Information | 29.11.2017 | By paul_simpson

Deaf Studies, Research and the Education of Deaf Pupils – reflections

    1. A feature of this website is the inclusion of personal experiences of the topic under consideration. This makes it possible to include different perspectives, including accounts from professionals and consumers, and different views on decisions that have been made.

We welcome these contributions at any time, and guidance for contributors is given in the overview of the project section.

We are also happy to include here links to signed contributions.


      1. Conrad and his work relating to deaf education. Jim Kyle is Emeritus Professor Deaf Studies, University of Bristol and Former Director of the Centre for Deaf Studies
      2. Deaf Research Group – Nottingham University. Susan Gregory is a former member of the Deaf Research Group, Nottingham University
      3. Durham Deaf Studies Research Unit DSRU. Susan Gregory: based on notes provided by David Brien and Graham Turner, former members of the group
      4. The Centre for Deaf Studies at the University of Bristol. Jim Kyle is Emeritus Professor of Deaf Studies, University of Bristol and Former Director of the Centre for Deaf Studies
      5. British Sign Language and Deaf Studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). Lynne Barnes is Principal Lecturer and Academic Lead for BSL and Deaf Studies at UCLan
      6. The Deafness Cognition and Research Centre. Bencie Woll is the Director of the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre University College London and involved in sign language research since 1978
      7. The Deaf Studies Project: More questions than answers. Graham Turner is Professor and Director of the Centre for Translation and Interpreting Studies at Heriot Watt University
      8. Deaf Studies: Then and Now. Alys Young is Professor of Social Work Education and Director of the Social Research Unit with Deaf People programme (SORD), University of Manchester
      9. Research at the University of Manchester from the 1960s. Wendy McCracken is Professor in the Education of the Deaf at the University of Manchester
      10. The history of deaf education research at the School of Education University of Leeds. Ruth Swanwick and Jackie Salter Ruth is Associate Professor in Deaf Education and Director of Research and Innovation in the School of Education and Jackie is Programme Leader for the MA in Deaf Education
      11. School-based research in deaf education; a teacher’s perspective. Miranda Pickersgill is an experienced Teacher of the Deaf and for many years was Head of Service for Leeds Deaf and Hearing-Impaired Service
      12. Models of research and deaf education. Sue Archbold was until recently Chief Executive of The Ear Foundation, and prior to that the Coordinator of the Nottingham Paediatric Cochlear Implant Programme.

In the first account Jim Kyle describes a study by Conrad carried out in the 1970s and published in 1979, which has been seminal in deaf education. This is followed by an account of the work of the Deaf Research Group at Nottingham University which was also active in the 1970s.

Accounts 3 and 4 look at the early development of Deaf Studies Groups in the 1970s. The group in Durham is described by Susan Gregory, using information supplied by Graham Turner and David Brien, and that in Bristol by Jim Kyle. These were very influential in deaf education particularly in terms of the developing role of deaf people in the schools and perceptions of the role of sign language in education. Later on, other groups with a focus on Deaf Studies came about including, more recently, that at UCLan (University of Central Lancashire) in 1993 described by Lynne Barnes in account 5 and DCAL (Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London described by Bencie Woll in account 6. The structure of the groups established early on was very different from that of the later ones with implications for their long-term future. This is discussed in contributions by Graham Turner and Alys Young in accounts 7 and 8 as well as being considered as part of account 4 by Jim Kyle.

The School of Education at Manchester University has had a long involvement in deaf education and their research is described in account 9 by Wendy McCracken. More recently, there has been increasing pressure for universities to develop their research profile and account 10 by Ruth Swanwick and Jackie Salter describes the more recent development of the research programme at Leeds University School of Education.

The account 11, by Miranda Pickersgill, looks at the experiences of a Teacher of the Deaf carrying out research which is firmly based in classroom practice and the day to day concerns of teachers. This is followed by account 12 by Sue Archbold that suggests that developments in cochlear implantation, because they take place in a medical context are presented differently in research. It is suggested that this could have implications for other areas of research into deaf education.

Reuben Conrad’s studies in Psychology were interrupted by the Second World War and, like many others, his career development had to wait for some years. He started work at the Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge in the 1950s and published his research on memory describing a new process of acoustic coding. In 1968, he turned to the issue of hearing loss and in systematically exploring the topic, even spent time teaching at the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in London. His major work on deaf children really began in the 1970s with several published studies of a new idea that internal cognitive processing required speech (particularly in tasks which involved reading) and that this might have implications for deaf children.

He hypothesised that Deaf children might not be able to learn to read. From 1974, this work, funded by the Medical Research Council, took him and his team (Jim Kyle, Anne Morris, and Morag McKenzie) to almost all Deaf schools and mainstream units in England and Wales. The memory tests confirmed Deaf children’s lack of inner speech but also (refering to psycholinguistic theories) that Deaf children might be able to use an alternative code such as sign language.

His major work, the book “The Deaf School Child” appeared in 1979. It challenged the field of Deaf Education because of the poor performance nationally of deaf school leavers, in speech, lip-reading and reading. A paper which followed “Let the children choose” suggested that sign language should be an option for all Deaf children in education. The work and ideas were widely shared in educational circles and created the foundation for the sign bilingual movement among teachers. The development of the academic field of Deaf Studies, which sought to understand the world from a Deaf cognitive and linguistic perspective, came as a direct result of the discussion which Conrad created.

Conrad retired in the early 1980s and is still interested in the work, at the age of 100 (in 2016).

Throughout, Conrad’s work was careful, methodical and precise. He applied his cognitive analysis to what was a pressing educational and social problem. He challenged the thinking of the time and made an enormous difference to a generation of Deaf children.

For more detail on Conrad’s life read Bishop D (2016) Quality and Longevity, The Psychologist, volume 29, July, pp 578-579


(This short piece is intended to give an idea of the work of the Deaf Research Group, Nottingham University and some of the describe topics covered. It is by no mean a comprehensive account.)

In the mid-1970s, partly due to initiatives from Jack Ashley, a British Member of Parliament who had himself become deaf in later life, the British Medical Research Council set up two working parties to consider new possibilities for research into deafness. One of these looked at the social and rehabilitation needs of the deaf and, as a consequence of this, the Nottingham Deaf Research Group was formed in 1976. The Director of the group was Professor David Wood and initially colleagues included Amanda Griffiths, Patricia Howarth, Ian Howarth and Heather Wood.

The research of the group was based on discussions with experienced Teachers of the Deaf and observations in schools. Many teachers were involved, and the DRG was also very fortunate that Jack French, the recent retired headmaster of the local school for the deaf, became involved as an advisor. The group took as a starting point the gap between the knowledge and understanding of the development of hearing children derived from developmental psychology and the then current practice with deaf children. Initial observations suggested a number of research areas, three of which are described below.

Influenced by the work of Jerome Bruner, the group looked at interactions between pupils and teachers and how formal and informal communication helped to develop the child’s own understanding. They looked at different degrees of control in teachers’ speech and defined five levels from totally controlling questions requiring a specific answer, to comments such as ‘well’ and ‘that’s fine’ which served to keep the dialogue open. They considered how the form of the teacher’s speech affected a child’s response and found that highly controlling contributions from teachers were likely to get fewer and less full responses from children.

The group also studied the assessment and teaching of reading, having taken note of Conrad’s findings on the poor reading ability of many deaf children. In their book reporting their results, they describe this as the gloomiest section. They endorse Conrad’s statement in 1979 ‘we do not know how to teach deaf, or even partially hearing children how to read’ (Conrad 1979). The group suggested among other findings that deaf pupils may not have the necessary linguistic knowledge to support their reading and, when not able to use this knowledge to help predict a word, they fall back on guesses which could be based on context or on a rudimentary knowledge of letter sounds. They suggested ‘radically’ that more attention needed to be paid to conversation and storytelling in order to provide a basis for reading.

The group were interested in findings from intelligence tests used with deaf children showing that, while their IQ on verbal tests was lower than that of hearing children, their IQ based on non-verbal tests showed little difference, particularly for those achieving at higher levels. The group set out to investigate whether this had implications for performance on mathematical tests which could be assumed to make fewer linguistic demands. They used a mathematical test that involved little written language, but they still found a difference between deaf and hearing pupils which could not be accounted for by degree of hearing loss or type of school attended. They also carried out a detailed analysis of errors made and found differences in the extent to which errors could be systematic and not arbitrary. For example, if we take the problem 3 x 4 = 6 x ?, the answer 72 is wrong but not arbitrary. It comes from answering the question 3 x 4 x 6 = which itself is a relatively difficult calculation. Deaf pupils who made systematic errors of this kind, showing they had some understanding of mathematical principles, did better overall than those who made more arbitrary errors indicating less basic understanding. The results from these studies and others by the Nottingham Deaf Research Group were used on many courses training Teachers of the Deaf developing a link between university research and classroom practice.

