Sagara Keiko: Working as a sign language researcher
Published: Jun 7th, 2013
I am a Japanese deaf woman and have been a sign language researcher at iSLanDS (International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies) since I moved to the UK three years ago. I am enjoying my new life here in the UK and have learned about a lot of fascinating things such as BSL, British culture, foods and fantastic people.
Previously, I had worked at a travel agency in Japan called JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) for ten years and most of my work involved supporting people with disabilities including Deaf/hard of hearing people, blind people and wheelchair users. It was such a busy job that I did not have much time for myself, but overall it was a fantastic experience for which I am very grateful.
I found my current job through the deaf academics network mailing list, and applied for it as I felt it would be a challenge. I was interested in learning International Sign (IS) and wanted to see if I could make more connections with international deaf people. A year after I started my research post, I also enrolled as a postgraduate student to get a degree in sign language linguistics.
Working with people
My life dramatically changed when I became deaf at the age of 19. I had wanted to become a kindergarten teacher when I was younger, and was interested in music and piano. I became deaf through contracting mumps; in just three days I went from hearing to completely deaf.
My teachers advised me to gain a skill using my hands, such as computer programming, but I was still eager to work with people rather than machines. I realized that working effectively with people requires good communication, so I decided to learn sign language. I chose to enrol at the Tsukuba College of Technology, as it was known then, which was the only further or higher educational institution that catered for deaf students.
I was not especially enthusiastic about technology, but I thought it would be a great way for me to learn sign language quickly, meet other deaf people, and develop a deaf identity. While at the college, I got the opportunity to take a study trip to the USA, and there I met foreign deaf people for the first time. I communicated through gesture initially, and then began to learn some American Sign Language (ASL). I also taught Japanese Sign Language to my new friends there. This sharing of sign languages led to fast learning, and a great deal of communication. I was amazed by the speed at which we became able to understand each other; with spoken languages, it usually takes much longer for people who do not know each other`s languages to share information and develop a friendship.
After graduation, I was still interested in a career in education, and continued my studies at a mainstream university. I gained a teaching license enabling me to teach kindergarteners, elementary school children, and pupils in special education, particularly deaf children. I also earned my MA in special education, which fulfilled my dream of achieving a degree. By the end of my studies at Tsukuba, I had developed a deaf identity and was drawn toward working with deaf people in the wider world.
Then the JTB travel agency in Tokyo hired me to coordinate travel for clients with disabilities. Many deaf people started to contact me to help them arrange travel, and I began to coordinate more and more study trips for them. This provided me with a wonderful opportunity to learn about other cultures and lifestyles. For example, I learned about the different approaches to time in various cultures; if I told clients to meet me at the bus at 10am, the Japanese people would be there at 9:45, and people from some of the European countries would be there at 10:20.
During these experiences, I learnt International Sign through meeting people from the WFD (World Federation of the Deaf) and some European Deaf associations and Deaf clubs. Becoming deaf and learning sign languages actually opened my heart more to the world, because signers can quickly develop the ability to share information with each other on a deep level across cultures, using a mixture of sign languages and gesture.
Working and researching at iSLanDS
I applied for the research position at iSLanDS because I wanted to increase my skill base, improve worldwide awareness about sign languages, and work with deaf people on an international scale. Linguistic research into sign languages is very new in Japan, and I was excited by the opportunity of working with longstanding experts in this field. The fact that there are still so many unexplored areas within sign language linguistics was also very appealing, as I am always keen to discover new things.
I initially came to iSLanDS only to work rather than study, as I had already spent 10 years completing my various qualifications in Japan. But after seeing the successes of my deaf colleagues in iSLanDS, many of whom combined work with postgraduate study, I decided on a topic to investigate for an MPhil degree.
My MPhil topic is in the same area as my research officer work, i.e. sign language typology. As a research officer, I am managing a project on colour, number and kinship signs in 30 sign languages. This involves a great deal of contact with people around the world who are researching, or are interested in, various sign languages. For my MPhil studies, I am analysing the use of number in Japanese Sign Language and I will compare it with that of other sign languages.
Studying at UCLan is fantastic challenge for me, because English is not my first language, but most academic books are written in English, and I must write English every day for both work and study. Fortunately, I have access to language support assistants at iSLanDS who help me understand difficult material and develop my English vocabulary and grammar.
All of the scholars and staff at the iSLanDS Institute are fluent in sign language, and most are deaf, which means I can easily exchange ideas and resolve research issues with my colleagues. There are also numerous opportunities to attend conferences, lectures, networking events, seminars, and the like.
Learning linguistics was very new for me; I had not studied it much before I came to the UK. It has been a demanding task for me to work and study in the limited time available for each. Typology research in particular can be quite difficult. Because we include developing countries in our research at iSLanDS as a matter of priority, processes are sometimes slower and changeable due to technology limitations and less stable infrastructures in some African and Asian countries.
However, iSLanDS has many devoted informants and associates in these countries who have persevered to remain involved in our research. At the present time, I have only one year left on my degree course and work contract, and I am focusing my energies on maintaining the delicate balance between work and study.
I have been very surprised to see how much variety there is in the UK in terms of people’s backgrounds and cultures. Japan is much more homogeneous. Meeting people from a wide range of backgrounds has led me to develop different communication approaches than the ones I used before. This has greatly increased my communicative capacity and confidence in working successfully with other people. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to come to the UK to study and work at iSLanDS, but it would be a shame if the positive outcomes of my experiences were limited to me personally.
I hope that by sharing my story here, it might have a wider and more lasting impact on other deaf people and their communities as well as sign language researchers. We live in a time of exciting opportunities for sign language users, who can now take part in a rich international network of deaf communities, gaining skills in key areas like leadership and research.
Sagara Keiko is a sign-language researcher at iSLanDS (International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies) and MPhil student of linguistics at the University of Central Lancaster (UCLan). She is passionate about communication and sign-languages and hopes that by sharing her experiences, her story inspires and has an impact on other deaf people.
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