Rethinking Deafness, film and accessibility
By Ryan Bramley, Beth Evans, Kirsty Liddiard and Jon Rhodes
Dr Kirsty Liddiard and Dr Ryan Bramley, of the School of Education and iHuman, are working on a Sheffield Innovation Programme (SIP) project with Beth Evans and Jon Rhodes at user research and design studio Paper to explore how Deaf people perceive suspense in films as an under-researched and under-represented group.
Our participatory research project explores Deaf people's experiences of suspense in film. It is a small scale project, funded by the Sheffield Innovation Programme (SIP), which is a regional initiative that aims to stimulate business growth and promote the development of long-term relationships with small and medium enterprises; this is achieved by providing access to a broad range of academic expertise and university facilities. Paper is a local Sheffield-based user research and service design company. Paper has a number of governmental, industry and academic clients and partners, and believes in designing with people, not for them, and making sure no person is left behind. In this short blog post we want to introduce our project and outline some of our approaches and learnings as a diverse team.
From our early collaboration as a team our aim has been to co-create a meaningfully accessible research process. Our research is participatory through its inclusion and engagement with an Advisory Group made up of Deaf people. The capital 'D' here is used to denote people who identify as culturally and lingually Deaf and thus who use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first or preferred language. For Deaf people, deafness is more than an audiological experience, and equates to being part of Deaf community and Deaf culture. Although, it’s important to state that critique is building around these constructed binaries in and across D/deaf people’s experiences, on the basis that it can be decisive, and that the ‘the deaf community has been working from within to break down these ‘barriers to entry’ and reshape the community as a space that welcomes all’ (Deaf Unity, 2022: np).
To effectively embed Deaf-centric approaches within the project, our Advisory Group is actively guiding the project, its themes and approaches, and providing expert knowledge and guidance across the process to ensure an inclusive process for Deaf participants and their communities. Our Advisory Group also ensures that Deaf people’s voices and lived knowledges sit at the core of the project, acknowledging that Kirsty, Ryan, Beth and Jon are hearing people and thus have no embodied experiences of Deafness and/or audism. Audism is described as ‘overt, covert, and aversive practices of discrimination’ experienced by Deaf people (Eckert and Rowley, 2013: 101). As we discuss further below, our commitment to signed language - in this case, BSL - ensures that we fully embed accessible forms of communication across the project and work to mitigate researcher-participant language barriers that can emerge when exploring Deaf people’s experiences in research.
Furthermore, our project uses hybrid methods to explore how the environments in which people watch films, and their access to accessibility features like captioning and subtitling, impacts their experiences of suspense across a range of film genres. For us, hybrid methods (virtual and face-to-face ways of participating) are important towards creating a Covid-safe methodology and flexible project in the face of a continuing pandemic. Furthermore, we follow Disability and D/deaf Studies researchers who have demarcated online or virtual research environments as being of significant value to existing and emerging disability research methodologies (Liddiard et al. 2022, Bowker and Tuffin, 2004; Carr, 2010; Seymour, 2001; see Obst and Stafurik, 2010).
Rethinking suspense outside of audiocentric approaches
We are keeping our minds open as to what constitutes ‘suspense’. So far, we imagine suspense when watching a film, for example, as a feeling of excitement or anxious uncertainty about what may happen, particularly as it affects a character that you care about. For example, imagine you see the villain plant a bomb. You know that the bomb will explode at a specific time and you feel powerless to warn the protagonist that a bomb will explode and harm them. This scenario has two opposing outcomes. One outcome is that the bomb doesn’t go off and the protagonist lives (this is what you hope for). The other outcome is that the bomb goes off and harms or kills the protagonist (this is what you fear). The feeling of “suspense” is that you know something is going to happen, but you’re uncertain of the outcome. Suspense makes you get caught up in what’s happening in the film because you care about the outcome and what will happen to the characters. Often, we can get so caught up in suspense that it almost feels real and it can make you experience real emotions and reactions.
We are really interested, then, in how suspense as a concept is both constructed and applied in and across hearing and Deaf worlds. For example, early on our Advisory Group informed us that the word ‘suspense’ doesn’t directly translate into BSL. While Deaf people understand the concept of suspense when explained in BSL, preferable practice would be to collectively develop, with Deaf interpreters, a signed description of suspense which is then used within the study from the point of clarity. This is common, because signed languages don’t align with spoken languages and are often separate language systems; for example, BSL has its own grammatical structure and syntax. At the same time, Deaf people must be involved in the analysis stages of the project in order to co-construct Deaf-centric findings about experiences of suspense. These early teachings by our Advisory Group are exactly why projects need to be co-produced with people with lived experience (see Liddiard et al. 2022).
