Sign language research: Deaf-hearing involvement and research ethics

Click here to watch this blog post in BSL

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

To charge or not to charge… That is the question


Jemina Napier:

I work here at Heriot-Watt in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies (LINCS). My expertise is in doing research on, and teaching, sign language interpreting, and I also work as a sign language interpreter. Since arriving at Heriot-Watt University I have discussed with my BSL team colleagues the idea of having a regular blog in sign language to bring key information to the Deaf community and the wider interpreting community, and also to raise issues for discussion in relation to the Deaf community, sign language and other related topics. So my deaf colleague, Rita McDade, and I agreed to make a few BSL blogs on the lifeinlincs page. Some of these blogs may be on ‘hot’ topics, where we pose questions for consideration by the Deaf community and interpreters in the interests of generating discussion; and at other times we may make posts about more serious, research-related issues or to share information. Today’s first blog is a ‘hot’ tongue-in-cheek topic to get you talking (or signing!) and is in relation to interpreter professionalism and what is appropriate for interpreters to claim in terms of working hours and expenses. Rita will share her view and we’re interested to hear your thoughts. You can make postings underneath our blog (in English only at the moment) here on the lifeinlincs page.

Rita McDade:

You may be wondering why I’ve chosen to address this subject but it is worth considering the possibility, as I have, that we have been rather slow in raising this issue: that we have neglected to address it.  Whether we have purposefully done so out of a desire to avoid the subject or because we have simply not considered it as yet I do not know but this is what we have done.

All disabled people in employment in our society have access to government funding through the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).  This is mediated through Job Centre Plus and is called Access to Work Funding, known as ATW.  Funding applications are assessed and granted according to the needs of each individual worker which, for people like me, means that funding for an interpreter is put in place so I can attend meetings and communicate with work colleagues who are unable to use British Sign Language (BSL).  The funding has been in place for approximately 20 years now with most disabled employees finding it beneficial.  Recently though I realised that I have been rather slow to notice something.

Those of us who are in employment will be familiar with the fact that we work according to the hours laid down for us by our employers and that, however many hours we work in our full or part time posts, we are contractually obligated to these.  One feature of this is that our lunch break is unpaid.  For over 20 years now I have been booking interpreters from agencies run by both Deaf organisations and private companies as well as freelance interpreters and have only just noticed that the hours invoiced for the interpreting service includes payment over the lunch break.  I have no quibble with the service provided or the fact that I am responsible for processing and signing off these invoices since this is indeed my responsibility.  What has come to my attention is the fact that, while those of us in employment are not paid during the lunch break, interpreters are.  So, I have begun to ask myself, why are interpreters’ lunch breaks covered as part of the overall service cost?

I believe this is a situation that needs changing.  I believe that the manner in which interpreters are paid should fall into line with the norm for other employees and that hours chargeable should be the hours worked only.  For example, a booking of 10am till 4pm requires payment for the whole day.  I believe it should be chargeable from 10am till 12 noon then 1pm till 4pm with one hour off for lunch and therefore one hour deducted from the invoice.  At the moment, the former system is the norm and nobody has challenged this.  As I said earlier, I am unsure whether this is because we have not noticed this anomaly or whether we are reluctant to address it because we do not want to disrupt the status quo given our reliance on interpreters.  It may very well be that interpreters are uneasy about raising this issue and have similarly chosen to leave it be.  One thing is, however, very clear and that is that we should be addressing this.

When we stop to consider the cost, that we are actually paying a lunch break at the current interpreter rate of between £30 and £40 per hour it seems strange.  In fact, it would be nice if I could have that luxury!  This has to change and we have to discuss it amongst the wider community.  At the moment we are either resistant to the conversation or simply have not thought about it as a concern.  My instinct tells me that there are those who have noticed this incongruity but have yet to raise it as a discussion point.  If we do as I believe we should do and begin to refuse payment for lunch breaks we may find that interpreters decline to work with us but this is a matter of principle, a matter of parity for all those in work.  Why should interpreters be treated differently to most other employees?  Why should interpreters be the only workers paid £30 to £40 per hour for doing nothing more than eating lunch?  It’s an expensive lunch and one I wish I could indulge in!

An additional issue is car parking charges added to invoices that were neither discussed nor negotiated before the assignment was accepted.  The response when challenged is based on the assumption that any money paid out by the interpreter is claimed back from the client but I would contest that assumption and argue that it is the individual’s choice to use whatever mode of transport they wish.  Costs associated with this choice should not be passed on to the client.  Those of us in work know that costs incurred in our working hours such as car parking are our own responsibility and not claimed back from our employer.  I believe it is time to have a discussion on all these points and we would be very interested to see your thoughts on this issue.

4 Weeks of BSL

It’s now nearly 2 years since we announced the launch of our exciting and unique degrees in British Sign Language Translation and Interpreting. One of the reasons to study BSL here at Heriot-Watt is that on top of delivering excellent teaching, we also work closely with D/deaf and signing communities in research. So, for the next four weeks, we will give you an insight into the research done by our Sign Language team, as well as a couple of posts on hot topics amongst D/deaf and signing communities.


