A Question of Priorities – By Marnie Kerridge

pamphletThis is a story that is all too common among families of deaf children, especially if they live in the country. It is the story of a deaf child denied access to language until the age of 5. It is a story of parents ignored by the system. Thankfully in this story the child, now 8 years old, learns to sign competently, develops good speech with the help of her cochlear implant and is now becoming immersed into school and family life. Mum is thrilled but still angry at the suffering she and her daughter had to go through. She is angry at the 5 years that were lost and can never be recovered. All because of an early intervention teacher who felt that a hearing and speaking existence was the only life worth living and for whom signing was primitive and an acceptance of defeat.

Last night I was talking to the mother. It was her birthday. Her new man asked for her hand in marriage. He is a wonderful man, totally accepting of the child’s deafness and is learning to sign. It was one of her happiest nights. She was emotional and in a very reflective mood.

Mum spoke of her difficulty in learning Auslan. Being in the country, there are no Auslan courses available apart from local community classes. To access an in-depth course where one could learn every day, she would have to travel to the city. She is increasingly frustrated that her rate of learning is slow and that her daughter has surpassed her. She knows this is wrong. She should be able to communicate effectively and fluently with her daughter. She has some home support but it is not enough. She is grateful for this support but she needs more for her daughter and for her family.

I work with her daughter and have been privileged to be able to assist and watch the growth in the daughter’s language, both signing and speech.. Mum will move heaven and earth to help her daughter. She even considered giving up work for two years to study Auslan. As a single mother she would have thrown herself and her two children into poverty so it was not an option. Emails sent by myself and the mother to TAFEs and deaf organisations to explore support options went largely unanswered. The mother is still fighting hard and this inspires me to try even harder.

In Sweden, apparently, parents of deaf children are paid by the government to leave work and to learn sign language. In fact, I believe, it is mandatory. How fortunate and blessed are those children having parents who are encouraged to and can communicate with them. We operate on a different social services system here but there must be a better way to support families of deaf children to attain fluency in Auslan! The needs of these families is far greater than people from the community who attended a community course and think Auslan is a cool thing to learn. Yes, few of these people do go on to become interpreters but surely the priority should be the families.

Perhaps we need a deaf organisation that looks after families to develop a scholarship that covers the cost of TAFE fees and materials. It is not quite on the level of Sweden but would help immensely. Perhaps TAFEs and universities should provide their courses for free for families of deaf children or the government meet the cost. Wishful thinking says you, but the University of Ballarat offered free learning for those who enrol in a Childcare Diploma course. Surely the needs of the families of deaf children are of equal importance if not greater. It is a question of priorities.

We need to explore and use technology better. Video conferencing would enable country parents to learn Auslan. Enough of the excuses that Video Conferencing is not three dimensional and that a two dimensional picture can not be used to teach Auslan. I am a qualified teacher with qualifications to teach Auslan and think this argument is utter rubbish. Video-conferencing is here – USE IT.

Make it financially possible for the parent to travel and meet their basic right to communicate fluently with their deaf children. Enough talk. Let’s do it now. Long term this is a win. The deaf child MUST have fluent and effective communication in the home. The parent is the major language role model for the child. Without fluent and successful communication in the home the deaf child is majorly disadvantaged. Open and fluent communication with the family is the major factor to developing a child, deaf or otherwise, who is confident and assured.

Are you listening? This child is fortunately improving daily. She could so easily have been without language and without a future. How many deaf kids do we have to lose before the message hits home?!