For the second five years of its ten year life, the research group was joined by Marion Kingsmill who worked with the group on the use of signed English in the classroom taking responsibility for transcribing signed data. Susan Gregory, Kay Mogford and Juliet Bishop, who were developing a number of studies looking at deaf children from 12 months upward, also joined. Their studies of young children and babies were firmly linked to observations made in the home. Among other findings, they suggested that hearing mothers with deaf children had a problem in managing the child’s attention when they needed to divide it between toy or book and the mother’s face. Interestingly they did not find the same issues arose for deaf children and their deaf mothers.

The Deaf Research Group came to an end of its ten year life in 1986.

(This contribution is based on notes provided by David Brien and Graham Turner. Any errors however are of course mine.)

There has been a focus on research into deaf issues at Durham University from 1979 although the title ‘Deaf Studies Research Unit’ (DSRU) was probably only used from 1986.

In the mid-1970s the British Deaf Association received a grant from the DHSS to complete the work on the dictionary There were other components including:

      • the development of a sign languages teaching programme
      • the development of standards for the assessment of sign language interpreters.

This work was carried out at Carlisle, initially by Allan Hayhurst. When he died in 1981 David Brien took over the development of the dictionary and later he was joined by Mary Brennan, Dorothy Miles, and many others. They are listed in full in the introduction to the dictionary.

In the mid-1980s, Clark Denmark joined the University to develop the British Sign Language Training Agency, which created the profession of BSL teachers and established, for the first time, courses for deaf people which were taught by deaf people. These included the Certificate Certificate courses for deaf people in the teaching of BSL, the first such courses at this level to be taught and examined in BSL. The name ‘British Sign Language Training Agency’ was replaced by “Durham University British Sign Language Tutor Training Course” when the University granted the course Certificate status.

In 1987 Mary Brennan joined the group and the MA/Diploma programme was developed. Mary Brennan is, of course, recognised for the first use of the term ‘British Sign Language’ in her seminal paper in 1976 which asserted its status as a full language. The series of modules that were developed for the programme included Sign Linguistics, Applied Studies, British Sign Language/English Interpreting and Deaf Studies. These were taught in BSL and English and open to both deaf and hearing people.

The Unit was also instrumental in developing and maintaining the International Sign Linguistic Association (ISLA) which brought together individuals from various countries. Many of these were working on the own in researching sign language, often in isolation. This continues to be a strong independent organisation.

However, while a number of projects were carried out, the dictionary came to be the dominant work of the unit. Although the dictionary was not published until 1992, work on it began in 1981. Eleven years seems a long time for the development of a dictionary, and certainly it involved serious negotiations with funders to maintain funding. However, time was needed as there were fundamental problems in working out how best to present the data. While it was planned as a BSL dictionary, presenting the material in book form meant that written English was the dominant language. It was difficult to give full recognition to the visual-gestural nature of the language in a dictionary which was essentially presented in written language. The organisation of the order of signs reflecting that it was a ‘sign’ dictionary, involved much discussion. In the end, it was decided to organise the entries by handshape, one handed signs preceding two handed signs. This is described in greater detail in the dictionary itself in the introduction.

The Unit also had a particular interest in dictionaries of sign languages. This work included, as well as the production of the first Dictionary of British Sign Language/English, sign language databases from which CD-ROM dictionaries and other sign language resources could be produced. A prototype BSL CD-ROM dictionary was been produced on which, for the first time, the meanings of signs were presented directly in a sign language. Research on British Sign Language included studies of the productive lexicon and the recording, storage and analysis of sign language data.

The Unit has also undertaken research in a number of areas relating to deaf people and British Sign Language. These have included studies on the British Deaf community, the Deaf communities of the European Community, Deaf people’s access to the legal system and the organisation and provision of BSL/English interpreters in Britain. More recently, the Unit was engaged in jointly co-ordinating a research project on the educational attainments of deaf children which was being undertaken in conjunction with the Educational Consortium of Deaf Organisations. Five UK universities (the DEMAQS Consortium) were involved in this project.

The Unit closed in the year 2000. The reasons for such closures of Deaf Studies groups are discussed in reflections by Turner and by Young in accounts 7 and 8 of this section of the website.

The contribution of the Unit to deaf education has centred on the recognition of BSL legitimising its use as a language for the education of deaf pupils. The dictionary, as well as other publications, have been a resource for Teachers of the Deaf as well as others. The Unit has also made a major contribution in terms of training and developing the professional skills of deaf people many of whom have worked in schools. More recently it has had direct involvement with schools through research into the educational attainments of deaf pupils.

A more detailed account of the work of the DSRU may be obtained, on request, from David Brien at

Between its inception in the mid-1980s and its closure in 2014, staff at the Centre completed over 60 funded research projects, published hundreds of articles and gave presentations all over the world. The Centre provided a dedicated programme of degrees in Deaf Studies: BSc, MSc and PhD. Several hundred students completed those degrees and it has probably graduated more Deaf (in most of the text, the reference is to Deaf people, language and culture) higher degree candidates than any other University in Europe. From 1987, the Centre was responsible for the setting up of the support and access programme for deaf students right across the university. By 2010, 60% of the 24 staff were deaf themselves and British Sign Language was used in all meetings, communications and even as a main medium for the undergraduate teaching and assessment.

So how did all this come about and why did it close finally?

The Centre had its roots in the work of Conrad in the 1970s. Jim Kyle who worked closely with Conrad in his national study of school-leavers with a hearing loss, moved to the School of Education Research Unit in Bristol. This was a fortunate location – probably the only University-funded education research centre in the UK at the time. The environment was completely research-focused and populated by education and language researchers; it was the perfect base for nurturing new ideas.

In 1978, Jim Kyle brought the Conrad questions about reading to the schools and units in the area and over three years charted the progress in reading of children aged 6 to 11 years. The work confirmed Conrad’s fears: Deaf children were progressing in vocabulary but not in reading comprehension.

What then began to take shape was a multi-faceted attempt to understand better the world of Deaf children, their communication and their community. The “Centre for Deaf Studies” was not named as such until 1984 but the research grants which were vital to its growth began in 1978.

Rather than take a chronological trip through the Centre’s existence it is probably more useful to look at the themes which were explored. There are six themes which describe the work: Language, Language Acquisition, Community and Culture, Psychology and Learning, Technologies and the Teaching Programme. All of them had an impact on education, teaching and learning.


In 1978, Bencie Woll, Peter Llewellyn Jones and Gloria Pullen joined the team, ostensibly to discover the skill sets needed for sign language interpreting. What they discovered, apart from the low level of interpreting, was that there was an under-valued language available to Deaf people and that the methods used to teach it were in desperate need of improvement.

A sign language conference in Sweden in 1978 was inspirational and, as a result, a series of UK sign language workshops were set up and a group of researchers from different universities met on a regular basis. Bristol organised a conference in Lancaster in 1980 and then hosted the second international sign language conference in 1981.

Work, led mainly by Bencie Woll and later Rachel Sutton-Spence, focused on the description of and understanding of British Sign Language. The first book on sign language appeared in 1985 and is still in use. A second key book on sign linguistics followed in 1998. These verified the status of British Sign Language and supported the developing teaching programme. Comparative work on different sign languages (a collection of versions of the Snowman in over 20 sign languages), and on linguistic variation, followed, each contributing to a deeper knowledge of the way in which sign language worked.

A specialist strand developed under Rachel Sutton-Spence which celebrated and analysed sign language poetry and literature.

Language Acquisition

Because of ongoing work in the research unit in Bristol on hearing children’s speech in the 1970s, there was a considerable interest in examining sign language acquisition. The opportunity arose with many young families in Bristol and a longitudinal study of the acquisition of Deaf children’s signing developed. Recordings of Deaf children and hearing children in deaf families were made from around 3 months up to three years of age. What was demonstrated by Jennifer Ackerman and Lisa McEntee, was that sign language acquisition in Deaf families proceeded at the same pace as spoken language development, achieving the same functionality. There was no reason to think of Deaf children as language–impaired.

The finding led the team to develop a programme for hearing parents to explain about attention, eye-gaze and early language interaction. The work undertaken in the home led to the creation of the Family Centre for Deaf children and a pre-school intervention programme which continues to this day.

Community and Culture

First investigations of the Deaf Community began in 1980, when Lorna Allsop met with and interviewed almost all of Bristol’s deaf community. The results emphasised the lower achievements in employment of Deaf people and the lack of opportunity in education beyond school. A national follow-up to the Conrad study in 1984, showed that the school leavers of the mid-1970s did not suddenly surge ahead after school but rather struggled to progress in socio-economic terms.

