The first deaf scholar ever to achieve full professor status in the field of deaf studies and sign language studies in the UK has been announced at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. 

Annelies Kusters, who has studied deaf communities around the world for almost 20 years, including in Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, has been promoted from associate professor to professor in Heriot-Watt’s Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies, where she is a professor in sign language and intercultural research. 

Heriot-Watt is a leading university globally in the fields of deaf studies and sign language interpreting studies. The promotion places Professor Kusters as a top academic in this field. 

“I realise I am very privileged that I have made it this far,” Professor Kusters said. “But I am standing on the shoulders of the deaf lecturers and scholars who educated me – and I support others to stand on mine. 

While Europe and the United States have some deaf professors in the subject, the UK has only ten to 15 hearing people who are full professors in these fields, Professor Kusters said. 

She describes her research interests as “observing deaf people in their day-to-day lives” and this work has taken her to Ghana, India, Surinam, Brazil, Kenya, Italy, Denmark and France. “For example, my PhD was in a Ghanaian village with a high rate of hereditary deafness,” Prof Kusters explained. “While other researchers are fascinated by the genetics or just the linguistics of the local sign language, I was interested in learning about their daily lives how they communicate, socialise, and so on. 

“In Mumbai, I explored how deaf and hearing people communicate through signs and gestures in the bustling trains of Mumbai. Those trains are not just a mode of transport – they're also deaf meeting spots.” 

A key research project for Prof Kusters was being Principal Investigator – the research lead – for MobileDeaf, a project funded by the European Research Council to explore how deaf people from different countries interact and adapt their signing to be able to understand each other. Separately, since 2015, Prof Kusters has directed seven ‘ethnographic’ films – which are documentaries based on her research. 

Prof Kusters also leads SIGNS@HWU, a group of researchers at Heriot-Watt University who focus on deaf studies, sign linguistics and sign language interpreting studies. “We have a vibrant and thriving research culture in SIGNS@HWU and attract visiting scholars and new PhD students every year,” she said. 

She said Heriot-Watt is “world-leading” in deaf studies. “We house the largest number of deaf studies researchers in a single institute in all of Europe and the UK,” she added. “There are other institutions with deaf studies, but they are generally smaller.” 

Born in Belgium, Prof Kusters studied a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and a Master of Arts in social and cultural anthropology at the University of Leuven in Belgium before moving to Bristol in 2006 to complete a Master of Science degree and then a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in deaf studies. 

Before joining Heriot-Watt University in 2017, she spent four years in Göttingen, Germany working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, a leading centre for the study of diversity. 

Helping other deaf scholars progress their careers is one of the aspects of her role she particularly enjoys. “I’m especially passionate about supporting other deaf scholars in their careers,” she said. “This can be through supervising deaf scholars, mentoring, supporting my deaf colleagues, delivering training, taking part in international deaf scholars’ networks and other kinds of support.