Education professor named first Canada Research Chair in Deaf Education

Joanne Weber has been named the first-ever Canada Research Chair in Deaf Education.

“This is very exciting news because this appointment is the result of decades of hard work by the Canadian Deaf communities to secure the recognition of the federal government of the role of American Sign Language (ASL), Langue de Signe Quebecois (LSQ) and Indigenous Sign Languages in the lives of Deaf Canadians.”

Despite current biomedical approaches such as cochlear implants and the provision of sign language interpreters in inclusive education environments, deaf high school graduates are leaving with the median reading and levels commensurate with the fourth grade.

“We know now that language acquisition is not only about providing access to sound and sign language but about the provision of language-rich activities that enable deaf children to communicate freely with their peers, teachers and the community at large. Those opportunities are not always available, especially in the higher grades, despite current interventions,” said Weber, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology.

“The provision of access to language to deaf students via cochlear implants or an ASL interpreter and putting them in a mainstream classroom is no guarantee that they will have the kinds of engaged interactions required to develop expressive language that leads to good reading and writing skills.

“This is an unusual move on the part of the federal government to grant money to researching alternative approaches.”

The decision comes on the heels of the federal government passing the Accessible Canada Act in 2019. The act includes the use of ASL, LSQ and Indigenous Sign Languages to provide accessibility to federal government goods and services.

Weber’s research focuses on using art-based approaches to enhance educational experiences for deaf learners that respect individual needs, capacity and lived experience—work she has pursued both with deaf students in public schools and as the artistic director of the Regina-based theatre company Deaf Crows Collective.

“I want to look at the ways the arts and drama could be used to facilitate language acquisition in both oral English and ASL, and how we can apply that to bilingual education contexts,” said Weber, who strives to include deaf organizations and community members in her work. A focus in deaf education is the protection of deaf children from language deprivation which leads to serious challenges with literacy and possible lifelong cognitive deficits.

Weber, who completed her PhD at the University of Regina in 2018 and received the Governor General Academic Gold Medal, said she hopes her research will redefine what access to language really means.

“That’s where the arts-based literacy intervention comes in, because you can use art to generate a sense of community and get people to interact with each other, instead of just sitting in a classroom,” Weber said. “I’m grateful to the University of Alberta and the Canada Research Council for this wonderful opportunity.”