Profile: Dr. Maartje De Meulder

A white woman with light brown short hair smiles with her hand on her hip. She is wearing a white t-shirt with an image of Frida Kahlo.
  • Current title: senior researcher/lecturer
  • Location: University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • Field of expertise: Deaf Studies and applied language studies
  • Years of experience (since start of PhD): 8
  • Website: https://maartjedemeulder.be/
  • Twitter: @mdemeulder

Background?

I was born in Flanders, Belgium to hearing (non-signing) parents. I am the oldest of four. I grew up hard-of-hearing and became deaf in my teenage years. I went to a regular school where I used hearing aids and FM and relied on lipreading. I was raised and educated in Dutch, and learned to sign (Vlaamse Gebarentaal – Flemish Sign Language – VGT) when I was 16, through socializing in the Flemish deaf community. At home with my partner and two children I use VGT. In my personal and professional life, on any given day I use a mixture of languages: Nederlandse Gebarentaal (NGT) (Sign Language of the Netherlands), British Sign Language, International Sign, VGT, Dutch, and English. As a Belgian I can make do in French, and I can understand ASL (or some academic ASL at least).

How did you get to where you are?

After I obtained my first MA degree in Belgium (Disability Studies), I felt that something was missing. I applied (and got funding, quite importantly) to study for an MSc in Deaf Studies at the Centre for Deaf Studies (CDS) at the University of Bristol in 2005. It was one of the best decisions of my life. It felt like coming home, not only in terms of content of the study but also because there were other deaf students, the classes were mainly taught in British Sign Language, some of the professors and lecturers were deaf themselves, and the social life was also in sign. It was in Bristol that I realized I wanted to do more research in Deaf Studies. Bristol also gave me a brilliant network of friends and colleagues.

After I got my degree, I actually got the opportunity to do a PhD at the University of Bristol, but decided to defer the funding for one year because I felt I had done enough studying by then (6 years), and wanted something different that was more practice-oriented. The Flemish deaf association offered me a job in their advocacy team and I decided to take the offer. This was also one of the decisions that have deeply influenced my life and who I am as a researcher and a person. Eventually, one year became five years. Five years of advocacy work (linked to deaf education, access, sign language interpreting services, tv broadcasting, etc.), community work (organizing events, workshops, courses), learning to engage with a great number of different people from all walks of life. It was a great experience.

After five years, I felt it was time to get back to research again, but obviously by that time my funding in Bristol was no longer available. I started to look for PhD funding and in the end got a PhD position at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. My PhD was about the legal recognition of sign languages — more specifically in Finland and Scotland, where I followed the process from initial campaign to final adopted law. After my PhD I started a post-doc position at the University of Namur in Belgium funded by the Marie Curie Actions, for which I did a study on sign language vitality in Flanders. When that funding ran out, I applied for a few academic jobs and got a position at the University of Applied Sciences Utrecht (HU) in the Netherlands, which is currently my institution. HU is the only university in the Netherlands that trains sign language interpreters (at BA-level) and they also offer a Master in Deaf Studies. I teach both BA and MA students, and am also a senior researcher at the research group ‘Participation through Communication’, where I am responsible for carrying out Deaf Studies and sign language research.

What is the biggest professional challenge you face (as educator or researcher)? How do you mitigate this challenge?

Working with sign language interpreters is definitely one of the biggest challenges, so much so that I decided to make it a professional and research interest of mine 🙂

Being an academic who is deaf (and a woman) is another challenge: when you have critical opinions and are used to voicing these, you are quickly seen as ‘angry’, ‘emotional’, or ‘irritated’.

Not linked to being a deaf academic, but as a researcher in general:

  • At this stage in my career, I find a real challenge is having to adapt research agendas based on your institution/employer/funding, which means I feel I can never really finish projects. People are asking me for publications, presentations, etc., based on my PhD or postdoc research (I haven’t even yet analysed all the data I collected during my postdoc!). I am now based at an applied university, which means I need to do practice-based research. This is really interesting and fun to do, but also means it’s not always so easy to connect this with the other stuff I was working on before.
  • Linked to the previous point: academia can be overwhelming. The work is never finished, there is always that one paper to finish, that one grant to follow up on, that one article that is still on your to-read list. There is competition, you need to publish, teach, and do admin. As deaf academics, we do all the extra emotional labor too, that is often invisible: working with sign language interpreters (it’s not just working with them!; it’s looking for the right ones, preparing them, debriefing them, etc.), educating colleagues about accessibility issues, coping with hearing fragility. Me and many of my deaf colleagues also do a lot of volunteer work to support other deaf academics and Deaf Studies & sign language researchers (for example our work for Acadeafic and Dr Deaf, …). I had a burn-out last year and I don’t want to go through that again. So I firmly set boundaries, I let people know those boundaries, I don’t feel guilty for not working overtime, I unplug now and then.

What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?

Sign language interpreters are necessary to do my job, but since I’ve only been at my institution in the Netherlands for just over a year and have to work in NGT increasingly in professional/academic contexts, I’m still finding out which NGT interpreters ‘match’ with me for which professional contexts. I’d like to work with a few designated ones but am currently in the ‘trial and error’ phase still, which is frustrating often.

I’d like to use caption services more. As deaf academics (in Europe) sign language interpreters are often the accommodation we request or are given, but watching an academic presentation in English with for example a BSL interpreter (even a very good one), is still a challenge. People tend to think that with interpreters we have ‘access’ and that’s all there is to it. But that’s actually not true. Interpreters are an accommodation we have to work with to make it work, so to say. The source is in one language, while the output is in another. You don’t have to be a language researcher to know how much can get lost in translation. When we see interpreters’ signed utterances we need to do the mental work of understanding the meaning and how it relates to the source language and the concepts the speaker is using for example. Sometimes it is just easier, and requires much less mental load, to follow the presentation in the same language and modality. And for Q&A and networking, use interpreters.

Tell us about your website, Acadeafic.

I started Acadeafic with friends/colleagues Annelies Kusters, Joseph Murray and Erin Moriarty (also deaf academics) in May 2019. Acadeafic is a deaf-curated, multi-author platform that allows Deaf Studies and sign language researchers to share their work in a bite-sized format. There is an amazing output of research on Deaf Studies and sign languages, but as a research community we want to do more to share our work with audiences within and beyond academia, on an open-access basis, and in formats that are easier do digest than full-length academic prose. All our posts are bilingual, with a vlog in any sign language the author prefers and a blog in English. Most of our posts are based on recently published articles or chapters. We also host series of posts based on special issues or edited volumes. We are keen to support junior researchers in promoting their work. We also offer a space for editorials or opinion pieces related to (doing) Deaf Studies and sign language research, for example working with sign language interpreters, navigating academia as a deaf scholar, research methodology and ethics, and access to academic discourse. All our submissions go through peer review conducted by Acadeafic and/or external reviewers, also all deaf. So if you are a Deaf Studies and/or sign language researcher and want to promote your work, get in touch!

What advice would you give your former self?

You’re not here to please everyone. 

Any funny stories you want to share?

A few years ago I was at an academic conference dinner. We were at a mixed deaf/hearing table, and there was one sign language interpreter with us. I was talking with one hearing academic and when we had a brief pause, the interpreter left a bit to take a break. I left my phone in my room and I didn’t have anything else to write with to continue the conversation with him, so I gestured ‘phone’ to him in the hopes that he would take out his phone and type. Instead he took out a bit of paper and handed me his phone number. I was like ‘oh’ and he quickly realized that this wasn’t what I was asking him. It was embarrassing, but funny, and the ice was broken for the rest of the evening. 


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