Sunday, March 3, 2013

Understanding one another without a lingua franca: Deaf people’s apptitude for cross-cultural communication

Finding a Universal Language: A Building Block on the Road to Assistive Technology for the Deaf Community in Qatar

In February 2013, Mada asked our friend and colleague Ms Cathy McCormack to visit Doha so as to assist in our efforts to develop a comprehensive service plan to better serve the Assistive Technology Needs of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Communities in Qatar.  Following her visit, we asked her to contribute some short blog pieces outlining her experiences as a person visiting and engaging with the Deaf Community.  This blog, her first, recounts her experiences and provides an insight to her perspectives on what she found during her time here.
Cathy McCormack Meets Mr. Ali Sinari from Qatar Social Club for the Deaf
Cathy McCormack and Ali Sinari from QSCCD - February 2013

"Walking into the Qatar Social and Cultural Centre for the Deaf in Doha, I immediately felt my shoulders relax. Surrounded by hearing people and spoken English and Arabic for the previous two days, I was looking forward to spending a little time with my global Deaf peers (the capital letter ‘D’ denotes culturally Deaf, i.e. those deaf or hard-of-hearing people who share a cultural affinity, identity and language—sign language).

I have no Arabic Sign Language, so you might think I approached this evening with a degree of trepidation, but in fact the complete opposite was true—I knew that the absence of a lingua franca would prove to be no barrier to Deaf-to-Deaf communication.

As an Irish Deaf person who has studied at Gallaudet University, I have Irish Sign Language (my native sign language) and American Sign Language. Gallaudet University is a bilingual (American Sign Language and English) Higher Education Institute in the United States of America that delivers advanced education programs for deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing people through bilingual instructional methods. Through my involvement in Deaf sport (European Deaf Games, Deaflympics and World Deaf Golf Championships), I have also acquired International Sign (an international auxiliary language, which is not as conventionalized or complex as natural sign languages).

Bryan Boyle, Head of Resource Centre at Mada (Qatar’s Assistive Technology Centre), had engaged my services to assist him to make a connection with the Deaf community in Qatar and to begin to establish a working relationship with the community to identify their assistive technology priorities. The Deaf Community “comprises those deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who share a common language, common experiences and values and a common way of interacting with each other and with hearing people. The most basic factor determining who is a member of the deaf community seems to be what is called 'attitudinal deafness'. This occurs when a person identifies him/herself as a member of the deaf community and other members accept that person as part of the community” (Baker & Padden, 1978, p. 4).

According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are about seventy million deaf people worldwide who use sign language. Sign language has a phonology, morphology, syntax and grammar distinctive from spoken languages, but it is not an international language—each country has its own sign language (in fact, sometimes a country may have two or more sign languages). However, there are universal features in sign languages, for example an extensive formal system of classifiers (classifiers are used to describe things and they transfer well across linguistic barriers); this makes it possible for users of different sign languages to understand each other far quicker that users of different spoken languages can.

Bryan and I were ushered upstairs to meet with Ali Obaid Al-Sanari (Chairman of the Qatar Social and Cultural Centre for the Deaf). There was a sign language interpreter present to translate between Arabic Sign Language and spoken Arabic and English, but within approximately five minutes Ali (who has travelled extensively and has copious experience communicating with international Deaf peers) and I had dispensed with the need for the interpreter and were communicating through International Sign.

It is very difficult to describe the feeling when two Deaf minds meet through International Sign; it feels like every neuron and synapse in your brain is firing as you receive and express information through a visual-gestural-(tactual) (sign) medium. What I think would be impossible for two hearing people without a shared spoken language to achieve was achieved within half an hour of our conversation starting—Ali communicated clearly and succinctly the Qatari Deaf community’s assistive technology priorities:
  • ·         Video remote interpreting systems to enable and enhance face-to-face communication between Deaf sign language users and hearing non-sign language users.
  • ·         Telecommunication systems to enable and enhance communication between Deaf sign language users.
  • ·         Telecommunication systems to enable and enhance communication between Deaf sign language users and hearing non-sign language users.
  • ·         Alarm and alerting systems to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s awareness and recognition of the mosques’ call to prayer for Qatar prayer times throughout each day.
  • ·         Alarm and alerting systems to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s awareness and recognition of audible horns from motor vehicles.
  • ·         Alarm and alerting systems to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s awareness and recognition of auditory sounds in their homes, particularly the crying of a baby.

These assistive technology priorities will now form the basis of Mada’s work with the Deaf community over the coming year(s). It is heartening to see a model of work where a government agency operates on the disability studies’ principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ (Charlton, 1998). I think this attitude and approach bodes well for collaborative projects between these two agencies and I will look forward to seeing the implementation of assistive technology solutions to address all of the above Deaf community priorities.

Bryan and I were then brought downstairs to meet other members of the Deaf community and we were invited to 
  1. give a presentation  about Mada and the potential of Assistive Technology, 
  2. to discuss the assistive technology priorities that Ali had identified and
  3.  to facilitate a forum for questions and answers between the Deaf community members and the Mada representatives present.

I switched from International Sign to American Sign Language for this part of the evening, because not all of the Deaf community members present had experience communicating through International Sign. It was possible to communicate with them through American Sign Language because one of the community’s members, Maher Abu-Khader, has also studied at Gallaudet University. This means that he has American Sign Language in addition to his native sign language—Arabic Sign Language. So, I signed my presentation in American Sign Language and Maher translated it into Arabic Sign Language for the Deaf community members present and when they had a question or comment they signed it in Arabic Sign Language and Maher translated it to American Sign Language for me.

Not one word of Arabic or English was spoken.

It on night’s like this that I am so, so proud to be Deaf."

Cathy McCormack; March 3, 2013

Baker, C. & Padden, C. (1978). American Sign Language-A Look at Its History, Structure and Community. Tx, USA: T.J. Publishers, Inc.

Charlton, J. I. (1998). Nothing about us without us: Disability oppression and empowerment. Ca, USA: California University Press.

World Federation of the Deaf communiqué on Sign Language available at

Cathy McCormack
Expert Consultant to Mada (Qatar’s Assistive Technology Centre); 2013
Fulbright Scholar in Deaf Studies; 2005
M.Sc. in Administration from Gallaudet University, Washington D.C., United States of America; 2006
B.Sc. (Hons) in Occupational Therapy from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, Republic of Ireland; 1996
PG Cert in Assistive Technology Applications from University College Dublin, Republic of Ireland; 1999

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