Deaf Role Model of The Month: Robert Adam

Published: Oct 29th, 2020

deaf role model of the month: Robert Adams

Each month we invite an inspirational or outstanding deaf role model to share their story.  From what they’ve learnt, to what they wish they’d have known and their best deaf tips. 

This month: meet linguistics specialist Robert Adam, a university professor and Expert Committee member for the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). After facing barriers in education, Robert successfully achieved three degrees, and now conducts fascinating research to better understand and assist deaf individuals.

Scroll down for the transcript of this BSL interview.

Abdi (right): Hey Robert! How are you? Thank you for taking part in our Role Model of the Month feature. We’re excited to hear your story.

Robert (left): My pleasure. I’m very well thank you. 

1. The first question is – could you tell us about your family, your background, and your achievements? 

Well, I’m currently working at Heriot Watts University as an assistant professor, like a university lecturer. I started back in April, but due to Coronavirus, I’m yet to work on campus, and we’re doing everything remotely. Previously, I worked for 12 years at DCAL in London at UCL.

I was a research assistant, lecturer as well as research, I organised short courses and summer schools. I also did my PhD at UCL; my research was on deaf people who know more than one sign language. We know bilingualism exists in spoken languages, but I wanted to know about bilingualism in sign languages. The findings were that bilingual deaf people are very similar, although there are some differences to hearing people who are about bilingual in spoken languages. It’s interesting research.

Before that I worked at City Lit, I was a coordinator and teacher of level three and level four BSL courses. That was in Britain. Before that I lived in Australia, and I’m from Australia originally. I was born in Melbourne and my family is still there. I went to school there, and when I finished school, I went to university there. At the same time I discovered there was research on the sign language dictionary, and I was interested in that, so I studied linguistics. Before that I didn’t really know what I wanted to study at university. At that time, I didn’t know any other deaf people at university. There were no deaf role models. I’m quite old, you see! 

After I studied, I was asked to work as a research assistant at the university. I taught sign language and also worked at a deaf organisation for a number of years. It’s interesting how things have changed now. There are more young deaf people going to university.

2. What about your family – are you from a deaf or hearing family?

My parents are both deaf, and I have a younger sister who is deaf too. My father worked as a carpenter, a shop fitter, and my mom was a typist. It’s interesting; my mom had a hearing brother and hearing sister that both went to university, whereas my mum didn’t. She was adamant that my sister and I had a good education. My sister works at IBM, and has done that for 20 years, she also works in the Australian Civil Service.

3. Let’s talk about your deaf story. How did your family react when you were diagnosed as deaf?

Good question. My parents reacted very differently. My father was absolutely fine, he wasn’t bothered that we were deaf. My mom, however, was more concerned about our education, and our ability to read and write. She encouraged us throughout our schooling, and really encouraged us to read and write. They responded quite differently. I think my mom was disappointed that she had deaf children, whereas my father was absolutely fine. It’s interesting to see there different reactions. 

4. Wow that’s great. When did you learn AUSLAN, the sign language of Australia? And what about BSL? How did you learn it and are you fluent?

Just before I talk about that, my parents didn’t realise I was deaf until I was one and a half. So it was quite late actually. They were shocked when they found out. We communicated with sign language in the family home. They were really surprised when they were told I was deaf and had to organise my education. At school, I had to wear hearing aids. Well, it was radio at that time; a body worn radio aid. 

We used AUSLAN, it’s very similar to British Sign Language. In fact, it’s a dialect of BSL, and there are dialects of BSL in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. When I came to London… well, you know the Margate School for the Deaf, there was a teacher there who went to Australia and set up the first deaf school in Melbourne. This meant there was a lot of Margate signs and London signs of the south part of England which were used, and there was no sign for interpreter back then. But we have this sign in BSL for interpreter and this sign in AUSLAN for interpreter.

When I came to London, I had to learn those differences. But I’ve adapted and fortunately, I mixed with a lot of deaf people, and picked it up fairly easily. I remember when I first met you, I was only here for maybe one or two years and I was still learning BSL back then.

5. What about your education journey – What was your experience at school and university? What barriers did you face?

I went to a deaf school initially – we didn’t use sign language; it was an oral school. Back in the 70s and the 80s, oralism was very strong back then. Then I went to a mainstream school for my secondary school. In the last two years, I was given a notetaker, which was helpful. It allowed me better access to education.

