Deaf Studies


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There are many issues in ethics which apply specifically to research with Deaf people and to Deaf children.

This page is still under development and comments and additions are welcomed.


Perhaps the biggest issue in Deaf Studies is the use of sign language.  This cuts across almost every part of the research and is an aspect which usually ignored by hearing researchers.  Although it is a practical consideration in terms of the competence of the investigators in fluency in sign language, it is also an ethical issue from both the point of view of the research community and of the participant group.

Research carried out with Deaf people where the data collected is in language form ie interviews, focus groups, then the data should be collected by Deaf researchers or by hearing bilinguals – ie with demonstrably extensive fluency in sign language.  Where the researcher does not have this level of fluency, then ethical issues arise.

(a)    in terms of the integrity of the data
Where an interpreter is used or where the researcher has poor beginner or intermediate levels of sign language competence, then it is extremely unlikely that the data elicited will be of sufficient quality as to be representative of the points of view which are valid within the Deaf community.  The results are then likely to distort the position of Deaf people and are invalid from a research point of view.

(b)   in terms of the position of the Deaf participants
When faced with a hearing researcher or even a researcher who has a hearing loss the Deaf participant makes a judgement about cultural compatibility and language competence.  On the basis of this, the person will decide on the extent of disclosure he/she can enter into.  Where the research is of some importance – socially and emotionally, this may produce severe frustration.  In this case, the effect may be felt by the participant, and by other Deaf people (because of discussions between Deaf people) and will be felt by the next research project, where Deaf people may refuse to participate as the ‘research’ has been devalued.

Except in special circumstances of the research itself, research which involves interviewing Deaf people should be carried out by Deaf BSL users only.

Use of Interpreters

In certain circumstances, where contact with Deaf people is necessary and the research has limited signing skills, then interpreters may be called upon.  In circumstances where instructions are to be given on say, use of equipment, or completion of a test, this may be acceptable.

However, it should be noted that it is inadvisable to use interpreters in the case of Deaf school children. 

It is not acceptable to use an interpreter for some children and not for others – eg to make comparisons between Deaf children and hard-of-hearing children.


Research work in small communities always has issues of confidentiality.  Sometimes, the researcher is known to the participant.  Although the person may live in a small community and their contribution is not identifiable to the hearing majority, it may still be possible for another Deaf community person to determine who that person is, from a transcript or quote.  In these cases, it is essential that informed consent is obtained and that data is anonymised.  (It is very important that you read these papers).

All data is also covered by the data protection act and researchers should be aware of the rules (see the Information Commissioner’s web site) and also should complete the data protection self assessment form.

Use of Video

By its nature, sign language and Deaf community research has been stimulated by the easy availability of video recorders.

It is not ethically acceptable to make surreptitious recordings of Deaf people for language analysis.

This means that all research involving video recording needs to explain to the participant exactly what use is to be made of the video recordings and who will be able to view them and for how long.


It is quite well established that Deaf people are much less likely to know the results of research on their own community than are hearing people ie hearing workers with the Deaf community.  This is a simple result of dissemination through written means.  Research on the Deaf community and concerning sign language (linguistics, sociolinguistics) should offer a means of dissemination to Deaf people which is accessible.  Typically this means that research projects should return to provide live feedback sessions to the participants or the Deaf community as a whole and that all research should end with an accessible explanation on video, CD/DVD or on the Internet.  The easily usable tools make this a feasible requirement for all research projects.

Effects on Deaf Communities and Individuals

In carrying out research, it is often the case that new ideas are presented, new equipment is demonstrated and new options for services are explored.  It is very important that researchers take great care to avoid becoming advocates for change, activists in promoting change nor raising hopes and expectations unrealistically.

There are a number of methodologies which require the researcher to work very closely with the community and indeed to act as change agent.  It is important in these cases that the role of the researcher is set o9ut clearly.  It is also vital that the proposed "length of residence" or extent of personal commitment by the researcher is made explicit.

In the course of research, it is often the case that the researcher exposes injustice or personal problems.  It is important that the researcher avoids becoming an adviser or confidant of the participant(s) unless that role is clearly specified and is considered part of the research methodology.  In any case, requests for personal support which go beyond the initial expectations of the research aims, should be discussed with line manager, supervisor, principal investigator or other more senior researcher.

Minority Groups and Deaf People in Other Countries

Where a participant is a member of a minority group, it is vital that value judgements, critical comments or other prejudicial statements are made, either at the time of the data collection or in reporting on the data.

In the case of research work with Deaf people in other countries, especially Developing Countries, there are additional issues concerning the use of British Sign Language by the researchers.  In many cases, the researcher occupies a privileged position as a (rich, powerful) academic (teacher/researcher) with contacts with authority figures in that country.  As well as seeking patronage by the researcher, participants may seek to copy the language or to use the presence of the researcher as validation for their own activities.

In the case of language, it is important that the researcher is sensitive to the need to learn the native sign language and to avoid as far as possible, implanting signs from BSL, whenever a native sign does not seem to be available.

It is also the case that organisations and interactions take place in each country in ways which may not be apparent to the outsider.  The fact that a Western infrastructure may not exist, does not mean that people are not interacting effectively in their own terms.  It is impossible for the researcher to know these connections in the early stages of work.  It is therefore extremely important that the researcher is sensitive to their position of endorsing particular groups or methods or practices without understanding the whole range of activity in that country.

Suspending Confidentiality

In the case of crime, neglect or evidence of child abuse discovered in the course of research, it is vital that the researcher makes clear to the participant that this places in jeopardy the role of the researcher as originally agreed.  It should be stated that information disclosed from that point onwards in the data collection, may be subject to reporting to line manager, supervisor, principal investigator or other more senior researcher.  in turn, in serious cases, it may be a legal requirement that the researcher in conjunction with the senior staff, is required to report the matter to police or legal authorities.



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This site was last updated 06/14/05