Fiji 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,