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I am a medical anthropologist researching deaf and disabled peoples’ social, moral, religious, and economic practices, with a primary focus on deafness in India. Disability as category and experience have become increasingly salient in the international policy arena and in everyday life. At the same time, new technologies are emerging that provide possibilities for rendering disability malleable and even making people “normal.” In analyzing these phenomena, I ask what the category of disability does and what kinds of disability futures are desired and made possible. One of my enduring concerns is the relationship between stigma and value, and in particular the ways that disability enables the creation of different forms of value under late liberalism. I also analyze the emergence of new sensory infrastructures that crystallize around technologies such as cochlear implants and the ways that these technologies simultaneously normalize and erase disability. Within the broader category of disability, much of my work focuses on deafness as a productive site for interrogating questions of language, personhood, and sociality. Through individual and collaborative research and writing endeavors, I have worked to place disability and deafness in anthropological and other scholarly conversations about the state, the senses, and urban planning and development, as examples.
I have combined my interests in sensory anthropology, medical anthropology, and science and technology studies in my forthcoming second book, Sensory Futures: Cochlear Implants and Sensory Infrastructures in India (Spring 2022, University of Minnesota Press). The research and writing have been supported by a National Science Foundation Science, Technology, and Society Standard Grant (2020-2022) as well as the American Association of University Women (2020-2021) and the University of Chicago Franke Institute for the Humanities (2020-2021). The book focuses on both the emergence of public sector programs providing below-poverty-line children with cochlear implantation and the growth of a private implant market in India. I draw from interviews with cochlear implant manufacturer employees, Indian government administrators, surgeons and allied health professionals such as audiologists and speech and language therapists, and families as well as participation observation conducted in audiology and therapy clinics, homes, schools, and cochlear implant industry conferences. I explore how the Indian state has shifted its focus from the distribution of aids and appliances to the surgical implantation of a sense. This shift has demanded that implanted children and their families negotiate relationships of complex dependency upon the Indian state and multinational implant corporations. In addition, I argue that while cochlear implantation marks a move by the state to render itself indispensable through implantation within the body, what results are anxious and complex dependencies as the state also becomes dependent on multinational corporations.
Along with an increase in implantation, there is also now renewed attention paid to Auditory Verbal Therapy (AVT), a therapeutic method based upon isolating the senses and foregrounding audition that first gained popularity in the 1950s onwards in the United States and Europe. International AVT practitioners and trainers train Indian therapists, who in turn seek international AVT certification. I analyze the kind of sensorium that AVT practitioners desire to create and the formation of sensory infrastructures predicated upon creating listening and speaking “aural” children. My book argues that while cochlear implantation renders it increasingly possible to “become normal,” sensory normality has resulted in diminished possibilities for multisensory, multimodal, and multipersonal engagement. Families must transform how they relate to their children as well as perform elaborate and sustained maintenance work of senses and devices.
My 2015 book Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India (Rutgers University Press), based upon my dissertation research, analyzed how Indian Sign Language-speaking young adults in urban India work toward “deaf development,” or presents and futures in which deaf social, moral, and economic practices are foregrounded. These practices – both actual and aspirational – include teaching and helping other deaf people, sharing news and information, and creating deaf institutions such as schools, businesses, and old-age homes. As educational and livelihood opportunities for deaf people change in contemporary urban India, deaf young adults have begun to circulate through novel spaces, including vocational training centers, information technology offices, pyramid scheme recruitment sessions, and Christian churches and fellowships. These spaces are interconnected: while deaf youth learn typing, data entry, and soft skills at vocational training centers, they also discuss which churches they attend and the benefits of different pyramid schemes. Through collectively evaluating different NGOs, churches, employment options, and pyramid schemes, they work towards creating deaf development and better deaf futures. In each of these spaces, deaf young adults orient towards each other and often become disoriented from their natal families. They learn both a new language, Indian Sign Language, and ways of critiquing their families and society at large. In contrast to the majority of academic work on disability, which analyzes the experiences of disabled people through the lens of stigma or deprivation, the book analyzes how deafness and disability enable new regimes of value to emerge for deaf people themselves, NGOs, corporations and other employers, and the state.