A large scale lifestyle study of the Deaf community between 1997 and 2002 provided a backdrop to the emergence of a completely new concept: Deafhood. Proposed and promoted by Paddy Ladd, this provided a new set of insights into the ongoing adjustments of Deaf people to life, language and culture. The book in 2003, Understanding Deaf Culture: in search of Deafhood, has had a worldwide impact.

Psychology and Learning

One of the questions posed by Conrad was how do Deaf people think (if they do not use speech processes in memory)? This topic was examined in the 1980s in several studies. Evidence was found for a sign language code (replacing a speech code) but the effects were only really apparent when Deaf people had learned sign language in the first few years of life. Further work on sign language achievement confirmed the lack of an age effect in sign language: that is, since Deaf people (throughout Europe) tended to acquire sign language later than at the age of five years, there was not a simple relation (as there is for spoken language) between age and competence in signing. The work focused increasingly on sign bilingual education but requiring that families have the opportunity to learn sign language before the child reached school. Issues around implementing sign bilingualism, were examined by Alys Young who reported on relations between Deaf assistants and classroom teachers.

Further work on the Conrad cohort, in the mid-1990s when they were aged 33-35 years old, found significantly more referrals for mental health problems than seen in the hearing population. A study of Deaf Health in Scotland in the 1990s led to a new proposal from Mary Griggs on the need to study Deaf Wellness and opened a new concern on access to health care. This culminated in a large-scale UK health testing programme to determine the outcomes of lack of access. Published in 2014, it showed that Deaf people had greater health problems than hearing people particularly in hypertension and weight problems.


The development of work on sign language arose from the emergence of easy means of video recording in the late 1970s. It was a central concern of the Centre and led to significant projects in sign language learning, in information provision, in video telecommunications and ultimately in Total Conversation (providing video, voice and text for all phone calls, including 999 calls). Examples of the work can be seen at and mobilesign is an app used by thousands of people as a way to locate over 4,000 signs.

The Teaching Programme

In 1981, the first Certificate course in sign language for teachers was set up. The methods used by Deaf tutors drew on the research on sign language with immersion in sign language. An executive, concentrated course was run for headteachers. By 1987, the Certificate programme was extended to sign language interpreting. In 1991, with European funding, a one year full-time course was offered extending to a second year Diploma. This framework was also taught to students in Greece, Spain and Portugal. In 1998, the programme became mainstream in the University with a BSc and an MSc being offered.

The first research degree was gained by a Deaf student in 1982 and the programme for PhD flourished in the 1990s. By 2005, there were over 80 students each year in the full-time programme. In 2016, the first Deaf-blind student achieved her PhD and the last student in the programme will graduate in 2017.

The closure of the Centre

From 2001, the Centre Directorship was passed to Deaf staff. This had the major advantage of creating a higher profile for the work of the Centre recognising the influence and capability of the Deaf staff. However, it also implied that the University had to make adjustments at management level to ensure inclusion of the Deaf senior staff in the running of the University. From being a separate (and celebrated) Centre with unique language policies, held at a distance and managed through traditional University methods, the activities of the Centre had to be more integrated into the workings of the Faculty and above.

At the simplest level, interpreters were needed for all meetings, and while the Centre had four in-house interpreting staff, it became apparent that the volume of text materials involved in governance was well beyond the in-house resources for translation to BSL to allow staff to be included. There had to be further calls on University funds, in order to fill the gaps as the Access to Work programme was insufficient. Considerable tension then arose around the additional costs of running a Centre with so many Deaf staff and students.

Further complications arose with re-structuring from 2003 onwards, as the University embarked on a policy that bigger was better and that small units had to be combined into larger groups. These were “Schools” with single budgets and agreed, similar practices and policies. While traditional subject groups of economics, social policy and sociology, had a rationale for integration, Deaf Studies was a poor fit for Exercise & Sport, Counselling and Learning Disabilities. There was potential synergy with Hearing and Balance Studies but the audiological aspect was anathema to the principles of Deaf Studies.

What developed was then an uneasy relationship with the consolidation of Departments removing Deaf Studies from the higher levels of management and at the same time creating a sense of exclusion and difference.

At the same time, research suffered from the over-engagement of staff in the teaching enterprise which was under-resourced. The Research Assessment Exercise, the critical process for allocating funds to the University, focused largely on journal publications and in a non-text sign language environment, staff struggled to be recognised for the activities and dissemination they were involved in. Most staff were then excluded from submission in this national research assessment process.

There was then a clear duality: the Centre was praised for its contribution to diversity (in its staff and students) for its relationship to the community (in training interpreters and providing daily BSL news in Deaf Station), but was then denigrated for its limitations in valued research publications and paradoxically for its too close relationship to the community. So for example, despite the thousands of users, Deafstation news had to be abandoned, as it was not a valued activity of a top university.

The complexity of supporting a centre which had no natural affinity with a single discipline, but yet boasted psychologists, linguists, IT specialists, sociologists, and sign teachers on its staff, created a view in the University that it was not economical and not in its interests to maintain the Centre. Staffing cuts of 10% were proposed across the university and the larger departments drew up the wagons in defensive circles, leaving the smaller units to be picked off.

Government withdrawal of adult education funding across the country removed a quarter of a million pounds from the Centre’s income; the Faculty then decided to cut the undergraduate programme which was the major continuing income of the Centre. There were major street protests and submissions but the plans were pushed through to close the Centre’s undergraduate programme by 2013. Pressure on the Masters programme created uncertainty and reduced applications; an attempt to re-negotiate staff contracts led to the suspension of that income generating course.

The work by staff in attempts to meet the ever-changing targets set and the almost annual “independent” reviews drained the staff of the necessary time and resource to generate large scale grants. In 2012, the last major European grant was completed and in 2013, the last UK grant; all staff had already been offered terms to leave or be made redundant.

The process abandoned a group of higher degree students (who seem to have been forgotten) and there remain Deaf Studies doctoral students in the system, until 2017.

In 2013, the centre’s offices were taken over for re-development and the remaining staff were moved. By 2014, this new facility was then closed because of another building re-development.

The centre’s archives of video material are still within the University and the Deaf Station, Mobile Sign continue to be available online. Research work shifted to the Deaf Studies Trust in Bristol and courses are still provided to medical students. However, visible Deaf Studies activity inside the University has almost disappeared (2016).


The history of BSL and Deaf Studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) can be traced back to the introduction of a single BSL module into the Education degree programme. From the success of this module, Professor Alan Hurst argued for the introduction of Deaf Studies into the subjects that comprised the Combined Honours programme. Established for the start of the 1993/94 academic year under the leadership of Lynne Barnes, Deaf Studies could be studied in combination with a wide variety of other subjects and proved immediately successful in recruiting students. The first cohort was made up of 20 full-time and 6 part-time students, the majority of whom were mature students working within deafness related fields. From this beginning, the subject has seen a number of developments over the years which have expanded and enhanced the reputation of BSL and Deaf Studies at UCLan across Europe and indeed the world.

The year 2000 saw the introduction of the UK’s first Single Honours in Deaf Studies and this was followed by the first BA in British Sign Language in 2009. In addition to the degree courses offered at UCLan, training routes for BSL/English interpreters have also been offered for many years. The Graduate Diploma in Communication Studies was approved as an entry route into Junior Trainee Interpreter status for students who could not commit to a full-time degree course. This was then developed into the Post-Graduate Diploma and MA in BSL/English Interpreting and Translation which has proven to be the most successful university course of its kind in providing interpreters with the skills and qualifications required for full registration status.

There are currently around 130 students registered on the various programmes offered by UCLan, with graduates enjoying high levels of employability after graduation. Typical professions include interpreting in a variety of settings, teaching, communication and educational support, working with welfare agencies and deaf charities, social work and language support roles, as well as other post-graduate study routes.

Research and subject development

From the very outset, the BSL and Deaf Studies team have been at the forefront of research into the pedagogy of deaf learners, BSL teaching and interpreter training and practice. The team has been involved in a number of collaborative projects with partners from across Europe, beginning with the ‘Sign On’ project which developed online resources for teaching English to deaf people in European countries and the UK. This led to a series of subsequent projects such as iSign, Signs2Go, Signs2English and Signs2Cross, all of which involved the BSL and Deaf Studies team developing innovative teaching and learning materials for deaf users.

