The earliest written record of hearing loss is believed to date from 1550 BC in ancient Egypt, and written evidence for early sign language and changing attitudes toward deaf individuals comes from Plato in 350 BC—but, according to Sophia Williams ’23 (sociology and anthropology and criminal justice, there isn’t much that reflects the significance of these findings in archaeological scholarship.
Williams received a Fulbright U.S. Student Award to fund her graduate education at University of York so she can help fill this gap of knowledge. She plans to earn a master’s degree in medical history and humanities so she can shed light on the often overlooked and misinterpreted human experience of those with disabilities throughout history.
She spent the last two years preparing her Fulbright application. Now, she looks forward to finally traveling from her hometown of Saint Augustine, Fla., to the United Kingdom this fall to pursue her degree and immerse herself in the Deaf culture of the UK.
“I’m really excited to share my experiences and learn from other Deaf people in the UK and across the world. There’s going to be a language barrier, because folks in England do not use American Sign Language, but I’ve been learning British Sign Language on my own and I’m really eager to learn from others and be able to share cultures,” said Williams.
Williams’s medical history and humanities degree will help her draw upon the niche fields of medical anthropology and bioarchaeology, which seek answers to the questions of how medicine and culture influence one another, and how to interpret lives of the past based on cultural remains. By combining the two fields, a scholar is able to capture a more realistic picture of how society impacts public health, according to Williams.
Her specific focus will be on Deaf and disabled people and culture throughout history and into current times. She hopes her work can help blaze a path for future Deaf scholars in the field.
“I want to make this profession accessible and to learn more about Deaf history so that I can share with others and make sure that Deaf people and other people with disabilities have more access to our own history,” said Williams. “By studying health and healthcare systems from the past, we can also learn what we can to improve healthcare systems now for Deaf people and other people with disabilities.”
Professor Jessica Hardin, Williams’s mentor, said that she was not surprised to hear that Williams received the Fulbright Award.
“She was such a strong candidate, I always thought she was going to get it from the start,” said Hardin. “As a Deaf woman who is studying how Deafness was experienced historically and archaeologically, she is paving the way in the field, both in terms of the dearth in scholarship and also as a Deaf anthropologist.”
Williams shared that the support she received from Hardin; Jenny Sullivan director of education abroad and international fellowships; and her other mentors at RIT was invaluable throughout the application process.
“Without my mentors and the support the Fulbright award gives me, I would not be able to go to University of York,” said Williams. “I am looking forward to carrying the torch and seeing how many doors I can open for myself and others. I think that having the Fulbright is going to open up a world of possibilities for me.”
Article originally published in RIT University News by Felicia Swartzenberg, May 17, 2023. Photo by Carlos Ortiz