There once was a time when I had to fend for myself. This was particularly so when I started studying Social Work at the University of South Australia. On acceptance to the University I met with Dick, who was the guy who looked after people with a disability. He asked what he could do to help. I explained that a signer would be good to translate lectures. (Interpreters, what were they?) He said that wasn’t possible but that he could organise a buddy to take notes for me. Being young and meek I accepted this as the way. He promised he would organise it for me.
I commenced lectures and after three days there were no note-takers. Several visits to Dick’s office were fruitless as he was rarely there. In the end I had to take things into my own hands. I got out the front one lecture and explained that I was deaf and needed assistance. Several people volunteered. Some were good others not quite so. I often would have to chase them for their notes. Access to group discussions were hit and miss. To put it mildly it was not a pleasant experience.
Through the course of my study things did improve marginally. They started to pay the note-takers. This improved the quality of the notes but still did not give me access to class discussions and peer learning. To keep up I had to read extensively. At one stage Dick’s secretary was receiving tapes of my lectures and transcribing them for me. The idea was that I would get full access to the information. The problem was she did this on top of her other work. Notes might be up to a week behind. I was always behind.
Things came to a head when I was failed for Legal Studies. Not because I failed to do the work or understand the topic, but because I did not hear instructions as to when papers were to be handed in. All I had to go by was the course outline which said “Papers Handed Back November 25th” which I took to mean when the paper was due. The paper had been due one month before that and the lecturer had clarified this. Everyone knew except me. “Handed back” had meant to mean when papers would be returned to students marked. I actually went to the lecturer’s house to plead my case but he refused to accept my story and promptly failed me.
My then girlfriend’s mother was livid. She said to me that I had to go visit my MP and tell him what had happened. I wasn’t sure what the MP could do and I was almost past caring. She even found out who it was and called to make an appointment for me. I was not sure what the MP would do but thought I may as well meet him, I had nothing to lose. So I met the MP who promptly set me up with a meeting with recently retired South Australian Premier, Mike Rann. Mr Rann was the then Education Minister.
If you have never met a Government Minister in their office it is an experience in itself. The South Australian Parliament House is a rabbit’s warren. My MP met me at the front of parliament house and led me through the maze of corridors to Mr Rann’s office and then went on his merry way, I never saw him again.
Of course Ministers are very busy. I had to wait some 40 minutes to see Mr Rann. Thankfully he was quite easy to lip-read because I had no interpreter. There were three people taking notes, which I found quite intimidating. Presumably this was to make sure I did not misquote Mr Rann at a later date. Anyway Mr Rann was very attentive, in fact overly so. He stared, never loosing eye contact. His eyes seemed to bulge out of their sockets and he leaned well forward over his desk and a half smile never left his face. But to his credit he listened.
I told my story of woe at University. I explained how I had started and how I had been forced to organise my own note takers. I explained the different strategies that we had tried and my frustrations at not being able to fully participate in my studies because of lack of access to discussions and peer learning. I may have explained other difficulties like access to videos and audio and what not. Mr Rann just listened and nodded.
I came to the end of my tale of woe. Mr Rann leaned back in his chair and asked one question. “How can we fix this?” I was on the spot. I had waffled on but offered no solutions. I said, “A signer would help a lot.” Mr Rann was silent for a time and then he said, “Here is what you should do.”
And his advise was to write a letter. “Write a letter to the Head of Social work explaining all this and what you want.”, said Mr Rann. “The Head of Social Work”
Explained Mr Rann, “Is also the Disability Advisor to the Premier.” Mr Rann instructed me to tell the Head of Social Work that I had met with him. “ See what happens from their” said Mr Rann, “And call me if you are not satisfied with the outcome.” And that was it.
I did as Mr Rann instructed. Two things happened. Firstly the next year the University started to provide sign language interpreters for deaf students and secondly my failure at legal studies was lifted. I was instructed to enrol for legal studies again and just hand in all the assignments from the previous year for marking again. God did I feel empowered.
Now it would be remiss of me to claim credit for all the introduction of sign language interpreting at University in South Australia. At the time there were several Deaf students who were fighting the same battle. Shane was studying at the University of South Australia and had had access to sign language interpreters BUT his employer had paid for them. Paul was fighting a similar battle at the Flinders University. Annabel had just enrolled in recreation. Several other deaf students had enrolled and withdrawn from study from lack of access. It was a combination of many things, people and circumstances that brought things to a head. I was just one cog in the wheel.
But I was one of them and I played my part. I played my part by constantly drawing attention to my circumstances, never giving up and hammering away. And I am proud of it, very much so. Now when students enrol at University in South Australia and get access to interpreters they can look back at the work that I, and my fellow deaf students, put in and the battles that we fought to ensure that we got a fair go. They all benefit. I guess that is our legacy.
I write this with a lump in my throat because they were honestly very difficult times. Difficult but inspiring times and it is these battles that made me who I am today. This story came back to me as I analysed my recent battle to get interpreters at the National Disability Employment Summit. I look at my change in attitude. Back then I would just accept whatever was offered now I DEMAND access as my right. I use my contacts and my skills, honed over two decades, to make sure I get full access.
The times have changed and I am proud to have played my part. The battles are not over there is much that needs to change and we must continue the fight. But never forget those that have gone before you. The access that people with a disability and deaf people get today has been built largely on the shoulders of others, the pioneers I call them. Honour them by keeping up the good fight.