Joel Runnels had been waiting and waiting for someone to write a book about the “father of deaf education in Africa.” But after years of waitin,g the two-time Fulbright scholar is writing one himself.
Runnels, a UND doctoral student, is preparing for his second Fulbright experience in Ghana. At the start of the new year, Runnels will travel overseas to begin work on a project that will highlight the work of Andrew Foster, a name which may not be familiar to most Americans. However, across much of Africa, the deaf community, sign language students and teachers of the deaf, he was known as the “father of deaf education in Africa.”
“He’s really a legend amongst those who are involved in education and sign language for the deaf in Africa and America as well,” Runnels said.
Foster was a deaf African American missionary who, after moving from the United States to Ghana in 1957, established 32 schools for the deaf across 13 African nations, effectively laying the foundation of the continent’s deaf education and sign language instruction programs.
But Runnels said, unlike other central figures in the world of deaf education, such as Alexander Graham Bell, there is no biography or book about Foster.
The journey to Runnels' dissertation and understanding about Foster happened almost accidentally. As a Peace Corps volunteer in 1997, he was assigned to work at a school for the deaf in Kenya. It was there Runnels first learned about Foster.
After returning to the U.S. following his service, Runnels was eager to read Foster’s biography, only to find that there wasn’t one.
“It reached a point where I was waiting so long for someone to write the book that I came to a realization that, well, if I want to read it, I've got to write it,” Runnels said.
Now Runnels has been selected for a Fulbright Specialist Award to further his research into and dissertation about Foster. Fulbright is the flagship educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government, and the Fulbright Specialist Program sends U.S. faculty, graduate students and professionals to serve as expert consultants at academic institutions abroad.
Runnels’ Fulbright award will be co-sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the University of Ghana, where Runnels will stay in the spring. At the University of Ghana, Runnels will work with a deaf Ghanian counterpart to design a multimedia presentation on the subject of Runnels’ research: “Dr. Andrew Foster, Ghana and the Roots of Deaf Education in Africa.” Growing up in elementary school, Runnels said he had a very difficult time with his speech. He had a severe speech impediment and was only able to function by receiving a lot of special education help and support along the way in the Minneapolis Public Schools. Though Runnels is not deaf himself, he felt he shared a similar experience with the deaf community.
“I had journeyed through, not exactly the same as, but I feel a similar experience to persons who are deaf and hard of hearing,” Runnels said. “I felt and I really empathized with how difficult it can be when you have a communication breakdown, especially as a student, when you can’t be easily understood.”
Runnels chose to major in speech, language and hearing sciences during his undergraduate studies at Western Washington University, outside of Seattle.
In his undergrad years, Runnels often found he could sign more fluently than he could speak and he had an affinity for ASL and the deaf community. He felt the deaf community was accepting of him, even though he was not deaf himself.
“The deaf community was very welcoming to me and quite early on they brought me on board, and I guess I’ve never looked back since,” he said.
Runnels thanked UND for allowing him academic freedom and the funding to make this non-traditional dissertation happen.
This is Runnels’ second Fulbright award.
A Minneapolis-area native and former U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, Runnels also is the winner of a previous Fulbright U.S. Graduate Student Program award, which took him to Ghana in 2017-18. He is fluent in American Sign Language and conversational in Swahili, skills that he hopes will help him work with Somali people in the upper Midwest, many of whom speak Swahili.
“Fulbright winners join an international coalition of scholars who work together to transform the world by setting joint priorities and seeking out innovative solutions,” Yee Han Chu, academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator at UND, said in a statement. “Joel has demonstrated the training and expertise to make this happen. His adaptability, leadership, community engagement and global vision align perfectly with the Fulbright mission.”