Joseph Murray

Scholar and advocate

A welcome addition to the roster ofbooks about the Deaf community and sign language was published on October 5, 2014: Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity, co-edited by H-Dirksen L. Bauman and Joseph J. Murray, fellow professors in the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University. Dr. Murray, who is Deaf, tells his own story.

I come from a working-class New England family. I was born in Connecticut and my deaf parents, John and Carol, are from Massachusetts, and my paternal grandfather attended the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. Several generations on both sides of my family were blue-collar workers who were heavily involved in our local communities. My parents were regularly elected to officer positions with Division No. 67 for the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf, and my Friday evenings often saw me at our kitchen table absorbing goings-on at board meetings and Saturdays saw my older sister, Stella, and I roaming around with a gang of deaf and CODA kids at club meetings and social events.

It's safe to say I absorbed the family's work and community ethic early on. I've been working since I was 12 years old. Despite being the only deaf person in my grade at a large high school and only one of three deaf kids in the entire school, I was already an activist, co-founding and running the school newspaper as well as writing a regular weekly column for the town newspaper during my senior year.

I worked three jobs around the clock to pay for my first three semesters of college at Northeastern University in Boston, including the night shift at a package shipping company and serving as a classroom aide to children with autism and children with disabilities during the day. My presence was intended to add ASL to the children's communication repertoire, an early example of Deaf Gain in action.

Midway through my sophomore year, I was awarded a full-tuition scholarship (the Charles Irwin Travelli Fund and Alice S. Ayling Foundation Scholarship) which would cover the entire cost of my undergraduate education at Northeastern.  The scholarship was given to me via an anonymous nomination intended to select people with demonstrated leadership potential. It was a major turning point in my life, freeing me from financial worries and allowing me to use my income to do more than survive—I could now fulfill my life goals.

Being in Boston during the vibrant Deaf Studies and Deaf Culture milieu of 1990s was a wonderful experience. I co-founded the Northeastern University Deaf Club with a group of deaf friends from diverse backgrounds and we fought to expand access for deaf college students at the university. During my time in Boston, I was fortunate to have strong mentors who became dear friends.  Foremost among these mentors were Sue Philip, BJ Wood, and the late Marie Philip. Even before I was elected Vice President of the Massachusetts State Association of the Deaf at the age of 19, they always supported me and guided me in the right direction. I was young and still exploring life, and after a year, I moved to Washington D.C. to serve as a Fellow for the Education Staff of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, chaired by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA).

Once, when I was a little boy, I walked up to my parents and announced I would be going on an overnight bike trip to a nearby park. They quickly quashed that idea, but knew early on that I had inherited their wanderlust. After my time in DC, I then spent a year studying abroad in Belgium and London, England. I was the first deaf person from Northeastern to join a study-abroad program with an ASL interpreter. The Deaf community in Belgium was my first introduction to the international deaf community and my first use of international sign took place at Madosa, a deaf club in Antwerp. After the study abroad, I interned at the London Deaf Access Project, first founded by Paddy Ladd, on a video production related to the Deaf community in Bulgaria after the fall of communism, which brought me around Eastern Europe. I've now visited 70 countries on six continents, many of them two or more times, and I've been privileged to have met deaf community members in nearly all of these countries.

After a year immersed in politics in DC and a year study and traveling in Europe, I decided to get the Gallaudet experience and spent another year there, paying my own way, as a special student from 1993-1994. I dived right into life there, serving as one of the section editors for the Buff and Blue and host for a student-run TV production and an intern with Deaf Mosaic with a small group of television and media students under the dynamic mentorship of Dr. Jane Norman. I returned to Northeastern to finish up my degree and moved to Norway in 1995.

But first, I attended the first WFD Youth Camp in Zel Am See, Austria. The camp brought together deaf youth from around the world and the international setting, as well as the marvelous WFD Congress that took place immediately after the camp, sparked my desire to carry on advocacy work on the international level. NAD President Ben Soukup and NAD CEO Nancy Bloch both saw something in the long-haired young man who came to their hotel lobby the night before elections to ask for the NAD's support. I was elected Vice President of the WFD Youth Section and went on to serve as President in a second four-year term, which ended in 2003.

I've not stopped. In my first term on the WFD Board, I chaired a group which developed a plan to address a short-term financial crisis and set up a long-range plan which the WFD is still operating towards. 2015 will see the end of my second decade with the WFD, as I complete my third four-year term on the WFD Board and finish up four years as Chair for the Human Rights Group, working with other Board members and the WFD's small but hardworking staff to ensure deaf people around the world are able to enjoy full human rights. This involves chairing project-steering committees, developing short- and long-term organizational strategies and hands-on training at workshops around the world. In a normal year, I will give around a dozen presentations or workshops in half as many countries.

The most crucial human right for deaf people is the right to language, which includes the right to sign language from birth and access to instruction in a native sign language.  While this right is currently under threat, we are fortunate to have the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and its strong declaration that access to sign language and deaf culture is a fundamental human right. I've represented the WFD at the United Nations, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and other international bodies. Earlier this year, I gave a WFD Statement to the United Nations CRPD Committee which called upon governments to recognize the importance of sign language environments for deaf children's full social and academic well-being. All this work is translating into real changes in attitudes and increased knowledge of the linguistic rights of deaf people.

I initially planned to be a journalist, but wanted to get closer to the action and dived into politics.  After a while I realized politicians worked from ideas developed in the academic world.  The year after I received my PhD in History from the University of Iowa, I joined the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, where I am now a tenured Associate Professor.

Deaf Studies is a critical field of study that allows us to better understand not just deaf people's lives but also how the world we all live in has been shaped by deaf people, sign language, and our continual challenge to audist norms. My departmental colleague, H-Dirksen L. Bauman, and I worked together to develop the concept of Deaf Gain. Deaf Gain takes its starting point at the opposite end of most studies of deaf people. We don't ask about hearing loss, we look at deaf people as a part of the rich tapestry of biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity which exists in the world. Deaf Gain highlights both the contributions deaf people and sign language make to the world as well as the benefits of being deaf. To take one example, scientists have shown using sign language increases facial recognition skills and strengthens one's visual working memory, among other benefits.

In my household, we use three different sign languages as well as English and Norwegian. My Swiss-German wife, Claudia, and I (we first met at the 1995 WFD Youth Camp) held our courtship in International Sign and eventually shifted to Norwegian Sign Language (NTS) when we both started living and working in Norway.  Our first child, Joshua, was born in the U.S. but moved to Norway while still a toddler. He, and our daughter, Ella, chat with their mom and their deaf grossmutter and grossvater in Swiss-German Sign Language (SDGS) and my parents and myself in ASL. At dinner, we will switch languages, depending on who is saying what at any one point, the topic of conversation, and for whatever other reason we feel like at that moment. Sometimes you have to be quintilingual to get our jokes.

Joseph Murray, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, ASL and Deaf Studies, Gallaudet University


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