What? Me Normal?

I missed out on a job last week. It was to head a disability advocacy organisation. I was beaten by the proverbial Manchester United of Advocates. In comparison I am just Championship League material. More like a Preston North End .. Knocking on the door constantly but not quite making the grade. My conqueror, on the other hand, probably is on first name terms with the Prime Minister … such are her credentials. I dare say it was a far gone conclusion before we were even interviewed. No shame in losing to someone of this calibre. I am the worlds worst loser, so its just as well the successful applicant was so good.  Before going on I apologise to all readers with no knowledge of the English Premier League. A lot of the above will make no sense at all.

I didn’t help myself by crashing my computer, losing my application, catching flu, redoing everything at the last minute and then sending the wrong documents, not just once, but twice. I must have come across as an eccentric dodderer. What really struck me though is just how heavily involved the successful applicant was in the Disability sector. I thought that I was too after 20 years, but one look at the successful applicant’s involvement in the Disability sector and it was obvious that, although I am experienced, I am primarily seen as a Deaf/hearing impaired advocate with some involvement in the disability area.

This got me thinking about the general view of Deaf people, who are members of the Deaf community, towards the topic of disability. Deaf people, (With a capital D), are well known for feeling uncomfortable with the Disability label. They prefer to be known as a linguistic and cultural minority. Indeed it is the case that they largely are. BUT society in general still finds it hard to understand why Deaf people see themselves this way.

It does not help that the Deaf sector quite happily apply for and receive funding from the Disability sector. Largely the organisations that serve the Deaf community exist on Disability money. Fundraising is often done by Deaf sector organisations using Disability themes and messages. Deaf Australia, the so called battison of the Deaf community, receive Disability funding too. It is no wonder that society, as a whole, is confused by the “We are not disabled” message put forward by the Deaf sector.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the cultural and linguistic claims of the Deaf community. It is just that the Deaf community cannot seem to sell this message to the larger community. Many people in the larger community feel that the Deaf sector is hypocritical to willingly take Disability money while claiming, at the same time, that they are not disabled. In the defence of the Deaf sector, if they didn’t take the money they would be dead and buried because the Multicultural Sector certainly will not provide the sort of money needed to exist that the disability funding will.

Recently I had a meeting as a representative of Deaf Sport Recreation Victoria. We were discussing inclusion for people with disabilities in sport. At the meeting were representatives from other major disability sporting groups. As a whole the disability sporting groups preferred to be fully integrated as much as possible. Wheel Chair Sports, for example, prefer their major competitions to be scheduled as part of the normal mainstream competitions. They would still compete against other wheelchair athletes, but their competition would be a part of the normal mainstream event. Other Disability sport groups prefer this sort of set up too.

Now as a representative of the Deaf community I felt compelled to point out that the Deaf community had a different view. Deaf sport prefers to be separate from the mainstream. The Deaf community prefer their own events where its solely a Deaf event. I took pains to point out that this was not anything to do with not wanting to be involved with people with a disability but was rather to do with a cultural and social values that are an integral part of the Deaf community. I don’t think I explained it very well because other participants in the meeting gave me some strange looks. It was very hard to tell the disability groups that I fully supported and understood their want to be be fully integrated into mainstream events while, at the same time, not wanting to be involved myself.

This is an ongoing problem for Deaf sports. They do not want to be part of the Paralympics. They want to retain and maintain their own competitions. Deaf Sports Australia has an ongoing battle to convince the government of a view that is very different to that of disability groups. Deaf people getting together is like a gathering of a like minded cultural group. Similar to, for example, the Jewish Games. The government sees Deaf people as a disability group. They can not understand why Deaf people do not want to be part of something as massive and successful as the Paralympics.

Disabled groups don’t seem to understand it either. One wonders if the Deaf community is being seen as elitist and separatist. They are not, of course, but one wonders if this is the inherent view. The skillset for competing in sport for Deaf people is not all that different from the mainstream. Perhaps they need to be more visual, but really they compete in pretty much the same way as able bodies athletes. An amputee or a wheelchair athlete is different. The skills they have developed to compete in their chosen sport are awesome and elite. The balance is different, the timing is different and often even the rules are different. For Deaf people sport happens pretty much as for any able bodied person.

The difference is in the social and linguistic interaction that occurs. The social and linguistic interaction is a thing of great value. It is something that Deaf people want to retain and maintian. And so it should. BUT convincing the powers that be and other Disability sporting groups of the cultural and linguistic need is not something the Deaf community has fully succeeded in achieving.

Sport aside – Deaf people, outside of the Deaf community, are largely disabled. Mainstream society is largely not accessible to them. Indeed they are only Deaf, (with a capital D), when they are in the Deaf community. In mainstream society they face many barriers for access, pretty much like other disabled groups. They are not Deaf but deaf! Access to good education, access to communication and even access needs for transport  are all things they have in common with Disability groups. Transport? I hear you all say … Well the deaf person who has not missed a train, plane or caught the wrong bus because they didn’t have access to public announcements is a very rare individual indeed.

There is much to be gained by being more fully involved in the Disability sector. There is much to be gained in identifying key themes of access to lobby for as part of the Disability sector rather than going it alone. Yet all to often Deaf people have to be dragged in, kicking and screaming, to the Disability table. It is hard enough to get Deaf Australia to even cooperate with Deafness Forum, let alone to get them to see the value in being more fully involved in the Disability sector.

Let’s be fair, it is not just Deaf people that struggle with the Disability label. The Disability sector has trouble with it as well. It’s a generally despised word. Full of negative perceptions and vibes. I am forever attending meetings where people do not want to use the word. You can’t, for example, call a young kid at school disabled. It’s not cool. You have to come up with some cool term … “Differently Abled” – “A person with varying  Abilities” – Some one with a Learning Disability is “Learning Challenged”. A Dwarf is a “Short Statured Person”.

Amazingly I find that these PC terms that people come up with are usually created by people who do not have a disability and are trying to find a nice way to describe people with disabilities. By and large people with disabilities have no problems with the term disabled. You ask someone that can’t see what they want to be called and most will say vision impaired or Blind. They will let out a deep sigh of frustration if you call them visually challenged. I met a short statured person recently and asked him what term he prefers …”Me?”, he said, “Call me a midget, otherwise I am Peter Short”

That is my experience. People with disabilities are less obsessed with the words and labels than people who do not have a disability. “Take the Dis out of Disability”, “What the hell is normal anyway?” are slogans that, I am betting, were created by sensitive people who do not have a disability. My view is that the majority of us people with a disability wish society would get over coming up with PC terms and get on with providing the money that is needed for access. Deaf or disabled – Access is needed by us all!

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One thought on “What? Me Normal?

  1. Hi,
    I found this article very intersting and most helpful.
    As a person who suddenly became totally deaf a few years ago, I’m one of the deaf (small d)community that you referred to that gets ‘left out’ so often as I can’t sign (though I am learning it very slowly), I have no previous friends or relations who sign or who have any real concept of deafness, have normal speech, (I think ‘normal’ is ok in this context!!)and of course I’m almost totally visual when it come to ‘hearing’.
    Since losing my hearing, I’ve been continually tryiing to make sense of the Deaf and deaf communities and in particular, trying to comprehend the attitudes and points of view of the Deaf community. It’s a steep learning curve!
    Your article is a valuable step along that road for me.

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