Featured Student Research: Signs of Language and Culture: Deaf Studies in Siena

Michelle Iafe is from the class of 2014. She won consecutive Honors Summer Fellowships in 2012 and 2013.

The local roots of community extend global branches around the world. Through funding provided by the Honors Summer Fellowship, I had the opportunity to discover these branches and grow new ones within the Deaf community in Siena. My interest in the language and culture of the Deaf community called me to international study at the Siena School for Liberal Arts.

Through the Summer Deaf Studies Program, I became immersed in the language and culture of the Deaf community both on local and global scales. I took courses in Italian Sign Language (LIS), Italian Deaf Culture and History, and spoken Italian language to both communicate with and gain perspective on the past and hoped future of this community. The struggles faced by the Deaf community are political, religious, educational, and economic issues by nature. Learning about the history of the Italian Deaf community not only provided insight into the experience of this local community but it also inspired inquiry about its global connections as well. The Deaf community in the United States, for example, has experienced similar social and educational struggles. In this way, I investigated the global connections of these local communities and their shared experiences to trace the flow of influence and development across the world.

I also appreciated the rich culture and history of Italy through participating in activities such as cooking class and trips to Rome and Italy’s coast with the program and local Deaf community. Both Italian and American Sign Language were the main modes of communication, which provided a rich experience and practice in language. Communication often included English, American Sign Language, spoken Italian, and Italian Sign Language in a single conversation. I enjoyed both using and observing these languages in action. My visual and verbal language skills for production and reception have thus improved and allows for greater access to communication and research.

Much of my experience was also shaped by my relationships formed with local Italian students, professors, and organizations that shared the current issues faced by the Deaf community. Currently, the Italian government does not recognize Italian Sign Language, which causes social and educational implications. Making global connections, the Deaf community in India also lacks such recognition and thus suffers similar political, social, and educational access. Such disregard by a community’s government threatens the future of the language and culture of that community. Deaf communities around the world can explore the potential power of relationships to help local initiatives. Establishing international relationships and study, as the Siena School for Liberal Arts has begun, can help to increase awareness and action to build global bridges for local communities.

My project in Siena not only revealed the struggles but also the efforts to brighten the future of the Deaf community through potential social and educational doors. My research was enhanced by meeting the Ente Nazionale Sordomuti (ENS), or Italian National Association of the Deaf, to learn about both the issues faced and successes of the Deaf community. I also met with representatives of the Mason Perkins Deafness Fund to discuss its current projects to promote education, language accessibility, and the language and cultural integrity of the Deaf community. These experiences invited me into the active community of scholars, organizations, and individuals needed to support the language and culture of the Deaf community. For example, linguistic research is being conducted to claim the integrity of Italian Sign Language as a distinct language while bilingual educational materials are being developed to provide both language access and awareness to both Deaf and hearing children. This experience has allowed me to synthesize my diverse research experiences from working in American language labs to discussing educational approaches in Italy to make connections across social and global spheres.

This research experience has enriched my study of visual language and social structures to continue exploring educational developments that could promote the language, culture, and experience of the Deaf community. I hope to continue my research both locally and globally to encourage the relationship between education and social experience of individuals and communities. I am forever grateful for the support of the Honors Summer Fellowship and the people who believe in the experience and power of research for the future.