The Rebuttal is not just a Blog where the author mouths off, although there is no doubt that that happens. It is also a widely read and we hope respected Blog. We receive comments and queries from all over the world about articles that we publish. Our readership is not fully known but in the last 12 months there were 220 053 hits on the site. Some of these hits were spammers but the total for those was 1.7%. It’s safe to say that it is very well read and has at least some influence. Over the life of the Blog it has had more than half a million hits, 1.1% of these being spammers. More interestingly, looking at the hits graph, it is now at its most popular.
Our readers know this and they often ask us for help. Recently it was the South Australian Deaf Community who helped us to draft an article to bring attention to their fears that their spiritual home was about to be closed or sold. There has been contact from more than one CEO in the Deaf sector asking us to highlight certain issues. Some of these requests from the CEOs have been, it is fair to say, not always ethical. Sometimes we also get requests from readers to answer questions for them because approaches to organisations have not been successful.
On Monday Catherine, not her real name, emailed The Rebuttal requesting some information about Deafness Forum Australia and general views about our advocacy sector. According to Catherine’s Email, she had made contact in the sector several times and not received a response. Catherine is looking to research the effectiveness of the advocacy sector. Her questions are very valid and thought provoking. I have answered these questions and my answers are my own views. I don’t expect everyone to agree and I encourage people to challenge and respond to my answers. If you think I am talking GARBAGE say so, but provide an alternative answer if you can.
Catherine’s first question was; Deafness Forum states that began in early 1993, at the instigation of the Federal Government? Are you able to provide me with any background history, how DFA actually came into being?
Now to answer this I am going to rely entirely on my memory. My recall is that it came about from a protest that there was no advocacy group for people who were hearing impaired. This being latter deafened adults and people with a hearing loss who were not part of the Signing Deaf community (The Australian Deaf Community.) The argument was that the Australian Association of the Deaf that was funded for signing and culturally Deaf people did not really represent the needs of people who were hearing impaired.
In its wisdom the Government of the day decided to set up Deafness Forum. My recall was that when this happened it tried to take funding from the Australian Association of the Deaf and make it part of Deafness Forum. The Australian Association of the Deaf, quite correctly, protested this decision. The argument of the Australian Association of the Deaf was that it was a cultural group representing and protecting the rights of the Australian Deaf community.
The Australian Association of the Deaf wanted to maintain its autonomy. It quite rightly protested, and still does, that the Deafness Forum Board structure could potentially discriminate against the Deaf community. The structure of having representatives from services, parents, ear disorders and the Deaf community with equal voting power meant that there was potential for the Deaf community to be voted down on vital issues.
Indeed in my first time on the Deafness Forum Board this is exactly what happened. I had great conflict with the Board over the discrimination case that was happening in Queensland. In this case the two sets of parents of deaf children had taken the Queensland Education Department to Court over the lack of provision of Auslan interpreters. Deafness Forum was of the view that they should remain neutral and not get involved. My own view, as a Deaf community representative, was that even though Deafness Forum should not be involved directly in the case they should at least make a statement along the lines that they supported parents of Deaf kids to have the right of CHOICE and that Auslan was a VALID choice. The Board voted myself and one other pro Deaf community representative down and refused to make any statement whatsoever. It was a very hostile time and this is only part of the story. To tell the whole story would take many pages.
Anyway after a bit of toing and froing back in 1993 the Government agreed to continue to fund the Australian Association of the Deaf to be its own advocate BUT it also mandated that Deafness Forum would represent the Deaf community too. This meant, essentially, that the Government was being advised by two different groups on the needs of the Deaf community. The problem is that these views are often contrary and this leads to regular conflict. It is not for nothing Bill Shorten described the advocacy sector as a rabble when situations like this exist.
Catherine’s second question is very challenging. I will pull no punches in answering it: Is the fact it was instigated by the Government problematic, like does it mean that it’s not really independent? In one article on The Rebuttal you state that Deafness Forum Australia said they were “currently receiving advice from our major funding bodies on plans moving forward” (re: their CEO situation(Orwell knew his stuff article). Is this usual practice for a disability peak body, to have to consult with funding bodies re: a new CEO?
