Dr. Goedele A. M. De Clerck is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow in the EU Horizon 2020 programme, affiliated with the Social Research with Deaf People (SORD) group at the University of Manchester. For her current project she is working on the enhancement of deaf wellbeing through life story work with British deaf people and deaf immigrants in the UK, focusing on the capacity of deaf people to “flourish” in wide-ranging settings. In studying deaf people and sign language communities’ wellbeing, taking into account their cultural, linguistic, and learning practices, she draws from a variety of scientific disciplines, including the social sciences, anthropology, deaf studies, deaf education, development studies, and mental health.
Goedele spoke at the Oxford Soapbox Science event on Saturday 18th June 2016. She talked about “Deaf life stories: What they reveal about the potential in all of us.”
How linguistics and literature led to a passion to understand the lives of deaf people all over the world
I was born in Flanders, in the north of Belgium, and when I was a child, I wanted to become a writer. Reading books and creative work was my entire world. Later, as a teenager I started to become interested in medical school and becoming a doctor. I focused on maths and science, but when I was 16 or 17, I went to an open day at the university that changed my mind.
These sessions were hard for me to follow; it was in the mid-90s when consciousness on inclusive education, sign language interpreting, etc., was just beginning. I immediately realised that it would be very difficult for me to gain access to these studies and be able to practise as a doctor. So I enrolled in a Bachelor’s programme in the Linguistics and Literature of Dutch and English at the University of Antwerp.
During these studies, I started exploring my own identity, and thinking about the lives of other deaf people. I had a lot of questions about language acquisition, literature, sign language and deaf identity. I wanted to gain more answers through Master’s studies in Linguistics and Literature at Ghent University.
I started to write all kinds of papers in relation to deaf people, ranging from deaf biographies and signed literature to deaf children’s reading development in bilingual-bicultural settings for my Master’s thesis, for which I graduated with highest distinction, enabling me to apply for a doctoral fellowship from Ghent.
Role models and ‘awakenings’
I was fascinated by empowerment in deaf role models. This had become a core issue in my life, especially their stories of ‘awakening’. That became the topic of my Ph.D. Through a Belgian American Educational Foundation Francqui Fellowship, I expanded this research through working with international deaf people at Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf people in Washington, DC, USA.
When I obtained my Doctorate in Anthropology at Ghent in 2009, it was the first time in Belgium that anyone had ever defended doctoral dissertation using a signed language.
Two postdoctoral fellowships at the Research Foundation Flanders enabled me to deepen my work on deaf emancipation and sustainable development in sign language communities for another six years, including long visits to Cameroon’s University of Buea and Uganda’s Kyambogo University.
A writer and a doctor
I have found that deaf life storytelling is a cultural practice around the world, and now as a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Manchester, I am looking into how deaf people in the UK, both natives and migrants, can use it to gain more insight into their wellbeing.
I am still as fascinated by deaf people’s lives as I was in the beginning. Writing this blog makes me realise that, in a way I could never have foreseen, I actually did fulfil my childhood dreams of becoming both a writer and a doctor.
Identifying strengths and living up to our potential
Can deaf people’s life stories help you discover strengths in your own life? That’s the question that I will be exploring with my audience. Through working with deaf people and sign language communities in Europe, the USA and Africa, I have learned about deaf people’s lives and how they have met challenges. They have shared their stories in various signed languages and creative ways such as drama. Each story is unique and surprising, with so much to be drawn from it in support of better education, equality, and wellbeing.
Identifying strengths in our lives and living up to our potential are vital to all of us; through examples of life story work, I would like to appeal to and welcome the audiences’ experiences of these human fundamentals, while providing a bridge to deaf communities across the globe. Bringing sign language to the street and exploring the incredible achievements of deaf people can give audience members a fresh insight into their own exceptional abilities.
I am currently writing the script for a podcast to promote the presentation. This is quite an adventure, since I aim to make a deaf-friendly podcast that also reaches a wide audience. Ideally it will be a video podcast in British Sign Language (BSL), with subtitles and voice over, as well as a traditional audio podcast.
It connects the history of Soapbox Science with my own experiences as a presenter and my work with deaf storytellers.
Putting deaf people’s stories into the light
Soapbox Science enables me to share a positive perspective on deaf people’s lives. The fascinating processes of empowerment and emancipation of deaf people have remained in the shadows for a long time and this is a great opportunity to put them in the light.
It is also really important for me to raise awareness on the diversity of women in science, and to make it visible that science is being done in BSL, by deaf women, and with deaf citizens.
What has impacted me most about Soapbox Science is the passion of the women scientists behind the initiative, who have activated their belief in social change by providing a platform for scholars to share their work. This is what science is all about and it makes things happen!
Different axes of identity
I have been affiliated to departments in the humanities and social sciences in different countries and I think that universities are gradually becoming more aware and representative of women scientists from diverse backgrounds. There is now a small, but growing group of deaf social scientists in Europe. I am glad that my Marie Curie Fellowship can further support the visibility of sign language use in science.
I prefer to look at gender and gender balance from a broader perspective of interplay among different axes of identity. For example, I am a fieldworker, community worker, writer, and a creative and interdisciplinary scientist, working at the intersection of anthropology, social sciences, deaf studies, education, and wellbeing.
Here is a session I did at TEDxGhent in 2012 with more background to my story:
Social change – a motivator
My scholarly identity not only involves developing innovative research, but also being motivated by social change and trying to work sustainably. That’s already quite a cocktail in the academic scene of today, notwithstanding being a woman and a sign language user, and working abroad for an average of six months per year in the last 13 years, living in different countries with multiple languages and cultural practices, both in the global south and in the west. This has all contributed to my personal and academic identity.
I love it when scholars from all over the world are giving the best of themselves to engage in scientific debate and to advance research, working with communities and professionals, and building partnerships to help people live up to their potential. In my view, this is the best part of science; I have been honoured to participate in and contribute to such partnerships a few times and this is what keeps me going in the light of daily challenges.
Keeping on going and helping others live up to their potential
The best advice that I have received is to keep going. I try to take this to heart every day, and it is particularly useful at times when I am progressing slower than I want to or when I encounter lots of barriers.
I am looking forward to starting the life story work for my new project in the UK. I hope to make a difference in terms of understanding the lives of deaf people, enhancing their wellbeing, and supporting deaf mental health and community services.
I also want to increase awareness on the role of storytelling in diverse deaf lives here and around the world. Deaf people are still experiencing severe limitations on their lives everywhere in the world, and a healthy sense of identity and agency are vital to enable people to live up to their potential. The need for this work is great, so I hope that I will be able to contribute further to this area in the next several years.
This autumn, there are two books coming out from Gallaudet University Press: an edited volume titled Sign Language, Sustainable Development, and Equal Opportunities, and the book Deaf Epistemologies, Identity, and Learning: A Comparative Perspective, which is based on my doctoral and postdoctoral research exploring ‘deaf flourishing’ and emancipation. Both books are the result of many years of work and I am really excited about them!