Visiting Cornell Professor Beppie van den Bogaerde Advocates for the Deaf

Beppie van den Bogaerde

“[The deaf] don’t see one another as handicapped,” says Visiting Cornell Professor Beppie van den Bogaerde. “They are just who they are, and they want their language to be accepted.”

In the Netherlands, when one becomes a full professor, they give an acceptance speech to present their research objectives to the academic community. But when Elizabeth “Beppie” van den Bogaerde gave hers in 2013, it was the deaf community — not academics — who packed the hall.

“They came to hear what I, as a hearing person, was doing with their language, was doing for their community,” says van den Bogaerde. “To feel that acceptance was most rewarding.”

It was also testament to her 30 years of advocacy for the Dutch deaf community, a passion van den Bogaerde brings to Swarthmore as this year’s Julien and Virginia Cornell Visiting Professor. She is teaching a linguistics course on sign language as a foreign language this fall and another course on bimodal bilingualism in the spring.

Although the classes hinge on language learning, they are open to all students and will explore the cultural and interdisciplinary ramifications of deafness. The first hurdle to clear, says van den Bogaerde, is audism: fear or avoidance of the deaf.

“The deaf often feel isolated, and that needs to change,” she says. “And a lot of the time that we do talk about deafness, we talk about it in terms of loss. But when you’re born deaf, you didn’t lose anything. You’re just you."

“They don’t see one another as handicapped,” adds van den Bogaerde. “They are just who they are, and they want their language to be accepted.”

Van den Bogaerde has been professor of deaf studies at Hogeschool Utrecht since 2007 and a professor of Dutch sign language since 2013. Her research interests include acquisition of sign language as a first language or foreign language, didactics of sign language teaching, and sign-language interpreting.

She deems her teaching style “unorthodox” — more fostering discussions, less guiding students through the text.

“I expect motivated participation, and for students to come prepared for content-rich discussion,” says van den Bogaerde. “Especially here at Swarthmore, I’d expect for the diverse interests and backgrounds of students to generate a rich exchange of ideas.”

Van den Bogaerde has long dreamed of teaching abroad, but it wasn’t feasible, between raising a family and creating educational programs in the Netherlands. But the opportunity at Swarthmore came at just the right time, and she relishes the interdisciplinary spirit of her new post.

“At home, we have so much to do that we tend to focus on our own niche,” she says. “But I am so excited to work with faculty and to broaden my views and see how we can learn from one another and contribute to the knowledge and understanding of the deaf community and sign language.”

Also appealing to van den Bogaerde is the College’s deep value for community.

“For me, it’s about raising awareness and understanding, not just in peer-reviewed journals but in the community,” she says. “Swarthmore appears very committed to that.”

Although the United States is far ahead of many other countries on issues facing the deaf, there is still a lot of room for improvement, says van den Bogaerde. As she has for three decades, the professor will spend this next year doing everything she can to increase the understanding and inclusion of the deaf.

“Even if someone is completely ignorant of deaf people and sign language, their questions and perspective help me to realize what I need to teach and how I need to go about my advocacy,” she says. “I want everyone to be aware of their own preconceptions and, in the end, experience a change of perspective.

“Preconceptions are fine,” she adds, “but how do you deal with them? How does that translate in your actions? Let’s examine and reflect on that.”