Award Holder: Timothy Y. Loh
University: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States of America
Title of Research: Assistive Technologies for Deaf People in Jordan: Entanglements of Language, Religion, and Disability

Research summary

My dissertation project ethnographically examines deaf Jordanians’ engagements with new assistive technologies* that have emerged in the last two decades, including medical-rehabilitative devices like cochlear implants (medical devices implanted via surgery that provide some electronic access to sound), provided to eligible deaf Jordanians through a government initiative, and non-medical technologies like sign language-centred mobile applications, designed by young Arab entrepreneurs. The production and proliferation of these technologies reveal competing perceptions of what it means to be a deaf person in Jordan today, though, as my research is uncovering, these perceptions are not necessarily mutually exclusive and co-exist in tension alongside each other. Bringing together medical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and the anthropology of religion, I undertook 15 months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Amman from 2021 to 2022 (of which 12 months was supported in part by the Emslie Horniman Fund) to explore the social lives of these assistive technologies and how and why deaf Jordanians are or are not engaging with these technological innovations.

My overall dissertation has three nodes, tracking how these engagements are shaped by varied biomedical investments in notions about disability and cure, by language ideologies that frame understandings of the nature of signed and spoken languages, and by religious commitments regarding technology and embodiment. But in my dissertation I also demonstrate how these three bodies of ideas cannot be neatly separated but are bound up in each other and mutually imbricated in how these assistive technologies are being used and produced in contemporary Jordan (cf. Whitmarsh and Roberts 2016; Black 2018; Briggs 2020).

My research thinks with the Jordanian deaf community to explore the future of disability in the contemporary era, when biomedical technological advancements that posit a world without disability push up against liberal claims to disability as a valuable form of diversity.

Aims and methods

Over the last couple of decades, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has paid increasing attention to the social inclusion and legal protection of its disabled populace (Rutherford 2007; Sargent 2019). Similar to other parts of the world (Friedner 2019), these efforts have often been undertaken from a rights-based perspective, for example, in 2017, Jordan’s parliament passed an updated law ensuring the rights of disabled people, building on previous laws passed in 1993 and 2007. The last two decades have also seen the emergence of new assistive technologies for deaf people in Jordan, which vary in purpose and support. Some focus on helping deaf people function better in a hearing society by “fixing” their hearing, while others focus on increasing information access for deaf persons. Some of these receive support from the government, while others emerge from the private sector.

One such technology which I studied is the cochlear implant, which is being provided to eligible deaf Jordanians through a state-affiliated initiative whose vision is “a Jordan free from hearing disabilities” and aims to rehabilitate deaf children into Jordanian society through the restoration of their hearing and speech. Since its establishment in 2013, more than 1,170 cochlear implantation surgeries have been conducted through this initiative. Another technology I focused on is the innovation of a Jordanian-Syrian start-up, whose primary product is a set of vocabulary cards, paired with an “augmented reality” mobile application. Each card contains a cartoon figure of a child signing the word, an image of the object itself, its equivalents in Modern Standard Arabic and in English, as well as a QR code that pairs with the mobile application. When the app is used to scan the code, a video of a deaf child signing the vocabulary word pops up on the phone screen. The promise of this technology is to help teach users—deaf children and their families—Jordanian Sign Language (LIU, from the Arabic lughat al-’ishara al-’urduniyya), a three-dimensional language that is difficult to render two-dimensionally on paper, to improve literacy and communication within the family.

My research centred around three main questions: How do deaf Jordanians engage the cochlear implant and other medical technologies within and outside the clinical encounter? How do deaf Jordanians’ ideas about and experiences of signed and spoken language influence how people use or produce assistive technology? How do religious commitments regarding disability and embodiment affect how deaf Jordanians choose to use or produce assistive technologies?