We are also interested in how suspense is communicated in ways outside of sound and the usual audio techniques that are used in film to build and enact suspense for audiences. Audiocentrism is defined broadly as a set of assumptions based on the ability to speak and hear (Eckert and Rowley, 2013); thus the majority of films are made with homogenous audiences in mind and typically in audiocentric ways. In centering Deaf experiences we are contesting audiocentrism and aim to learn more about accessible film-making, creative approaches to evoking affective and emotional responses through technologies such as captioning and subtitling, diversifying audiences, and understanding Deaf-centric experiences of consuming different types of media.
Making research accessible: Embedding British Sign Language
BSL as we understand it today began in the 18th century, but only became formally recognised as an official language in England and Wales in 2022. BSL interpreting is embedded throughout the project to counter researcher–participant language barriers and their ethical implications (see Kelly-Corless 2020). For example, discussing consent, Young and Hunt (2011: 15) argue that literacy, access and preferred language are highly pertinent to informed consent in D/deaf research: 'language and communication are key to ensuring maximal understanding and, therefore, optimal conditions in which to arrive at a decision about research participation'. As such, ensuring informed consent from our Deaf participants requires a deep engagement with the politics and practicalities of language to ensure meaningful processes of consent, beyond standard consent materials.
To ensure consent is fully informed, then, our consent process involves visual and text-based languages, and we see consent as an iterative and on-going process (see Hammett, Jackson and Bramley 2022). As such ethical materials will be available in BSL and English. In addition, for greater accessibility, ethical material materials in both languages feature photographs of the research team members. Young and Hunt (2011) remind us that it is good practice to include photographs so that a potential Deaf participant is given every opportunity to locate the researcher within their visual memory. We will also be providing photographic information of the interview setting (e.g. the location/building, room setup). We will also be providing potential participants with a link to the specific BSL interpreter we are working with in the project - this is to ensure that this interpreter has not been used by the prospective participant before (e.g. for a doctor's appointment) and feels comfortable and in the knowledge of who will be interpreting their experiences in the process.
In sum, our hopes are that the project makes valuable contributions to understandings of the ways in which film, as a key consumed medium in modern times, can be made in more accessible ways and cater to heterogeneous audiences. We also hope that we can continue to build upon the radical ways in which research and inquiry are being co-designed and co-produced with marginalised groups as advocated within disability and D/deaf research (Liddiard et al. 2022).
- Bowker, N. and Tuffin, K. (2004) ‘Using the online medium for discursive research about people with disabilities’, Social Science Computer Review, 22: 2, 228–241
- Carr D. (2010) Constructing disability in online worlds: conceptualising disability in online research’, London Review of Education, 8: 51–61
- Deaf Unity (2022) ‘BSL is a hot topic – what you need to know’. Online. Available from: https://deafunity.org/article_interview/bsl-is-a-hot-topic-what-you-need-to-know/ [Accessed 10/5/2022)
- Eckert, R. C. and Rowley, A. J. (2013) ‘Audism: A Theory and Practice of Audiocentric Privilege’, Humanity & Society, 37: 2, 101-130
- Hammett, D., Jackson, L. and Bramley, R. (2022) ‘Beyond ‘do no harm’? On the need for a dynamic approach to research ethics’, Area, doi:10.1111/area.12795
- Liddiard, K., Goodley, D., Runswick-Cole, K., Whitney, S., Vogelmann, E., Watts, L., Aimes, C., Evans, K. and Spurr, R. (2022) Living Life to the Fullest: Disability, Youth and Voice. Bingley: Emerald Publishing
- Obst, P.L. and Stafurik, J. (2010) ‘Online we are all able bodied: online psychological sense of community and social support found through membership of disability-specific websites promotes wellbeing for people living with a physical disability’, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 20: 525–531
- Seymour, W.S. (2001) ‘In the flesh or online? Exploring qualitative research methodologies’, Qualitative Research, 1: 147–168.
- Young and Hunt (2011) Research with d/Deaf people: Improving the evidence base for adult social care practice. London: School for Social Care Research
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