Last weekend, Swarthmore College hosted a conference that brought together members of the international Deaf community to explore a wide range of topics related to sign language and Deaf culture. Linguistics professor Donna Jo Napoli organized the conference, entitled “Around the Deaf World in Two Days (It’s a Small World): Sign Languages, Social Issues/Civil Rights, Creativity,” and the William J. Cooper Foundation sponsored the event.
“This is the first conference of its type in the world,” said Napoli. Her interest in sign language was sparked fifteen years ago, when her student, Shannon Allen ’94, decided to write about American Sign Language in her senior thesis. Allen returned to Swarthmore this weekend to introduce one of the presenters at the conference. Doreen DeLuca, an ASL interpreter with whom Napoli has worked closely, was also involved in coordinating the weekend’s events.
The conference was open to all who wished to come; attendees of all ages traveled to Pennsylvania from other U.S. states and numerous other countries, including Brazil, Egypt, Mongolia, Nigeria, Russia, and Turkey. “There was way more turnout than anyone expected,” said Becky Wright ’11. Wright is a student in Napoli’s American Sign Language linguistics class. She and her classmates helped with preparations for the conference, and hosted student attendees in their dorms.
The conference commenced on Friday evening with a welcome by Swarthmore College Vice President Maurice Eldridge ’61 and a keynote address by Carol Padden of the University of California at San Diego. Saturday’s events included keynote addresses by Gaurav Mathur and Amy Wilson of Gallaudet University, and Kenyan Deaf activist Nickson Kakiri. The rest of the day’s events were divided into two panels: the first focused on the linguistics of sign language, while the second focused on Deaf civil rights and social issues.
Science Center 101, the designated conference room, was jam-packed from Friday to Saturday night. For a hearing person, to squeeze into the crowded lecture hall was to enter a place where hearing no longer mattered. The room was full of lively ASL chatter as people milled around, greeting friends, exchanging stories, and trying to find a place to sit or stand.
All in all, there were fourteen presenters. Many presented in ASL, while others presented in English; a team of interpreters provided translations for both. The lecture topics were fascinating and diverse, ranging from signing with an accent (Deborah Chen Pichler, Gallaudet University) to raising awareness about HIV and AIDS in deaf communities (Deborah Karp, Director of Deaf AIDS Project in Landover, MD and Leila Monaghan, University of Wyoming).
Saturday evening was devoted to creativity in sign language. Rachel Sutton-Spence of the University of Bristol, U.K., opened with a discussion of sign language poetry from a linguistic and cultural perspective. She described characteristic poetic devices, including repetition, handshape, symmetry, use of space, and neologism, or the creation of new signs. Following Sutton-Spence’s presentation, Paul Scott, a poet and Deaf activist from the United Kingdom, performed British Sign Language poetry for the audience. Few of the attendees were fluent in BSL, but Scott’s poetry needed no translation to make an artistic– and social — statement. One of his poems, “Tree,” chronicled the life of a tree as it grew and was eventually cut down, only to sprout again. The poem can be understood as an eloquent metaphor for the resilience of Deaf culture in the face of indifference and oppression. Later, Scott explained through an interpreter that he had begun by writing poetry at the age of fifteen: “I was really inspired by [sign language poet] Dorothy Miles.” Scott’s performance provided an entertaining and thought-provoking finale to the conference.
Afterward, Napoli wrote in an email, “Swarthmore College is a rich place — and one of the richest things about Swarthmore is that it spends its money on good things. Through the funding of the William J. Cooper Foundation, a very good thing happened at the college this weekend. And the effects of it will be felt around the world, as disability offices everywhere decide what their policy toward the deaf will be.” On a more personal level, one exchange in particular stood out to her: “As one of the presenters signed to me: he expected to come to be the weird guy, the deaf signer, at a place where a bunch of hearing people gaped at him, and instead he got to present to a room full of deaf people and others who signed — and that meant the world to him. It was the first time that had happened to him at a conference.”