In addition to these collaborations, the team has also developed a curriculum for teaching BSL in Higher Education that linked BSL teaching to the European Languages Framework (CEFR) for the first time through the BSL:QED project ( Other research activity has included:

    • The need for a national qualification and professional standards for BSL teachers and those who train them (Lynne Barnes, Martin Atherton)
    • Developing new models for interpreter practice and training (Robert Lee, Frank Harrington)
    • Employability of deaf BSL users (Lynne Barnes, Nicola Nunn)
    • Supporting deaf students in Higher Education (Lynne Barnes, Frank Harrington, Martin Atherton)
    • Language teaching and learning for adults (Luigi Lerose)
    • Interpreting for people with minimal language skills (Frank Harrington, Martin Atherton)
    • Education of deaf learners in China (Junhui Yang)
    • Deaf history and lived experiences (Martin Atherton)
    • Social policy and deafness (Frank Harrington, Martin Atherton)

In 2004, a report was published as part of the UK government’s Foresight programme, designed to identify key areas for new research frontiers ( This report stated:
“A more dramatic type of cross-linguistic contrast that may be uniquely valuable in elucidating the underlying properties of speech and language, comes through the comparison between spoken languages and native sign languages, such as BSL (British Sign Language).”

The report went on to identify the investigation of features common to how the brain processes spoken language and sign language as one of six key questions facing researchers in language.

Using this report as a springboard, researchers at UCL and City University (Bencie Woll, linguist and sign language researcher; Ruth Campbell, psychologist and neuroscience researcher; Gary Morgan, developmental psychologist and sign language researcher; and Gabriella Vigliocco, psychologist and language researcher and Mairead MacSweeney, neuroscientist and sign language researcher who later became one of the Directors when Ruth Campbell retired) applied to the Economic and Research Council (ESRC) for a Research Centre grant. ESRC Research Centres are major ESRC strategic investments. The ESRC states that “in addition to taking forward an ambitious research agenda and making significant economic and societal impact, they add value by increasing infrastructure, building capacity, encouraging interdisciplinary working in social science and beyond, and enabling research collaboration in the UK and internationally”. The application was successful and DCAL was established in 2006, receiving 11 years of ESRC funding. Like all ESRC Centre funding, this funding is time-limited, and ended in December 2016.

DCAL’s research projects can be grouped under a number of research strands:

      • tools for evaluating language (including development of a reference grammar for BSL)
      • language processing (including studies of iconicity in sign languages and functional imaging studies of language and the brain)
      • face-to-face communication (including speech-reading, bilingualism in English and BSL, and bilingualism in two sign languages)
      • language development (including studies of early signed and spoken language development in deaf children and in adults learning BSL as a second language)
      • atypical sign language (including studies of signers with acquired impairments as a result of stroke or dementia, and children with developmental disorders in sign language) and
      • the individual and the community (including studies of changes in deaf identity, and interpreting).

As well as the core ESRC funding, DCAL staff have been awarded other large research grants, such as the BSL Corpus project grant. The range of DCAL research areas was chosen to complement the strengths and interests of other research centres in UK universities such as SORD in Manchester, CDS in Bristol, iSLanDS in Preston, etc.

DCAL has been involved in many other activities. These have included the development of research and practitioner resources (e.g. BSL Signbank, an on-line BSL dictionary based on the BSL corpus, the DCAL Assessment Portal, a series of on-line language and cognitive assessments and the BSL Corpus, with BSL conversations and interviews with around 250 signers of all ages from 8 different regions of the UK

There has been a strong commitment to capacity building, especially for deaf researchers, including research training opportunities, and MSc and PhD studentships, and a strong international presence, hosting deaf and hearing researchers from many different countries. DCAL also maintains an extensive knowledge exchange and partnership programme with stakeholders such as clinical psychologists, Teachers of the Deaf, speech and language therapists, members of the Deaf community and deaf-led organisations. In partnership with the NHS, DCAL has established the only specialist clinic for deaf people with acquired cognitive impairments (for example, dementia) in the UK, and offers other clinical, consultancy and assessment services to deaf children and adults.

DCAL is strongly committed to ensuring that research findings are made accessible outside the academic research community, especially where these findings are of particular relevance to practice. The creation of language assessment tools, normed on deaf children, provides teachers with objective measures for use in schools. DCAL’s neuroscience research has demonstrated the distinction between the effects of language experience and auditory deprivation, showing the importance of early language experience, whether spoken or signed; this information is of great importance in the design of early years intervention programmes.

With the end of ESRC funding, DCAL has become smaller, but has been successful in receiving core funding from University College London for new academic and support posts, and the development of new post-graduate and CPD programmes, which will underpin new research studies in the future.

(This excerpt is taken from a much longer paper, published in 2007. Turner, G. (2007) The Deaf Studies Project: More questions than answers. Deaf Worlds. Vol 23 Issues 2 and 3 pp 1-26)

Abstract Deaf Studies has been recognised as a legitimate academic discipline (or ‘interdiscipline’) in the UK for over 25 years. The ‘Deaf Studies Project’ has meant working across a series of disciplines to produce accounts which (a) verified and elaborated the notions that Deaf people formed a distinct social grouping, self-defined predominantly by language usage, social relations and cultural practices, and (b) explored how an appreciation of these factors could affect relationships with community members. This paper asks how and why these developments came to pass …

Why invent Deaf Studies?

Deaf Studies was another of the fields which began to take shape in Britain in the 1980s…. The initial impetus was to provide an evidence-base from which to construct stronger arguments with which to challenge the era’s flawed but deep-rooted thinking about the nature of Deaf people. At the core of the drive was the developing understanding British Sign Language (BSL), named as an identifiable language in the mid-1970s by Mary Brennan (Brennan 1976) and rightly recognised as the beating heart of the community and the key to its “renaissance” (Brennan & Hayhurst 1980).

The establishment in the 1980s of a field of endeavour known as Deaf Studies was in itself a direct challenge to a perception of deafness that members of the community felt was inappropriate at best, certainly ignorant and – as had been argued by National Union of the Deaf in the 1970s – positively genocidal at worst (1976). The received wisdom of the times had been that deafness must be viewed as a medical condition, an unfortunate and isolating experience affecting individuals and isolating experience affecting individuals, with physiological and often psychological consequences, to be treated where possible and certainly never to be accepted as simply a natural aspect of human variability. To talk of ‘Deaf Studies’ was immediately to contrast this view with something radically different: what was implied was that there were collective experiences to be studied. Coupled with the emerging picture of BSL as a true, natural language, this collectivist view started to suggest strongly that Deaf people formed a social group with characteristics familiar from the study of other cultural and linguistic minorities.

Besides this radical shift in viewpoint, Deaf Studies would, from the outset, naturally engage with, highlight and valorise community members’ own beliefs, narratives and interpretations of their lives and demands. At the pioneering Centre for Deaf Studies in Bristol and the counterpart Deaf Studies Research Unit in Durham, these were fundamental principles of operation, cemented by the – at the time – extraordinary appointments of Deaf people (sometimes without traditional academic backgrounds) as key members of the University staff.

Thus, Deaf Studies, as a field of enquiry, prioritised investigations and analyses which assisted in the building-up of evidence to support a very different understanding of the community, its language and the appropriate social policy responses to the existence of minority groups of Deaf people living alongside hearing majorities. As time passed, the focus on research extended increasingly into training (and retraining) with the aim of preparing professionals in all Deaf-related areas who would be effective BSL users, sensitive to the community’s history and nature. The range of British Universities with staff engaged, in one way or another, in work in this field during the last 25 years grew to include at least Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Central Lancashire, City University, Durham, Edinburgh, Glamorgan, Heriot-Watt, Leeds, Loughborough, Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan, Middlesex, Nottingham, the Open University, Reading, Salford, Sheffield, University College London, Wolverhampton, and York. Some of these, along with others (Derby, Nottingham Trent, Sheffield Hallam, etc) sought to offer enhanced opportunities for Deaf students themselves to access higher educational qualifications: they designed and provided support services, systematically funded by the state, which afforded able young people realistic prospects of developing the necessary grounding in core disciplines and becoming increasingly active in defining the agenda of the Deaf Studies field.

UK Deaf Studies never belonged exclusively in the Universities, though. Contributors to the field in Britain may have worked in association with University departments, but were often formally based in contexts arguably ‘closer’ to the community and the professions, such as schools, social work departments, interpreting agencies and ‘third sector’ organisations including the national Deaf organisations. Practitioners in various areas were inevitably well placed to appreciate the dilemmas and priorities of their colleagues and could respond to these by producing highly influential analyses and reflections. Research and theoretical advances went hand in hand with dissemination and, again, the pioneering centres set an important precedent with their ceaseless efforts to bring information into the wider public arena in ways that would be accessible to all relevant stakeholders. Thus, over the years, we have seen ‘roadshows’ and workshops, video productions and CD-ROMs, blogs and newsletters as well as the types of output that Universities take for granted, ie conference papers, journal articles, book chapters and entire volumes exploring questions from the Deaf Studies agenda. Authors have often been highly conscious of the diversity of readership and have explored many devices seeking to maximise the accessibility of their texts. Given the limited time available for dissemination, the opportunity to produce texts which could be accessed and appreciated by a range of readers was not assured but presumably always welcome…

What has Deaf Studies been doing in Britain?

