audience reaction to the final vote (from about 2:35:00) to get a feel for the electrifying nature of the moment.
 
You could ask any one of LINCS’ eight British Sign Language (BSL) staff members, or our six research students, or indeed any of the 60-odd undergraduate students now enrolled in years 1-4 of our honours degree programme, and they would be able to tell you why this was such a momentous day for the BSL community.
 
You can read, or watch in BSL, a perspective about the thinking behind the Bill from Heriot-Watt’s Professor Graham Turner (published last year to encourage engagement with the first draft of the Bill) here: http://limpingchicken.com/2014/12/05/turner-bsl-bill/.
 
There’s an excellent blog summarising what the Bill does (and doesn’t do) here: http://bristol.verbeeld.be/2015/09/17/british-sign-language-scotland-bill-passed-final-hurdle/. It is designed to create an ongoing framework for national planning around BSL which will lead to continuous, incremental improvement in the way BSL is protected and, crucially, promoted across Scottish public life. The community’s priorities will need to be elicited and sustainably enacted: some future scenarios are contained in evidence (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_EducationandCultureCommittee/BSL%20Bill/TurnerProfessorGHHeriotWattUniversity.pdf)  sent from Heriot-Watt  to the Parliamentary committee which reviewed the Bill.
You can see from sources like this http://scotlandfutureforum.org/assets/library/files/application/BSL_Report.pdf that Heriot-Watt has championed this cause from the front since at least 2010. In fact, five years’ campaigning doesn’t even scratch the surface of the deep and painful history that underpins last week’s success. Heriot-Watt BSL staff can tell you story after story after story of friends, family and colleagues who have lived and died in pursuit of proper respect and recognition for BSL.
 
As Avril Hepner, the British Deaf Association’s Community Development Manager in Scotland, told Parliament in her evidence before the Bill passed, this legislation finally enables BSL users to feel that they belong in Scotland, and Scotland belongs to them along with everyone else.
 
Scotland therefore becomes the only part of the United Kingdom to secure legal recognition of BSL to date. Needless to say, campaigners everywhere will be encouraging Westminster to follow Scotland’s lead, and Heriot-Watt staff will be fully engaged in supporting their efforts.
 
So if you see a BSL user anywhere in the UK in the next wee while with a huge, undimmable grin on their face – you now know why. This is huge. Shake their hand.

LINCS research officially declared 'pure dead brilliant'

by Graham Turner

If you’re a wee bit geeky about higher education, like some of the staff of LINCS, you will have been holding your breath just after midnight on the morning of 18th December. You weren’t? What can I say? I guess you just had to be there.

What was the fuss about? It was the announcement of the results of the Research Excellence Framework 2014, aka REF. How did LINCS fare? Pure dead brilliant.

In fact, Heriot-Watt University performed well as a whole in the REF rankings. The ‘headline’ announcement is that Heriot-Watt has risen to 33rd position in the UK (4th in Scotland), as compared with 45th in the 2008 audit. (You can see lots more, including a podcast/video presentation of our results by the University’s Principal, here http://www.hw.ac.uk/news/heriot-watt-demonstrates-significant-20137.htm.)

REF is a UK-wide audit of research performance. Every six years or so, it reviews the work of every department in every university in the land. That’s 154 universities, submitting 1,911 reports, covering research by 52,061 members of staff.

A series of expert panels were created – LINCS’ own Professor Máiréad Nic Crath was selected for one of these, which is a real endorsement of the esteem in which Máiréad is held by academic peers far and wide. The brave panel members then spent most of the year reading 191,150 publications (!) and reaching judgments about their quality.

Besides digesting the research itself, the panellists read documents describing the research environment in each department. And, in a brand new development, they also reviewed 6,975 case studies designed to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of research in ‘the real world’ – how it was valued by policy-makers, industry, the professions and the public.

Eventually, an elaborate series of grades and profiles were generated from the results. As soon as they were announced (last Thursday morning), the press inevitably went into overdrive producing league tables. (Those familiar with the soccer player Gary Lineker’s remark that “Football is a simple game: twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win” will recognise what tends to happen in the REF tables – for Germans, read Oxbridge and London.)

I know, I know – you just want to know how LINCS got on.

Well, one-third of our research was declared ‘world leading’ for its originality, rigour and significance by the Modern Languages & Linguistics panel. In respect of that ‘world leading’ measure, LINCS stands in 17th place in the UK, and top in Scotland.

Panels were looking assess the ‘reach and significance’ of our impact on the economy, society and culture. And here, we scored 90% ‘outstanding’ – placing us 2nd in the UK, and again top in Scotland.

For its ‘vitality and sustainability’ as an environment in which to do research in our fields, LINCS was rated 19th overall in the UK.

As I said, it all starts to get a bit geeky after a while. So why might it matter to you?

What REF tells you boils down to three things. One, you have a painstaking, independent endorsement of the claim that we do know what we’re talking about in our subject areas. Two, if you are interested in studying or working here, LINCS is a stimulating, supportive place to be – and that character is built in for the long term. And three, we’re really not here just to stroke our brain cells: we care passionately about doing work that changes people’s lives.

One last thought. It’s important to recognise that a department’s research performance is not the result only of the efforts of those named in REF as ‘active researchers’, but of everyone involved in the life of the department. That means academics, secretariat, students and associates.

 It’s always a team effort to make sure that, collectively, we’re doing all the things a good department should. LINCS truly does do all of those things, as REF helps to underline.

So, as we head into the holiday season, here’s a toast to each and every person who takes part in the life of LINCS, for every kind of contribution they make.