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Ripple Effects 3.6: In Context: a Deafness Studies Fulbright Experience to Italy

Joseph standing with 4 others in front of Roman statues.
Joseph standing with 4 others in front of Roman statues.

Communication is contextual. Find out what that meant for Joseph Hill, a deaf African-American researcher focusing on the way that culture influences languages

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Special Note: This episode was recorded with an ASL interpreter.

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Justin Harford: Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities abroad, brought to you by the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, a project sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by Mobility International USA.

We know that international exchange  contributes to personal  and professional development. It can enhance one’s confidence and skill sets, broaden one’s perspective and shape one’s  educational path. It can also influence job choices and employment opportunities. Let‚Äôs find out how. For this season of Ripple Effects, we will hear stories from international exchange alumni with disabilities and how their programs relate to their careers. This is part of a new initiative from the clearinghouse called, #LifeAfterExchange.

I’m Justin Harford, a Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA and your host for Ripple Effects.

Joseph Hill is a faculty member in the American Sign Language and Interpreting Education department of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). In 2008, he conducted doctoral research in Italy on a a Fulbright grant sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Since then, his times in Italy have not only informed his research direction but also the way that he relates to colleagues and students alike.

Justin: I wonder if you could tell us just about your Fulbright, and what it was… What you were setting out to research and how long it lasted… What it was like, give us a rundown of that experience.

Joseph Hill: Sure I would be happy to do that. My Fulbright studies related to language attitudes in Italy. Within deaf education, which means I was investigating the administrators, parents and teachers, and their point of view in the use of sign language with deaf children. Some people are supportive of the use of sign language while others aren’t and so I was investigating that in my study.

Justin: This is at the Siena School for Liberal Arts is that right?

Joseph: Yes it was. The Siena School for Liberal Arts … That was the host institution. For my Fulbright… I was given space there to do my work, and for my study I went to different schools in the country of Italy. I went to schools in the North, in Padova, and I remember Padova the most. I also went to Cossato, and went to Rome, and then I went to Barletta. So I went to those four cities… Six different schools. And I included children from first grade through high school in my study.

Justin: You have kind of over the years a major reputation as a researcher into questions of deaf languages or languages in deaf culture, and I wanted to know where does that research interests come from?

Joseph: Well, I started years ago when I was an undergraduate student… I was studying computers at that time, but I was interested in deaf culture and ASL because I was just wondering about ASL, and what it meant. And that lead me to graduate school, and when I was signing I noticed people would judge the way I produced some of my signs, and that started to lead me to my dissertation work, looking at attitudes within the American deaf community. And that was at Gallaudet in their linguistics program. So it just so happens that at that time there was another part of the country… Part of the world, and I was able then to go to Italy and apply the same curiosity in the context, in the Italian context, and so it was because of a connection through my advisor that lead me to the Fulbright and allowed me to continue my research in Italy.

Justin: Wow. And I wonder… Can you tell us a little bit I wonder if you could tell us about your personal experience with sign languages, and if there is any sort of connection between that and your research interests?

Joseph: Sure. You want me to talk about my reasons for doing my research on language attitudes or my Fulbright focus? Which would you like me to answer?

Justin: we’re curious about your personal experience as somebody who uses sign language every day to communicate‚Ķ If there is any sort of connection between the work that you did on your Fulbright and that personal experience as‚Ķ As a signer growing up in the US and getting connected to US deaf culture.

Joseph: Sure. Thank you. Many people are not aware of this but I was born to a family‚Ķ I’ve got deaf siblings‚Ķ I am the youngest of four, we are all deaf. My parents‚Ķ My mom is hard of hearing and my father is hearing, and neither use sign language. And so they did not teach us to sign. And so we grew up speaking, and using the oral method to communicate. I went to a mainstream program, where everyone in the school spoke. And so I really wasn’t connected with sign language until about the age of 10, through an interpreter. And I was learning sign language from the age of 10 and on. Now I grew up in Ohio. And other states‚Ķ And well the states around the US‚Ķ It’s not all the same sign language. It is ASL, but there are cultural variations, and also there are some systems in the school system that is called signing exact English, and that can cause confusion and so I was a little confused at that time. I didn’t know a lot about the language. I would see these variations, and they would mention ASL as being different. And I wondered what that meant. And so that’s why I became curious, and wanted to investigate ASL versus signing exact English. It wasn’t more about style and I was wondering what the difference was, and some exact English is really not a language‚Ķ It’s a way to sign in the English syntactic word order, and when I learned about that, that increased my curiosity and lead me to graduate school, because I wanted to learn more about ASL as a language. I wanted to learn about its linguistic structure. I wanted to learn about how it was different than other languages.