When I went to university, they organised interpreters and notetakers. But I didn’t have the same experience as hearing people at university, there were no deaf role models back then, which I mentioned. If I had a problem or issue, I kind of had to navigate things myself. And the interpreters weren’t regular interpreters, they changed often, which was another problem.

I also remember at university, it wasn’t just going to classes and lectures, there was a social side:  learning from other students; discussions; debates. As a deaf person, I didn’t have access to that, I was the only deaf person there. Groups, societies and clubs, again I wasn’t able to participate in those, or political debates. So I just went to class and did my studies, but I missed out on all the other things. I felt like a student visiting the university, and then I would come back and get on with my life. So I had a very different experience to other people. I think it’s the same for other deaf students missing out on all those other things.

I agree – I remember when I was at university, the clubs and societies weren’t accessible to me.

Exactly. It meant the support systems and networks weren’t there for me. I didn’t know how to ask or I couldn’t ask other people. I think that was the case back then, and I think it’s still the case now for many deaf students. It can be a lonely experience at university.

I did a BA in linguistics, then an MA in linguistics, and then I came to London and studied for my PhD at UCL. It was because of Bencie Wall that I did my PhD. When I met her, she said to me, “When are you going to do your PhD?” I never thought I would do a PhD to be honest. So that was interesting, she was the first person that said, “Come on, Robert, you can do it.” And then I started and went and got my PhD. 

6. So if you hadn’t met Bencie your path could have been very different?

Yes, my path may have been different. Who else would have had that background experience and knowledge of sign language that really supported me as a deaf person.

7. What barriers have you met in life and more importantly, how have you overcome them?

Well, that’s a big question. Barriers? I think at the moment with Coronavirus is causing problems. Before, when I’d go to work and meetings, we wouldn’t have to use computer platforms. You could attend meetings, go to university, teach, lecture. But now everything has moved online. We have to use Microsoft Teams or Zoom. What do you prefer – Zoom or Teams?   

I prefer Zoom. Teams is really unstable!

I think there’s always problems with quality, and the signal. If interpreters don’t have a good connection, again, I don’t have access.  

Work is ok, but when I have to attend meetings with external people not from the university, they say we have to use Teams because of security, or they say they can’t use Zoom because of a contract or concerns over security. I say what’s more important? deaf access, or security? I want to attend meetings. They say “I’m sorry, we can’t use Zoom”, and I say, “Well, I can’t access the meeting then.” I raised the Equality Act as an issue. You know, if I try to pin the interpreter on Teams, and they disappear, and there’s so many different perspectives when you’re looking at it online. I think accessing meetings is difficult.

I wanted to attend a government debate and they said it’s on Teams, I said, “Well, what about the Equality Act? What’s more important? You know, a contract, or security, or deaf people’s access?” It’s a big struggle at the moment. And I think a lot of people are struggling throughout Europe, in the UK and around the world. And the problem goes across various computer platforms.

8. Your expertise are in linguistics – what initially attracted you? Tell us a little bit more about why you chose that field of study?

People ask what you want to do when you leave school ?I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Because of the sign language dictionary project back then, I decided to study linguistics. I was interested in that project and the research. If it wasn’t for that, I probably would have studied something else. I thought about psychology, or studying to become a teacher. But because of the project, I was inspired, and decided to study linguistics, so that’s the path I took. 

9. Would you say that linguistics and deaf culture are related?

Well there’s been a lot of research into sign languages and regional variation, but there’s not much research into culture. And there’s not enough research into deaf people themselves: deaf identity. We have deaf studies and deaf culture, but within that they don’t really talk about race. They don’t talk about black people. We’re doing some research at Heriot Watt into deaf identity, into intersectionality. And UCL are also researching into deaf identity.  

There’s a lack of discussion around deaf identity in the deaf community, gender, so on. As I said, there’s been a lot of research into the linguistics of sign language. But what about deaf identity? This raises the question about diversity amongst researchers. Now that’s interesting!

10. That’s a good question! Our next question is – do you think the deaf community should learn more about linguistics, deaf history and deaf culture? And if so, why?

I think because deaf people are a minority, knowledge is power. Knowledge of sign language, deaf culture and deaf history, form a deaf person’s identity. And oppression, whether that’s from our history, or through oral education as opposed to sign languages, may be oppression from one deaf person to another, due to different heritages. It could be through deaf education, oralism. It’s all encompassing. If a deaf person knows the reason why they’re oppressed, if they know their language, culture and history, then they can deal with that oppression and realise it belongs to the oppressor.

