Heriot Watt University



Deaf mobilities across international borders:

Visualising intersectionality and translanguaging

 An ERC-funded research project, 2017-22


Deaf signers’ international mobilities are rapidly increasing. These mobilities are unique in a number of respects: while being biologically deaf leads to certain limitations and to discrimination and inequalities, being skilled in visual language also creates possibilities and opportunities for communication across national and linguistic borders.


There are two main research questions in the project. First, within contexts of international deaf spaces, how does the deaf intersect with other categories, particularly ethnicity, nationality, education, religion and gender, and which meaningful connections or accumulated inequalities occur? The project will investigate intersectionality in the context of internationally mobile deaf people engaging in institutional deaf spaces, in (semi-)public spaces and in virtual deaf spaces (such as social media); as well as their mobilities in their everyday hearing environments  (such as neighbourhoods, shops, restaurants, transport, services).

Second, how do deaf signers in these contexts practice and experience translanguaging? The lens of translanguaging will help analyse how differences are handled and productively transcended. Translanguaging theory is crucial in the contemporary shift in the literature on bilingualism and multilingualism from descriptions of languages as separate systems to descriptions emphasising fluid and transformative language practices. Indeed, the project will investigate (1) the real life strategic use of multimodal and multilingual linguistic repertoires in everyday language practices with both deaf and hearing interlocutors; (2) how deaf signers and their language use are positioned by language ideologies, how they position themselves in relation to these; and (3) how translanguaging is experienced.

Four subprojects will focus on structurally different kinds of international deaf mobilities:

(1) forced migration (Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya)
(2) labour migration (London)
(3) professional mobility (multisited)
(4) tourist mobility (Cambodia)

The four subprojects correspond with four fields of divergent socio-economic nature. These different forms of mobility contrast forced and voluntary movement, precariousness and affluence, survival and leisure. Differences in (linguistic and material) resources, aspirations and living conditions shape spatial and linguistic practices (e.g. access to education and the Internet, living in a gesture-prone environment, stipends/scholarships for international exchanges, conditions in refugee camps). Each of the four fields will allow to add a different piece to the puzzle of how intersectionality and translanguaging work out in deaf mobilities across international borders.

The research team is all-deaf so as to maximise access to various sign languages, access to distinct deaf networks, and insights into deaf ways of living. The methodology will be ethnographic and visual methods (photography, video, mapping, and the production of four ethnographic documentaries) will be heavily employed, doing justice to the visual nature of sign language communication.

By scrutinizing and bridging the concepts of intersectionality and translanguaging, this study will contribute to the study of growing complexity in diversity and mobility; the production/delimitation of social spaces particularly through language practices, strategies and ideologies; while engaging with issues of researchers’ embodiment, positionality and engagement.

Further details are available on the project website.

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