Justin: Fascinating. And I know whenever… It seems like whenever we go abroad as people from different identity backgrounds we experience identities in different ways. When I was abroad in Latin America as a blind person I would have described that experience as learning how to pick my fights, because working in a different cultural context people react in a different way. I know that you kind of had a different experience, or a different perspective on that as someone who is deaf and also an African-American. I wonder if you could tell us what that was like for you in terms of how people in Italy reacted to you… How you responded ultimately to those reactions?

Joseph: Sure. Absolutely. I would be happy to talk about that. In the US, there is legislation‚Ķ The Americans With Disabilities Act, which provides access for people with disabilities including deaf individuals, so I’m very fortunate that I easily can get an interpreter when I was in the education system. There are VRS services provided. And so with the Fulbright opportunity, which allowed me to study in another country, honestly I was a little bit concerned about the communication access that I would have there. I wasn’t sure about if they had legislation, and I asked people who had visited Italy themselves on their own, and they said that they used a lot of gesture, and writing back and forth, but they would be considered fortunate if they were to have an interpreter, so, with the site then, that the government provides citizens a stipend that they can use to purchase services like interpreting services‚Ķ

Justin: Citizens with disabilities…

Joseph: Right. But since I’m not a citizen I wouldn’t fall into that category. And as a black person from the United States, I was also concerned‚Ķ I mean I had traveled to other countries prior to my visit to Italy, but I would be there for maybe a week or two, and I would be with friends, and the Fulbright opportunity was going to be a 6 to 8 month experience, and so I was concerned about that aspect as well. And when I arrived in Italy, the first‚Ķ When I was there at the beginning‚Ķ The Fulbright commission set up an orientation session for all the Fulbright scholars. And they talked about what we would‚Ķ You know‚Ķ Be facing with the Fulbright‚Ķ The expectations. And I asked for an interpreter. It was not a professional interpreter. But it was somebody who could speak the languages, and sign in ASL. And that worked for me for the orientation. But for the rest of my experience there, I was truly on my own, which meant that when I went to interview the subjects in my study, I wasn’t able to use ASL. I needed to use Italian sign language, and I really only had two months to learn Italian sign language. And I didn’t take any formal classes to learn the language. There weren’t any classes that I could take period.

Justin: You were just going on your own teaching yourself?

Joseph:‚Ķ Exactly. The Internet was very helpful. There were some dictionaries I was able to find, and I found a few movies‚Ķ Kind of soap opera type stories that had deaf characters interacting. And so I watched these romantic shows to try to pick up some sign language that way. And make friends as well. But I was able to basically communicate. And so you can imagine the challenge of communicating, plus learning the Italian language as well. So that makes the challenge even a little harder. And speaking more to my experiences as a black individual in Italy, or a black American visiting Italy, most of the time in general I had very positive experiences with people. People were more curious about me as a black American who was studying for their doctorate degree for them‚Ķ It was a very rare experience for them to meet someone like myself. But I did have a few negative experiences. For example the week that I had arrived, and it was the orientation week for the Fulbright scholars, there were some strangers on the street. I didn’t know who they were. I hadn’t met them before. And they were gesturing to me pounding their chests as‚Ķ As if they were talking about me being an ape or a monkey, and that is‚Ķ Clearly based on my skin color‚Ķ But they don’t know who I am and they don’t know where I’m from and so those things happened rarely, but most of the time people would ask me questions about my background, when they see me as a black person‚Ķ They assumed I was from Africa, and not from America. I get that question most of the time. Most of the time people are very curious. And when I would interact with people, I needed to change my point of view, because they weren’t being rude, they just weren’t familiar with who I was. And they didn’t know how to interact with me. And they didn’t know what to do with me. They hadn’t seen someone of my stature before. So that’s where their curiosity came from, and I needed to change my point of view when interacting with them. And it worked out most of the time. People were very friendly towards me.

