Deaf geographies, and other worlds.

Kaupapa Deaf

The story behind this blog post is long so I’ll only be covering a part of it. However, before embarking on the telling, I want to mirror a practice that I saw at a conference I attended in Australia in which the original owners of the land were honoured and promises made to respect it and them. In the case of Kaupapa Deaf, there are two historical owners. The first are the Maori community to whom belong the idea of Kaupapa and the Maori language from which the word is taken. The second are a group of Deaf academics including Steve Emery, Dai O’Brien, and Paddy Ladd and very possibly others who first identified the usefulness of the Kaupapa concept for Deaf studies.

I first encountered the idea of Kaupapa Maori spaces through the work of Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, a Maori academic. However it came into much sharper focus following the UCLAN Gap day which looked at the relationship between Deaf and hearing academics within the field of Deaf studies. In many ways, that day, and the notion of a Kaupapa Deaf space (and you’ll have to forgive us calling it that, we don’t have a Deaf space equivalent yet) answers a question that I have been asking myself for well over 10 years, and which has plagued me through my time in Deaf studies.

The basic notion of Kaupapa space emerges from the experience of Maori academics situated within White universities in New Zealand. Those academics (Linda Smith and others) have attempted to carry out research on, with, and from the Maori community but have found those attempts continually dogged by problems. Not only are White universities structured in ways that promote the individual, while Maori community priorities promote the community, but White university concepts of success, ambition, promotion, and everything that flows into these including funding, publications, audience, engagement, and impact are at odds with Maori community priorities.

For Smith and other Maori academics the only effective solution has been to establish separate spaces of Maori knowledge in which research, learning, and teaching can be developed and delivered according to Maori culture and priorities. Instead of individual Maori academics submitting to the structures of white-controlled academic environments, these ‘Kaupapa Maori’ – Maori spaces of knowledge, are established as valid equals to white academic spaces. They represent an alternative centre for the production of knowledge, and speak to the hegemony of White academia.

What does this have to do with Deaf studies? Well, read back over the last two paragraphs and replace the word ‘Maori’ with ‘Deaf’ and ‘White’ with ‘hearing’ and that’s about the situation that faces us.

As a hearing academic who entered Deaf studies in 2002, I have spent the last 12 years attempting to explain to myself what Deaf studies is, why it doesn’t appear to ‘work very well’ (and by that I mean why it has often struggled to survive, and hasn’t had the impact that it could have had on hearing academia) and what my place within it (or not) should be.

Increasingly, my thinking has come round to the idea that we have probably never really seen a true “Deaf” studies. Rather, what we have seen is studies of the Deaf community led primarily by hearing academics and carried out in ways designed to satisfy hearing academic rules. Yes, of course there are Deaf academics involved in Deaf studies, the three I’ve mentioned above are good examples. But isn’t it interesting that the recent (ish) paper by Donna West and Rachel Sutton-Spence that in part provoked the UCLAN Gap event was by two hearing academics ‘speaking back’ to Deaf Studies about how it oppressed them, and denied them an identity in a field which they felt was their home.

Read that through Feminist eyes… and that would be two male academics, seeing women’s studies as oppressing them, and speaking back about their right to be a valid part of it.

For me, as a hearing academic who has spent time in Deaf studies, and who for a considerable part of that time found myself aware of the appeal of the same kind of ‘belonging’ that West and Sutton-Spence explore, that picture and its tensions conjure up a whole series of conflicting and contradictory emotional reactions.

Anyway… Wind on to the present and to the map your Bristol project in which I ‘lead’ a Deaf strand, and witness the clash of cultures and priorities when the Deaf community is asked to ‘co-produce’ with the University of Bristol.

Oh, did I mention that that same University of Bristol shut down its Centre for Deaf Studies only last year? So, any opportunity to engage with Deaf Studies (even constituted as I’ve explored it above, has gone).

In response to this challenge I wanted to avoid two key points of failure.

1. I wanted to ensure that I did not succeed in only an appearance of coproduction. That would be easy. That would entail me simply identifying people in the community with things that I can use, and asking before I take them. That is not coproduction. That is… well, it’s probably the normal way to go about things. And that tells a story all by itself. But it’s not ‘co’ production.

2.I wanted to introduce some element of what Ruth Levitas has called IROS; the Imaginary Reconstruction of Society. Given that we don’t have a way to liaise with the Deaf community over valid, equal coproduction in reality, I wanted to ‘imagine’ a space that might allow it to happen and then do something about reconstructing it.

Which all leads us back to the notion of Kaupapa. If we have never truly seen a Deaf studies, then the starting point is to provide a starting ‘space’. A Kaupapa Deaf space… and then go on from there.

This first exploratory Kaupapa Deaf space happens tomorrow.

As should be the case, given that I’m hearing, I will not be present. So I’m excited to find out what happens and report back to you.

One comment on “Kaupapa Deaf

  1. Pingback: Kaupapa Deaf | Deaf geographies sandbox

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This entry was posted on August 8, 2014 by in Musings.
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