Year of the Patronising Bastard

andrewdentonpic2Back in the early 1990’s disability awareness training was the in thing. The trick was to make participants feel like they were disabled. Trainers carried with them an assortment of tools. Blindfolds, earplugs and goggles that stimulated a variety of vision loss conditions. Participants of the training were required to negotiate their way around buildings in a wheelchair, with the goggles or in a blindfold. They put in earplugs and then covered their ears with earmuffs and carried out conversations with each other. They then debriefed.

Responses were fascinating. Some participants would be moved to tears. “Sob Sob… Sniff sniff .. I had no idea that not being able to see was so hard…. Sob Sob”  Others would exclaim, ”  …It’s so inspiring that people can get around in a wheelchair through these little gaps, they are so cleeeeeevvver..” If you were a disabled person helping with the training you would get any number of compliments ..”.. its amazing what you can do.”   …”  … it must be sooooo hard to lipread like that all day!!!”

I was reminded of this training after watching Dancing With the Stars last night. There is a blind man dancing. Granted its very hard for him to dance given dance requires the person have good spatial awareness and be able to see how they move. I have no idea when the man, Gerrard, lost his sight. At a guess I would say it was fairly early in his life given his lack of awareness of his posture. He danced very badly yet the audience rose as one to applaud him. His attempts at a Michael Jackson move were, quite frankly, comical and gruesome to watch. Yet still the audience rose as one. He did dance, a solo, which took some guts but at the end of the day, as judge Todd said, he couldn’t dance. Good on Todd for having the sense to not patronise him and just say it as it is. Of course the judgement could not pass without the customary “INSPIRING” comments but bottom line … Gerrard cant dance although he is an excellent mountain climber, having climbed Everest. Gerrard, to his credit, acknowledges that he cant really dance and makes fun of himself. In reality I bet he inwardly cringes at some of the comments  and the over-reaction of the audience.

More people should be like the legendary Andrew Denton. Denton knows how to present disability issues. He does it in a forthright way and is unafraid to see the funny side of disability. Denton was responsible for the fabulous Money for the Gun and one of its shows was called Year of the Patronising Bastard. I vividly recall being in hysterics with one skit that took the mickey out of the type of disability training that I described in the opening paragraph. In the skit there are three participants. The participants are wearing blindfolds, they have earmuffs, white canes and their mouths are taped. Denton accosts the participants as they are attempting to negotiate the stairs. The three are stumbling along banging into each other. He asks them questions .. whats it like to be blind? .. Of course they can’t hear him … they mutter through the tape over their mouths  bang into each other a few more times and continue on their way . Denton is left bemused with his microphone as they continue to negotiate the stairs totally unaware of his presence. In this one skit Denton hit the nail on the head, namely that such disability awareness training is less useful than it is patronising.

In the same show Denton interviews a man who had little more than a head and a body. Denton interviewed the man about his interests and hobbies and things that made his life worthwhile. The man spoke of his love of bike riding. Apparently he loved to ride. His friends would place him in a backpack, head showing, and ride with him on their back. The man told an hilarious tale of shocked motorists seeing this head sticking out of the back of a cyclist backpack and swerving in shock. It was a fabulous way to portray people with a disability and reminded us that disability is a life to be lived and not a tragic and lesser way of living.

Gerrard survived the cut last night. This is despite clearly being the worst dancer there. He is a great bloke with a dry wit but if we are honest he is surviving solely on the sympathy vote. Sure it takes some skill to catch his partner as she spins and jumps and speaks volumes for his skill of judging space and his tactile awareness. It also speaks volumes for his partner who puts so much trust in him to catch her. But truth be known Gerrard cant dance, he is like a board and just does the steps by rote. Yes that’s partly cos he is blind but by giving him the sympathy vote we are arguably putting the disability movement back ten years. Thankfully Gerrard is a realist and helps us a long with his sense of humour. Says Gerrard, “.. If I start smelling popcorn I will know I am in the audience.” And that is how I like it.  I only wish others around him would be a little more realsitic about his dancing ability because Gerrard seems to be the only one who can see the funny side of things.

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A Fijian Postscript

fiji-childrenFiji is an interesting country. The local Fijian people are a joy. A smile is never far from their lips. They seem to have a natural affinity with deaf people. Let them know you are deaf and they communicate in mime, gesture or by writing as if it is second nature to them. Fiji is also a third world country. Apart from tourism the locals rely largely on agriculture to exist. Cows roam the roads, pigs are bred in backyard lots and the locals walk the roads carrying their produce purchased from the roadside markets. In Suva while looking for the Fiji Association of the Deaf, we stopped at Fiji’s largest hospital to seek directions. The first room we walked into we found two local Fijians of Indian descent making a coffin. It was a stark reminder as to where we were. Despite this, the level of acceptance and willingness to communicate made one feel an equal.

