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Reflections of a mobile deaf

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

A word that would aptly describe a recurring theme in my life would be "mobility".


I had the honour of co-presenting with Rodrigo Machado, a Brazilian deaf academic, on the topic of Language Contact at the Mobile Deaf Conference held at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh on June 2nd/3rd. During our presentation, we shared our personal narratives of international mobility and compared the differences in the language contact situation between Singapore and Brazil. In the months leading up to the conference, we had a few preparation meetings over zoom and once in person in Edinburgh. Getting to know Rodrigo's life story and developments in the Brazilian deaf community broadened my outlook.

(Photo credit: Rodrigo Machado, Emma Reilly and Timothy Loh)


Much of my thinking has been shaped by living in two Global North countries, specifically the USA and Australia for half my life. Therefore, Interacting with a deaf researcher from a Global South country challenged some of my previously held assumptions. I realise I don't know what I don't know until I meet someone from a different country or go to a new place. Having spent 5.5 years of my life studying and working in the USA, specifically Washington DC and Dallas-Forth Worth where I crossed paths with many deaf professionals and deaf academics, I always thought that certain cities in USA were ahead of the rest of the world in terms of providing accessibility services and in sign language and deaf studies research.


The Brazilian Context

Imagine my surprise when I learned that Brazil has more than 80 deaf PhD graduates to date. Most universities in Brazil accept exams being taken in LIBRAS (Língua Brasileira dos Sinais) also known as Brazilian Sign Language. Some universities accept the written exam in Portuguese, but there is always accessibility in LIBRAS. Therefore, there is the option for deaf Brazilians to take their university exams in either LIBRAS or Portuguese. This has been possible because of certain developments over the years.


In 2002, there was legal recognition of LIBRAS as a national language in Brazil. This led to language planning for the LIBRAS law in 2005, where a decree which recognised LIBRAS as the first language of the deaf (L1) and Portuguese as their second language (L2) was passed. This eventually led to the establishment of Libras Studies (Letras Libras) in 2006. It is also interesting to note that the first LIBRAS dictionary was published in 1875. At the present time, I do not know of any university in the United States that allows deaf Americans the option of taking their university exams in ASL or English as English is mandatory as far as I know.


I learned that there is a large volume of academic literature on LIBRAS. When I asked Rodrigo to recommend me academic literature on LIBRAS to read so that I could get a better understanding of the Brazilian context, he informed me that they were mostly accessible in Portuguese. This explains my oblivion to it's existence as I am illiterate in the language. A small percentage of the LIBRAS literature are accessible in LIBRAS and English. Researchers who do not know Portuguese are not able to access most of the academic literature on LIBRAS nor cite it. Rodrigo, on the other hand, was able to read my work because he knows English.


The Singapore Context

While it was fascinating and encouraging to learn of the amazing milestones in Brazil for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, it illuminated the knowledge gap and lack of deaf resources and quality accessibility services in the Singapore context for me. Even though I already was aware of this gap from living in global north countries, it was painful to gain even more clarity and insight when doing the country comparisons between Brazil and Singapore. It led to a sense of resigned acceptance in me, as I now fully understand the reality of such a hard situation.


To date, we don’t have our own Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) dictionary nor do we have SgSL recognised as an official language. Some deaf Singaporeans have commented that we need SgSL recognised in government language policy. However, the more I understand how language policy is enacted in Singapore, coupled with the size and the social dynamics of the deaf and hard-of-hearing population, I realise that advocating for official recognition of SgSL is a tall order. It is probably something that will never happen in my lifetime. For further insight into Singapore's linguistic ecology, feel free to refer to this article.


International mobility of sign language interpreters

For my presentation at the Mobile Deaf conference, I had picked ASL as the language for my presentation segment on Singapore. When I bumped into Jemina Napier on the bus on the way to Heriot Watt campus a few days before the conference, I shared with her that I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to sign fully in ASL as I had already been in Edinburgh for a month and had picked up some BSL from living with a BSL signer and interacting with other BSL signers that I encountered in other contexts. I was worried about translanguaging in a mix of ASL, BSL and Auslan for my presentation because that is how I was signing at that time. I was also adjusting to a new environment. It felt as if my brain had to work harder to attempt to switch to signing ASL fully.


On the day of my presentation, Jemina assured me beforehand that it would be okay for me to sign my presentation in a way that feels comfortable and natural for me. She said that she would be voice interpreting my presentation with Oliver Pouliot supporting her. She felt confident that she could do it after watching my video which I sent as part of the interpreter preparation materials. Robert Skinner was voicing for Rodrigo who chose International Sign Language (IntSL) as the language for his presentation segment.


