Bridging the Gap: Heriot-Watt ventures down south

Jemina Napier, Manako Yabe, Suji Sahasrabude & Karolien Gebruers

See here for BSL version:

This v/blogpost is about the experiences of several members of the SIGNS@HWU team in the Department of Languages & Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University, who travelled down south from Edinburgh in Scotland to the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in Preston, England to attend the 7th Bridging the Gap (BtG) conference on Saturday 25th November 2023. This is a regular conference that used to be held almost every year, but this was the first one since the Covid lockdowns, with the last one being held in Cardiff in 2019.

The aim of the BtG conferences is to bring researchers and deaf community members together to identify research priorities, share what universities are working on and to discuss how universities can best collaborate with deaf community organisations and people to advance research.

There were approximately 30 people in attendance, from a range of universities including UCLan, Heriot-Watt University, York St John, Birmingham, Edinburgh; and deaf community and sign language related organisations, such as the British Deaf Association (BDA), Black Deaf UK (BDUK), the Interpreters of Colour Network (IOCN) and the Association of British Sign Language Tutors and Assessors (ABSLTA).

It was a one-day conference with a variety of different presenters and topics. To begin, Kibra Taye and Rita Bagga talked about migrating to the UK from Ethiopian and Indian/Kenyan heritages respectively, what it was like growing up deaf and also part of another marginalised group with the lack of Asian role models and how they both became active in the deaf community advocating and lobbying for deaf rights. They stressed that there is a lack of cultural understanding in the UK BSL community about multilingualism and diversity, and that the BDA has an important role to play in fostering deaf youth to become role models for others. They asked questions about what the audience would like to see from research and suggested that there is a need for more intersectional research – especially on experiences and identities of deaf refugees and migrants. One example is the Mobile Deaf project at Heriot-Watt University, which had one workstream on experiences of deaf migrants in London who migrated either for work or marriage.

Sylvia Simmonds, who is a BSL advocate, talked about the importance of bridging trust between researchers and deaf community members. She reflected on the benefits of having deaf parents as role models, which led her to develop the confidence to advocate for others. Sylvia noted that it is critical to empower deaf community members by making connections between BSL, language, community and culture in conducting research.

Tom Lichy, the head of policy at the BDA, gave an overview of the BDA research forum, which involves 10 universities from across the UK. He asked the audience to review how they would invest their money in research to support potential research ideas.

Dr Nick Palfreyman from the iSLanDS Institute at UCLan discussed the DeafCAN project: Deaf lives and Sign Languages in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica), and how they have taken steps to involve local deaf researchers in order to examine the endangerment of sign languages.

Dr Nicola Nunn, the organiser of this BtG conference at UCLAN then led a review of BtG conferences 1-6: The first was in 2014 at UCLAn (1), followed by York St John (2), Manchester (3), Brighton (4), Heriot-Watt (5) and Cardiff (6), then back at UCLAN for (7). There was an obvious hiatus for 3 years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nicola gave an overview of achievements from each conference, with video contributions from Dr Dai O’Brien (York St John) and Dr John Walker (Sussex, formerly Brighton) and highlighted the benefits of hosting the conference: making connections, community and academic partnerships, bringing people together, focusing on deaf people’s rights, and spotlighting the use of BSL. Prof Jemina Napier gave an update on achievements since Heriot-Watt hosted the BtG conference in 2018:

  • Memorandum of Understanding with BDA to collaborate on research
  • Co-designed bid with BDA on deaf community belonging (unsuccessful)
  • BDA & other key organisations involved in many project advisory groups
  • Memorandum of Understanding with Edinburgh based deaf charity Deaf Action for teaching and reserch
  • Partnership with Deaf Action & many other UK organisations for student service learning projects, 3rd & 4th year placements
  • Research collaborations with the Association of Sign Language Interpreters UK and BSL Broadcasting Trust
  • Joint Edinburgh-based universities Memorandum of Understanding (Heriot-Watt, University of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh Napier University) to collaborate and exchange information on sign language and deaf studies teaching and research, which led to reinvigoration of the EdSign Lecture Series.
  • Creation of a 4* impact case study in the REF2021 submission
  • Strategy away day held in May 2023 with BDA, Deaf Action, National Register of Communication Professionals with Deaf People (NRCPD), Black Deaf UK, ASLI and IOCN to explore research priorities, which has led to the development of a research engagement plan.
  • Given input to Scottish Government national BSL plan consultations
  • In 2023 first deaf academic in the UK to be promoted to full Professor: Prof Annelies Kusters

In addition to the various presentations, there were also a series of workshops to discuss making connections between community and research. Dr Manako Yabe (Deaf postdoctoral Research Associate), Sujit Sahasrabudhe (Deaf research assistant & BSL tutor) and Karolien Gebruers (PhD student) were part of the Heriot-Watt delegation that attended the BtG conference, and share their reflections on the conference and the workshops:

Manako: One of the things discussed was what sign to use for ‘Bridging’ the Gap. Some suggested using the sign for BRIDGE, others suggested CONNECTING TWO BRIDGES between communities and universities, and I suggested BRIDGING EQUALITY between communities and universities. The reason for this is because deaf communities are a rich source of lived experiences and stories to share, but these stories are often invisible to majority society. Universities have developed methodologies and evidence-based practices but it can be challenging to collect deaf community stories. Both universities and deaf communities have their own strengths and weaknesses, but by connecting both universities and communities we can be more powerful in bridging equality. The gap exists not only in the UK, but also the USA, Japan (where I am from) and Europe. So bridging the gap between universities and deaf communities is a global issue. What do you think should be the sign for “Bridging the Gap”?

Sujit: As Jemina noted, after the main speakers of the conference, after lunch there were workshops to discuss three different topics. Attendees moved between the different workshops to discuss ideas for research projects; to identify research gaps; concerns for the future and how research can help to improve things for the deaf community. We had a lot of interesting discussion. After 20 minutes or so we moved to the next workshop. The facilitators created lists of the points of discussion. I made the point to Nicola, the BtG7 organiser, that it would be good to share those lists across UK universities so that we can take the suggestions into account in our own research, for example at Heriot-Watt. The audience agreed with this idea. So hopefully this information will be shared, which could generate more discussions among the universities about seeking funding for projects and on-going research. Attending the BtG conference was a really positive experience.

Karolien: It was the first time I had been to a BtG conference. I am not from the UK, I am from Belgium, so it was really interesting to go along and see who was there, who the organisational representatives were, who attended from the community and how the conference was structured. It was helpful for me to understand more about the UK context. It was also useful for me to be able to compare the UK and Belgian contexts. Despite the fact that the laws are different in each country, I could see that the experiences of deaf communities in each country are very similar. Another thing I found beneficial from attending BtG was to think about how we could set up a version of this conference in Belgium because we have never had anything like this before. So, I will talk to different people about the possibility of setting up a BtG conference in Belgium as I think it will be a really good way to bring together universities, researchers and deaf community members to foster more interaction and collaboration. Overall it was a really interesting conference.

We would really recommend attending the next BtG conference!