Firstly, let’s be clear, the statement about Deafness Forum receiving advice from its funding body on plans to move forward was a direct quote from the Deafness Forum Chair and not me. He was responding to me about a query that I had made about the supposedly vacant CEO position at Deafness Forum in December 2011.
The response from the Chair would suggest that the Government has more than a little say in how our advocacy organisations are run and this brings into question the level of independence that they have. What Catherine is suggesting is that because our Advocacy groups are funded directly from the Government it means they are not fully independent of the Government and its policies. In an ideal world our Advocacy groups, whether they are Deafness Forum Australia, Deaf Australia or the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations would be free to challenge and protest decisions of the Government of the day. But that would mean biting the hand that feeds them wouldn’t it?
Does this reliance on Government funding mean that our advocacy representatives are reluctant to openly criticise the Government? In my view, yes it does. There is a tendency to try and create change quietly in, “partnership” and, in my view, a general reluctance to rock the boat. Now sometimes this softly, softly approach is the way to go but there are other times when it is not. The current campaign for cinema captioning is one of them.
This is an interesting campaign, firstly because originally the community, hearing impaired and deaf, rose as one to campaign for better cinema access. They opposed the cinema’s application for exemption to DDA complaints and the minimal improvement in access that was being offered. The community, collectively, said the offer from the cinemas was a joke BUT our Advocates said we were all wrong. They encouraged us to accept what was offered. Our representatives publicly accepted what was on offer despite the fact that what the people they represented wanted was clearly the opposite.
The community won that battle leaving egg on the faces of our advocates. Bill Shorten was our champion and brokered a deal for the introduction of Captiview. The Government went to great lengths to use this case as an example of its commitment to improving access for people with a disability.
As things developed it became clear that the Community did not like Captiview and wanted the roll-out of Captiview stopped so that other options could be explored, including retaining open captions. Again our advocates went against the grain, even going as far as publicly supporting the roll-out of Captiview against such obviously strong community opposition. Why? I am not sure, perhaps it is because they fear upsetting FACHASIA, the funding body that runs the Cinema Access roll out and also provides funding to our advocacy organisation. Or perhaps it is just sheer pigheadedness. I would suggest it might be a bit of both.
But in my time in the sector, and this is going on quarter of a century; I have never seen one of our peaks openly challenge the Government of the day. The strategy has always seemed to be to try and create change quietly behind closed doors and with as minimal controversy as possible. More often it is done in great secrecy and with little transparency. Some of this is because diplomacy can often be the best way forward BUT I also have no doubt that our advocacy representatives DO fear upsetting the hand that feeds them, publicly anyway.
My view is that they are not independent and they are directed and largely controlled by the Government. Indeed this funding is the only funding that they have apart from membership dollars which form only a small part of their budget. Because of this reliance on the Government I am not sure whether they actually have a choice. To stay alive they have to keep the Government happy, to make change they have to keep the Government happy. If they don’t what is the option? It is a really difficult situation for them to be in. But I do feel that the balance in trying to represent consumer views and trying to appease the Government favours the Government too much.
The other unfortunate side of this is that there are some people who get involved in advocacy organisations who clearly have a conflict of interest. They have business associations with the Government and use their role with our advocacy organisations to access Government contacts. There are those that say this is simply a situation where both the advocacy organisation and the individual’s business interest have a mutually beneficial outcome. BUT what it also means is that it makes the organisation even less likely to challenge for fear of upsetting the Government.
Ideally advocacy would be fully independent. This is certainly not happening at the moment.
In regard to the question as to whether or deafness advocacy organisations need to consult the Government about who they appoint as the CEO well in my time, as far as I know, this has never had to happen. Although Deafness Forum has stated publicly that the last CEO and the current one were appointed on the strengths of their relationships and networks with the Government in Canberra. So perhaps the Government has some kind of indirect influence in these CEO appointments.
Catherine certainly makes me think and this question is no different. I’ve been asking myself the
same questions you have mentioned in “The Rebuttal” – just how representative of us are they (deaf sector organisations). Is it possible for Deafness Forum to be challenged by another organisation – for example if another organisation sets itself up as a national peak body for the deaf and follows the example of Deaf Australia by being run by consumers?
