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Gallaudet faculty and staff discuss oppression, privilege, and development work in Sub-Saharan Africa at American University conference

February 12, 2015
By Nathan Ramsier and Tara Congdon
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Gallaudet University professor Dr. Khadijat Rashid stood in front of a room filled with anthropology conference participants and began signing. 

For a few minutes, Rashid discussed the National Zoo’s new American Bison, Wilma and Zora, because a few weeks prior to the conference, students from Gallaudet and Howard Universities had the opportunity to name the two animals as both schools share the bison as their mascot. The absence of spoken English caused perplexed expressions to spread throughout the audience of primarily hearing students and faculty as the interpreters in the front row of seats remained silent. 

Finally, Rashid asked the interpreters to begin interpreting into English. 

“You all who speak the majority language, English, just got a taste of experiencing a minority language and trying to figure out what’s being said,” stated Rashid. It is essential to understand this experience, she went on to explain, because communication is not only what makes us human but it can be life or death for some people; especially deaf people in developing countries.

The reality of the conditions faced by deaf people in certain African countries, and their own active responses to those conditions, prompted the formation of the panel, “Sub-Saharan Deaf Communities: Linguistic Violence and Creative Resistance,” during the 11th annual Public Anthropology Conference on October 4, 2014, at American University. 

Rashid, a faculty member in the business and international development programs and Dr. Audrey Cooper, a faculty member in anthropology at American University  co-moderated the panel and were joined by panelists from Gallaudet: ‘Bunmi Aina, director of the Keeping the Promise program; Sarah Houge, international development adjunct faculty member; Dr. Jessica Lee, sociology adjunct faculty member; Lucy Upah, a student in the Master of Public Administration program. Dr. Julie Hochgesang, a faculty member in the Department of Linguistics at Gallaudet also contributed to the planning.

According to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), Sub-Saharan deaf communities are among the poorest of the world’s poor and their initiatives, especially regarding the use of signed languages, remain largely ignored. Categorizing these circumstances as instances of linguistic violence, the panelists focused on two topics: 1.) Development Work: Ethical Project Design and Preparation, and 2.) Research: Ethical and Methodological Considerations.

“We take for granted that people can access information,” Rashid said of the situation here in the United States. “How do we learn about Ebola? The Internet, TV news, newspapers, radio, and word of mouth. However, this does not apply for deaf people in many African countries, as elsewhere in developing countries around the world. They are not exposed to language from a young age, so they do not learn to read. TVs do not have captioning. They do not have access to the majority language, so they can’t access information about Ebola. This lack of access to language can have life or death consequences.” 

Aina described the difficulty of educating deaf women in Africa about HIV/AIDS. “My department organized a conference in South Africa on the theme of Deaf Women in Africa and HIV/AIDS. Several participants made the point that a paternalistic approach to designing HIV/AIDS interventions by non-deaf people couldn’t work. Deaf people should be designing the programs for themselves,” he said. “In South Africa, they published signed booklets so those with limited reading proficiency could see the signs, and developed a DVD to bring to schools and deaf clubs. The Ugandan Deaf Federation used educational plays. These measures are far more powerful than anything considered mainstream or developed by the government that is not accessible [to the deaf community].”

Picking up on this train of thought, Rashid stated, “For deaf people around the world, lack of access to information impacts employment, connections with people and families, and many other things.”

Cooper, a former visiting professor in international development at Gallaudet, then put examples of linguistic violence in Sub-Saharan countries into context of international development work. Drawing on James Ferguson’s examination of development in Lesotho, a landlocked country in southern Africa, Cooper described the often unquestioned status of the international development enterprise, despite the political nature of its interventions and frequent failures. Cooper went on to mention just a few of the ways that international development projects may reproduce inequalities including: linguistic gate-keeping that demands use of national or official languages to obtain resources; language standardization; school-based language policy and planning that excludes signed languages and other minority languages, literacy requirements, and so on. 

“Though people from prosperous countries around the world want to help, they often do so with the wrong mindset,” Cooper said. “International development projects often identify deaf people as needing development, overlooking the fact that deaf groups are excluded from participation in social institutions and society-building because of language,” she explained. This situation is not specific to African countries, she noted, but is rather a “worldwide issue, whereby deaf people are commonly viewed as needing help and/or causing problems for national development.”

Cooper continued by listing other misconceptions that exist about deaf people: that they have been seen as deficient, mentally ill, intellectually impaired, asexual, and not as equal humans. Signed languages, too, are subject to a myriad of misconceptions, she stated. Some of these include the belief that signed languages interfere with brain development, that they are not real languages, only crude gestures, and that they do not possess grammar or syntax.  

While the intentions may be good, international development projects rarely have an understanding of language issues, Cooper explained. Panel members went on to give examples of how such lack of understanding impacts deaf people in Sub-Saharan countries, such as introducing signed languages from other countries, underestimating the capacities of local deaf people, and having ideas about how deaf and hearing people should interact that are inappropriate for the cultural groups in question. 

Development projects often supply materials created for other groups, including deaf groups living elsewhere. “Often the ideas brought in from the outside conflict with local conditions and experiences, which can exacerbate the misconceptions that already exist.” Moreover, development organizations rarely hire consultants with expertise in signed language linguistics to design, implement, and evaluate specific projects-something which Cooper encouraged the audience to do and to recommend to development partners.

In summary, Cooper stated, “This is the context in which linguistic violence confronts deaf people in Sub-Saharan locations.”

