A Blast from the Past

In the late 1990s I worked at VSDC which is now known as Deaf Children Australia. January of each year was generally a slow time with children being away on holiday. We used the time to tidy up minor administrative issues and set ourselves up for the New Year. One January my manager sentme down to the dungeons to sort through old files. The dungeons were the basement of the big old bluestone building on St Kilda Road. Down there you will find a big old bath the size of a small swimming pool. In years gone by deaf children boarded at the building and this is where they apparently bathed. I had visions of regimented deaf children all lined up and made to bathe with each other while supervisors looked sternly on.

The dungeons are a fascinating place. At the time it contained files going
back a long way. I found files of deaf people who I knew that dated back to
before the war. These files tell a fascinating tale of a world long gone. One
of the things that struck me the most at the time was that deaf boys all
seemed to be encouraged towards trade type jobs while deaf girls were
encouraged towards sewing and cooking. Indeed the museum at the
Bluestone building contains boot making apparatus. One can imagine rows of
young Deaf boys in their long pants in a boot making workshop learning to
make boots while the girls were in another part of the building sewing or

But really it is not a world that long gone. When I was finishing school in the
late 70s and early 80s I was not encouraged towards academic pursuits
either. I was encouraged into trades as well. Indeed I left school twice. I left
once to become a labourer in a cane furniture factory and left the second
time to become a cabinet maker. It was bizarre really because as a wood
worker I made a great ballerina. I was hopeless at wood work but always
great at English. I loved writing and reading and was very good at both. Yet
despite having talent in this area I was stereotyped into trades and never
encouraged to do anything else.

Until very recently I believed that the attitudes I faced and the attitudes
that the old students who attended the St Kilda Road deaf school faced were
largely a thing of the past. I now know of deaf people who are journalist,
lawyers, doctors and deaf people who are CEOs of organisations (ironically
only one of them at a deaf organisation). My great friend Donovan Cresdee
obtained his PHD last year into his 6th decade of life. This is a far cry from
the man who worked as a process worker in a tube making factory when he
left school.

If I had my time over again I wish someone had advised me to become a
journalist. I remember suggesting to my teacher back when I was at school
that I would make a good teacher of the deaf. I was told that it was not
possible. I was told that I would have to work with a class of hearing
students for four years first and that this was impossible for a deaf person. Meek and mild that I was at the time I accepted this as fact. God knows what they would have said if I had suggested journalism.

I was thinking recently how much better things would be for me if I was at
school now. Expectations are so much higher these days. Or so I thought
until I attended a friend’s 21st birthday on the weekend. At my friend’s party I met Sue, a young and extremely bright deaf girl who has recently left
school. Her recent experience shattered all of my positive illusions.
Sue is 19, having left school after completing year 12. She has a cochlear
implant but is heavily involved in the Deaf community through sport. She is
bright, energetic and friendly. Her language ability is fantastic and while she
has some minor English grammar issues she has very good written English.
Hell, even the articles I write have to be checked umpteen times because
my grammar is so poor.

Having successfully completed year 12, Sue left school with extremely high
expectations. She is a talented and creative photographer. Her aim was to
obtain work in the photography industry. She decided that rather than study
after leaving school she would go straight to work. This is not uncommon for
many young deaf people. After all, many of them have been at school more
or less since they could walk. Speech therapy and constant intervention to
help with speech development begins at a very early age.

Sue signed up with an employment agency. This agency is a specialist agency
that helps people who are deaf or hearing impaired look for work. Sue told
her case worker that she wanted to become a photographer. Her case
worker shot her aspirations down in flames.

Sue was told that her aim to be a photographer was not realistic and that it
was a competitive industry which required intensive communication. She was
encouraged to look for other work. It was suggested that there might be
opportunities available at her local supermarket as a shelf stocker that were
more in line with her capabilities.

And here was me thinking that the world had progressed since I had left
school. To put it mildly I was flabbergasted. Not so much because of the
case worker’s attitude but because the attitude existed within an agency
that provided specialist support for deaf and hearing impaired job seekers.
My friend Sue, from being a happy and confident school leaver, professed
that her self esteem was now shot to pieces. I emphasise here that she
herself used the term self esteem. She is a very aware girl with enormous
potential and it beggars belief that she is being made to apply for work as a
shelf stocker.

In an age where people in Adelaide have deaf Dr Don and Dr Bev, in Sydney
and Melbourne they have Alastair and Rebecca who are qualified deaf
lawyers and in Melbourne and London are Dean and Paul working as deaf
Executive Directors for their respective employers, surely we can do better
than this? How many more talented young deaf people will have to suffer the
same fate before Australia wakes up? Sue has had her aspirations shattered.
Brendan O’Connor and Bill Shorten who head the Rudd Governments
disability employment consultation, all our educators of the deaf and all
people who assist deaf job seekers– I hope that you are listening

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