In Memoriam: Jon Henner

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AAAL recently learned of the passing of Jon Henner. We are grateful to Suresh Canagarajah for composing the following tribute to Jon’s remarkable life and contributions to applied linguistics.

Jon Henner’s wife, Emily Carrigan, announced on Twitter that Jon passed away on August 14, 2023, at 7:16 am. She observed that he “has been giving the finger to cancer for the last 6 years.” For many who knew him, that metaphor is an apt tribute to Jon’s whole academic career. He has been giving the finger to ableist linguistics to empower disabled scholars and students in education. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind when confronting injustice, especially on behalf of the Deaf and Autistic communities he was part of. His scholarship and teaching embodied his multiple disability identities.

Jon would have been 41 years old this coming November 26th. He grew up in the Chicago area and attended John Hersey High School. According to his friend and collaborator Octavian Robinson, Jon had diverse interests and hobbies such as motorcycles, baking, weightlifting, poetry, video games, ballet, and ice hockey. He liked to collect interesting and unique lamps. He loved good food and enjoyed hanging out with his friends. He was very fond of authentic pho. He had a very wide range of interests and tastes in popular culture. He was a devoted, loving, and involved father for his three children who are 16, 8, and 3 years old. He was fondly remembered by many across his lifespan as someone who would be anyone’s friend, who had eclectic interests, but who was also no nonsense and pragmatic.

Jon briefly attended Gallaudet University as an undergraduate and then transferred to Illinois State University, where he was expelled from the deaf education program for challenging the faculty on their deficit views of deaf children. He ended up majoring in Philosophy for his B.A., which he completed in 2005. He then earned an M.S. in Psychology from Walden University in 2008, with an emphasis in Cognition and the Deaf. His Ed.D. is from Boston University in Developmental Studies, completed in 2016. His advisor was Robert "Bob" Hoffmeister, in whose honor Jon co-edited a book of essays, titled Discussing Bilingualism in Deaf Children (Routledge, 2021). He began working in 2016 as Assistant Professor in Professions in Deafness, in Specialized Education Services, School of Education, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In 2022, he was tenured and promoted to Associate Professor.

Though his professional life was brief, he left a lasting impact on disability studies. Perhaps the work that introduced him to the wider linguistics and education community was his co-authored article on “Crip Linguistics.” The article with Octavian Robinson, titled “Unsettling Languages, Unruly Bodyminds: Imaging a Crip Linguistics,” attracted more than 2500 downloads in the online repository PsyArXiv Preprints, before finding a journal. Jon had chronicled on Twitter the travails in publishing this manuscript. Many respected journals rejected it, saying that they didn’t find it relevant for linguistics. They thus proved the point the article was making about the biases in the discipline against the concerns of those who don’t use speech and language for their communication. It was eventually published in April of 2023 in the Journal of Critical Study of Communication and Disability, with a new subtitle “A Crip Linguistics Manifesto” .

The article defiantly proclaims: “When someone languages outside of what people think is normal, others can think they are bad with language, or are not as smart as someone else. No one is actually ‘bad with language.’ We want to help people understand that no language is bad. It is okay to want to change your language use if it will make you feel better. No one should make you feel badly about your language. We need a bigger and more flexible understanding of what language is.” 

Together with this paper and his public scholarship, Jon had a tremendous influence on linguistics by suggesting disability as a category of analysis and analytical framework. To further this mission, Jon was generous in accepting invitations to speak in the AAAL convention in 2023. Because of his ongoing cancer treatment, he participated virtually. He was the opening speaker for the colloquium titled “Disability Studies Questions Applied Linguistics” and contributed to other panels as a respondent. He was also a member of the AAAL Ad Hoc committee for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) and made trenchant recommendations for disability justice in the association and for greater accessibility at its annual conventions.

Jon has left his mark on Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. In particular with regard to Deaf Studies, his writing generated new avenues in conversations about linguistic human rights, language and power, and resonances with disability and dysfluency studies. His scholarship prompted a reevaluation of certain boundaries and "given" truths that Deaf Studies has long held about its object of inquiry. Jon wrote with others on a variety of subjects like signed language interpreting, barriers confronted by deaf academics, deaf epistemology, and neoliberal critiques of the university as far as signed languages/deafness were concerned. 

Jon's 2018 paper with Robinson in Disability Studies Quarterly on “cripping the University,", a neoliberal critique of the modern academy's relationship with deafness and signed languages, is one of the most widely taught and assigned essays in Deaf Studies and Sign Language courses. Not just in the United States but across the globe, many have found it a useful rhetorical tool to push back against the erasure of deaf people from knowledge production about signed languages and deaf people in general. Their 2017 paper on deaf epistemology in Disability and Society was the first seed of what would eventually become their Crip Linguistics framework. 

Outside of Deaf Studies, Jon had a major impact on Deaf Education. He is known for his critical work on language deprivation in deaf children, and deaf children’s language learning. Examining how different factors impact the development of language and cognitive skills in deaf and hard of hearing, he looks at how to best assess and measure the language skills of deaf and hard of hearing populations. He has also published on the experiences that deaf academics have in academia and how professors, researchers, and scientists interact with deaf people.

Jon has had an impact as a teacher. His students often said that he inspired them to pursue research and intellectual curiosity. His students have admired his charisma and knowledge. Here are two anonymous student comments in

  • “Dr. Henner was a wonderful teacher. He gives you opportunities to do well and succeed in his class, take advantage of those. His class is tough, but if you do all of the assignments and get them in on time you should pass with flying colors.”
  • “Henner was a great teacher for a class that can be very boring. He made topics that were dull fun by being sarcastic but still professional. He was overall a ‘refreshing’ Professor by being different from the normal: cursing a little, being a smart-butt every now and again, but at the same time being respectful to others."

Jon also shaped early career scholars. He had a reputation for always offering a helping hand and encouraging words to other scholars, particularly those new to academia. He believed that the senior, more established scholars owed it to those who came after to pull them up. Robinson observes, “I cannot count how many people he has nurtured, mentored, and otherwise supported in the eight short years since he finished his doctorate.” He co-authored with some emerging scholars to guide them through the process of writing a publishable paper. He instilled in them the confidence to pursue academic careers and continue publishing their work. Those individuals have gone on to publish while building their respective careers.

Jon’s voice has resounded within the scholarly community through his passionate and insightful posts on social media, such as the following words in a poster for a lecture: “How you language is beautiful. Don’t let anyone tell you your languaging is wrong. Your languaging is the story of your life." Or an unceremonious tweet that is distinctively Jon: “There. Is. Motherfucking. Dignity. In. All. Ways. Of. Languaging.”