With the background information in place, the panel explored the first topic concerning the ethics of preparation and project design of development work.

Rashid began by explaining that though the issues associated with development work are seen the world over, they tend to be more severe in Sub-Saharan areas.  She quickly identified the overarching problem: “When people go to help, they sometimes make the situation even worse.”

Following this statement, Rashid recommended a couple of ground rules for organizations working within deaf communities. First, she noted that the goal of projects should be to “work with” these communities as opposed to “helping” them. Secondly, she pointed out that every group is unique and ought to be addressed as such. “You want to work with these different communities to address their needs and design projects to fit their needs,” Rashid said.

Master of Public Administration student Lucy Upah echoed this idea. “You need to partner with different groups to find out what their needs are because one approach will not apply to all, for instance, the needs of the hard of hearing group differ greatly from the culturally deaf group. Deaf youth and deaf women have unique needs as well,” she said. Another factor to consider when planning development projects is the fact that some countries’ governments may not have laws or policies that safeguard the rights of the deaf and people with disabilities, she explained, and this often has a great impact on the success of development projects, because institutional structures need to be in place for implementation of recommendations. Lastly, Upah stressed the need to be cognizant of the intangibles. “You need to be aware of the attitudes towards deaf people, especially if they are looked down upon,” she said.

Aina also commented on the phenomenon of good-intentioned but misguided development calling it the “tyranny of kindness.” He reiterated that empowering the deaf community is the best approach. “Enter the arena with no assumptions,” he suggested. “Often we assume they are weak and helpless, and we need to throw out that idea.” Instead, he stressed the importance of approaching the communities with the goal of identifying their skills and collaborating with them.

The panelists then turned to the audience for questions, and the first inquiry came from a hearing person who was interested in working with deaf people in developing African countries, but did not know where to start.

Both Upah and Aina recommended using the language of the community. “Do you need to learn their signed language? Yes!” Aina stated. “To make sense of the people you work with, and so they can make sense of you.”

While Upah agreed that using the appropriate language was important, she was a little bit more skeptical. “Learning signed language is not easy,” she said. “You can’t do it in just one year.” Instead, she recommended bringing along a qualified interpreter to help lead the process.

Gallaudet adjunct faculty member in the International Development master’s program, Sarah Houge, briefly described her experience working with deaf communities in Africa. Due to the oppression that they experience by hearing people in all facets of society and possibly in their familial system, they may show different attitudes toward working with hearing people. The deaf individuals may completely disregard the hearing individuals or they will idolize them and try to imitate them without question. 

“Obviously neither perspective is entirely wrong,” adjunct faculty member Jessica Lee added. “But hearing people working in different countries need to be aware of their privileges.” She recommended that it is best for teams of deaf and hearing people to work together. “Hearing team members can interview the families, government offices, and the like while the deaf team members can manage other kinds of situations,” Lee explained.

The next question from the audience pertained to the balance between bringing literacy to deaf people in the Sub-Sahara and diluting their native languages. “After all, if such programs had not been set up, deaf people in many countries would still be uneducated,” the person commented.

Upah was quick to reply that schools for the deaf in these countries can be developed using the native sign language as opposed to ASL.

Sharing a concrete example, Aina explained that today Nigerian Sign Language is remarkably similar to ASL because of Andrew Foster’s efforts starting in 1960. “On the one hand, Foster did a great job setting up schools for the deaf,” he said. “On the other hand, the educational effort resulted in the destruction of their languages. We need to respect and value local languages.”

Rashid identified this as an example of language violence. “With colonialism and then development work, we are losing our diversity – a huge, important part of our cultures,” she said. 

“Hearing workers are communicating with the people who have the power and money,” Houge shared as further explanation of this trend. She described how hearing people come in for international development, collaborate with those in charge, and that the deaf people themselves often get left out of the process.

The panel then picked up the next topic which focused on the ethical and methodical considerations of research in the Sub-Sahara.

“Start with trying to understand the people you’re working with,” Aina proposed.

Houge emphasized the importance of keeping the deaf community in the dialogue. “Explain your reasons for being there, why you are studying, gathering information, and so on,” she said. Furthermore, she stressed that the deaf community needs to shape the process as opposed to simply being bystanders while the foreign development workers are making plans and decisions. 

“It’s important to recognize how much these people sacrifice to allow us to research their communities,” added Lee. As such, she expressed the need to give back to them. She suggested writing grants with them, sharing collected data, or working with them to obtain support from their government. 

The panelists then commented on how the male-dominance of most African countries can have an impact on research. Lee explained that if someone takes the time to really interact with these cultures, it will be evident that women do have power, albeit informal. “You may see men running the organizations, but really, with time you can see you these dynamics of private and public power work, and who to incorporate in your strategies,” she said.  

“You need to understand their cultures and why women are oppressed,” Upah elaborated. “Not only focus on men but also make sure women are incorporated into your projects, too.”

A recurring piece of advice throughout the panel was to avoid any sense of superiority in the development process. “Be careful with the lens through which you view things,” Rashid reminded the audience in closing. “Africa has three deaf people in government while the United States has none and deaf education in the United States is rife with problems of its own.”  

Due to the success of this discussion, Cooper and Rashid will host a similar panel at Gallaudet on February 26, 2015 in JSAC 1011 entitled “Sub-Saharan Deaf Communities: Linguistic Violence and Creative Resistance.” It is open to the public.

12 February 2015
By Nathan Ramsier and Tara Congdon

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