Reflections of a Research Insider Conducting Qualitative Research in Sign Language

RESNA 28th Annual Conference - Atlanta, Georgia

Phil Harper, Barrie O’Connor, PhD, Janet Owens, MSc


Deaf people who use sign language are potential users of emerging telecommunications innovations such as videotelephony. There has been little research that explores their thoughts and experiences in the use of this technology. In this paper, the experiences of a Deaf person as a research insider in a current telecommunications study are described and issues of researcher-participant relationship, data integrity, interview and interpreter skills, communication and cultural aspects of the participating community and the impact of this type of research are explored.

Keywords: Insider research, Deaf people, Videocommunication, Sign Language, Interviews, Reflections


Insider research has become a regular occurrence in qualitative studies, however insider research conducted by Deaf researchers is an emerging phenomenon. In this paper, insider research issues and reflections are reported from a current research study that involves Deaf and hearing participants who use Australian Sign Language (Auslan) .


The study (1) explores how an in creasingly common telecommunication tool, videocommunication, is being adopted by Deaf people who use sign language to communicate remotely with each other in the workplace. Deaf people have gained greater access to telecommunications in recent decades through the use of the telephone typewriter (TTY), facsimile, relay services, email, Internet chat rooms and mobile phone short messaging service. However, these communication modes predominantly use English text communication avenues.

Deaf people prefer an opportunity to see each other; to observe emotions, face and body language as well as to use sign language to gain a level of communication satisfaction similar to hearing people. Videocommunication presents that option in telecommunications. Boyce et al. (2) highlighted the improvements Video Relay Service ( VRS) and Video Remote Interpreting ( VRI) services have made both to the sign language interpreting profession and interpreting service delivery levels.

The primary participants in this project were 16 Deaf people in four workplace settings who use Auslan as their preferred communication mode and two hearing people who used Auslan in the workplace. They used a videocommunication tool installed on a computer workstation to communicate with other people using IP (Internet protocol) and also had access to a pilot Video Relay Service.

Interviews, surveys and observations were methods used to collect data that were analysed using a grounded theory approach. It was expected that the study findings would identify important issues arising from the role of videocommunication for Deaf people (who use Auslan) in the workplace and would provide valuable data for the Deaf community, the telecommunications industry and government to assist in better understanding the emerging telecommunication needs and requirements of Deaf people.


The researcher, being a member of the Deaf community, was an insider researcher in this study. He had developed considerable insight into the subject matter from many years as an advocate of improved telecommunications access for Deaf people and membership of a national Deaf consumer organisation’s sub-committee on telecommunications. Familiarity with deafness, the ability to communicate in the dominant language (Auslan), and immersion in Deaf culture and norms gave the researcher opportunities to access participants and be trusted with information that might not be given to hearing researchers (3). When a researcher is an insider, fluency in the language of the participant community is rare, but it can create opportunities to explore cross cultural meanings and interpretations that may offer insights that other researchers cannot access (4,5).

Being known to the participants was an advantage and made it easier to solicit their interest and agreement to participate. Regular contact was made through emails, phone calls and face-to-face visits to explain the purpose of the study, requirements of participants, and ethical considerations.

Participants were Deaf people from different organisations and states who had different education, employment and socio-economic backgrounds. Some were Deaf children of Deaf parents while others learned Auslan either in their school or socially through mixing with other Deaf people. This provided a challenge to the researcher to ensure he was able to accommodate their needs in communication preferences and language comfort levels in all aspects of the research design.


All participants were interviewed before and after they participated in the videocommunication trial. Researcher skill in readily adjusting the interview environment without losing the central objectives was a challenge and required regular collaboration with each participant. Wren (6) called this “active engagement of the researcher … to show evidence of careful reflection on the professional and personal investments s/he may have in the research outcome” (p. 475). Use of a tape recorder and sign language interpreter helped to create a “distance” between the interviewer and interviewee, particularly those with whom the researcher had worked in the past, where “the familiar world was deconstructed” (p. 207) (7) as far as possible.

Participants had different communication preferences (e.g. signed in Auslan, or signed in Auslan but in English order, or spoken) and this provided a challenge to the researcher to ensure the gist of set questions was consistent. Within this context, the challenge was to overcome any participant unfamiliarity with new concepts or terminology when conveying these in sign language. Sometimes there was not an Auslan sign that specifically described a word. As suggested by Jones (8) and depending on the participant’s level of language skills, the researcher sometimes had to “tell a story” to create the understanding of the word and then create a sign for those words.


All interviews were audio tape recorded. A sign language interpreter was engaged to voice the signed conversation between the researcher and Deaf participants into a tape recorder for later transcription. All tapes were transcribed in English. Each participant received a copy of his/her interview transcripts to check the accuracy of transcription prior to coding. Some participants did not have English as their first language or were unfamiliar with some of the words used during their interview. This was a dilemma the researcher dealt with by carefully scanning the transcripts for words or comments that appeared “ill-fitting” or unlikely that the participant would sign or use, then relying on the participants to check transcripts for accuracy.

While every effort was made to engage highly qualified interpreters for the interviews, this was not always possible. At times, interpreters had difficulty and some accommodation had to be made such as slowing down fingerspelling and signing, using Auslan in English order, or repeating what was said. This impacted on the interview environment and created potential inaccuracy of the interpretation of the interview (5).


Several issues emerged in relation to the role of an insider in research. (a) Some qualitative researchers question if insider researchers are sufficiently unbiased and can dissociate themselves during analysis of participants’ contributions(3,7,8); (b) participants may tell the researcher what they feel he/she wants to hear or refrain from discussing particular topics, thereby distorting the data (3); (c) excellent interview skills are vital, particularly use of open questions and the ability to “create a story” that accurately reflects a question; (d) interpreters must have an understanding of the topic and be able to accurately conceptualise and translate what a Deaf person is trying to say; (e) it is important for Deaf researchers to play a major role in inductive data analysis because of their understanding of the group, their cultural immersion, and their ability to reflect participants’ views in the data analysis and findings.


  1. Harper, P. (2004). Adoption of VIDEOoverIP as an alternative communicate mode for Deaf people in the workplace. Doctoral study in progress, Deakin University, Melbourne.
  2. Boyce, M., Diamond, S., Fels, D., Gadsby, E., Harvie, R., Porch, W, et al. (2004). Remote real-time ASL interpretation guidelines. Companion document to the CNICE General Guidelines for inclusive online cultural content. Toronto, Canada: University of Canada, Adaptive Technology Resource Centre.
  3. Rabbit, E. (2003).Insider research: The implications of conducting research in your home locale. Proceedings of the joint Australian Association for Research in Education / New Zealand Association for Research in Education Conference. Auckland, New Zealand. Available at:
  4. Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding Deaf culture: In search of deafhood . Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  5. Temple, B., & Young, A. (2004). Qualitative research and translation dilemmas. Qualitative Research , 4 (2): 161-178. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  6. Wren, B. (2004). Research Reflexivity. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Vol 9(4): 474-478. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  7. van Heugten, K. (2004). Managing Insider Research: Learning from Experience. Qualitative Social Work . Vol. 3 (2): 203 – 219. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  8. Jones, S. (2004). Problematising the familiar: Deaf students as Researchers of Deaf People. Qualitative Social Work. Vol. 2 (1): 27-38. London: Sage Publications.

Phil Harper
Deakin University
221 Burwood Highway
Burwood. Victoria, Australia. 3125.
Phone: +61 3 9244 6589.

Funded by an Australian Research Council SPIRT grant with support from the Australian Communication Exchange. Telstra, Polycom Australia and Integrated Vision.