Deaf geographies, and other worlds.

Deaf/academic ownership – making it work: Creation

My post with ideas for making academic work available to the Deaf community responded to a very real need – and provoked at least three offline discussions. The first two were about how to set up something more formal to allow the academic/community relationship to be built longer term. I hope to return to those in time.

The third, however, was triggered by something I wrote. A Deaf colleague, activist, and friend was provoked to ire by my observation that:

We [academics] have to guard against intellectual theft, and loss of communicative control. In other words, if we share information (even in a ‘non academic’ form) before it’s been formally published, others can steal our work and publish it in their own name in any form they like. We have to be prepared to lose ownership of any information we make available, and assume that we may never be able to use it again.

She asked (used with permission):

Whose intellectual theft?! Who does the information / experience belong to in the first place? I have often cited ideas as an activist on e mail lists, even blog posts or what I say as part of activism. Next thing I see them in a thesis or in some journal, as part of someone’s work. I can think of at least four times it has happened. Because an academic has “discovered” them. Some of those ideas already belong to the Deaf community, not an academic sitting in ivory towers. That’s part of the creaming that is taken off our community and people build their reputation, career and earn an income from it.

She’s right – of course.

And so am I.

So, how do we make this work in practice? 

Well, one solution is to look at how history (and other academic work) is built. 

  • Things starts with events, or facts, or evidence…
  • … which are then curated into collections of data.
  • … which are then consumed, digested and formulated into a story.
  • … which may or may not involved judgements about the data and what it means.
  • … which are then written up, or shaped into an output.
  • … which is then consumed by an audience.

Straightforward isn’t it – until you start to pick apart how this process most often works and add in questions of control and ownership.

Essentially, I think, there are four stages: Creation, Exploration, Interpretation, Dissemination.

I’ll deal with the first one here, and the others in future posts.


The first stage is creation. That’s where Deaf lives, words, actions, events happen. These clearly all belong to Deaf people (or at least they should).

The problem is though that as soon as these things happen, they are recorded. And where they are recorded (and who they are recorded by) is most often written by hearing people (newspapers, school reports, doctors’ notes etc.) who are making knowledge about Deaf people available to the hearing world. 

When this happens Deaf people become the ‘subjects’ of their own history. Curious objects to be observed and discussed. People allowed to live only through a textual reflection.

This habit of ‘subjectifying’ Deaf people means that even if, as my friend suggests, the evidence is contemporary, people still treat her words as if they are evidence from a Deaf subject, rather than something that has been written by an equal human being. 

To be honest, where someone has used material without reference and without permission, then that’s simply bad academic practice. But the fact that it’s considered OK to do so either by the student, or by their supervisor, demonstrates how weak our academic standards are.

But beyond simply acknowledging the source of evidence that we use, what else can we do? Well, here are three things that make us more accountable. 

1. Commit to recognise both the Deaf source of historical evidence about the Deaf community, and our responsibility in using it.

I was at a large, academic conference a few years ago in Tasmania where the opening ceremony contained two elements that I’d never seen before. First, we were welcomed to the land by a representative of the local Aboriginal community. Then, one of the conference organisers responded to that welcome by paying respect to it, and to its previous guardians.

The ‘welcome to country/acknowledgement of country’ exchange is more or less formalised. But it marked me deeply because it’s exactly the kind of thing that’s missing from our historical work with the Deaf community. We neither seek out, nor secure, nor value a welcome to Deaf spaces… or do we acknowledge Deaf people’s ownership/guardianship of them.

2. Commit to develop methodologies that will not only ‘read between the lines’ but actively seek out Deaf voice where the historical record has written it out. 

Here, this is partly about recognising that Deaf people have a different temporal horizon, and that many living Deaf people will be able to remember (through community memory) events which pre-date them. Failing to consult with living Deaf people about their own history is rather like reading a book and ignoring all the reported speech.

But it’s also recognising that within the historical record (certainly, the records that I’ve worked with), because ‘success’ in the hearing record is marked by Deaf people overcoming their deafness and becoming similacra of a ‘hearing ideal’, those who sign are generally written out. This means that Deaf people are more noticeable in what the record doesn’t say, than what it does.

This was true in my PhD research where Deaf spaces were generally ignored by the record as examples of ‘failure’. So I developed a methodology that assumed that ‘Deaf spaces were present if the ingredients that would allow them to develop were present’. I’d make that assumption, and then read the record again. It amazed me the number of times that that second reading made more sense than the first.

Both of these approaches allow us to surface a Deaf voice where the record didn’t previously contain one. I’m sure there are more. 

3. Actively seek to ‘repatriate’ Deaf history.

Remember the Elgin Marbles? If you don’t know the story, then it’s worth a read.  Basically, it’s a series of sculptures that were removed from public monuments in Greece by a private British collector at a time when the British could do that sort of thing. The polemic around them is due to a refusal to return them – ostensibly because ‘we don’t trust the Greeks to look after them’.

Why do I mention the Elgin Marbles? To illustrate the fact that taking control of something that belongs to someone else, and then refusing to give it back because we don’t trust the ‘natives’ to look after it, is a problem that goes beyond Deaf Studies. It is an attitude that smacks of superiority and Orientalism: the conviction that we can’t trust the ‘natives’ to do the right thing… and that we are simply ‘better’, or more trustworthy.

The question that’s always asked is “Yes, but what if they destroy it? or withhold access? Then neither they, nor we, have access to it and it’s lost for ever.”

But Deaf people have always been aware that their history is the backbone of their identity. They’re not going to destroy it. We’re much more likely to as our archival policies find it uninteresting and discard it, or our representations twist it out of any recognisable form.

Instead of destroying it, what’s more likely is that Deaf people will start to tell us who they trust to work with, and who writes history that they have ‘licensed’.

Who knows, we may even find some luxury in the distinction between owner and expert, and enjoy the clarity of being able to work with Deaf people on the one hand, and for the university on the other.

Ownership of Creation

I’m not entirely sure whether these are enough, or exactly how we do any of these. But I think trying has got to be the next step.

I’m open to ideas – Do we include a statement in published works? Do we need an ethics process? Is this more an unspoken consultation process? How do Deaf people get to mark works that have failed to give them ownership of the Creation of historical work?

I’m open to suggestions.

One comment on “Deaf/academic ownership – making it work: Creation

  1. MM
    April 4, 2014

    Why do we need deaf academics ? Most of the issue of ‘ownership’ is because bias distorts fact, I have never in years seen any dedicated BSL area remotely interested in anything that wasn’t about BSL, including hearing who made major contributions to the language. IOt appears to most, ‘academics of the deaf variety are attempting to re-write history. In the UK what created deaf culture e.g. the clubs/deaf schools are fading daily, removing the base as inclusion gains momentum. I agree inclusion is still a long way off, but there again pursuit of culture these days seems to depend on isolating deaf to their own again, which is anti-inclusion. If culturalists are honest (And few are), then they would admit that only keeping deaf isolated is going to protect the culture. Hence the hype of ‘ownership’. Which means keeping everyone else, OUT.

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This entry was posted on February 5, 2014 by in Academic, DEAF, DEAF history, Musings and tagged , , .
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