I listed above some of the many Universities in Britain that have explored Deaf Studies questions. Gathered together in this way, it strikes me as a very impressive list, and I’m quite sure it’s not exhaustive. My own perception would be that the spine has been provided, from first to last, by an engagement with sign language; not always overt and not necessarily in focus with every context, but frequently identifiable at least as an implicit core ingredient in the mix.

The linguistics of sign languages has been prominent right from the start. At Moray House College of Education (as it was then named) in Edinburgh in the 1970s, Mary Brennan gathered together a dynamic group, including Deaf researchers such as Lilian Lawson, which produced a detailed account of the phonology of BSL (first edition Brennan et al, 1980) and set number of hares running into related topics, including non-manual features, and so-called ‘multi-channel’ signs (Lawson 1983) and early analyses of contact signing (Lawson 1981). At Bristol University, a broad range of language studies have been undertaken, led initially by Bencie Woll and prominently featuring Rachel Sutton-Spence’s work exploring a variety of topics (eg Woll 1981, 1987; Sutton-Spence and Woll 1990; Sutton-Spence 1993).

The second fundamental platform has been the study of the education of deaf pupils. A wide range of studies has been associated with Birmingham University, never dogmatically or narrow-mindedly claiming more significance than was due for BSL, but willing to engage with its position in education and to investigate its potential on a ‘what works’ basis. Leeds University, through the work of Pam Knight and Ruth Swanwick in particular (2002), has pursued a more bilingualist line, in keeping with the approach of teacher-training courses which have set many graduates off with a bilingual approach. Mary Brennan’s last major project when she returned to Edinburgh in the 1990s was the Achievements of Deaf Pupils Study, which set out working with young children to take an exceptional longitudinal approach in a bid to gather robust data about bilingual educational outcomes through Scotland. At the end of the other age-range, the University of Central Lancashire has developed and discussed systems to afford Deaf students meaningful access to Higher Education (see Barnes et al 2007).

It has long been clear that the life-course for many Deaf adults depended on particular childhood experiences which, in the 1970s, began to be understood as patterned and consistent across groups, rather than fragmentary and individualised: in other words, the instantiation of community membership began with shared experiences in childhood and early social, cultural, and linguistic experiences. The work of Susan Gregory and associates in particular (1976, 1995), which might now be seen to fall within a Family Studies paradigm as much as within Deaf Studies, presented robust and painstakingly-collated evidence to demonstrate the validity of such claims. Reinforcing the sense of the centrality of linguistic development, there was by the late 1980s a strand of research trying to make sense of the early language experiences of deaf children (eg Kyle & Ackerman 1989). It was a key characteristic of this work that its focus was often not on English-language development – there had long been a pattern of studying the supposed inadequacies of deaf children’s language output and comprehension in school-based research – but on sign language learning and the ways in which fluent signers progressed and drew upon competent adult models. Further exploration of the potential significance of Deaf role models was offered by Alys Young (1995) who has contributed an evolving chain of analyses of aspects of child developments, the building of family relationships and the potential for controlled, supportive intervention.

The other aspect of personal development which has been a long-term staple of the field relates to cognition. One of the key texts to establish the viability of the field in general was Reuben Conrad’s The Deaf Schoolchild (1979): Conrad’s initial interest had been that of the psychologist, and he certainly took an interest in issues such as memory and mental modelling which derived from cognitive science frameworks. At Bristol University, Jim Kyle’s long-standing and wide-ranging input to the Deaf Studies field was also built upon a psychology-based platform, as was particularly evident in a number of early studies (Kyle 1979, 1981, 1983). In the current decade, the major centre at University College London is establishing deafness and cognition as a core area of study, innovatively exploring contemporary techniques such as MRI scanning to ‘map’ Deaf brains as they undertake everyday communication and processing activities (MacSweeney et al 2002).

The new appreciation of Deaf people as a collective with a history and core experiences and values belonged to the disciplines of sociology, cultural studies and history and these, too, have continued to be features of the field. From early accounts, radical simply because they dared to begin to write of Deaf people as a distinct cultural group (eg Brien 1991), to more recent analyses of the current ‘shape’ of the community as a whole (DPiC 1000), and including more focused descriptions of social group forms and practices within sections of the whole (eg Ahmed et al, 1998), these studies have established the lasting, self-identifying nature of the community, and the contributions made by individual members or groups of members. The impact of this work upon policy and the professions has been understood: not least in the context of Social Work with Deaf people, one of the first professions to see the value of ensuring that front-line staff had BSL skills at a level approaching fluency, and thus being seen to take the linguistic community seriously as a community on its own terms, sharing aspects of linguistic ideology (Turner 2004) and cultural practice (eg in the arts: see Sutton Spence et al 2006). Whilst the majority of studies of Deaf History have been undertaken outwith the University system – largely due to the tireless work of the Deaf History Society (see, for instance, Grant 1990) – we can also point to both ‘insider’ (eg Ladd 2003) and ‘outsider’ (eg Atherton et al 2000) historical narratives producing quality insight and information.

To bring us full circle, we might return more directly to the centrality of language questions by noting the strand of studies which might be seen most directly to be identifiable as explorations in applied linguistics. Arguably, Durham University played a central part here: after all, the two major projects which put Durham on the Deaf Studies map were the slow- burning project to produce the Dictionary of BSL/English (Brien 1992) and the breakthrough undertaking to put Deaf people into the driving seat as acknowledged experts on their own language, the BSL Training Agency, which for the first time developed and delivered training as BSL teachers to members of the community (Denmark 1991) – both were exercises in applied linguistics. Such a tradition passed on in some respects through studies of sign language interpreting and translation, which again took the concepts of linguistics and applied them to the analysis of these particular intercultural communication practices (eg Harrington & Turner 2001). This work is now being sustained and re-created through the work of a new generation of researchers, including several associated with Heriot-Watt University (eg Dickinson 2007, Wurm 2008).

Hard Questions

Since at least the early 1980s, then, a loose network of scholars has been working in the UK across a series of disciplines to produce accounts which (a) verified and elaborated the notion that Deaf people formed a distinct social grouping, self-defined predominantly by language usage, social relations and cultural practices, and (b) explored how an appreciation of these factors could affect relationships with community members. There can be little doubt that public discourses about Deaf issues have shifted significantly, underpinned by painstaking articulations which have presented the results of qualitative and quantitative studies to inform public policy and attitudes. That BSL is a language is widely recognised; that Deaf people are entitled – as members of a linguistic minority and as a result of socially disabling conditions imposed upon them – to accessible services is enshrined in law; and the unexceptional capability of Deaf people to do anything but hear is enacted confidently and with no shortage of self-respect by members of the Deaf community on a daily basis. But what questions should we ask of the above as body of work if we are to ensure that the progress made over the next 25 years builds firmly upon these foundations?…


As a hearing, qualified social worker, I started a PhD in 1992 at the Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol. At the time, it was a revolutionary and world-leading research and teaching environment. Set up as a specialist department in its own right, it pioneered Deaf Studies as a research discipline and trained the first generation of sign language interpreters and Deaf people from around the world studying their own language(s) and culture(s). Now, writing twenty-five years later, I am based at the University of Manchester leading an applied, health and social care research group focused on d/Deaf people which is based within a mainstream university department. The team of highly qualified researchers are both Deaf and hearing sign language users, most with professional or directly relevant care backgrounds – health services researchers sit alongside genetic counselors, alongside parents of deaf children, interpreters and social workers. The contrast of then and now, from my personal and professional perspective, in many ways mirrors the origins, transformations and multiple destinations of what one might term Deaf Studies in higher education, although that is not a term all would identify with these days.

Deaf Studies’ Origins

The late 1970s through the 1980s saw an explosion of new subject disciplines all of which began from a point of commonality, explored through various multi- and trans-disciplinary research studies and educational practices, for example: women’s studies, disability studies, black studies, queer studies. Each domain could generate work in the social sciences, anthropology, theology, business, education, the arts and so forth, but the satellite interests all connected in some way to the exposure of the social and political positioning of each of the minority and/or oppressed group. The studies revealed hidden assets that history might have written out of the story, alternative discourses to understand the place and contribution of the marginalised in wider society, sought to reveal the mechanics of oppression and to offer the world a more expansive notion of what it is to be human through diversity. The academic world was in the right place to welcome into this movement Deaf Studies, as a discipline in its own right too.

Remember the timing – it was not until 1978 that the British Deaf Association published the first academic supplement to its monthly magazine which outlined the case for BSL being a language. This was crucial at the time because its status as a language was actively denied or its adequacy questioned by key authorities writing about Deaf education at the time. It was not until 1985 that the first academic book appeared in the UK which addressed sign language and the Deaf community. It was not until 1988 that the first course to learn BSL appeared in print and on our screens. This was an age of discovery, quite literally that BSL was a language and furthermore that there was a community of users of that language. Their cultural history and everyday practices challenged the dominant model of deafness as impairment and those affected as in need of remediation.