Meanwhile the age old to have or not have a Cochlear Implant debate has been reignited by an article in The Age. Professor Clark, inventor and chief promoter of Cochlear Implants, was at his misleading best. Cochlear Implants, he says, will allow, “…deaf children to compete with their hearing peers on a normal footing. In Sweden, 95 per cent of profoundly deaf children have a cochlear implant.” Millions will read his comments and garner false hope and unrealistic expectations as to the benefits of cochlear implants.

Deaf Australia in an attempt to balance the debate put forward the opposite extreme. They had this to say, “….The implant implies that deaf people are ill or incomplete individuals, are lonely and unhappy, cannot communicate effectively with others and are all desperately searching for a cure for their condition.” Of course the implant doesn’t imply any of this; people do. In an attempt to counter the extremes of Professor Clark, Deaf Australia have probably and unwittingly driven a few million people towards him. Why? Simply because many will not understand the Deaf culture arguments and will resonate more with the “CURE it” mentality of Professor Clark. It is an uphill battle that Deaf Australia must fight. Meanwhile the deaf and the hearing understand each other just a little bit less.

Back in Fiji we visited the hostel for Deaf kids in Suva. In Suva they have a primary school and a high school for the deaf kids. Over 50 deaf kids reside at the hostel from all parts of Fiji. They attend the two local Deaf schools. We arrived at the hostel just as the kids were coming home from school. To say they were excited to see us is an understatement. The kitchen was standing room only. There were no shy kids or ones that were unable to communicate. There was not a cochlear implant or hearing aid in sight. Just happy, well adapted and curious deaf kids communicating at will. I tell you once a Fijian person smiles, they smile for a long time. As we left they all followed us to the van to wave us off. It was inspiring.

Back in Australia Can Do for Kids and Deaf Can Do CEO, Paul Flynn, has resigned. He claims he has resigned to pursue other interests. He resigns at a time when the interpreters and the Deaf community in South Australia are in turmoil. He resigns at a time when Deaf Can Do is in dispute with the National Auslan Booking Service. The dispute touches on interpreter monopolies, deaf choice and interpreter rights and is dividing the Deaf and interpreter fraternities of South Australia. Access anywhere is never a smooth path and sometimes Australian Deaf organisations do not make it any easier. Deaf people and many interpreters in the meantime look on in confusion. The majority just want interpreters and most interpreters just want to work.  If only it were so simple.

After visiting the hostel we visited the Fiji Association of the Deaf. The Association lobbies and coordinates events for the Fijian Deaf community. It is run and controlled solely by Deaf Fijians. The only hearing person in sight was the interpreter. Here we are in the so called backwaters of Fiji and Deaf people are in complete control of their own lives and their community. It is something Australians, especially the hearing people that cling so desperately to their control, can learn from.

Questioned about hearing aids and cochlear implants the Fijian Deaf people were dismissive, almost as if hearing is just an afterthought. Communication and belonging were values foremost at the front of their thinking. Being able to hear was not needed for any of that. Language, acceptance and friends were. Back in South Australia everyone is at war about interpreting provision. Deaf Fijians would be bemused because the level of interpreter access to be had in Australia is something that they can only dream of.

We had agreed to speak to the Fiji Association of the Deaf and their interpreter trainees. Once again we had a full house. It was overwhelming. We spoke to the group about captioning. Fiji doesn’t have captioning on TV. Most were, frankly, quite dismissive about the need for captioning. They were almost of the view that captioning on TV wasn’t needed. They could get captioning on DVDs they said. Having no captions on the TV was no big deal for them. What they do want are more interpreters. Indeed the Fijian Association of the Deaf is the organisation that organises and implements training for interpreters. (Remember, it is controlled solely by Deaf people.) There are not many interpreters in Fiji but they recognise the need for interpreters in a variety of situations. For them this was the priority, not something seemingly as self indulgent as captions on the television. The gulf between values and needs of Fijian Deaf people and Western Deaf people is huge. We, who have nearly everything, perhaps need to appreciate more of what we do have.

Meanwhile over in Fiji Deaf people are smiling broadly. The Fijian hearing populace are also smiling broadly. Not for them is it to worry about whether deaf people can hear or be fixed. The important thing is that they be happy, loved and included. To be deaf is to be an equal. Sure Fijian Deaf people have disadvantages in interacting with their community and this is part of the reason that they are lobbying hard for more interpreters and doing their best to train more. But it all comes down to acceptance and this their society has in abundance.

I could be wrong but Deaf and hearing Fijians seemed to me to be equals and they respect each other as such. We here in Australia, who moan when television hows are not captioned or when the trains are late, can learn from the Fijians – arguably more, in fact, than Fijians can learn from us.

Life is like this: sometimes sun,
sometimes rain.
Fijian Proverb