Uncovering the role of technology and medicine in deaf and signing worlds

If the joy and excitement of following your own path could be personified, it would look like Timothy Loh. A love of languages led him nearly around the world to study, and then to MIT, where he is a sociocultural and medical anthropologist-in-training.

Now in his second year in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences doctoral program in History/Anthropology/Science, Technology and Society — HASTS for short — Loh marvels at what he has already learned and at the “happy confluence” that led him to MIT.

Growing up in Singapore, Loh was already fascinated with languages. In school there, he studied French and started learning sign language. Add his native languages — English and Mandarin Chinese — and Loh was a polyglot before he arrived at Georgetown University in 2012. There, he studied in the School of Foreign Service where, to satisfy a language requirement, he opted for Arabic, a language he had never before encountered.  

“Structurally, I found it very compelling,” says Loh. “There’s a tri-consonantal root in Arabic, so every word has three letters that form the root of a word, and they can be manipulated into different ways to create new words. I was really blown away.”

“But I also remember very distinctly in Arabic class when my classmates were talking about the Syrian crisis and I couldn’t understand their conversation. Not because I didn’t understand the words, but because I didn’t know anything about Syria. That marked a turning point for me. I started taking classes in the history, politics, and economics of the Middle East. I realized that you can’t really understand a language without knowing the culture and history behind it.”

Sign language, identity, and assistive technology

For an undergraduate research project, Loh merged these two interests — sign language and the Middle East — and received a grant to study the pedagogical structure of a school for the deaf in Jordan, picking up some Jordanian Sign Language in the process to carry out the research.

“Sign languages are different in every country,” Loh explains, “because they emerge naturally within communities. They develop individually and become different languages, just as spoken languages do. American Sign Language and British Sign Language, for example, are different sign languages even though these signers are all surrounded by English speakers.”

Soon, however, Loh began to explore assistive technology and, in particular, cochlear implants. These devices are surgically implanted and bypass the normal acoustic hearing process with electronic signals; these stimulate the auditory nerve to provide a sense of sound to the user.

“Implants were controversial within the deaf community in the United States at first,” says Loh, “and still are, to some extent. There was a fear of what they would mean for the future of the deaf community. There were scholars who described cochlear implants for the deaf as a form of cultural or linguistic genocide. That sounds like an extreme description, but it really does index the depth of attachment that people have to a sense of themselves as deaf. So, I started thinking about the implications that technology has in the world of the deaf and for their ability to navigate the world.”

Teaching and learning in the Middle East

Returning from Jordan to Georgetown, Loh completed a master’s degree in Arab Studies, considered starting a PhD in anthropology, then decided to spent two years first working in the Middle East: the first year with a refugee program for Syrian, Iraqi, and Sudanese families in urban areas in Amman; and the second at a boarding school in Madaba, teaching Chinese and Middle East history.

By then, Loh knew his next step was a doctoral program in anthropology, in which he could explore deafness, sign language, and the role of technology and medicine. “MIT is the best place to be an anthropologist studying issues of science and technology,” he says. “We’re right beside colleagues who are inventing the very technologies and devices whose ethical and social implications we’re trying to understand. It’s a place where we’re able to think deeply and critically about how scientific knowledge and authority is constructed.

Loh is now framing his doctoral thesis and taking advantage of features available to HASTS students, such as auditing MIT classes in technical fields and also taking Harvard classes. “It’s such a privilege to be able to draw on the intellectual resources of two universities in one city,” says Loh.

“I’ve also found that as a program and a cohort of students, MIT HASTS is very collegial and welcoming,” he says. “As doctoral students, we benefit from a level of focused attention from professors across all three HASTS departments that’s really rare and generative for interdisciplinary work.”

Speaking truth to power

Reflecting on his first year at MIT, Loh says it was humbling for several reasons: realizing how much he didn’t yet know; doing research in languages in which he’s not a native speaker; and the politics of writing about the deaf community, particularly as a person who is not deaf.

“The history of anthropology is full of foreigners, often ones with privilege and social capital, coming in and speaking for a group that, for some reason, might not be able to speak for itself. With that history in mind, we as anthropologists are constantly thinking, ‘How do we represent social life responsibly?’

“Last summer, when I was doing fieldwork, one of my deaf friends asked me straight up, ‘How does your work benefit the deaf community in Jordan?’ That’s a fair question. I told him I am still thinking about this. It’s an important question to answer well. How do anthropologists give back to the community that we’re learning from?

“I think for many anthropologists, we hope that our work can ‘speak truth to power,’ to resist and complicate simplistic and hegemonic narratives, like the idea that technology can provide technical solutions for political problems. I do hope that my research can eventually inform policymaking for people in the Middle East whose voices need to be heard.”

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer, Photographer: Maria Iacobo

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