Sign language research: Deaf-hearing involvement and research ethics

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My topic for this week, the second week of the BSL blog, is on the relationship between ethics and deaf-hearing involvement in conducting research projects. After commencing employment here at Heriot-Watt University, I recently discovered that a joint funding bid to the EU Lifelong Learning Leonardo Da Vinci programme has been successful. The project is called ‘Justisigns’ and the goal of the project is to investigate signed language interpreting in legal contexts in various countries. The partners on the project will be from universities in Belgium (Myriam Vermeerbergen), Ireland (Lorraine Leeson) and Switzerland (Tobias Haug) as well as Heriot-Watt University (Jemina Napier and Graham Turner), and we will be tasked with exploring issues and challenges for legal signed language interpreters across Europe (also with EULITA and efsli).

The success of the funding application got me thinking about the fact that the lead investigators from each of the universities are all hearing people. These people have many years of expertise between them in conducting research on sign language and interpreting, have many publications to their name, and are also involved in training signed language interpreters. There is no doubt that Deaf sign language users will be involved in carrying out the research at the various institutions involved in the project, but the fact of the matter is that the names on the funding application are all names of hearing people. And this gave me pause for thought, so I did some reading around on this issue.

I came across some publications that have emphasised the notion that to be ethical in sign language research, the research project has to be deaf ‘led’. For example, Paddy Ladd, Sarah Batterbury and Mike Gulliver (Bristol University) in their paper about ‘Sign Language Peoples as Indigenous Minorities’ stress that any research conducted with the Deaf community should be deaf-led (Batterbury, Ladd, & Gulliver, 2007). Moreover, researchers in the United States have discussed the need for ethical approaches to conducting sign language research in order to ensure that there is Deaf involvement and Deaf people’s views are taken into consideration (Harris, Holmes & Mertens, 2009; Hochgesang , Villanueva, Mathur, Lillo-Martin, 2010; Mertens, 2010). So this got me thinking even more.

I used to live and work in Australia and observed that there were very few Deaf people there involved in sign language research. Only a handful of people had PhDs or worked in the university context doing research. Even when I obtained research funding for projects, and was keen to work collaboratively with members of the Deaf community, there were only a small number of Deaf people that showed any interest in being involved. Now that I am here in the UK, I notice that although things are somewhat different—there are many more Deaf researchers—very few of them are responsible for leading or managing research projects. This leads me to ask the question why. Is it because hearing people take over? Or is it because Deaf people are uncertain whether they are ready to take on such a role?

In the future do we need to see more collaboration between deaf-hearing research teams in order to determine how best to manage and proceed with research projects. As researchers, we all have the same goals. We want our research to have an impact on, and be of benefit to, the Deaf community. Likewise, my research on signed language interpreting needs to be of benefit to interpreters. But we need to work together to make sure that happens.

I am interested in discussing why there is a lack of Deaf involvement and Deaf leadership in sign language research. Furthermore, I’d like to consider the role of hearing researchers in this context, especially for those people like myself that have grown up in the Deaf community and have close allegiances to the Deaf community and Deaf sensibilities. Does the hearing status of project leaders depend on the nature of the research? For example, whether the project focuses on sign language, Deaf culture, interpreting or translation? Should lead investigators be allocated according to the topic? Is it more appropriate for Deaf researchers to lead on some research topics, but for hearing researchers to lead on other different areas?

So these are the questions I pose to you this week, and I look forward to some discussion on the issue.

Author: Jemina Napier