Connecting with a deaf community on the other side of the world

On a trip abroad to Italy that capped off the Penn Global Seminar taught by linguist Jami Fisher, students got a firsthand look at the diversity and variety of global deaf culture.

A group of people standing in front of a white statue in Rome, Italy.
A Penn Global Seminar on global deaf culture led by Penn linguist Jami Fisher (5th from left) included visiting sites in Rome, Italy, like Bernini’s Fontana dei Quatro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, above. Often, the group was led by a guide who was signing in Italian sign language. It gave the students a chance to experience what life is like not only for deaf people in general, but also a deaf community in another part of the world. (Photo courtesy: Jami Fisher)

There’s a pervasive notion that all deaf people, regardless of where they come from or where they live, are the same. Penn linguist Jami Fisher describes the misconception as “deaf sameness,” and it’s the thread that ran through the Penn Global Seminar she taught this past semester. The course, which focused on Italian Sign Language and the Italian deaf community, culminated in a May trip abroad to visit some of the people and places Fisher and the students discussed. 

“What I really wanted to emphasize is that there isn’t one global deaf culture. ‘I’m deaf, you’re deaf, and therefore we connect.’ That’s the assumption that proliferates,” says Fisher, director of Penn’s American Sign Language (ASL)/Deaf Studies program. “Though that does exist in some capacities, it’s important to recognize the diversity and variety within deaf communities, within countries and cities.”  

Fisher has long had a connection to the Italian deaf community in general and more specifically, to those in the Deaf Studies Department at Siena School for Liberal Arts, 150 miles north of Rome. For years, she had been seeking feasible, comfortable ways for Penn’s ASL students to study abroad. 

A Penn Global Seminar, particularly one geared toward students with fewer study-abroad opportunities, seemed like the perfect fit. “I had in mind to develop a course about the language rights of global deaf communities,” Fisher says, “knowing the Italian deaf community is going through its own process of getting legal recognition of sign language there.” 

A group of people standing in front of an iconic building in Rome, Italy.
The time in Rome “was really an immersive experience for students,” Fisher says, “both in the sense that we engaged with the Italian deaf communities but also toured the sites of Rome and saw the marvels through the eyes of Italian deaf citizens.” (Photo courtesy: Jami Fisher)

Recognition of a language typically equates to more services being offered to its users. In the case of Lingua dei Segni Italiana (LIS), that could mean increased availability of interpretation, for example, or equal access to employment for deaf people in Italy. Nearly all of the country’s states and regions officially recognize LIS, but, despite a years-long legal battle, the Italian deaf community still does not have national rights.  

With this in mind, Fisher built the course, which was open to any Penn undergraduates. About half of the 16 participants ended up having some background in ASL, like rising sophomore Kennedy Crowder, who had completed two semesters of ASL before taking this class. “I saw it as an opportunity to explore a language that is not as widely seen as it could or should be, and is kind of misunderstood,” she says. 

Classroom time provided students with a foundation of American deaf culture, plus conversations around social constructs of identity and disability. They discussed contexts in which deafness is not a disability, like in places where signers make up the majority, as well as the diversity of the global deaf community. 

“We were all so engaged from the first class,” says Crowder, who is from Landenberg, Pennsylvania. And learning firsthand from companions in Italy reinforced the take-home messages Fisher had introduced didactically. “I absolutely love Italy,” Crowder adds. “The trip brought everything full circle.”

There isn’t one global deaf culture. That’s the assumption that proliferates Jami Fisher, director of Penn’s American Sign Language (ASL)/Deaf Studies program

That’s not hard to imagine, with the Colosseum and Vatican as a backdrop. The 10-day journey began in Siena, where Penn students saw LIS in real-life settings and learned some of its basics, as well as about Italian deaf culture and history. During the trip’s second half, they toured Rome’s famous sites, led by a guide who signed her talks. These moments stood out for Crowder. 

“You got to see how people around us reacted to signing in public,” she says. “Some people would stare. Suddenly because of this different mode of communication, she’s something interesting to look at. I also noticed that we were treated differently, the assumption being that we couldn’t communicate. I’m not deaf so I can’t really speak to whether that’s every Italian signing person’s experience, but it was telling that’s how people responded to us.” 

The time in Italy also included showcasing a film the Penn students created about themselves, their stories, and a little on the Philadelphia Signs Project, a joint effort of Fisher, Penn linguist Meredith Tamminga, and Julie Hochgesang of Gallaudet University to document a Philly-specific dialect of ASL. The video was in written English, written Italian, and ASL. 

For Fisher, it represented a chance to give just a little back to the Italian colleagues giving her and her students so much. “It’s really important that it’s mutually beneficial, that the deaf people we work with have a say and drive what we do. Our students don’t know Italian, let alone LIS so for this class I struggled with how we might do that,” she says. “The film was very well-received and a good example of that reciprocity.” 

Though this was the first time Fisher offered the seminar, she says she’d happily do it again. In fact, she can’t believe it’s already over, a vision four years in the making to connect two groups an ocean apart through language. 

Jami Fisher is director of the American Sign Language/Deaf Studies program and a senior lecturer in foreign languages in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Penn Global Seminars combine intensive semester-long study with a short-term travel component that deepens the understanding of concepts discussed in the classroom.