Deaf to the potential – By Michael Uniacke – posted Tuesday, 4 August 2009 -

catcochlearPerhaps the juiciest part of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s press conference late in June to announce universal screening of newborns for hearing impairment was the lone question asked by an unknown journalist at the very end.

This press conference was a joint affair between Mr Rudd and the former Opposition leader, Brendan Nelson. The hapless journalist asked Dr Nelson a question about the latest turmoil in the ranks of the Liberals. “We’re here to talk about deafness and hearing,” scolded Dr Nelson, and that was that.

The journalist’s feeble attempt to get onto something interesting was a rich indicator of how dull was the news that Mr Rudd appeared to be doing something to help deaf babies become hearing. The Herald Sun’s perfunctory report showed the obligatory photo of Mr Rudd with a small boy whose name, according to the caption, was Tanya Plibersek. The report in the Sydney Morning Herald was much more engaging and readable, but still framed the event in the context of political foes dropping their differences.

No wonder journalists were bored. Politicians have always taken advantage of being seen promising to help disabled kiddies and scoring photo opportunities with small children. But Dr Nelson was only half right. The press conference and announcement had everything to do with hearing and nothing to do with deafness. In the room was a bellowing elephant to which everyone, apparently, was deaf.

The press conference took place at the Shepherd Centre in Sydney, which describes itself as one of Australia’s leading providers of audio-verbal therapy for hearing-impaired children. It is a place where specialists devoted to the sense of hearing regard deaf people and sign language in much the same way that butchers regard vegetarians.

There is of course nothing wrong with a screening program to detect hearing impairment in newborns. My concern is what the centre’s founder, Dr Bruce Shepherd, said after Dr Nelson declared that all small deaf children should have a cochlear implant (aka the bionic ear) before the age of one:

“It means that these children, rather than becoming drawdowns on the community and welfare, will become productive members of the community and go on to lead productive lives and happy lives, able to communicate with the entire community and not just with the few who might be able to sign.”

Dr Shepherd’s statement, with its murky subterranean cavern of insinuations about deaf people and they way they live, takes some beating. My own reaction was, “here we go again”. Dr Shepherd is not the only one to say something like that. Jack O’Mahoney, the former CEO of Cochlear, the implant’s manufacturer, said the same thing. So has Professor Graeme Clark, the inventor of the cochlear implant. So did the late Peter Howson, the former minister in the McMahon government. But unlike Dr Shepherd, they did not make such statements in the presence of beaming prime ministers.

It has long fascinated me why sign language provokes otherwise intelligent men into making comments of such inane stupidity about deaf people. There was one immediate clue: two of the three dignitaries presiding at this press conference were medical doctors, with Dr Nelson the former head of the Australian Medical Association. Little wonder they regard deafness as a pathological condition which requires a cure. Such an attitude is the polar opposite to that of deaf people, for whom deafness is simply a part of their lives.

There is another clue. The raison d’être of specialist places like the Shepherd Centre is small deaf children. The good Dr Shepherd sets a shining example for the staff who know very little about the lives of deaf adults, apart from a conviction they live silent and unhappy lives. They know nothing about the language they despise.

There is a third clue. There was a scene in the film Rabbit Proof Fence, where the abducted Aboriginal girls were having their first meal at the Moore River settlement. An Aboriginal overseer rebuked one of them for speaking their native language: “We’ll have no wangka here. You talk English!” The admonishment was repeated by one of the sisters at the settlement.

This comparison with the historical suppression of sign languages is not exact. Hearing children can learn another spoken language more readily than deaf children. However, common to this suppression of sign languages and aboriginal languages, and our third clue, is fear. It is fear that those who hold power might not only not know what is going on, but also that the speakers and users of minority languages might actually know more than they let on.

Sign language in Australia, which is known as Auslan, is not going to conveniently disappear. It is a subject for study at VCE level, at adult education centres and universities, and numerous people – academics, researchers and interpreters – make a living from it. Auslan is a community language. Across the Tasman, New Zealand has three official languages – English, Maori, and New Zealand Sign Language.

The cochlear implant does not somehow “immunise” children against deafness, in the way the good doctors suggest. Deaf people with a cochlear implant are a normal and unremarkable sight at gatherings of the deaf community. It is normal to see deaf people with cochlear implants using fluent Auslan.

