Guest post: On being an outsider

Danielle Ferndale

auslan imageOutsider. This one word could be used to sum up my PhD experience. In my everyday world, I am hearing and I operate with relative ease within a society that assumes, and caters to, my hearingness. [ Through learning Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and my PhD research, I have been exposed to a complex world that is largely defined by deafness, wherepeople have a visual (rather than auditory) orientation to the world. However, this is an orientation that is rarely acknowledged (at least, not beyond viewing it as a disability) in Western society.

I have been navigating my role as an outsider for the past several years. Recently, I attended (and presented at) the World Federation of the Deaf Conference in Istanbul, Turkey. This was an exciting time for me because I was also preparing to submit my PhD thesis. It was this conference that was my first venture into the international (and academic) Deaf world. Let me put this conference in context for you. There were 1, 310 delegates from 97 different countries. And if that weren’t overwhelming enough, there were more than 45 sign languages at the conference. And, I think most importantly, the majority of presenters were deaf. This marked an opportunity for me to communicate to the deaf community about the deaf-centered research I had been conducting in Australia and my passion for deafness and sign language.

My experience at this conference was, by far, the most challenging experience of my short lived academic career, and my short time in the Deaf world (I started learning Auslan in 2011). Having limited skills in International Sign (IS) language and only knowing the alphabet of American Sign Language, made networking with international delegates an intimidating task. My conversations were mostly limited to whether I was hearing or deaf, my name and where I was from. Indicative of my status as an outsider, telling people I was hearing was frequently met with “are you an interpreter?” which was quickly followed by “oh, why are you here?”

Weaved throughout my whole experience at the conference were the subtle behaviours and implicit attitudes that suggested to me that hearing people (those who were not interpreters or family) were not particularly welcome. While I have always been an outsider as a hearing person, in Australia, I have mostly felt welcomed, or at least not unwelcome. It is rare that as a white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied woman I experience being an outsider because of my identity. So I found this experience really difficult, but an invaluable experience to go through. This experience has left me questioning, what is my role as an outsider, and do/should I even have a role? Do I accept being an outsider and if so, how? What does this look like in terms of how I should move forward with my research career? Alternatively, how do I demonstrate, without overstepping, that I am a hearing ally (i.e. I’m not someone who is looking to ‘fix’ deaf people)?

I know colleagues who also experience being an outsider within their field of interest and go through similar challenges. I don’t have answers, I only have questions, but this was certainly an interesting experience for me, one that has led me to question my (professional) role within the deaf community.

Danielle Ferndale is a PhD student in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses in the area of critical health psychology and her main interests are deafness and hearing loss, qualitative methods and privilege (and oppression).

@deafresearchau  Email:

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