The perceptions we have of those with different levels of ability to us can often shape the resources, support and provision that we think they need. In the case of deaf communities, placing their voices front and centre has made all the difference in ensuring their needs are met in ways that work for them.
Lorraine Leeson, Associate Vice Provost for Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (EDI) at Trinity College Dublin, spoke to Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, about her academic background, enhancing belonging and more.
I’m the Associate Vice Provost for Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at Trinity College Dublin. I’ve had my foot in an EDI role for a long time. I started my working life with deaf communities and with disabled people, so I’ve always been very aware of inequity in society.
I grew up in a working-class community on the North side of Dublin. It gave me a lot of food for thought around what inequity means and what it means for people who fell into other categories who may, for a variety of reasons, not be on the mainstream pathway to Higher Education (HE).
I grew up in an area where the two major schools for the deaf are based in Dublin. There were deaf people in and around my local area. I worked for a while as a houseparent in a school for deaf boys, and at that point in time, there weren’t subtitles on television, and there wasn’t internet or mobile phones. They were completely cut off from their families and had limited access to the media. At that time there were no professional sign language interpreters in Ireland either.
I thought it was crazy that deaf people were being labelled as ‘less than.’ There was no encouragement for people who were sign language users to succeed academically. There was a strong sense that those using sign language were less intellectually capable, which simply didn’t ring true. I’m glad I had the opportunity to go to Bristol, where one of Europe’s first Centres for Deaf Studies allowed me to train as one of Ireland’s first professionally trained sign language interpreters.
I’ve only been in this role a year — my day job was as a Professor in Deaf Studies. Transitioning into an EDI role entailed trying to understand the lay of the land. There are so many people doing great work. I wanted to figure out what the scope of the job was and join up dots across the system. For me, it’s about maximising the contributions that we can collectively make towards the notion of being a ‘good’ university.
I sometimes feel like a conductor — I’m not playing an instrument directly, but I’m leading out with an amazing team of colleagues who lead a range of initiatives and do it brilliantly.
One project, the Trinity Inclusive Curriculum Project, seeks to co-create content with student partners who come from across the university and all of the different protected classes that we’re trying to engage and make feel welcome. Their feedback is folded into the work we do. It’s also about offering training to staff around universal design. It’s not just about adding something on but making it inclusive from the beginning.
We also have The Ability Co-op, where students with disabilities are leading in developing toolkits, and offering the institution advice and guidance, for example, to student societies on inclusivity and accessibility. Belonging isn’t just about the classroom, it’s also about everything outside of learning environments. Bringing people to the table isn’t far enough; I want to see them have opportunities to lead.
Learning requires vulnerability. How fair is it for us to ask people who are marginalised and who may feel unsafe to be vulnerable with us? We have a duty of care to ensure that our students feel psychological as well as physical safety. We do this by ensuring we have a strong sense of community, and building such a community is everybody’s business. Student-staff partnership is really important.
We have a duty of care to ensure that our students feel psychological as well as physical safety. We do this by ensuring we have a strong sense of community, and building such a community is everybody’s business.
I work with colleagues on sustainability, global engagement, student services, HR, and others, to try to ensure breadth of cross-institutional communication. We also have to go from idea to implementation: Security guards, for example, support the community and our EDI work. We ensure that our Estates and Facilities staff, including our security staff, have access to training around consent and gender identity.
All universities have ambitions — it’s about ensuring that comes across in the day-to-day experience of students. That’s the opportunity space, and that’s where the magic can happen.
Be flexible. You’ve got to realise the world is changing incredibly fast — if you have fixed firm views, you’re going to struggle.
A young Black Deaf woman, Lydia Gratis, who I really admire. She’s addressed the European Parliament on anti-racism work, and her work on intersectionality and what that means from her lived experience is very powerful.
Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He took a multidisciplinary perspective of the systemic underpinnings of oppression and how they played out in an educational context.