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PhD thesis opens new doors for deaf scholars

Deaf graduate shares her research using innovative online tools.


Even though Ellen Hibbard’s thesis defence did not include much sound, her message is being heard. Dr. Hibbard, who recently graduated from Ryerson University’s communication and culture program, completed her PhD on the impact of online videos (or vlogs) on deaf culture, communication and identity. Her thesis could open doors for the use of technology for deaf academics and the deaf community.

What’s more, Dr. Hibbard’s thesis defence in October was the first at Ryerson to use a certain type of mixed media. She used a format that combined content presented in online videos in her native language of American Sign Language (ASL), interspersed with written English sections. The dissertation has been made available on TerpTube, an emerging social media platform designed to meet the needs of deaf people. Dr. Hibbard recently shared her story with University Affairs via Skype video chat.


University Affairs: How did you decide on this format for your thesis?

Dr. Hibbard: I was born deaf and have been deaf my whole life. ASL is my first language and I have never heard how people use English so I don’t have a map of the English language in my head to decode or use English correctly. I do struggle with English and I will for the rest of my life. I need to use an English coach to stay on top of that. I found that when I use ASL more and have an ASL coach, my English improves dramatically.

UA: Did you want to address that communication challenge in your thesis?

Dr. Hibbard: I wanted to look at the current existing technology that deaf people use to share ASL online in the form of vlogs. I wanted to see what was happening there for them as well – what they thought about it, and how it fits their culture because deaf culture is essentially oral and face-to-face culture with all of the information being shared in person, in real time, through sign language. Deaf culture does not have print culture the way hearing people do.

UA: What makes your dissertation different from those of other deaf academics?

Dr. Hibbard: As far as I know, I am the first in the world to use current technologies to create a digital document of my dissertation to be hosted using video annotation software that is equipped with deaf culture navigation features. My dissertation is in two mediums: one in video to show ASL and the other in PDF to show English text; so it is really a mixed media document. Plus, all of it is hosted online with tools that allow for video or text annotation to allow for feedback or comments at a specific time point in the video.

In other words, I started from traditional print-centric technologies and I closed with new current modern video technologies to show academic thought and considerations for the future. This model is a bridge between the traditional approach and new approaches for deaf academics.

UA: Why did you choose to incorporate text rather than create the entire project in ASL?

Dr. Hibbard: I had wanted to do it all in ASL, but since this is new and ground-breaking, there were concerns about video not being able to be archived with other dissertation work. The standards for dealing with projects such as mine have not yet been developed.

UA: What was the most challenging part of the research process?

Dr. Hibbard: It took a long time to do this. I now cringe to look at my early efforts and I am amazed how much I’ve grown academically with the use of a video medium.

I started in the winter of 2008 with an experiment by videotaping myself. I then started intensively in 2011-2012 with video work and the help of an ASL coach. It took me three years to develop just one ASL chapter since the structure of how we present information is different in ASL than in English.

With my research, I was also creating an ASL academic model for discourse about deaf culture and communication at the same time because we don’t have ASL academic models for the concepts I talked about. For example, I discussed asynchronous communication. We don’t have the ASL jargon for it because we don’t have deaf people researching this. I’m the first.

UA: What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

Dr. Hibbard: This research already has affected deaf academics and hearing people in this area. I have been contacted by several deaf PhD and master’s students who want to do their dissertation using a video medium. For deaf academics generally, the fact that I could use a video medium for my PhD dissertation – three chapters and some appendices – shows that deaf academics can use this to document and transmit their work through a video medium in ASL. Also, by using ASL video to show my own academic thinking, I created access and transparency for deaf people to be able to actually see the research I did on them, in their own language.

UA: Are you planning on helping these students who contacted you?

Dr. Hibbard: Yes I do. There are two students in the starting to middle points of their research and I’m encouraging them to do it all in video. However, if they encounter challenges, I am advising them to do at least one chapter or section in English, such as a list of bibliography. But I do hope they do it more in sign than I did.

UA: What are your hopes for the future for deaf academics?

Dr. Hibbard: I want other deaf people to follow in my path and go even further than I did. I would like to see more mainstream journals contain video abstracts in sign language and to accept video publications alongside text publications. We already have academic journals that publish both in English and French, so why not have mainstream journals that publish English and ASL? Modern technology allows us to share information digitally and we don’t need to be limited to the medium of text anymore, we can use the medium of video for academic purposes. I do this because I want other deaf people to follow in my path and go even further that I did.

UA:  How did it feel to graduate?

Dr. Hibbard: My convocation was excellent. I was so worried about having to look at the interpreter to get what they said to me. I was moved when the faculty on the stage signed congrats to me on stage. The program director signed my name sign on stage too. I felt so included. I had tears pouring down my face when I went to pick up my diploma. I never felt included in my previous convocation/graduation. I was always on the side or having to fake my way by nodding every time I saw someone moving their lips at me. I didn’t understand them. I never knew what they were saying to me until my PhD graduation.


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