Justin: It’s almost kind of like‚Ķ We were interviewing Kenny Fries, who is going to be in another episode, and he talked about how he found that there was in disability‚Ķ And also with his experience as someone who’s both gay and Jewish that he found that first from his experience in Japan, and then going on to Germany, each of those places and in the US‚Ķ Each of those different areas had a completely different cultural context that kind of affected the way that people understood these different diverse identities. And I kind of actually‚Ķ I guess hesitated to describe you as African-American in the context of Italy, because it almost is‚Ķ People relate to you differently‚Ķ And it sounds like I notice you use different language to describe yourself as someone in the Italian context, and I’m kind of curious‚Ķ It sounds a little bit like this is kind of similar to that where you go to a different country as a black person or as a deaf person, and the way people relate to your blackness or your deafness is completely different, because of that completely different cultural historical backdrop.

Joseph: I definitely agree with what you just said. It seems that… Yes I was there as a black American… Well I was a black foreigner from America… But how they related to me was different then how they would relate to people from Africa, so I guess I was an oddity in how I responded. And when they knew about America they would treat me different than a person who was from a country in Africa. So it was interesting… Very interesting.

Justin: And I wonder if you tell us a little about what‚Ķ Now I know you are‚Ķ You research, you teach, you’ve worked at a couple different universities as faculty and I wonder if you could tell us if‚Ķ Some comment about how‚Ķ How your experience in Italy‚Ķ Whether experiencing weather noticing how people react to different identities based on their own cultural and social history, or anything else‚Ķ How that experience has impacted the way you teach and research now in your career as a university faculty?

Joseph: Yes I’m trying to think of how to answer this.

Joseph: After my experience in Italy, I spent a lot of time thinking about my own identities and perceptions, and then thinking about how I can give back to America. I’m thinking about those perspectives‚Ķ Feeling more understanding about how people see things and understanding that I can’t make those assumptions, because I don’t know the point of view from which they come. So I include that in my teaching with students, because students are young and I feel that it’s important for them because many of the students that I teach are not deaf. They are hearing. They are often working with people who are different from them. And so I am encouraging them to see perspectives that are different than their own. Because most of the time they see their own perspective, and it’s enlightening when you can put on someone else’s perspectives‚Ķ So it’s not that they’re wrong‚Ķ I can understand where they’re coming from. So I try to include that in my teaching. Also, I do encourage them to study in other countries if they can or go to other countries rather than staying in their local environment. It’s good to get out, and you know face reality‚Ķ Whatever that reality may be. It’s very powerful to learn from those tough experiences. Sometimes it can be very transformational, and so I encourage that as well with my students. Also, as far as research goes, my research direction has changed. Before I was focused more on language attitudes, and now I have shifted more into social aspects of culture, and how they influence language differently‚Ķ How people interact with each other, and so that has been a shift in my research. I think if it were not for my experience in Italy I probably would have continued in the vein I was going on with language attitudes, but this shift has been included into my research.

Justin: Wow‚Ķ Excellent excellent so you‚Ķ Probably for future projects that’s kind of more of the direction that you are going to be heading in?

Joseph: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. For example, I have been involved in a project called Black ASL, in which we were looking at sign language in southern states, because in America schools for the deaf were segregated, so black deaf students and white deaf students did not have contact with one another, so their communication exchanges with one another was diverse. It did not happen, so the languages evolved in a diverse way, and so we look at part of what made that happen, and so trying to look at what is present in the black deaf community, and so I’m researching the life experience of black deaf families, so that I can share that, and have that content be involved in deaf studies courses, and deaf education to get a larger point of view on the deaf experience, to see a different perspective rather than seeing the same perspective we’ve always learned about with deaf individuals.

Justin: Right… Rather than seeing deaf people as being exclusively affected by their deafness… Recognizing that there is a lot of cultural diversity in the deaf community as well

Joseph: Exactly…

Justin: Thank you so much Joseph we really appreciate the time that we have had with you, and we look forward to keeping in touch.

Joseph:: Thank you… Thank you for having me.

Justin: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast please leave us a review on iTunes and consider sharing us with your networks. Also, let us know what you think on Twitter @MobilityINtL or Facebook mobility international USA using the hashtag #LifeAfterExchange.

And to learn more about #LifeAfterExchange go to

The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA.

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