Leaders in Action: Helping those in whose shoes he once was

Leaning on his personal experiences, doctoral student Joel Runnels champions deaf education and awareness

Fluent in American Sign Language, Joel Runnels is a two-time Fulbright scholar and a doctoral student at the University of North Dakota, where his research focuses on deaf education. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Joel Runnels is the type of person who turns adversities into opportunities to help others.

Earlier this year, Runnels, a doctoral student in Educational Foundations & Research at the University of North Dakota, returned from Ghana, where he co-developed an instructional video on sign language and deaf education for the University of Ghana.

“It’s a good start, but I see it as a start instead of an end,” Runnels, a Minneapolis, Minn., native, said of his work in the West African country. “I feel like ‘Okay, that’s great,’ but then there’s always, ‘So what? And, then, what now?’”

That was Runnels’ second visit to Ghana, on his second Fulbright scholarship. The first time around, he gathered information about Reverend Andrew Foster, a 20th-century pioneer of deaf education in Africa. The Reverend, known as the “father of deaf education in Africa,” is the focus of Runnels’ dissertation at UND.

“In my world of education for the deaf, he’s a legend,” Runnels said. “But his story is more or less untold. My research is to create a book on his work, a historical biography of Reverend Andrew Foster.”

Foster, himself, was deaf. Runnels can hear. But as a kid, he had such a pronounced stutter, that it was easier to communicate via sign language than talk.

“My own experience with disfluent speech is what motivated me to get into deaf education, as well as American Sign Language,” Runnels said. “I found that at many stages in my life, I could sign a lot quicker than I could talk.”

Having faced similar challenges, Runnels said he developed a bond with the deaf community early on. He understood what it is like to be mocked. He knew the frustration of being unable to express yourself. He felt others’ snap judgements about his intelligence.

“I’m not a deaf person, but I know a lot of the tensions that they experience,” Runnels said. “I’ve experienced them too. And you can read about it, you can write about it, you can study it, but they say, ‘He or she who feels, knows.’”

Runnels said he is privileged for his education. As a child, he had experts who guided him as he improved his pronunciation. Today, Runnels speaks deliberately, thinking about the sounds in each word he utters, before he speaks them crisply and confidently.

Runnels often speaks to UND students about his professional journey and deaf education. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

But, perhaps, more than his speech, his fluency in American Sign Language has landed him a number of work and research opportunities across Africa, where he grasped the need for deaf education on the continent.

Among Runnels’ travels to the continent was a Peace Corps posting in Kenya right after he obtained his bachelor’s degree in speech, language and hearing sciences from Western Washington University.

Upon his return to the U.S., Runnels earned a master’s degree in special education at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. Then, he secured a Fulbright grant to do research in Ghana before coming to UND in 2018.

Throughout his studies and research jobs, Runnels has aimed to elevate those in whose shoes he once was.

“Every day that I wake up and I’m able to do something, I feel like it’s a bonus day,” Runnels said. “If I am able to speak as I am, if I can hear as I can, if I can do all these things, I feel that I really should be doing them for an earlier iteration of myself.”

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