Now in an age where we can view the UK Deaf Cultural History Archive on line, BBC I-Player has its own sign language interpreted programmes listing and the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 has enshrined the legal status of BSL, these earlier times of discovery seem unimaginable. Yet to understand the origins of Deaf Studies it is important to understand the overwhelming need of the time to establish the legitimacy of the language, to explore Deaf culture, to question the place of sign language in deaf education, to challenge the discourses of a society that failed to recognise the cultural-linguistic status of one of its constituent parts, and to expose the architectures of social oppression. It was also a time to contribute to solutions through the opening up higher education to Deaf people in ways previously unprecedented, to educate a new workforce of sign language interpreters and to educate wider society to a part of its history that it had failed to acknowledge or appreciate.

The discipline, Deaf Studies, was the route to these ends. It was also a means of constituting itself because each new course, each new graduate, each new research study brought with it new understanding of what was Deaf Studies. Subject and object at the same time, Deaf Studies established itself as an independent discipline in the UK with various universities contributing in different ways to its growth. For example, Durham University produced the first BSL dictionary, established courses for Deaf people to train as teaching assistants, and carried out early fundamental work on Deaf children’s attainment. Bristol ran undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Deaf Studies and was for many years a leading trainer of sign language interpreters as well as producing a host of PhDs in Deaf Studies. UCLAN opened up the wider academy to Deaf undergraduates in pioneering joint degrees in Deaf Studies and other disciplines such as psychology. Wolverhampton too developed a Deaf Studies undergraduate curriculum and specialised in media and the arts. The Open University ran the only accredited post-qualifying specialist training course for social workers with Deaf People. It also pioneered a ground-breaking distance learning course in Deaf Studies taken at the time by countless professionals working in differing roles with deaf children and adults. These courses and routes of study sat alongside other established degrees such as those offered for Teachers of the Deaf at the Universities of Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester and Hertfordshire. The difference was they began from a firmly Deaf Studies perspective which valued and promoted the legitimacy of BSL, sought to reveal and enhance the culture and heritage of Deaf communities and had an explicitly political orientation toward combating the marginalisation of Deaf people(s) through embracing a cultural model, rather than a medical model of deafness (what it is to be Deaf).

Where are we now?

Few if any of the academic departments and research groups in the UK today concerning Deaf people, would term themselves Deaf Studies as the headline title to explain their work or to identify their department. That is not to say Deaf Studies research and associated studies are not thriving. They are just doing so differently. Why this might be the case can be viewed as demise and/or transformation.

From my perspective, and I do not claim others will necessary agree, where Deaf Studies is today is because it is a victim of its own success and its maturity as a discipline. Unlike 25 years ago, there are now generations of young Deaf people who grow up to expect to be able to undertake higher education. True, this is still far fewer than in the general population and d/Deaf people remain over-represented in further education and in the unemployment statistics. Nonetheless, for those who reach higher education, the ambition is not to degrees in Deaf studies but to degrees in whatever is of subject interest. Furthermore, some of these graduates who are fundamentally sign language users, who choose to pursue research careers in d/Deaf-related topics may do so as Deaf Studies scholars, or may do so as scholars of any discipline with a specialist interest in Deaf peoples and communities. It is the difference between a PhD in Deaf Studies and a PhD in Anthropology, or Sociology, or Health Services Research or any discipline with the topic being some aspect of Deaf peoples’ lives.

This balance shift is important, because it signals a desire to compete on equal terms in a broad subject area with a focus on Deaf people(s) rather than necessarily pursuing a portfolio of studies under the Deaf Studies umbrella, and contributing explicitly to Deaf Studies as its own discipline. In the UK today we are fortunate enough to have doctoral and post-doctoral researchers who are Deaf and working in a range of fields including neurology, linguistics, anthropology, translation studies, health services research, psychology, education, linguistics and social policy amongst others. In most cases they are working alongside specialists drawn from other disciplines such as health economics, mental health, dementia care, cognitive psychology etc. One set of specialist expertise sits alongside the other in a process of mutual knowledge exchange whereby each is influenced. In many respects Deaf Studies from this point of view has come of age. The separate department and named discipline is no longer needed but the specialism and expertise remains and grows and has influence beyond its own boundaries.

Or is this glass half full picture not the true story? Looked at another way, we have arrived where we are because the institutions of higher education would no longer fund niche subject areas in their own right nor accord them true value. They are seen as too expensive and less relevant to bigger issues in the current jargon of ‘grand challenges’. These are commonly identified as the engines for bringing together multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary expertise. Just take a look at the websites of the various components of RCUK (Research Councils UK) and many of the leading universities, to see how the contemporary discourse of research is shaped by grand narratives. For example, antimicrobial resistance is currently as much a part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council portfolio as that of the Medical Research Council. What chance does Deaf Studies have against a drive to identify and meet global and grand challenges which are seen as the new umbrellas for contributing disciplines working together. The Centre for Deaf Studies in Bristol, closed in 2013; the Open University no longer runs a Deaf specialist social work course (but then neither does anyone else); Deaf studies is no longer a degree attracting high numbers; the research department at Durham closed; the OU no longer offers its Deaf Studies Courses.

Yet all is not doom and gloom. Thriving research in what might, in former times have been embraced as Deaf Studies, is continuing. The Deafness Cognition and Language Research centre, previously funded by ESRC, has been retained and incorporated at UCL; Heriot Watt University’s Translation and Interpreting Studies Department has a thriving Deaf-related research programme and sign language interpreter training courses as post graduate level; the Social Research with Deaf People programme at the University of Manchester enjoys extensive research council funding for applied health and social care research in a range of disciplines; the departments at Wolverhampton University and UCLAN are still going strong with an international sign languages research group also existing at UCLAN.


Some of the new Deaf scholars of today refer to us moving into the third wave of Deaf studies. The first was the discovery era of over 20 years ago, the second the work in a range of disciplines that I choose to describe as contemporary, the third to be marked by a methodological elaboration that gives due weight to Deaf ontological perspectives as driving forces in shaping Deaf Studies. That may well turn out to be the case and its contribution significant. Nonetheless not all of the Deaf academics working today, or those hearing people who work in this field too, do so from a single disciplinary positioning in one branch of the social sciences. They are contributing a host of work that is of high relevance to Deaf peoples within many disciplines but which may not easily be termed third wave Deaf Studies.

The ground-breaking work of the Ewings over the period 1930-58 laid the solid foundation for research and practice in the field of both deaf education and audiology and placed the University of Manchester on the world stage as innovators. It is hard to capture the scope and depth of the research undertaken at The University of Manchester as PhD students who went on to become national or international names in the field of deaf education studied here. Arthur Boothroyd, having completed a PhD, joined the staff and is renowned for his work in the field of speech audiometry with the AB wordlist still very much in use in the 21st century. Ian Taylor completed his PhD on the neurological mechanisms of hearing and speech and went on to become Head of Department in 1964, firmly placing the audiological management of deaf children central to the work of the group. Thomas Watson, Laurie Ives, Elwyn John, Les Owrid and many other staff were prolific in their writing and helped to ensure that there was an active research base that informed teaching. The list of papers is simply too long to include. At this time there was no access to anything online so the main sources of information were books or professional journals. In 1964 a book ‘Teaching deaf children to talk’ was published by Ewing, A. and Ewing, E. which showcased the work of Elwyn John and Arthur Boothroyd. This was followed by Watson’s (1967) ‘The Education of hearing handicapped children’. The title may of course now seem quite inappropriate but such books were central to training and it was, of its time, an important book that filled in many gaps in the knowledge base.

A new generation of staff brought a fresh perspective developing the legacy of work done in the department. An early example of such work was a book aimed at improving audiological management in educational settings (Tucker and Nolan, 1984). The strong emphasis on the importance of families and early intervention was maintained at the University initially by a more formal approach (Nolan and Tucker, 1988) but much more recently in the National Evaluation of the introduction of the Newborn Hearing programme led by John Bamford, resulted in a range of publications, including the challenges to services and service development, parental experiences and views of the hearing screen.

The Warnock report and increasing use of radio aids meant many deaf children were in mainstream schools, a trend that continues today. Wendy Lynas’ 1986 book ‘Integrating the Handicapped into Ordinary Schools: A Study of Hearing-Impaired Pupils’ sounds dated, but of its time was an influential book. Lynas was involved in a range of studies that really demonstrated the foundations laid in the early 20th century – a strong belief in the importance of well fitted, maintained and used personal amplification. As practice developed and became more about choices backed by evidence, Lynas (1994) wrote a book that focused on communication choices. She was one of a team of researchers that tried to identify ‘Good practice in the field of deaf education’, working with colleagues from Birmingham University.

