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Barbara Marie Kannapell: An Appreciation

August 16, 2021

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Barbara Marie Kannapell, an internationally-renowned sociolinguist and community advocate, passed away on August 11, 2021 in Washington, D.C. She was 83 years old. 

A sociolinguist and widely-sought-after consultant, Dr. Kannapell specialized in presentations on Deaf identity, Deaf culture, bilingual education for Deaf children, power and oppression in the Deaf Community, and educational systems for Deaf people from a Deaf person’s perspective. She conducted workshops, lectured, and taught across the United States, Central America, South America, and Europe. She also founded and led a local organization to empower Deaf and hard of hearing people, and was a leader in many social and political causes. 

Barbara Marie Kannapell, known to her friends as Kanny, was born to Robert and Eleanor Houston Kannapell on September 14, 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky. As a Deaf daughter of Deaf parents, with many other Deaf people in her immediate family, her early life was rooted in a strong Deaf community. Growing up, she participated in Louisville area Deaf community activities and events. She was surrounded by ASL and developed a strong sense of Deaf identity, even though her hearing grandmother insisted that she first attend an oral school. She survived this audism, but it left its mark on her and strengthened her commitment to Deaf culture, identity, and language.

Dr. Kannapell attended the Kentucky School for the Deaf and graduated from the Indiana School for the Deaf in 1956. She earned a bachelor’s degree in deaf education from Gallaudet University in 1961 and a master’s degree in educational technology from Catholic University of America in 1970. 

In 1985, Dr. Kannapell became the first Deaf person to receive a doctoral degree in sociolinguistics from Georgetown University. Her Ph.D. dissertation was titled Language Choice Reflects Identity Choice: A Sociolinguistic Study of Deaf College Students. She researched the attitudes and expectations of 200 Gallaudet University students and demonstrated that 62 percent considered themselves bilingual in American Sign Language and English even though the educational system viewed them as monolingual in English. Her dissertation was published under the title Language Choice–Identity Choice: A Sociolinguistic Study of Deaf College Students (Linstok Press, 1993).

Dr. Kannapell wrote numerous scholarly articles, including “The Role of Deaf Identity in Deaf Studies” (Conference Proceedings: Deaf Studies for Educators, 1992) and “The Power Structure in the Deaf Community” (Conference Proceedings: Deaf Studies III: Bridging Cultures in the Deaf Community, 1993).

Dr. Kannapell also had a special interest in the experiences of Deaf Americans during World War II, and amassed a rich store of data, including interviews with Deaf workers in wartime factories and plants, archival material and data from schools for the deaf, and materials and photographs sent to her by Deaf people from that era and their descendants. Some of this research is summarized in “Forgotten Americans: Deaf War Plant Workers in World War II” (NADmag, 2002). Dr. Kannapell’s colleagues plan to complete this project and publish it in the near future. 

Dr. Kannapell served as co-founder and president of Deafpride, Inc, a community-based organization which for 25 years worked for the human rights of Deaf people and their families in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. She collaborated in creating methods of teaching ASL to hearing parents of Deaf children. She also had a continuing interest in working with parents of Deaf children and offered workshops and presentations in this area.

While at Deafpride, Dr. Kannapell successfully advocated to have ASL recognized by the District of Columbia government as a language. She also helped develop the original NAD position paper on ASL and worked toward federal recognition of ASL. Deafpride pioneered bringing Black and White Deaf communities together to organize and advocate for change. Barbara faced backlash from members of the White Deaf community, but she was committed to this important work and persisted courageously.

In her later years, Dr. Kannapell joined the faculty of Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville, Maryland, teaching ASL and Deaf studies courses in CCBC’s interpreter training program. Her classes were consistently oversubscribed. In 2012, she was named CCBC’s Advisor of the Year. 

A long-time Washingtonian, Dr. Kannapell was very active in the Deaf community, participating in the 1988 Deaf President Now movement, including its nightly strategy meetings, and in many other marches and rallies for ASL and the Deaf community over the years. She was an avid fan of the Washington Football Team.

Dr. Kannapell was an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and had recently celebrated 50 years of sobriety. She said that AA saved her life. She was active in working with Deaf people with alcohol and drug addiction, helped establish an all-Deaf AA group, and ensured there were interpreters for hearing AA meetings.

Dr. Kannapell received many honors and awards, including the National Association of the Deaf Golden Rose and Spirit of the NAD Awards, as well as a special recognition award from the District of Columbia Association of the Deaf for her long-time, tireless volunteer service to the organization. She also received a community service award from Gallaudet University for her work with Deafpride, and the Laurent Clerc Award from the Laurent Clerc Cultural Fund of the Gallaudet University Alumni Association in 2012. In 2013, Georgetown University honored her as a Pioneer in 200 Years of Sign Language Documentation.

Her organizational memberships included the National Association of the Deaf, the District of Columbia Association of the Deaf, and Deaf Women United. While a Gallaudet student, she joined the Delta Epsilon sorority, and remained active in that organization as an alumna.

Dr. Kannapell is survived by her partner and spouse of 50 years, Mary Eileen Paul, of Washington, D.C.; nieces and a nephew in Louisville, and many cousins across the United States. She was predeceased by her parents and her sister, Joan. 

A memorial celebration is being planned for this fall.

16 August 2021

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