11. I completely agree. Thinking about your experience of working and education in Australia, the UK and America. What are the similarities and differences?  

In America, Australia and the UK, there are equality laws in place. There’s the Disability Discrimination Act and their equivalent laws in those countries, so it means that we have fair access. 

That access differs between different countries. In America, for example, there’s greater access to telephone interpreting, remote interpreting. That’s less in the UK, more so in Australia. And in America, there’s deaf universities: Gallaudet University, and NTID. In the UK, there’s access to universities with interpreters. I also think in the UK, there’s more access to colleges, and there are more deaf colleges like City Lit, Doncaster or Derby College. In Australia, we don’t have that, so there are differences.

12. How do you think the UK could catch up with America and what they provide? What could we do to improve?

It depends if there’s money to set up a deaf university, that’s going to be very expensive. I think there needs to be a centralised information point, that deaf people can contact to understand where and how they can access university, where they can get interpreters or notetakers and what support is available – that information is lacking.

Also, maybe a foundation skills course for deaf people. There’s nothing like that. If people want to go to university but they’re not quite ready and they want to brush up on their English and Maths or other skills. I think that’s lacking. Some kind of centralised support centre for deaf people, so they can then move on to university. You never know! 

13. Tell us about your work with the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD)? 

I’m in the Expert Committee within WFD. So WFD brings in a number of deaf people from around the world – men and women – and we form part of a Committee. If the board of WFD want to consult or need to lobby, or need specific information which they don’t know the answer to, they ask us – the expert committee – and we can quickly find that information, formulate it and pass it over. That could be a referral, or we’re kind of a clearing house for information for the WFD board. They can’t and don’t know everything, and they need to ask other people to assist them with that. We pass on information, write papers, position statements and so on. 

14. What do you wish you’d have known before you went to university or started work? 

Two things: I wish I understood what university actually meant and not just attending a course. For my own personal development, I wish I had had the opportunity to talk to others whilst I was at university. And, I would say pick what you want to study, what you are interested in, not what other people think you should do. Think about what’s important for you, something you’re passionate about. 

15. You identify as deaf and are heavily involved in the deaf community – what makes you proud to be deaf?

Without a doubt I’m proud to be deaf. I think deafness is the most important part of my identity. When I wake up in the morning, I wake up as a deaf person, I see the world as a deaf person, I interact as a deaf person. I’ve experienced oppression and barriers, but at the same time, I have an extremely rich life. I use sign language; I meet friends and I communicate with them in sign language. I met you for the first time 15 years ago and we’ve kept in touch. I have a very rich life.

16. Who would you say inspires you – from within the deaf community or just generally?

I would say, Abigail Gorman. She inspires me because she’s a young deaf woman. She has a similar background to me: she’s from a deaf family, she’s passionate about what’s right in life, what’s fair for people, she fights for that. I think Abigail shows that you must stand up for what you believe in. You must try and make life better for everybody. That’s why she inspires me.

17. A lot of people talk about being an ‘ally’ – is there a sign for ally? What sign do you use?

This sign “Ally”, I think.

18. What could hearing people do to be more of an an ally to the deaf community?

Well I think you can’t define it in black and white. For example, Bencie Wall told me “Come on, do your PhD”. She encouraged me it was possible. She taught me that I could do it, that it was possible for me. There are other people who know sign language and they do sign songs and they promote themselves on Facebook and social media – they’re false allies, I think. There are some great allies and there are others less so. I think what is important is that people support you, they keep in touch. They try to stop oppression for deaf people.

19. What are your 3 tips for deaf people in everyday life?

I think… listen to people. That’s important. Listen to stories, listen to what people tell you. You know, sometimes when you’re young, you don’t realise, but when you’re old and look back on what someone told you – that’s important.

Secondly, believe in yourself. Believe that you can do it, no matter what. No matter where you are in life. Believe that you can do it. Believe in yourself.

And thirdly, be passionate about something. Aim for that. Don’t give up. Don’t let people oppress you. Don’t let society say you can’t do something. Do it anyway. And I think my most important tip is: Keep going. Persevere until you achieve something.

That’s great. Thank you so much for being part of this interview. I am sure many young people will be inspired, hearing about your responses and your journey.

Looking for more support? We’ve made it our mission to improve the lives of deaf people everywhere. Check out Deaf Unity’s projects to find out what we can do for you. If you’d like to get in touch, contact us here.

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