Orkney Can Wait

The first time I met a Deaf person was in 2006 as a PhD student. I was asked to help out with BSL exams in Heriot-Watt, to make sure examiners were there
and to look after the candidates. The Deaf examiner made me think how inspiring
it was for someone to overcome a disability and communicate confidently with
hearing people like me, who cannot fingerspell to save my

I was, of course, wrong.

 Not about the examiner, who was indeed wonderful, but about deafness being a disability. It is not. That’s the first thing I learned from attending “Send
the Deaf to Orkney!
”, a debate starring our very own Director of Research, Graham Turner, organised by Beltane during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

 Arriving at the venue, I saw colleagues Gary Quinn, Robyn Dean and many others waiting outside to see the show. They were signing all at the same time, laughing and looking very excited. I wanted to join in, but then again I didn’t want to spoil their fun by being the only person who couldn’t sign. Robyn could have interpreted, but I would still feel like I was intruding. I guess that’s how Deaf people must feel in hearing environments.

 We were given miniature Orkney flags to wave in lieu of clapping or cheering and, shortly after, comedienne Susan Morrison came on stage to introduce the debate. Susan’s introduction was interpreted into BSL by Jemina Napier. Now, you know Jemina is brilliant, not because she is a Professor who has published over 50 papers, written 6 books and holds a Chair in Intercultural Communication at Heriot-Watt, but because she can interpret Glaswegian jokes into BSL with no sweat, having just moved here from Sydney 12 months ago.

 To add to the wow factor, Jeff McWhinney came on stage. Hurricane Jeff – more like! A Deaf entrepreneur and leader in the UK Deaf community, Jeff started signing his way through his argument for sending Deaf people to Orkney in such a vivid and engaging way, I almost didn’t need to listen to the interpreter! Ok, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to figure out the sign for ‘tokenistic’. Deafness with a capital ‘D’ is a culture, a way of life with its own values and language. Deaf people are immensely proud of their language and heritage and it is precisely the protection of this language and heritage that was central to the idea of having a separate, defined space for the Deaf to live in. Their own homeland – a Deafland, away from the tyranny of the hearing world.

But why Orkney? Well, it is an island, and Heriot-Watt already has a campus there, so it would kind of suit us! A Deaf Orkney would at last offer a place where signing came first, and the life of the community could be organised in BSL. The future of the language – in its heritage, visual form, not mixed uncomfortably with English – would be assured.

Jeff was so convincing, I started waving my flag like a maniac.

Graham Turner came on stage and he started signing as well (I’m guessing to remove any communicative bias from the debate). In my naivety, I thought sign-language was all about using your hands, but I soon discovered that you have to use your whole body, the muscles of your face and your mouth. Graham and Jeff were ‘performing’ in the eyes of hearing people, so to speak, but for Deaf people this was just signing. Sign language is a performance in itself, requiring creativity and imagination, which makes it even more fascinating.

So Graham questioned Jeff’s approach by stating that BSL is now valued by hearing people, too. That’s why it’s been recorded as the second most popular adult evening class (after First Aid), and why a BSL GCSE qualification is under serious consideration. So why hide it away on Orkney? Keep Deaf people here, so that our culture is enriched by

Ok, well, that was easy enough. I want the Deaf here.
Let’s vote.

Not so fast. The argument is not so simple and linear. Graham and Jeff went back on stage and took turns to make the case for each side again, but reversing their roles. Graham recognised that on Orkney, Deaf families could freely decide not to opt for cochlear implants for their children, without pressure from doctors. Hurricane Jeff protested – attitudes have changed, haven’t you noticed? This is the 21st century! Implants or no implants, you can choose to sign if you want to. And can you imagine such a close-knit Deaf community? Divorce rates in Orkney would skyrocket, as there would be no privacy and everyone would be involved in everyone else’s business!

Hear hear! I say, let’s vote!

But there was more. The economic dimension of a Deaf homeland in Orkney is crucial. Think about education in BSL without the cost of interpreters, or mental health provision dramatically reduced because Deaf children would be brought up with no identity crisis. And think of the tourism: every Deaf person the world over will want to visit Orkney’s signing haven!

But wait, said Graham, raising his finger. Video interpreting is now possible and a BSL GCSE would ultimately mean more and cheaper BSL interpreters.

Still, the idea of Deaf people having a place to call their own seemed more attractive in the course of the debate. Maybe not Orkney (I’d pick a sunny island in the Mediterranean), but, as it was pointed out, the issues of control over one’s own life and the right to self-determination are equally important. An official Deaf constituency in the UK would mean Deaf parliamentarians contributing to major decisions at the local level.

But do we need a designated Deafland for this to happen? The idea of a public sphere is in our heads anyway. It doesn’t really exist, it emerges with communication. And as long as Deaf people communicate to raise awareness about Deaf issues, their public sphere will be kept alive.

So I wouldn’t book a one-way ticket to Kirkwall just yet.

Author: Katerina Strani