Trains in the Indian megacity of Mumbai are renowned among the busiest in the world, but they have also become “deaf hangouts” where deaf people meet and socialize during their daily commute.
These unexpected gatherings in carriages reserved for disabled passengers were documented by Annelies Kusters, who has just become the first deaf academic to be appointed as a full professor in the field of deaf studies and sign language in the UK.
While other countries in Europe and the United States already have deaf professors working in these fields, Kusters says such an appointment is long overdue in the United Kingdom, which until now only had hearing people as full professors – about 10 to 15 of them.
Kusters, who has studied deaf communities around the world for almost 20 years, holds this position at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, where she was promoted from associate professor to professor of sociolinguistics in the department of languages and studies intercultural.
“I realize that I am very privileged to have made it this far,” Kusters said. “But I stand on the shoulders of the Deaf professors and scholars who trained me – and I help others stand on mine. »
Deaf studies and sign language research took off in the UK in the late 1970s. “I was educated by deaf teachers in Bristol in 2006 and a deaf academic supervised my PhD ” Kusters said. “It feels strange to now find myself where my current deaf colleagues and my Bristol colleagues, or even my former supervisor, have never stood. »
Kusters, 40, of Belgian origin, describes one of his research interests as observing deaf people in their daily lives. Her work has taken her to Brazil, Denmark, France, Ghana, India, Italy, Kenya and Suriname.
“For example, my doctorate took place in a Ghanaian village where the rate of hereditary deafness is high,” Kusters said. There she found deaf and hearing people using a locally emerging sign language among themselves.
“While other researchers are fascinated by the genetics or simply the linguistics of local sign language, I wanted to learn more about their daily lives – how they communicate, socialize, etc.
“In Mumbai, I explored how deaf and hearing people communicate through signs and gestures on Mumbai’s busy trains. These trains are not only a means of transport, they are also meeting places for the deaf.”
His research found that deaf passengers used disabled compartments – as well as Mumbai’s crowded platforms – as important meeting places. Ties within the deaf community in Mumbai were thus strengthened and awareness of deafness among hearing people increased.
Kusters is also head of research for MobileDeaf, a European Research Council-funded project to explore how deaf people from different countries interact with each other and adapt their signing to be able to understand each other.
Professor Jemina Napier, Heriot-Watt Chair of Intercultural Communication, said: “Heriot-Watt University is proud to have the first deaf full professor in the UK.
“After almost 40 years of researching and teaching Deaf Studies at universities across the UK, this is long overdue, as Deaf academics should be at the forefront of this discipline. “