After some reflection, I realised that my linguistic repertoire and signing style reflects my international mobility as it is evident which countries I've resided in based on how I sign. It also dawned on me that Jemina had the ability to understand my signing style because of her international mobility as an interpreter. The countries she has lived in as well as the interpreter training opportunities she has had access to, has enabled her to establish a linguistic repertoire where she has acquired and is able to work between Auslan, IS, ASL, and BSL. In the same vein, Rob’s international mobility has also enabled him to work between different sign languages.


Final thoughts on the conference

The Mobile Deaf conference left me with much to chew on. I am still processing what I learned even though it occurred a month ago. For those who missed the conference and would like to watch the recordings, you can access them here: Conference: Deaf Mobility Studies

The visual note taking by Woven Ink gave a clear overview of the key points in each of the presentations throughout the entire conference.

I left the conference feeling very inspired. What made it out of the ordinary was that it was fully deaf-led and the entire research team pulled it off successfully. The various presentations were also presented in a way that challenged the traditional academic format. I teared up when Dr Erin Moriarty gave her speech during the closing of the conference. I am certain that the Mobile Deaf project will have a far-reaching impact and open up more possibilities for deaf people to do academic research in the future.

Some of us went out for dinner at a Japanese restaurant on Princes Street before heading to the Deaf Action Pub social after the conference ended. We managed to take a group photo outside the restaurant.


Visiting Scholar Program at Heriot Watt University (1st May to 30th June)

The Mobile Deaf conference was only one highlight during my 2-month visiting scholar program at Heriot Watt University. I would like to give you a glimpse of my different experiences in the university as well as beyond it in Edinburgh.


There were other seminars and events at Heriot Watt University that I participated in such as:


Being a PhD student at SIGNS@HWU by Mette Sommer, Noel O' Connell and Stacey Steen (Wed May 24)

In this session, Mette, Noel and Stacey shared the ups and downs of their PhD journey. They also addressed how to manage one's expectations of PhD supervisors and ways to find a support network. Toward the end, they split the PhD students into groups. This gave us the opportunity to discuss the challenges we were facing as PhD students and how we could support ourselves and other PhD students. I enjoyed participating in the discussion. Learning of the struggles of other deaf PhD students made me feel less alone in my own struggles.


Reading Group facilitated by Mette Sommer (Wed May 31)

Mette had asked if I had an article to share. So, I shared this article that was published last year. Some of the points that were raised in the discussion helped me to identify blindspots in my own writing. I realised I need to redefine or unpack the word "community" because Mette pointed out I was writing about the Singapore deaf community as a whole community. But, there can be many communities or sub-communities in one place. The discussion helped me to think critically about my own writing and how I was framing things.


Signs@HWU Day and dinner after at Roti Edinburgh (Tues June 13)

The morning commenced with myself, Tim, Noel and Emma presenting on our research methodologies. I learned a lot from each of the different presentations. Emma did a trail-run of participatory video, a method that she intends to use in her research with deaf youth. We split into four groups where we had a brief brainstorming session and created four short video clips in response to the topic "academic writing experience". We had a good laugh when we watched all the video clips at the end of the session.

After lunch, Annelies gave a workshop on Chat GPT where we explored how ChatGPT can be a valuable tool in various academic contexts. There was also a discussion on less productive uses of ChatGPT as well as the risks in using it.


PhD Student dinner at Ting Thai Caravan organised by Karolien (Wed June 14)

We had a great time bonding over dinner and sharing the stages that we were at in our PhD research as well as the challenges we faced.


Group photo after our brief presentations on our research for Mark Briggs visit (Thur June 29)

This was Tim's and my last day on campus at Heriot Watt University. We had the opportunity to say farewell to everyone.


There were also other happenings outside of Heriot Watt University such as...


The United Kingdom Language Variation & Change (UKLVC 14) Conference at the University of Edinburgh (June 26 to 28)

This was my first time attending a UKLVC conference. I am so pleased it coincided with my visiting scholar program at Heriot Watt. I learned a lot from the different presentations. I find that smaller conferences are much more focused. It also allows for easier participation and networking. I had the opportunity to talk with each of the deaf and hearing signers who were there, most of whom I was meeting for the first time although I had seen their names in some publications.


