I was born and raised in Australia, brought up orally and went to an independent oral school in Adelaide. I had a cochlear implant when I was 14, and completed my schooling with grades good enough to get into a course in university where I eventually completed my degree. I have lived in three countries – Australia, Scotland and France. Comparatively rich countries but worlds apart in terms of providing support to the deaf. This is my story.
In Australia, because I am ‘Oral’ and able to communicate effectively without needing assistance (other than the cochlear implant), I was classified as ‘able’ therefore, unable to claim the Disability Support Pension (DSP). Instead, I worked hard to earn enough moneyto be deemed as ‘independent’. This allowed me to claim the ‘Youth Allowance’ to pay formy living costs while studying full-time at university.As soon as I turned 21, I was told that I was no longer able to receive cochlear batteries for free, all the services and cochlear materials were no longer free. Upon hearing this, and studying full-time on the Youth Allowance – I lodged complaints to the Health Ministerand my local MP arguing that age cut-off was far too drastic especially whilst I was on the youth allowance. I reasoned that the DSP was higher than the Youth Allowance, and people on the DSP were getting the services for free – why should I have to pay for the services when peers with lesser hearing impairments to me were much better off? I argued that with the cost of replacing a cochlear implant at $8,000, it was an unjustifiable hardship to placeon a university student struggling to get by. I wasted my breath!
I had no choice but to be put on the private health insurance and for my parents to prop me up with the costs. Basically, after I turned 21, I didn’t get anything from the Australian government for being deaf. For a rich country like Australia this is a shameful situation. When I first moved to Scotland – I visited DeafAction in Edinburgh. I sought advice concerning support for my cochlear implant and other support services. The DeafAction social worker was amazed that I was so ill-informed. She didn’t think I should pay for anything. She provided me with forms for the Disability Living Allowance which is up to £60 a week. This is provided on top of what you earn through work and it’ll pay for a few rounds of pints!
In Scotland deaf people are exempt from council taxes – which were over £1,000 a year for the house I lived in. Being deaf I was eligible for tax credits (tax returns) on virtually all taxes I paid. This can be paid weekly or monthly – however you choose. Buses are free for people who are deaf or disabled – and it’s free across Scotland. If you fancy trekking up to Inverness – a good 5 hours drive away? Go for it – it’s FREE! The passes are valid for 3 years and worth well over £350 a year. People with a disability (including me for being deaf) can have a rail pass which gives them and their accompanying friend a whopping 25% discount off the tickets. The rail pass is for every train that goes outside the city to another city/town (ie, Edinburgh to London etc). These train tickets can be expensive, so it is appreciated.
Deaf people can get an equipment loan from the Scottish Government, and these are also free, provided you return them when you no longer want them or are broken. Technology that I was able to access included a TTY, flashing doorbell, vibrating alarm clock and several others which left me feeling overwhelmed. I wanted a simple life – not to be cluttered by technology that I’d probably never use.
But wait! There’s more! Free British Sign Language classes. My friend was fascinated with the fact that I was deaf and enrolled himself into a British Sign Language course. He enrolled himself before he realised I didn’t even know how to sign. He made some enquiries and discovered that the course was free for me too, purely because I’m deaf. I wasn’t working at the time (I had only just arrived in the country) so I joined the coursewhile looking for a job, just for something to do. The course was nationally recognised and it was valuable in terms of qualification and skills.
Services targeted at my Cochlear Implant were all free. Cochlear batteries were free. I was told that if there’s anything I need – just give them a buzz and they’ll make sure I have it. I emailed them once saying that the cochlear was making funny noises. I thought that the cochlear was on its deathbed and wanted to give plenty of notice. The next day, a parcel arrived – a replacement cochlear which they sent through the post!! My first thought was “Crap – you just sent £4000 worth of equipment through the post?!” This would never have happened in Australia.
An audiologist in Scotland questioned me about life in Australia because he was impressed with my accent. He asked me if I was planning on getting a second implant. I scoffed at the idea, saying it would be far too expensive. He gave me a puzzled look, and politely informed me that the second implant is free – everything is paid for by the NHS. I could not believe it.
University courses are free for Scottish people (lucky buggers). However, students must get a loan for their own living costs which are very high. Students studying full-time on the Disability Living Allowance, however, can simply apply for the Income Support (muchlike the Unemployment benefits in Australia) to pay for their living costs. This is on top offurther financial assistance towards rent, and bills in extreme circumstances (ie, temperature goes below 0 degrees). Scotland is a gold mine– the Deaf’s Ballarat of the 21ST century. Now, the question that I’ve been asking myself during my moves is … where should the rights and support for people with a disability stop? Having the bus pass was laughable. I’m much more mobile and active than the majority of the population, I speak more coherently than a lot of people in Edinburgh (Their are a lot of foreigners in Edinburgh, and the Scottish accent is known to be difficult to follow) and although I might require the occasional “please repeat”, I show no other sign of being “disabled”. There is no reason why I should get free public transport. I, on the other-hand, having tasted the liberty this card provided me. I would hate to give up the free unlimited access to all buses all over Scotland! It is a dream to be able to run to the bus stop and jump on any random bus without having to worry about money or whether I’m wasting a trip by just hopping on for two stops (lazy me!).
I could go on, but I do wonder which country is getting it right. I feel much more liberated and alive in Scotland than I do in Australia because I feel really privileged and I love the treatment and welcome I’ve received. I really do love having that bit of extra cash from all the savings to spend on socialising and drinking with my friends. But I would not have been as successful as I am now if it hadn’t been for the more difficult lifestyle in Australia. (And of course, my parents, family, school and friends!!). In summary, Scotland, identifying me as ‘disabled’ has made me feel like I’m living in a gold-field, while Australia prepared me for a realistic life as an ordinary person, though I was clearly and severely disadvantaged at times – I wasn’t seen to be ‘disabled’ by the Australian government. Where should the line be drawn?