March 31, 2023

Dunn amplifies the deaf community through research and advocacy

3rd-year PhD candidate Renca Dunn poses in Love Library, wearing a crew neck hoodie that reads "Deaf Spotlight" and signing "I love you."

Third-year doctoral candidate Renca Dunn poses in Love Library, wearing a crew neck hoodie that reads "Deaf Spotlight." She is signing "I love you."

Fighting stigmas around Deaf identities keeps Renca Dunn pretty busy.

The doctoral candidate, classroom instructor, influencer and high school cheer coach channels the pride she feels in her identity as a deaf woman into all facets of her life, especially in her research in the Department of Communication Studies’ Communication and Identity Lab.

“Communication is the number one thing we need in our life — we communicate for information, to express our thoughts and feelings, and to learn about other people,” Dunn said. “Communication allows us to feel connected to our identity.”

Dunn’s work looks at how communication shapes our experiences, particularly those in the Deaf community.

“One of my projects is looking at the need for Deaf identities and cultures to be recognized and valued,” Dunn said of her project, “Deaf or Death: The Story of Robin.” It was inspired by the story of a deaf woman who was denied access to a sign language interpreter when hospitalized.

“We need the same things as anyone else, but my specific communication needs and resources are different than what you might need — often people don’t recognize that.”

Engaging with local Deaf clubs is another important aspect of Dunn’s work and advocacy.

“Deaf clubs are a hotspot where deaf people get together to exchange information. We host events, birthday parties, and all kinds of things,” Dunn said. “With any marginalized community, you can’t sleep on what’s happening — Deaf clubs give us spaces to meet, share stories, and discuss disability rights.”

Dunn is also passionate about working with deaf youths, recently co-coaching the Iowa School for the Deaf’s cheerleading squad to win the Great Plains School for the deaf cheer championship.

“Because deaf people are so stigmatized, many deaf children grow up feeling isolated — like they wish they weren’t deaf,” said Dunn, stressing the importance of sign language access. “When deaf kids go to these schools, they feel at home and meet deaf adult role models that help them build confidence in their identities so they can go out and be proud of who they are.”

Dunn’s work with the school as a cheer coach was highlighted by ABC’s Good Morning America.