To answer these questions, I conducted 15 months of participant observation and qualitative interviews across four sites in Amman: a deaf cultural centre where signing deaf Jordanians gather and socialize (September 2021 to November 2022); an educational technology start-up producing vocabulary cards in Arabic, English, and LIU, paired with a mobile app, for deaf children (October 2021 to February 2022); a state-affiliated cochlear implantation initiative and the audiology department with which it partners (March to June 2022); and a government advocacy body supporting the rights of disabled Jordanians (July to November 2022). In addition, I spent time in virtual spaces for deaf Jordanians, in recognition of the growing significance of digital worlds in everyday life, particularly for deaf people for whom platforms like Facebook and Instagram have become key sites of sociality all over the world. Some scholars have even argued that these deaf communities are especially productive sites to study the relationship between technological innovations, like the Internet, and technologically enhanced communication (Keating and Mirus 2003), as deaf people have leveraged new technologies to bring together what was previously a geographically disparate group, to communicate visually across space and time zones, and to give greater visibility to their language and culture. The data I collected across both in-person and digital spaces were hardly dichotomous but blended together in a form of “immersive cohabitation” (Bluteau 2019): conversations begun “in real life” continued over social media, and vice versa.

Research trajectory and difficulties encountered

While I had initially planned to begin fieldwork at the audiology department (since I had previously conducted fieldwork there in the summer of 2019) when I first arrived in Amman, I had a lot of uncertainty about the ethics and safety of doing research in medical settings in light of the COVID pandemic. At that time, I was not certain that I would even be able to make it into Jordan for my fieldwork. Fortunately, things worked out and I entered the country in September 2021.

My first fieldsite ended up being an Ammani deaf cultural centre that I had also previously spent time in as a volunteer in January 2019. Such clubs have historically been sites of deaf culture where sign language is cherished and seen as a source of pride—this centre in Jordan was no exception. Over the course of my fieldwork, I took classes in LIU at the centre every Saturday, completing levels two and three, in addition to regularly attending the events they put on for the community. Besides being useful for building my signing skills, taking formal LIU classes was a valuable opportunity to collect metalinguistic data both on how the centre staff view the value and use of sign language as well as how hearing learners see the language and are socialised—successfully or not—into allyship to deaf Jordanians. While my original intention had been to volunteer full-time at the centre, I realised quickly that that was not quite feasible because their programming tended to take place in the evenings after work or on the weekends.

In that first month in Jordan, I also began fieldwork at an educational technology start-up that I had first visited in 2019, when all they had was a single prototype of their product. When I met them again, they had by that time produced six sets of vocabulary cards with three more on the way, in addition to the mobile application that pairs with the cards. For about five months, I went regularly to the incubator space in West Amman where they operated, taking on a variety of tasks: attending meetings, copyediting marketing materials, helping out in grant-writing, translating videos and other start-up materials from Arabic into English, and volunteering at their “awareness workshops” (jalasat taw‘awiyyeh), among other things. I also attended a number of conferences with them on topics like entrepreneurship and youth participation. Conducting participant observation in this way gave me rich insight into how the start-up operates, how it presents itself to other entities, and how the founders envision their technology will be used.

Beginning in March 2022, I returned to conduct fieldwork at the Jordanian hospital, shuttling between the cochlear implantation unit and the audiology department (which also provides hearing aids). I spent four months observing their everyday practices, including hearing tests, clinician-patient consultations, cochlear implant mappings, and speech therapy sessions. By observing these interactions, I developed a better understanding of how clinicians convinced patients—and parents—to use hearing technologies and how patients acquiesced or resisted. Part of the fieldwork also took place during the Islamic month of Ramadan, a time when the hospital—like the rest of the country—slowed down, giving me some insight into how religious belief and practice influence the provision of medical care. One small snag that I hit which I did not anticipate was not being able to keep in touch with the clinicians that I had met. I imagined that I would be able to ask them more questions after leaving the fieldsite but, to my surprise, they refused, owing to the fact that all the staff in the cochlear implantation unit were young to middle-aged women from more conservative areas of Jordan and I was a young, foreign, unmarried man—an explicit reminder of how positionality shapes research.

My final stint of fieldwork took place from July to November 2022 at the government advocacy body for disabled Jordanians responsible for advising other state entities on disability policy and for ensuring the 2017 law is being implemented. I was assigned to the inclusive education directorate (mudiriyyat mutabi‘a khuttat al-ta‘lim al-damij) and worked primarily on an assessment of the current state of sign language and deaf education in Jordan. As part of this project, the team from the organisation (which I was part of as a participant-observer) visited and made observations at the ten public deaf schools and two private deaf schools throughout the Kingdom. In this portion of the fieldwork, I focused on understanding not only the status quo of deaf schools in Jordan at a macro scale and which assistive technologies deaf students are using but also in how deaf education in Jordan gets enmeshed in broader transnational networks of educational institutions.