Two highlights of the UKLVC conference for me were Nick Palfreyman's plenary presentation and meeting Hannah Gibson, a professor from the University of Essex. It was wonderful to see a deaf academic giving a plenary presentation. Hannah came up to chat with me after Nick's presentation ended. This was after she had seen me sign my question to Nick during the Q & A section. I was pleasantly surprised that a hearing professor doing linguistics research on Swahili was learning BSL and signing to me! Hannah and I talked for some time at the wine reception with another hearing PhD student from Kenya. There were two BSL interpreters present to interpret our conversations. It was a fun conversation that I didn't expect to happen.


I left thinking how nice it would be if this sort of thing could happen more often. If more hearing researchers researching spoken languages made the effort to learn a signed language, it would open up avenues for further intellectual exchanges between deaf and hearing researchers. I could learn more about linguistics research on spoken languages and they, sign languages. It would feel like less like living in a bubble for deaf academics. Our world and network would expand!


Hanging out and working on PhD stuff at the University of Edinburgh with Ine (Fri May 26)

The first picture was shared on her Instagram stories. It was fun to hang with Ine for the day whilst transcribing one of my interviews. We had the opportunity to chat about PhD stuff and to get to know each other better.


Hanging out with Max Barber in Leith (Sun July 2)

I have enjoyed conversations with Max during my time here in Edinburgh and picking up BSL from him. I learned a lot when he shared his personal journey and professional experiences working for the Scottish government on the BSL Act. He has challenged my thinking in many ways. Thank you Max for opening up a few new connections for me in Edinburgh and for inviting me to deaf events that were happening, even though I didn't go to all of them.


Meeting with Philip Gerard, CEO of Deaf Action and getting a tour of the organisation (Fri June 23)

I met Philip through Max and had heard positive things about Philip. So, I decided to ask Philip if he could share more about his experiences with me. I enjoyed learning about Philip's role at Deaf Action and how he successfully pushed for organisational change there. It was also fascinating learning from his wealth of experience in managing other deaf organisations in the UK. Getting first-hand stories from a Deaf CEO was eye-opening.


Interesting fact: Deaf Action was founded in 1835 and it was the first ever deaf organisation in the world.


Thank you Philip for your time!


Meeting Audrey Cameron and Rachel O' Neill at the University of Edinburgh (Tues, July 4)

I enjoyed learning about Audrey Cameron's experiences as a deaf academic and her role in training hearing students at the University of Edinburgh to become Chemistry teachers over lunch at Levels Cafe. Later, when we went to her office, she introduced me to Rachel O' Neill, a hearing academic who is involved in deaf education and language policy.


Celebrated my birthday at a Korean BBQ restaurant in Newington (Fri, June 16)

I enjoyed dining out with Max, Mette and Rene, and visiting Mette's lovely new apartment after dinner.


BSL tour of the Edinburgh Castle with John Hay (Sat June 24)

Yew Kim and two of her classmates, Ross and Sumitha, travelled to Edinburgh from Glasgow to join me for the tour. I had a great lunch with Yew Kim and her friends at a Mexican restaurant after the tour.


Brunch with Kai at Toast and a long hike along the Water of Leith walkway (Thurs, June 1)

We had brunch at Toast and then started walking from Leith along the Water of Leith walkway. We passed Dean Village during our hike. Our aim was to walk all the way to Heriot Watt campus. However, we lost our way after being on our feet for nearly four hours. So, I decided to catch the bus for the rest of the way and Kai took the bus back to Princes street.


Catching up with 3 Singaporeans at different times in Edinburgh

I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Gigi at Holyrood Park, lunch with Tim, and watch a performance with Yew Kim who made the trip from Glasgow to Edinburgh.


My experience in Edinburgh has been rich and fulfilling, despite battling a post-covid cough that is still there and having to cancel trips to some parts of the UK that friends had invited me to due to fatigue.


I have enjoyed being a visiting scholar at Heriot Watt University. It is evident how much the team at Signs@HWU care about and support one another, which makes it a safe and welcoming space for everyone. Everyone was so warm and welcoming.


Thank you to Dr Annelies Kusters for inviting me to spend time with the MobileDeaf research group and the Signs@HWU team for two months! I appreciate all the support you have given me as an external member of my Thesis Advisory Committee during my PhD at NTU so far.


Last but not least, thank you to MobileDeaf for funding my visiting scholar program. Grateful for the learning experiences at Heriot Watt University and beyond in Edinburgh!

Phoebe Tay 2022 Letter of Invitation
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