What I am about to write, I probably should not. I am a Board member of Deafness Forum Australia. Protocol dictates that I should not comment on this issue. However, I am so saddened and frustrated by what has occurred I feel that I must comment. In commenting I wish to make it very clear. These views are my own. They do not represent those of Deafness Forum Australia. For any embarrassment I am about to cause them I apologise now. I am prepared to accept any consequences that come my way.
Members and organisations that serve the Deaf community received a media release from Deaf Australia yesterday. In no uncertain terms they requested that Deafness Forum Australia butt out. Deafness Forum Australia had released a policy paper supporting and arguing for Australia to recognise Auslan (Australian Sign Language) as one of Australia’s official languages. One would have thought that Deaf Australia would have been supportive of such an idea. To be fair, they are, but they feel that Deafness Forum Australia should not comment on anything to do with Auslan. This, they feel, is the sole domain of Deaf Australia.
Australia currently recognises Auslan as a community language but not an official one. Currently Australia has a national language, which is English, but in recognition of its cultural diversity does not acknowledge English as an official language, in fact it has no official languages. There is a lot of debate occurring about what should and should not be an official language in Australia. The benefits of Auslan, or any language, as an official language is that it provides it with legal status. In terms of education, access to employment or even the courts this, potentially, could provide better access for Auslan using Australians. Auslan is currently recognised as the language of the Deaf community. While this is powerful it does not offer the same legal status as recognition as an official language, potentially, can
As Australia is debating the issue of official languages, it currently has none, Deafness Forum have decided to strategically open discussion about the need for Australia to consider Auslan as an official language. That is what it is at the moment – a discussion in which Deafness Forum Australia have invited Deaf people and the organisations that represent it to contribute to so that while the debate on official languages is under consideration in Australia, Auslan is at the forefront.
It is all quite complicated. Alex Jones, the president of Deafness Forum Australia has developed a comprehensive discussion paper for the Deaf community and its representatives to consider. I had a role in making suggested changes but the work is mainly that of Alex and he should get full credit. This paper, a valuable contribution to the official languages debate, has been distributed widely for discussion.
It is about here that Deaf Australia jumped in. Yesterday they sent out a media release. The release requested that Deafness Forum Australia withdraw the discussion paper. Why? Because. in their words, the discussion is already out there. Deaf Australia claim that they already have a policy paper on their website that requests, “The Australian Government and state governments to abolish any remaining obstacles to the use of Auslan as the primary and everyday language of Deaf people, e.g., as a language of education’
Deaf Australia recognise that they have never considered or presented a case for the recognition of Auslan as an official language but they feel anything that they have presented previously suggests pretty much the same thing. In short Deaf Australia has told Deafness Forum that comment on Auslan is the sole domain of Deaf Australia alone.
Deaf Australia, in there media release, make the astonishing claim that Deafness Forum are being disrespectful of them by releasing a discussion paper that focuses on recognition of Auslan as an official language. They claim that they were not consulted. That Deafness Forum has so few Deaf members that it has no right to comment on Auslan at all.
Let me make one thing clear. Deafness Forum have, on numerous occasions, tried to collaborate with Deaf Australia on issues relevant to Auslan and have been told in no uncertain terms NO! Deafness Forum, as part of their funding contract with the Federal Government, must represent issues relevant to Deaf people. The discussion paper on Auslan as an official language has to be submitted to the Government AND before submitting it they have sought feedback from Deaf people and Deaf organizations.
The major author of the paper, Alex Jones, is an Auslan user, has a child who is an Auslan user AND the mother of his child is an Auslan user. Alex has chosen to represent this discussion paper through Deafness Forum and has extensive contacts with the Deaf community. It is entirely within his rights to advocate as he sees fit and through whatever organization he chooses. It is not Deafness Forum who is being disrespectful. It is Deaf Australia!
I recognize that Deaf Australia are the primary organisation that represents Auslan in Australia. I recognize the work of people like Colin Allan, Robert Adam. Dot Shaw and the like who worked so hard to have Auslan promoted, taught and recognized. This discussion paper released by Deafness Form recognizes this work, supports it and gives Deaf Australia a platform to continue to lobby for the legal representation of Auslan.
How much easier it would have been for Deaf Australia to be politically smart. Why could they not have welcomed the Deafness Forum discussion paper. The smart response would have been to congratulate Deafness Forum on their discussion paper, point out the previous work and recognition that was achieved by Deaf Australia in the past in relation to Auslan and invite Deafness Forum to work collaboratively on the issue. They could even have respectfully requested that Deafness Forum allow Deaf Australia to lead the discussion from now on.
If they felt aggrieved at being left out of the loop, what is wrong with a simple private email stating the fact. Did they really need to send out this ridiculous press release? The press release only succeeded in making Deaf Australia look like an organization that wishes to go it alone, an organization with no political smarts and one that is either unwilling or unable to collaborate with others.
The parliamentary Secretary for Disability, Bill Shorten, has stated on several occasions this year that the Government is fed up with the disability sector. In fact I believe he described it as a “Rabble”. He has expressed his frustration that disability advocacy organisations are constantly sending conflicting messages to the Government and as such it is often easier for the Government to ignore them completely. Here was an issue, Auslan as an official language, that Deaf Australia could have used and built on to keep it firmly under the Governments noses. It had an opportunity to build and support the energy created by the discussion paper. In doing so it could have demonstrated the spirit of collaboration that the government is seeking. The message that Bill Shorten is really giving disability advocacy representatives is – collaborate or DIE.
Instead of collaboration Deaf Australia have acted like a petulant child. A child that has spat the dummy, taken his ball and gone to a corner to play on their own. If I were a member of Deaf Australia, which I am not – and the media release reminded me why, I would be questioning the leaders of Deaf Australia in a big way. The narrow mindedness shown in this instant, the lack of political smarts and the astounding lack of vision is just unbelievable.
I am all for Deaf Australia owning and leading debate on Auslan and Deaf community issues. With this discussion paper they had an opportunity to grasp something that would help them in their objectives. Instead they have created more friction and come out of the whole sorry saga looking like an organisation that has yet to move with the times. At the next Deaf Australia AGM I hope its members ask some tough questions of its leadership. The simple fact of the matter is that Deaf Australia needs to collaborate and mature or end up on the scrap heap!