Dr Shepherd does not explain why deaf people lead unproductive lives, and how a cochlear implant will magically make them productive. The ability to lead a productive life, in the sense of seizing opportunities for example, comes just as much from within the individual as from external trappings. The state of being deaf itself proffers numerous opportunities in life to those willing to look beyond ignorance and stereotyping. And if opportunities for deaf people are limited, then Dr Shepherd’s self-serving attitudes are one of the reasons why.

Doctors Nelson and Shepherd are saying to parents of young deaf children that the cochlear implant is the only way (and the truth, and the light, one is tempted to add). Parents are much more intelligent than to swallow that. They need to gather as much information as they can about deafness, and this includes meeting people for whom deafness is a normal part of their lives. Parents who do this will gain a far richer knowledge of deafness than the good doctors will ever want them to know.

Dr Nelson has no idea that parents of deaf children have numerous choices open to them. The cochlear implant is one of those choices, but it is emphatically not the only choice. The benefits of a cochlear implant for deaf adults and children have been much extolled, and rightly so. But the good doctors doth praiseth too much. By their own logic, a cochlear implant is the ideal prescription for legions of unhappy hearing people who lead unproductive lives and who are drawdowns on the community and welfare.

As the Chief Protector of Aborigines lamented in the very last line of Rabbit Proof Fence: “If they would only understand what we are trying to do for them”.

Exactly. If these good doctors would only understand what deaf people are trying to do for them.

(Article used with kind permission by Michael Uniake original posted at

7 thoughts on “Deaf to the potential – By Michael Uniacke – posted Tuesday, 4 August 2009 -

  1. Gee… I do not understand why captial “D” in Deaf is not being use given that Deaf Australians see being Deaf a way of life just like being Italian, British, etc. Here in Canada, we ALWAYS use Deaf unless talking about deaf people who do not interact within Deaf community. Why is there an acceptance of using “hearing impaired”??? It is quite insulting to us Canadians and Americans. Nonetheless, thank you for pointing out that medical people could be quite ignorant – they are simply blinded by the cash flow. Ka-ching is such a sweet sound to them fat cats each time they install an implant inside the head of whoever chose to be implanted.

    Watch out …. the goverment probably COULD cut the relay service and closed captioning access given their wrong impression of the so called success of CIs. So…. us Deaf adults will have to dig deeper to prove that CI in babies are not 100 % effective and they would ALWAYS rely on such accesses like us Deaf adults do.

  2. I think in this case its cos we are talking about all people young and old who have a cochlear implant and doesnt refer to only people in the Deaf community. Lots of kids have cochlear implants and find the Deaf community later and then use Deaf to identify themselves.

    As far as hearing impaired go we asked some deaf people not associated with the Deaf community what term they preferred and overwhelmingly they said hearing impaired. Now I guess if Deaf chose Deaf and want their choice respected we have to return the favour to those that prefer hearing impaired.

  3. Here, in Canada, they prefer to call themselves hard of hearing or late deafened. The word “impaired” in their view as well as us Deafies has such a negative implication – it automatically afflicates to ‘impaired drivers’ as in drunk drivers. Guess it is North American thing – we, both Deaf and hard of hearing, teach people not to call us hearing impaired.

    I do respect those who chose not to call themselves Deaf and we do welcome them to our community – only THEY choose to feel and call themselves Deaf. It took me more than 20 years to identify myself as “D”-eaf.

  4. I just read a couple of the replies over where the original article appeared and it seems that people still do not understand that the CI is not the fix for everything Deaf/deaf.

    I think that Deafness Forum, Deaf Australia et al really need to step up their campaign of making Canberra listen to what REALLY happens before and after implantation and understand the fact that all implantees are still deaf/hard of hearing regardless of if they have an implant or not.

    Not to mention the withdrawl of funding for Speech Proccessors for people who are over 21… I wonder what would happen to Cochlear’s share price if the community knew about that?

  5. What about the hearing aids? They seems to have forgotton about them.

    I would love to get a free set of hearing aids. In fact, I haven’t wear hearing aids for at least over 10 years due to the fact that I cannot afford to buy the hearing aids and its surrounding costs.

    If the government decided to provide wearing hearing aids and its essential services for free then I will be happy to learn myself speaking properly again through the speech pathology sessions with the AUSLAN interpreter. Wouldn’t that be great isn’t it?

Comments are closed.