There were also another two fieldwork opportunities I was hoping to take advantage of over the course of the last year and a half, but was not able to. One was an American Deaf-led medical mission to refugee camps in Jordan that took place in June to provide deaf refugee children, mostly Syrians, with hearing aids and sign language resources. I reached out to the organisation director but was ultimately not welcomed to join the team on their mission. The other was a new American-run start-up whose goal is to provide hearing aids with 3D-printed ear moulds for deaf people who would not have access to any hearing technology otherwise. While they had hoped to run a pilot program in November 2022, they faced additional delays and now only expect to run their pilot in the first or second quarter of 2023. I was able, however, to attend (as a volunteer and participant-observer) a free medical screening day for deaf children they held in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman in collaboration with a local health organisation, though the extent to which that will appear in my dissertation (if at all) is not yet clear.

Contribution to anthropology

Anthropology can show us the full range of what it means to be human and the many ways that people can inhabit the world. Attention to disability is vital to this task, as the Wenner-Gren Symposium on “disability worlds” in 2018 urged (see Ginsburg and Rapp 2020). As David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder (2015) argue, the analytical potential of disability as a mode of inquiry lies not in the themes of barrier removal or bodily limits on public participation—though these are important—but rather in opening up alternative ways of living and being in the world that are not measured solely by neoliberal criteria of productivity and human rights. While ensuring the rights of disabled citizens has in the last few decades become one of the primary criteria by which nation-states are judged to be “modern,” such an approach leaves intact—and further reifies—dominant ideas of personhood and national belonging. But disability can usefully disrupt the category of the human not only in how disabled people defy normative standards of behaviour but also in the ways it exposes how the notion of “normalcy” is itself socially constructed (cf. Benedict 1934); after all, “disability is a form of alterity that anyone can enter at any time” (Devlieger 2018, 1). There is an irony, however, as Michele Friedner and Tyler Zoanni (2018) point out, in that, although 80 percent of the world’s disabled people live in the Global South, much of disability theory emerges from the Global North and comes out of a Western epistemological framework focused on the individual, a framework that can elide broader notions of the social that may prove more relevant in non-Western contexts (Devlieger 2018, 7).

In my research, I build on the strengths of anthropological work on disability that has come before. By taking a view from Jordan—simultaneously part of the Middle East and the Global South—my dissertation seeks to provide a nuanced account of “deafness” that is grounded empirically in the lived experience of disability and that gives primacy to local epistemologies and ontologies, which articulate a different relationship toward language and religion than those found in the Global North. In Jordan, for example, Arabic is not just the language of everyday life and of the nation-state, but also the language of Muslim belonging (cf. Haeri 2003), which has implications for deaf people.

In an era marked by rapid and uneven technological change, my project also takes seriously the role of science and technology in animating new subjectivities and socialities. Examining practices around assistive technologies—technologies that, as they move across transnational borders, also always take local form—can shed light on how disability is today being inhabited and transformed, often in ways that reshape the sort of cultural difference it represents (cf. Ingstad and Whyte 2007). Deafness, in particular, is a unique form of disability because it represents not only a physiological difference but often a linguistic one as well. In the Muslim-majority, Arabic-speaking Middle East, research on disability and difference remains scant, but holds great promise for amplifying how anthropologists can understand the ways language and religion inflect novel kinds of technologically mediated human being and becoming.

I am deeply grateful to the Royal Anthropological Institute for supporting my research, and am especially honoured to have been given the starred RAI/Sutasoma award for 2021-22. I have long been an admirer of the work of the RAI in its dedication to the furtherance of anthropology in its broadest and most inclusive sense as well as its commitment to fostering dialogue between the traditional sub-disciplines of anthropology—and I hope that my research goes some way towards fulfilling that vision. Thank you in particular to Dr Liana Chua for her mentorship.

* There are many potential ways to categorise these technologies: should the cochlear implant, for example, be understood as an assistive device, a prosthesis, a media technology, and/or something else? Here, “assistive technologies” should be understood as an etic umbrella term for technologies that are intended to help deaf people in one way or another.


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