The push for positive audiological practice in a rapidly changing educational world resulted in the publication of an audiology handbook specifically aimed at the Teacher of the Deaf as the front line workers (McCracken & Laoide-Kemp, 1997). There has been important work on Informed Choice for parents of deaf children (Young et al), in considering deaf children with complex learning needs, both in respect of their audiological management (McCracken, Lumm, Laoide-Kemp), and in respect of access to services (McCracken, Petit). This still lags very considerably behind for many of this group now. More recently important work has focused on the very early use of radio amplification with deaf infants (Mulla and McCracken, 2014) this has resulted in a ground surge of services fitting radio aids much earlier and the case should now be made for radio aids to be part of the NHS amplification contract. Other new technology used to monitor teaching practice has resulted in more reflection and more equal discussions between tutors and students (Chilton and McCracken in press).

A national review of radio amplification in the real world (McCracken, Wilding and Roberts, 2013) clearly demonstrated how well deaf children can inform our thinking and practice. This was also seen in a national review of the visiting teacher (D/HH and B/VI) undertaken by McCracken and McLinden (2014). It is interesting to reflect that after almost a hundred years of research the focus is starting to turn to children being part of the research rather than being researched subjects.

Work too on theory of mind has been undertaken with some exciting and thought-provoking research by Chilton and Beazely (2015). This area is now a key thread of the work being done with exciting collaborations, Connie Mayer and Tiffany Hutchins, and there are plans to extend this work, to publish but, more importantly, to change practice. To include all the research undertaken, the papers published, the keynotes undertaken by staff, would have been a book in itself. The long rich history of research and translation of this to practice is alive and well and found at the University of Manchester.

At the University of Leeds, the deaf education team has a history of developing practice-oriented research in close collaboration with practitioners, young deaf people and their families. This team includes Ruth Swanwick, who established the deaf education provision at Leeds in 1992 with Pamela Knight, and Jackie Salter who joined the team initially as a regional tutor in 2008 and is now Programme Leader for the MA in Deaf Education (ToD).

Since the late 1980s research and teaching activities at the University of Leeds have made a significant contribution to the growth of deaf education in general in the UK, and in particular to the development of sign bilingual policy and practice.

The Leeds programme was originally set up to fill a gap in the training provision by bringing a sign bilingual perspective to Teacher of the Deaf training. One of the goals of this programme was to articulate more clearly the use of sign language in education and help teachers engage with complex linguistic, political and socio-cultural issues, as well as the development of educational and technical expertise. The University of Leeds was visible and indeed instrumental in developing research at that time, not least because the first UK-based doctoral thesis about sign bilingualism and education was written here by Ruth Swanwick (supervised by Susan Gregory and Jill Bourne) who led the ToD programme at Leeds with Pamela Knight at that time.

Leeds was involved in all of the publications that evolved around the development of sign bilingual education in the UK including the June 1997 (then) BATOD journal; Deafness and Educationspecial focus edition entitled ‘Sign Bilingualism in the Education of Deaf Children’ and, ten years on, another Special Edition of the same Journal entitled ‘Sign Language and Deaf Education’.

In 1998 Leeds took part in the writing of a national shared policy framework entitled ‘Sign Bilingualism: A Model’ (Pickersgill and Gregory 1998). This document, written in collaboration with practitioners, presented a model of sign bilingual educational practice which was intended to provide a guide for the most effective way of incorporating BSL into educational policies and practices. In this sense this document was truly aspirational and its publication was in itself a statement of the growing interest in sign bilingualism and the increasing recognition of the central place of BSL in deaf children’s education at that time. Importantly it provided a definition, a philosophy and principles of policy and practice for the first time in the UK.

In 2007 Swanwick and Gregory revisited this document with a view to updating and revising it to reflect the changes in deaf education over a decade. This revised document ‘Sign Bilingual Education: Policy and Practice’ was also developed in collaboration with practitioners. Sign bilingual education by this time had a little of its own history and so this publication included case studies of sign schools and services as well as relevant research in the UK and beyond and provided contributions from Canada, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Practitioners were asked to comment on the influences on their developing practice and their perceptions of current challenges for sign bilingual education. This publication thus considered changes in deaf education within the wider context of education in general and identified significant developments since the 1990s that had influenced sign bilingual education.

It is noteworthy that in the 2007 document the philosophy and principles of sign bilingual education remained the same as those identified in the 1998 publication. However, this revision reflected the changing context of sign bilingual education and provided altogether a more pragmatic view of sign bilingual education. For this, it drew criticism as being less than aspirational. Certainly, the original document was much stronger as an aspirational model whereas the later version shows the complexities as they had been played out in practice.

After this initial focus on bilingual education, the research and development work began to diversify at Leeds but the emphasis on collaborative research with practitioners endured. The deaf education research is now an established aspect of the wider programme of SEND and inclusive education research takes place in the school of education and many of the projects and development work in schools have involved other colleagues with other expertise, for example, in maths education (Tom Roper) reading comprehension (Paula Clarke), ecological approaches (David Sugden) and pedagogy (Ruth Kitchen).

The work of this team embraces language and learning and the development of pedagogies and practitioner understanding. Under this broad heading the team members have particular interests and expertise in research with deaf children and young people for whom sign language is an important part of their language repertoire (bimodal) and those with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds (Swanwick) and in the inclusive education of deaf children and how this is understood and shaped by collaboration between mainstream teachers and specialist teachers and teaching assistants (Salter).

Over the last decade Swanwick has secured external funding for a number of projects that have examined bilingual deaf children’s literacy development (ESRC with Linda Watson as PI), the role of sign language for children with cochlear implants (Nuffield) and the development of teachers’ critical practices (The British Academy). With Paula Clarke, she also won a number of internal University awards for the development of collaborative methodologies with deaf education schools and services. The team have a track record in developing research activities in partnership with practitioners and this is a recognised feature of the Leeds deaf education provision.

Swanwick’s recent research and development work focuses on deaf children’s linguistic and cultural diversity. In 2015 she was awarded a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to take this work forwards. One of the outputs of this work is a sole-authored text ‘Language and Languaging in Deaf Education’ to be published by Oxford University Press in November 2016 and an article in Applied Linguistics Review that brings the cultural and diversity issues in deaf education to the fore. In terms of the dissemination and international recognition of this work, Swanwick presented a key note session at the Max Planck Institute Symposium on Translanguaging across sign and spoken language repertoires (Gottingham, Germany, June 2016) and will do two further key note presentations at the International Conference on Teaching Deaf Learners (Amsterdam, Netherlands, March 2017) and the International Conference on Speech and Language Pathology (Sofia, Bulgaria, November 2017).

A further significant outcome of the BA work is the recently published Language Planning Toolkit and Guidance for Practitioners (Swanwick, Simpson & Salter, 2014). This was funded by the Department for Education (DfE) in association with the National Sensory Impairment Partnership (NatSIP) and is now being implemented across deaf education schools and services. The team is currently working with schools on the follow-up and impact of this work and building new research collaborations to develop it further.

Since achieving her PhD in 2015 Salter has continued to develop her research into understandings of deafness in the mainstream classroom and has disseminated this work widely in the UK and at three international conferences (Amsterdam 2014, Athens 2015, Luxembourg 2016) and many national professional (BATOD and NatSIP) venues. She has taken on the project researcher role for a large AHRC funded investigation of how listening to music is affected by hearing aid technology that is being led by Alinka Greasley in the School of Music at Leeds. This innovative project will have important implications for educational practices and will shape the development of a curriculum that facilitates deaf students’ engagement with music as an important focus of adolescents’ social interactions and developing identities.

As the research at Leeds diversifies, so too are the team’s collaborative and research partnership links. The team has long standing national partnerships with UK centres of deaf education/studies research and with educational and deaf organisations, Salter currently serves on the BATOD NEC leading a working group on specialist CPD for ToDs. In addition, the team regularly collaborates in the development of grant applications and joint publications with colleagues at NTID in the USA, Kentalis in the Netherlands and research centres in Scandinavia, Germany and more recently in Bulgaria, Belgium, Switzerland and France.

Looking forwards, our research will continue to champion issues of linguistic and cultural diversity in deaf education, argue for a pragmatic approach to navigating the social and medical polemics in the field, and bring the issues in deaf education regarding language and learning to the attention of the wider language education field. We aspire to develop further strong international and interdisciplinary research initiatives that continue to examine some of the complex issues that challenge educators of the deaf, increase knowledge and understanding of language and learning and demonstrate the relevance of this knowledge to wider social sciences research agendas.