I have four research projects at various stages of development. As I continue to focus on deaf and disability futures in India, I am working with different kinds of data in the process and taking a longitudinal approach to cochlear implantation and deaf life trajectories. I am in the beginning stages of using a public database containing information and contact details of families who have received cochlear implants through India’s central government program. I am conducting interviews with families to learn more about the implantation process and their experiences with therapy and maintenance. In addition, as India has just started clinical trials of an indigenous Indian implant, I plan to research this. In the process, I will research differences in technology and what it means to implant children or adults with older vs newer generations of hearing technology. As cochlear implants and other deafness interventions are sponsored by the state, I analyze the Indian state’s management of disability more broadly.
I am continuing to research questions of multisensory and multimodal engagement in relation to disability in India. In addition to focusing on cochlear implantation and deafness, I and an advisee, Shruti Vaidya, have received funding from the University of Chicago Delhi Center for a 2021-2022 project on disability and multimodal communication. In this project, we bring together our two research fields- deafness and intellectual disability- and think broadly about “best practices” in non-conventional and non-standardized communication that might exist below the radar in India. While (ideological) universalized ideas about best practices exist, including sign language and listening and spoken language in the case of deaf children and using assistive augmentative communication in the case of intellectually disabled people, our goal is to analyze what people actually do on the ground to create successful communication.
I am also conducting research on communication access and communication practices in carceral institutions in the United States and I have started a new research project looking at how communication happens and decisions are made under guardianship structures and supported decision making processes in the case of intellectual disability in the United States. How do guardians and community members engage in substituted decision making and best interest decision making, particularly in the absence of verbal and other forms of normative communication? In general, I am interested in how communicative personhood is recognized and negotiated.
Finally, returning to questions of categories, I research intersections in disability, diversity, and affirmative action in India, a project previously funded by the American Institute of Indian Studies. In this project, I analyze how the category of disability interacts with other categories of differentiation in modern India, specifically on central university campuses in New Delhi, India. The aim is to examine how students from different (disability, caste, tribal, and gender) backgrounds interact to perform “unity in diversity,” India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous phrase. In tracking these interactions, I interrogate the work that the category of disability does in modern India and explores how disability claims are exerted in the context of state-sponsored affirmative action programs.
My teaching covers a range of theoretical and substantive topics ranging from basic social theory to disability and dependency internationally to research methods. In the 2021-2022 academic year, I am teaching an undergraduate course in the winter quarter titled Disability and Design. In the Spring, I will teach a graduate research course for Human Development Students and in the third sequence in the Self, Culture, and Society core.
2022 Sensory Futures: Deafness and Cochlear Implant Infrastructures in India (University of Minnesota Press)
2015 Valuing Deaf Worlds in India (Rutgers University Press).
2015 It’s a small world: International Deaf Spaces and Encounters. (edited with Annelies Kusters) (Gallaudet University Press).
2020 Deaf Anthropology. (with Annelies Kusters). Annual Review of Anthropology. 49:31-47.
2020 Disability, Anonymous Love, and Interworldly Socials in urban India. Current Anthropology. 61(S21):S37-45.
2019 Praying for rights: cultivating deaf worldings in urban India. Anthropological Quarterly. 92(2):403-426.
2018 (Sign) Language as Virus: Stigma and Relationality in urban India. Medical Anthropology. 37(5):359-372.
2018 “Cross-Disability” in India? On the limits of Disability as a Category and Negotiating Impairments. With Nandini Ghosh and Deepa Palanniapan. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (SAMAJ). Free-Standing Articles, Online since 19 April 2018, connection on 20 April 2018. http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/4516
2018 Negotiating expertise in American Sign Language interpreting education: Uneasy belonging in a community of practice. Disability Studies Quarterly. 38(1).
2017 Deaf Studies meets Autistic Studies. (with Pamela Block). Senses & Society. 12(3):282-300.
2017 How the Disabled Body Unites the Body of the Nation: Disability as “feel good” diversity in urban India. Contemporary South Asia. 25(4):347-363.
