Academics

Dr. Joseph Murray was born and raised in the United States. But as president of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), he has to represent more than 130 countries, each with its own languages, cultures, and attitudes. He explained this balancing act at a campus event last week, “Deaf Lives Across Borders: Navigating Complexities and Differences,” hosted by the Center for Democracy in Deaf America (CDDA).

CDDA Executive Director Dr. Brendan Stern, ’06, posed questions to Murray — who is also a professor in Gallaudet’s Deaf Studies program — about his experiences since stepping into this role in 2019.

One of his first concerns, Murray noted, was the legacy of colonialism. “Who decides what is important and what is on the agenda? We need everyone at the table,” said Murray, who recognized that the staff at that time all came from Europe, North America, and other parts of the Global North. Five years later, two-thirds of WFD staff members are from the Global South, and there has been a concerted push to do more in these regions.

A woman signs a question to a man as both stand in front of a seated audience. A line of people are waiting off to the left side of the room.
Dr. Joseph Murray (right) answered questions from audience members about a range of topics related to the World Federation of the Deaf. In the top photo on the page, he shares the stage with Dr. Brendan Stern, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in Deaf America.

Every day on the job requires working across time zones. When Murray starts his day in Norway, it is afternoon in Asia. After dealing with governments there, he often turns his attention to Africa, where WFD is planning a conference in Kenya in 2025. WFD is the only non-governmental organization recognized by the United Nations to represent deaf people, so Murray is also frequently planning events with them. The most high profile date is Sept. 23, the International Day of Sign Languages, which offers the opportunity to raise awareness and teach world leaders how to sign. “And who are the last people to wake up? It’s you in the U.S.,” Murray pointed out. “There is never a dull moment.”

Some of these countries are democracies, but others are theocracies and autocracies. When Stern asked how he handles all of those different contexts, Murray said that it comes down to inherent human rights. In pursuit of those, they will work with anyone, anywhere — including North Korea, where WFD helped set up a school for the deaf. “We’re not going to change the government there, but we want to improve the lives of deaf people and we do,” he said.

Murray and WFD have taken heat over the recent announcement that the next World Congress in 2027 will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which will not allow presentations on LGBTQIA+ issues. So he broke down how that happened, starting with the bid process that involved UAE, Norway, and Nigeria. Despite UAE’s stance, it received the most votes from member countries. After a recall effort, there was a second vote. “UAE won with a landslide,” he said, noting that countries in the Global South can have different motivations than those in the Global North. “They want the congress to bring up deaf leaders in the Arab world.”

As president of WFD, Murray has learned to ask what people in other parts of the world need. He recalled meeting deaf leaders in Haiti to discuss their advocacy agenda, and was shocked when their top item was sign language recognition. “Why, with food security and access to health care issues, would that be their priority? But once they have that, they have education and access in their language,” he says. “These countries know what needs to be done.”

After the conversation with Stern, Murray also answered several questions from audience members. The last one asked how he had become WFD president, and Murray explained that he began his work with the organization 28 years ago, starting with youth programs. “I encourage all of you to get involved,” he said.

CDDA has several other events coming up this semester, including an upcoming panel and dialogue on Israel and Palestine, as well as the Second Annual Gallaudet Distinguished Debate. For full details, see here.

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