A Fish in What Sea?

My good mate Deano, the big deaf fella that went to the Olympics, used to live and train in Adelaide. He had this ramshackle blue Toyota Corolla that was smaller than he is now. The car was, to put it mildly, a pigsty. In the back he had an assortment of stuff usually related to his training. He had pole vaults, flippers, bags of smelly clothes and god knows what else. I used to love looking in the back of his car because there were motivational notes to himself. On the flippers he had written, “No Pain No Gain”. My favourite was the note scrawled on piece of cardboard that went something like “I want to be a great athlete not just a great Deaf athlete.” This last note was apparently in response to a question from his coach. His coach asked him: “What do you want to be – A great athlete or just a great Deaf athlete?”

I was thinking about this during a navel gazing moment last night. There was no fluff this particular night so I had plenty of time to think. Thinking of Dean took me back to a meeting I had with Pierre Gorman. Gorman is best known as being the first deaf person to obtain a PHD from Cambridge University and assisting in the development of the Paget-Gorman Sign System.

I met him as part of research that I was carrying out into young deaf people and mental health. We talked about everything under the sun and he was a hopeless gossip. He started chatting about deaf people he knew. I vividly recall him mentioning a high standing and much respected member of the Deaf community and asking me: “Do you think he is trying to be a big fish in a small sea?” Thus, implying that the person was wasting his talents solely within the Deaf community. He was suggesting that this individual was avoiding the challenge of using these talents in the wider community. Gorman could be controversial like that.

In navel gazing moments my mind flies off in tangents. From Gorman my mind journeyed to a confrontation I had with a manager of one of our deafness organisations. She and I started talking about the respective merits of actively employing deaf people into management roles within the deafness sector.  She was quite frank and disparaging of many deaf people she had worked with.

She talked of a current deaf manager as being a, “waste of time”, because -“He is only using us as a stepping stone to bigger things and has little interest in what he is doing within the organisation.” She spoke of former deaf employees who they had encouraged and nurtured only for them to leave for greener pastures. Thus, wasting everyone’s time.

She felt that if deaf people did not have the same experience and qualifications as hearing people to compete for leadership positions within the deafness sector, to appoint them to leadership roles was akin to tokenism. Affirmative Action was not part of her vocabulary. There was very little we agreed on but it was a civil and spirited debate.

While people were watching television or reading books I entertained myself with my thoughts. It is no surprise that I fell asleep soon after. However I awoke with these thoughts still fresh in my mind. What can we make of these three stories? First let’s revisit Deano’s example.

Sport at the Olympics is elite sport. Competitors are the very best at their chosen event. To succeed Dean had to forget the label of Deaf athlete and see himself as an athlete – full stop. Deaf sport can be of a high standard but it has no comparison to the Olympics. Dean was an athlete first and foremost; being deaf had nothing to do with it.

It would be the same if Deano was a computer programmer. There is no point in being a deaf computer programmer and wanting to work only within deaf sector organisations to program computers. I am sure there are some jobs for computer programmers in the deaf sector just as there are opportunities within Deaf sport. But to be the best and compete with other computer programmers, deafness has no bearing.

Pierre Gorman’s comment was mildly offensive to me at the time. The person he spoke of has achieved enormous growth and improvements in access for Deaf people. To imply that the achievements would be more prestigious if it had occurred within the hearing sector seemed to be bordering on snobbery.

Pierre Gorman was a fascinating and talented man. But to me, at the time, it felt wrong to assume or even suggest that a person that has worked so hard and achieved so much for the Deaf community was working in the sector because it made them feel more significant than what they could feel in the hearing sector. It seemed offensive to suggest that this prestige would be somewhat greater had it been earned within the hearing community. Why was doing the very best in the Deaf sector any different from doing the very best in the hearing sector? To me they were one and the same. I only wish that I had challenged Pierre Gorman about his view instead of being overawed by him as I was at the time.

Had I done so, I may have come to understand that Gorman was not entirely wrong. Perhaps there actually are deaf people that work in the deafness sector because they are comfortable. All their needs are met. Interpreters are provided. Work colleagues can communicate with them. Most of the time anyway. We have all heard of the hearing worker that has worked in a deaf organisation that is impossible to lip-read or who after 30 years still cannot sign. Unacceptable as this is, the question remains – are there deaf people working within the deaf sector simply because they do not wish to leave their comfort zone? Gorman may have been wrong about the particular person whose motives he questioned but in retrospect he may have been touching on an entirely different point altogether.

In the third story I was perplexed when having the conversation and I have no less clarity now. It seemed to me that the manager was looking for excuses as to why there were not more deaf people working in leadership positions within her organisation. On the one hand a deaf person who was a manager will leave because his interests lay elsewhere. On the other, a person they were grooming for management left them and wasted their time. It was almost as if having deaf people in positions of management was a burden for the organisation.

In Dean’s story his coach wanted him to be an athlete, not a deaf athlete. The coach’s focus was on Dean’s abilities and not the fact he is deaf. Given the coach, before meeting Dean, had probably had little experience of deafness one might have expected the coach to allow some latitude for Dean’s deafness. But to the coach Dean was an athlete whose deafness had no influence on his achievements.

In Pierre Gorman’s story, Gorman seemed to feel that many deaf people are not achieving their full potential. He seemed to have been suggesting that some deaf people use the deafness sector as a crutch rather than take on the challenge of succeeding within the wider community. Gorman’s focus was on skill, ability and challenging one’s comfort zones. Deafness did not really come into it.

As for the third story I just do not know what to make of it. Perhaps the manager felt threatened about having deaf people at her own level. Perhaps she felt that if there were too many deaf people in leadership roles in her organisation, the organisation would become too lopsided. I really do not know. Her whole attitude just left me confused and a little downhearted.

I believe that deaf sector organisations have a role to nurture and develop deaf people for management and leadership roles. Not to protect deaf people but to allow them to develop the skills that will allow them to compete for positions within and outside the deaf sector. If they stay within the deaf sector – great! If they leave and take up opportunities outside the deaf area, that’s great too!

Dean’s coach and Pierre Gorman are not really that different in their attitude. The coach wanted Dean to be an athlete and not use his deafness as an excuse for anything. Gorman, if you think a little deeper, was pointing out that people should not hide behind their deafness. Being a big fish in a small sea might feel satisfying but for Gorman this was akin to settling for mediocrity. His attitude was debatable, a little snobby but ultimately with good motive.

As for that manager, talent and ability don’t even seem to come into play. For her it seems deaf people are all the same. For her it seems deaf people are unreliable and likely to cause more problems than benefits. Whereas the coach and Gorman see only ability she sees only the deafness. Her attitude is stereotyping at its worst.

Phew!! It is amazing what you can come up with from a bit of navel gazing. Goodness, what is this? Is it fluff I see? I think I will get back to it and give my poor head a rest.