As the first known signing Deaf woman to receive a doctorate in philosophy, Teresa Burke faced unique challenges that she turned into unique opportunities. She graduated from UNM last week.
"Almost all of the bioethics and philosophical literature about Deaf people is for the most part written by people who stand apart from the Deaf community – their understanding of it is gleaned from books and their imagination of what it must be like to be deaf. I think they get this last part quite wrong. I think that part of my contribution to this field comes from my different standpoint – I live a particular experience of being Deaf in the world, and I teach and socialize as much in the signing Deaf community as I do in the hearing world," Burke said in an email interview.
She applied that perspective to her dissertation, "The Quest for a Deaf Child: Ethics and Genetics," "an analysis of the arguments used by culturally Deaf people who would like to have Deaf children, and who would consider the use of genetic technology in order to ensure this," she said.
"It is very easy to frame this as a provocative issue – ‘Deaf people want Deaf children and this is abusive' or ‘Deaf people want Deaf children and this is their right' – but I think that each of these views is far too simplistic."
Burke teaches at Gallaudet University, world leader in liberal education and career development for deaf and hard of hearing students. She wants to establish an ethics institute there. She teaches philosophy in two languages – American Sign Language and English.
"We are the only philosophy and religion department in the world that provides instruction in a signed language," she said. "I love teaching, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to bring philosophy to so many promising Deaf and hard of hearing students."
Being the first Deaf woman to get a doctorate in philosophy also meant being the first to discover the obstacles. One challenge is the lack of signs for philosophical terms. "As one of two signing Deaf philosophers in the country, the critical mass for language development of these terms was not there," Burke said. Resorting to fingerspelling these terms causes the interpreter to fall behind. "Adding signs for common philosophical terms was imperative for me to keep up with the discussion."
She worked with James Haynes of the University of Maryland, the only other known deaf philosophy Ph.D., as well as UNM linguists and international Deaf scholars to begin developing a lexicon of signed philosophical terms. Where possible, she borrowed from other sign languages – for example, she uses Greek Sign Language signs for Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. She's writing a grant proposal to put the lexicon online.
Moving from lecture-heavy undergraduate courses to seminar-dominated graduate courses was also a challenge. In lecture classes, Burke could work by sitting in front and reading the professor's face. In seminars, "I had a very difficult time trying to figure out who was talking – once I located the speaker, they were wrapping up their comments and the challenge of locating the next speaker would begin," she said.
Seeking sign language interpreters lead her to the linguistics department. "I found a host of faculty and graduate students who not only supported my efforts to rejoin the signing Deaf community after a decade long hiatus, but who encouraged me to combine my interests in bioethics with this linguistic minority community," she said.
"As a deaf woman who had to forge new paths – as far as I know, I was the first deaf graduate student to teach a course at UNM that was not a sign language course – in some ways what has had the most impact is the collaborative model of problem-solving used to resolve challenges of accessibility," she said. "The Department of Linguistics, the School of Medicine, the School of Law, the philosophy department, the Office for Graduate Studies, and UNM deaf and hard of hearing services were instrumental in making sure I had the support I needed to continue my education."