Prof. Annelies Kusters, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK

Prof. Annelies Kusters (deaf, Belgium, she/her) is Professor in Sign Language and Intercultural Research at Heriot-Watt University, where she has been based since 2017. She led the project “Deaf Mobilities Across International Borders: Visualizing Intersectionality and Translanguaging” ( from 2017 to 2023, funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant. Professor Kusters has a diverse academic background, including a BA in Philosophy (2003), a MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Leuven (2006), and both an MSc (2008) and a PhD (2012) in Deaf Studies from the University of Bristol. From 2013 to 2017 she worked at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. Fueled by her passion for ethnographic research, she has conducted extensive fieldwork across various locations such as Suriname, Ghana, India, the United Kingdom, and numerous international deaf events and workplaces since 2004. She has expertise in the study of mobilities, multilingual language practices, language ideologies, transnationalism, and sign language media.


Prof. Carol Padden, University of California, San Diego, USA

Carol Padden is Distinguished Professor and holds the Sanford Berman Endowed Chair in Language and Human Communication at UC San Diego. She is also Dean of the School of Social Sciences, a position she has held since 2014. Her research focuses on the structure and evolution of sign languages and cultural life in deaf communities. Over the last 20 years, Padden and her research colleagues have studied an emergent sign language that continues to be used in a Bedouin village in the Negev in southern Israel. Padden and her husband, Tom Humphries, co-authored two landmark books in sign languages and deaf studies, Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988) and Inside Deaf Culture (2005), and two textbooks on American Sign Language for students in high schools and universities around the country. She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1992 and she holds two honorary doctorates from the University of Haifa, Israel in 2015, and Swarthmore College in 2016. As Dean of the School of Social Sciences, she oversees 11 departments, 5 programs and several Centers which carry out research on educational equity, social mobility, immigration policy and post-civil rights Black Studies. An advocate for deaf communities, Padden is active in promoting research on sign languages around the world and in shaping policy and practices that advance the full participation of deaf people in society.

Evolution and ideology in the description of sign languages

Annelies Kusters and Carol Padden


The body of knowledge about sign language has grown dramatically in recent years to include many more languages in many more locations around the world. It has challenged us to transcend the traditional boundaries between speech, gesture and sign in search of a deeper understanding of human communication.  Not only do we have richer and varied descriptions of sign languages across many kinds of communities, from nations to regions, villages, and families, we have sign language that extends beyond these descriptors, such as across nations as in International Sign, or used almost exclusively by hearing people as in Indigenous Australian Sign Languages. Central to an understanding of sign language broadly defined is a critical examination of language ideologies and their profound impact on the categorization, recognition and naming of sign languages around the world. Language ideologies that underlie the work of sign language linguistics shape how sign languages and deaf communities are viewed and ultimately how deaf people understand themselves and their language. Taken together, this work pushes us closer to confronting our evolutionary roots as communicators and language users. We offer a challenge to consider our long-standing assumptions about language and the position of sign language within it by considering what we are learning about sign language evolution in the present time and in deep human history. We believe this challenge will lead us to ask new questions about the distribution, nomenclature and description of sign languages globally.