Simple answer to this is yes and it has happened. Let’s not kid ourselves, the Deaf sector does not see eye to eye. The relationship between Deafness Forum and Deaf Australia is hostile, although there are signs that it is improving. At its worst in 2010 Deafness Forum and Deaf Australia actually had to try and resolve their differences with the use of a mediator that was paid for by the Government.
While a little different to our advocacy organisations, the situation in South Australia is a good example. The main services group that provides support to the Deaf Community, Deaf Can Do, is the guardian of the Deaf community’s assets and also advises the state government on many issues. For some time now many members of the Deaf community in South Australia have not liked what Deaf Can Do are doing and have had great fears for its spiritual home at 262 South Terrace. They established the Concerned Deaf Group to challenge and ensure that the Deaf community view is heard. They are fully voluntary but they are also fully independent and lobby to both Deaf Can Do and the SA Government about their concerns. While they are only small they have a lot of input. Unfortunately like many breakaway groups they are often patronised and ignored by the powers that be. There are signs that this is changing and that they are starting to make people sit up and take notice.
Federally there is the Action On Cinema Access Group (AOCA) that was established because a concerned group of Deaf and hearing impaired people did not like the approach that Deafness Forum and Deaf Australia were taking in regard to cinema access. So powerful did they become that when I was on the Board at Deafness Forum I recall taking part in a meeting with the Australian Human Rights Commission about the cinema access campaign. The Australian Human Rights commission representative advised Deafness Forum that they should take note and listen to “the new kids on the block” AOCA also have a representative on the national advisory group that is overseeing the roll-out of Captiview.
AOCA are not funded by or supported by the Government and are fully independent. They are vocal in their opposition to Captiview. They are seen as divisive because they represent the views as they see them and as the COMMUNITY tell them, warts and all. A previous representative for one of our peaks had a bit of a rant to one member of AOCA calling AOCA selfish and divisive. The problem was the person did not realise that this person was a member of AOCA and was very embarrassed when the AOCA representative informed him that she was a member. This gives you some idea of how our peaks view people and groups that, “speak out of school.” They are not aninsignificant group either with upwards 400 members on their Facebook page.
The strength of the Concerned Deaf Group and AOCA is that they are fully independent. They are driven by motivated and passionate people that do not have to fear having their funding being cut off. In many ways it makes them more effective. Ideally or advocacy representatives could be equally independent but as long as the bulk of their funding comes from the Government it is never likely to be so. Be thankful for the dissenters for without them our voice would be even weaker.
Thank you very much for answering my questions through your excellent article on The Rebuttal. I’m very excited about the information you provided, also very grateful for your valuable time and for the opportunity The Rebuttal provides for open debate, sharing of opinions, discussion and information sharing etc. Also it is an important “voice”! I have found I can relate to what’s on The Rebuttal.
I just wanted to clarify though that when I asked whether its possible for another organisation to challenge Deafness Forum – I used the wrong wording, I kind of meant provide another alternative to Deafness Forum as a peak body for the hearing impaired, for example another alternative for those consumers Deafness Forum claims to represent to Govt that are not happy with the organisation/consultation processes/representation/choice of non-deaf CEO/long term strategic plan etc etc
The basics of my answer, in retrospect, were a bit vague I admit. What I was trying to say was that yes you can set up another organisation, but keeping it as an independent voice is important. So I gave two examples where independent unfunded bodies have been set up and had an impact. If you wanted to get it funded, that would be problematic but not impossible. You would need to show you have a good following though and set up your group as a viable and legal organisation. You would also need to show that you have support for your views of Deafness Forum’s lack of consultative practices in presenting issues to the Government. If you think you have the support to do it, go for it I say. Then of course once the funding is sourced you have to ensure, somehow, that your new organisation is INDEPENDENT!
Thanks Catherine for your questions. I hope others will take an opportunity to comment and refute my answers. As I said, if I have spoken garbage say so but stick to the issues. Open debate like this from questions like those being asked by someone fully independent like Catherine is too often shut down. Good on you Catherine for asking the tough questions and I hope my answers have helped.