2016 Not-Understanding and Understanding: What do Epistemologies and Ontologies Do in Deaf Worlds? Sign Language Studies. 16(2):184-203.
2015 New disability mobilities and accessibilities in urban India. (with Jamie Osborne). City & Society. 27(1):9-29.
2015 Deaf Bodies and Corporate Bodies: New Regimes of Value in Bangalore’s Business Process Outsourcing Sector. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 21(2):313-329.
2015 On “diversity” and “inclusion”: Exploring paradigms for achieving Sign Language Peoples’ rights. With Annelies Kusters, Maartje De Meulder, and Steve Emery. Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity Working Paper. (Translated into German by Das Zeichen).
2015 Deaf Uplines and Downlines: Multi-level Marketing, Fractures, and the Coerciveness of Sociality in urban India. Contributions to Indian Sociology. 44(1-2):103-128
2014 Deaf Capital: An exploration of the relationship between stigma and value in deaf multi-level marketing participation in urban India. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 28(4):202-218.
2014 On the limits and possibilities of “DEAF DEAF SAME:” Ethnographic Perspectives from Adamarobe (Ghana) and Bangalore and Delhi (India). (with Annelies Kusters). Disability Studies Quarterly. 34(3).
2014 The Church of Deaf Sociality: Deaf Church-Going Practices and “Sign Bread and Butter” in Bangalore, India. Anthropology and Education Quarterly. 45:39-53.
2013 Producing “Workers with Disabilities”: Deaf Workers and Added Value in India’s Coffee Shops. Anthropology of Work Review. 34(1): 39-50.
2013 Audit Bodies: Embodied Participation, Disability Universalism, and Accessibility in India. (with Jamie Osborne). Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography. 45(1): 43-60.
2012 Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies. (with Stefan Helmreich). The Senses & Society. 7(1): 72-86. (Reprinted in Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond by Stefan Helmreich).
2010 Bio-Power, Biosociality, and Community Formation: How Bio-Power is Constitutive of the Deaf Community. Sign Language Studies. 10(3): 336-347.
Chapters in Edited Books
2019 The Spoiled and the Salvaged: Modulations of Auditory Value in Bangalore, India and Bangkok, Thailand. (with Benjamin Tausig). In Sykes, Jim and Steingo, Gavin, eds. Remapping Sound Studies in the Global South. Duke University Press.
2017 Doing Deaf Studies in the Global South. In Kusters, Annelies, DeMeulder Maartje, and O’Brien, Dai, eds. Innovations in Deaf Studies: The Role of Deaf Scholars. Oxford University Press.
2016 Occupying Seats, Occupying Space, Occupying Time: Deaf Young Adults in Vocational Training Centers in Bangalore, India. In Block, Pam et al., eds. Occupying Disability: Decolonizing Identity, Community and Justice. New York: Springer Publishers. Pgs 209-223.
2013 Identity Formation and Transnational Discourses: Thinking Beyond Identity Politics. In Addlakha, Renu, ed. Disability Studies in India: Global Discourses, Lived Realities. New Delhi: Routledge India. 241-262.
2021 Deaf Children in Developing Countries Are Getting Inferior Cochlear Implants. Scientific American.
2021 Deaf and Incarcerated in the United States. Sapiens.
2020 How to Teach with Text: Platforming Down as Disability Pedagogy. (Equal Authors; With Mara Mills and Rebecca Sanchez). Avidly: LA Review of Books.
2020 Neurological, Structural, and Pandemic Emergencies: Elective Cochlear Implant Surgery during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Somatosphere.
2019 Embracing Multiple Normals: A Twelve-Year-Old Boy with a Cochlear Implant in India. (First Author; With Rema Nagarajan, Anjali Murthy, and Raphael Frankfurter). Case Studies in Social Medicine Series. New England Journal of Medicine. 381:2381-2384
2019 “What Is Taken for Granted in Autism Research?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 42 e90.