One of the bonuses of moving to Nottingham in 1981, to take up a teaching post, was that I met Sue Gregory and developed a productive and supportive relationship with her and the Psychology Department at Nottingham University where she worked. I had always been interested in the academic side of my work and in particular in research, which for me was the kind one can do in the classroom. I had always sought to better understand what and why things happen and welcomed any opportunity to study and share with others. It was partly as a result of this interest that the organisation LASER (Language of Sign as an Educational Resource) had come about.

My work at Derrymount School, Nottingham, in a Unit for secondary aged deaf pupils gave me the opportunity to reflect on my practice with the children and to analyse their language and learning in response to this. This was not research for its own sake but to be better informed. At this time I wanted to develop some more appropriate tools for showing the progress of the children. When using BSL in the classroom I did feel under some pressure to show that the children were developing but I did not want to have to use the assessment tools which had traditionally been used with deaf children and which focused largely on the development of oral skills. I was much more interested in their understanding and use of language and the relationship with their thinking and capacity for learning. Nottingham University was known for its research into hearing children’s language development as well as for its ground-breaking work with deaf parents with deaf children. Fortunately this was also a time when interest in sign language development in children was beginning and whilst most of the work was being done abroad and often in what we would consider controlled or even artificial conditions, it did provide some useful background for my own work.

Sue Gregory became a regular visitor to the unit at Derrymount school in Nottingham and one day she suggested I did a Masters degree. At the time I was informally analysing the children’s language development, videoing regularly and applying techniques borrowed from an enlightened Speech and Language Therapy colleague to show the development of phonetic, syntactic, semantic and functional complexity in the children’s signing. These were the days of LARSP and PRISM (formal language assessment procedures)! With Sue’s guidance I studied the development of temporal reference (time marking) in the children’s use of sign language, making links between the model provided by my deaf colleague Syd Stone and the children’s developing language. The study became a detailed analysis of their use of the sign commonly glossed as /FINISH/ and my thesis was illustrated with clips of videotape and sign drawings and computer graphics (described below). What was remarkable was that despite their ages and relatively late exposure to BSL, the children’s language was progressing in a logical way as their intellectual development progressed, showing both the influence of an adult language and role model and the relationship between language, thought and experience, inspired by the motivation to communicate.

It was in this context that I had developed an interest in computer/sign graphics. One day, while Syd was discussing with the children what they had done at the weekend, I started to draw on the white board, the signs they were using, as a record of their ‘news’. To expect them to write in English was unrealistic and the mismatch between their utterances and any English version which I provided was far too great. The children were intrigued by the sign drawings and started to read what I had drawn, correcting my inadequate sketches as appropriate. I would draw their news in sign with stylised handshapes, facial expressions and indicators of movement. Then below, I would write an approximate English translation, using colour coding to indicate what function the word or phrase performed and showing how this related to the original sign utterance. Suddenly the children could read, albeit in sign. Subsequently a computer programme was developed to enable the children to produce their own sign graphics, effectively to write in BSL. The research basis for this project was in fact the recognition of the place of first language literacy in bilingual children rather than from sign language research. Sign drawings were used as illustrations by some sign language researchers and sign writing had become popular in the States but neither of these developments had been applied to education.

I was fortunate to have access to the Deaf Studies Centres at the Universities of Bristol, Moray House and subsequently, Durham, and there was a series of conferences in the early 1980s at which their and others’ research from Scandinavia, Holland and the States was shared. Over the years sign language researchers became more interested in the work being done with deaf children in schools, but I experienced some frustration at the gap between what many researchers wanted to do and what we felt was needed. Some researchers also gave the impression that what one was doing in the classroom was not research and that teachers were not proper researchers! A number of people from sign language research centres visited Nottingham and even more often, Leeds. There was a distinct difference between the rather superior attitude of American researchers (who were used to dealing with adult ‘models’ of sign language in laboratories rather than the rather ‘messy’ and more idiosyncratic language of the children in the classroom!) and those from Holland. One in particular stood out, as she chose to study how Deaf Instructors undertook reading activities with the children. Her work and that of others including Ruth Swanwick whose interest in ‘dynamic multimodal and multilingual repertoires’ is referred to elsewhere on this website (account 10), was fed back directly into the classroom as well as into teacher training programmes. This was in many ways the ideal situation as it encouraged staff to look closely at what the children were doing, analyse their own practice and develop more effective ways of working. It also provided some much-needed justification for the sign bilingual programme. In the 1990s, the proximity of Leeds University and the links the service had with the staff and students there, in some ways replicated the relationship I had had in the early 1980s with Nottingham University and Sue Gregory, albeit on a larger scale. Looking back, it feels as if the ‘80s and ‘90s were very important decades for sign language research and sign bilingual practice to progress hand-in-hand despite the obstacles.

Research into deaf education is interesting because it was notable by its paucity for many years; research which was reported was largely concerned with providing justification for specific approaches continuing the ongoing controversies about which was the most effective method of teaching deaf children. One example of change came about in the 1980s with the advent of the Deafness Research Group in Nottingham, led by David Wood, providing a rigorous research forum where practitioners were taken seriously, and where academics and teachers investigated the processes by which deaf children learnt in the classroom – and by which they were taught. Later Marschark, becoming editor of Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, again provided a forum where rigorous research into the practices of deaf education was encouraged and disseminated.

Educational research has typically involved the forms of research which may be classified as qualitative research, relying largely on skilled observations, questionnaires and interview techniques rather than on large scale quantitative research relying on large numbers for statistical analysis. This is particularly true for research in the field of deaf education, for two reasons:

      • Deafness is a low-incidence disability, and hence numbers are small for statistical evaluation
      • Deaf children as a group are heterogeneous – with many variables to account for including aetiology, age at diagnosis, fitting of hearing aids, cognitive ability, presence and influence of other disabilities, socio-economic status, parental input, early intervention, communication mode used and educational management. Following the advent of cochlear implantation, we now have to add type of implant, age at implantation, pre-implant hearing levels. Processing strategy, effectiveness of programming, functioning of internal and external devices to this list of variables.

Deaf children and young people thus represent a challenging population for researchers; defining homogenous groups to use traditionally rigorous methodologies may be attractive but does not represent the population educators work with, or produce research likely to change educational practice, continuing the divide between practitioners and researchers. (Leigh, 2008). Additionally, research is likely to be published in journals which are not read by educators and therefore less likely to influence practice. Research into cochlear implantation is published a particularly wide range of journals, reflecting the range of disciplines involved, and making accessibility even more difficult for practitioners.

Clearly all research needs to be rigorous, and in the case of research into deaf education a combination of quantitative and qualitative research provides methods which collects data for statistical analysis, but also provides data which, when analysed using qualitative methods more usually found in the social research literature, can explore the realities of the experiences of families and children and categorise them, enabling further analysis. Reliance on one method of research will either miss the potential to capture the realities of the experience, to capture something un-thought of by the researcher, or will provide only descriptive research without any attempt at numerical analysis on which basis to inform decisions and plan services.

However, there has often been a lack of the multi-professional approach to research which is essential in investigating how deaf children learn and which has become so important with the advent of paediatric implantation (Hauser & Marschark, 2008; Pisoni et al, 2008). It appears that often the work carried out in the related fields of psychology, of cognitive neuroscience and of linguistics for example, has not been linked to our investigations of deaf learning and deaf education, with researchers working in isolation. The work in centres such as that of Pisoni in Indianapolis, of Marschark in Rochester, and of Woll and colleagues in DCAL, London, show real progress in the field of multi-professional research, some of it inspired by the demands of research into the effectiveness of cochlear implantation.

The advent of paediatric cochlear implantation brought about interesting research challenges and opportunities, bringing together the strengths of both quantitative and qualitative research and the disciplines of medicine, audiology, psychology, sociology, speech and language and education with their differing priorities, methodologies and languages. To provide a paediatric implant service with inbuilt rigorous monitoring and data collection demanded sharing knowledge between these disciplines as never before, and was a challenge that was a priority when planning the Nottingham Cochlear Implant Programme.

Taken from Archbold, S. (2010) Deaf Education: Changed by Cochlear Implantation? Nijmegen, University Njimegen Medical Centre. 9928-31


Hauser PC, and Marshark M (2008) What we know and what we don’t know about cochlear implantation and deaf learners. In Marshark M. and Hauser PC (Eds) Deaf cognition: foundations and outcomes. Oxford University Press, New York.

Leigh G (2008) Changing Parameters in Deafness and Deaf Education. In Marschark M and Hauser(eds) Deaf cognition op cit

Pisoni DB, Conway CM, Kronemberger W, Horn D, Karpicke J and Henning S (2008) Efficacy and effectiveness of cochlear implants in deaf children. In Marshark M and Hauser PC (eds) Deaf Cognition. op cit