Deaficitness

I attended a conference last week. Some expert was talking about deafness. He was a good expert too. He has been around for many, many years and has knowledge of deafness that is right up there with the best in the world. I left the conference strangely subdued and headed to the pub.  As I drank my beer I analysed what I was feeling. I realised that I was feeling a little uncomfortable because I had just spent the day listening about how deaf people were “deficits”. You see deaf people have deficits and lots of them.

They have a deficit of hearing. They have a deficit of self esteem. They have a deficit in employment outcomes. Their mental health is deficit; in fact it is twice as bad as the general populace. Deaf people have a deficit of money because they have poorer employment outcomes. Consequently people who are deaf are more likely to be in poverty. The stress of life and poverty makes people who are deaf become ill more often. And so it went on. The learned speaker reeled off one deficit after another. It was depressing.

I guess to fix something you have to know what is wrong. If you are sick you cannot begin to be treated until you identify what’s wrong so that a plan of cure can be implemented.  Likewise if you have no money, you have to know this and get to the root problem of why you have no money. Only then can you begin to fix the problem. The car breaks down you have to find out what’s wrong so you can get the right part and replace it. Knowing the deficit is important. The problem in deafness is that we seem to focus almost solely on the deficits and not on the successes and solutions.

Deficit mentality in our Society is rife. It is particularly well documented in education. Gorski from the George Mason University describes Deficit Mentality as, “approaching students based upon our perceptions of their weaknesses rather than their strengths.” Gorski believes that the , most devastating brand of this sort of deficit thinking emerges when we mistake difference—particularly difference from ourselves— for deficit.” And so it often is with deafness or any marginalised group. (Source: http://www.edchange.org/publications/deficit-ideology-scornful-gaze.pdf )

Now Gorski’s view of deficit mentality is one where society highlights the deficits of others to create compliance. The compliance assumes that there is a set way of behaving and to differ from that “accepted” behaviour is deficit. Deficit mentality focuses on stereotypes. For example the Government asserts that people with a disability have a right to work. But the Government also asserts that there are people with a disability who are a “cost” to society because they draw pensions which is a large part of their policy direction to get people with a disability into work.

Now of course the circumstances for each individual person with a disability being out of work are varied. But rather than look at these varied issues the interpretation that people make of people with a disability drawing on a pension and not working is that they’re a burden to society, or worse – lazy. The focus is on fixing the deficit rather than viewing people with a disability as an employment asset. Rarely do we see our policy makers viewing people with a disability with an “asset” mentality.

Now the learned speaker at the conference had no intention of perpetuating a deficit mentality about deafness. He wanted only to highlight that the way society was structured meant that there were several negative consequences for people who are deaf.  He highlighted several issues such as poor mental health, poor self esteem and higher incidences of poor health. He pointed out that this was for a number of reasons but the underlying message that came across was that the lot of a person who is deaf is overwhelmingly a negative one. And that is the message that people take away that not only do deaf people have a deficit of hearing but they also have other deficits that include mental health and general health issues.

Now this is ok to a point. It is ok to highlight issues. It is ok to point out that without the right support people who are deaf face many battles. The problem is that this is almost all that we talk about. Audiologist and the medical fraternity talk about “lack of” hearing and focus on “fixing” with technology such as cochlear implants or hearing aids. Deafness is deficit and it is only by becoming hearing like the majority that a person who is deaf can become equal. Very little information comes forward about people who are deaf as assets or even that deafness itself can be an asset. People who are deaf are poor and lacking. No wonder I was feeling depressed.

Some how we need a focus on how people who are deaf can be assets and highlight their assets. In community development asset based approaches are common. Asset Based approaches focus on; 

  • Appreciating and mobilising individual and community talents, skills and assets (rather than focusing on problems and needs)
  • Community-driven development rather than development driven by external agencies

Perhaps it is time to develop further these “Assets Based” approaches to the field of human services. (Source: http://www.synergos.org/knowledge/02/abcdoverview.htm )

In fact this has already happened.  Dr Laura B Nissen from the Portland State University has written extensively on the topic of Strength Based approaches for working with troubled youth, particularly in the area of substance abuse. Nissen describes the Strength Based approach as a way of focusing on individuals, families and communities, “In light of their capacities, talents, competencies, possibilities, visions, values and hopes, however dashed and distorted through circumstance, oppression and trauma.”

Nissen explains further that the Strength Based approach is a way, “…to regard each youth, his/her family and community not only as person in need of support, guidance and opportunity, but also in possession of previously unrealized resources which must be identified and mobilized to successfully resolve presenting problems and circumstances.” Nissen describes how support for troubled youth tends to focus on, “….risk and probability of re-offending, the latter on disease models and relapse.” She explains that support to troubled youth does not, “… tend to include norms of regularly seeking out, amplifying and maximizing client, family or community positive qualities in the course of service provision.”                                                                                               (Source: http://www.cimh.org/contentFiles/Strengths%20based%20Approaches%20L.%20Nissen1.pdf  )

Nissen could be describing how we focus services and support to people who are deaf. She could be describing how we focus on what is wrong, how sad things are and what we must do to “FIX” these poor deaf people. Usually the focus is on finding ways to make people who are deaf fit with the norms. Very rarely do we focus on the positives and the attributes of people who are deaf.

Let’s try and turn this around and replace parts of Nissen’s quotes with “deaf”.  For example by focusing on Strength Based approaches in the deafness area we, “…regard each individual who is deaf, his/her family and community not only as a person in need of support, guidance and opportunity, but also in possession of previously unrealized resources which must be identified and mobilized to successfully resolve presenting problems and circumstances.” In supporting people who are deaf we should, “ … tend to include norms of regularly seeking out, amplifying and maximizing individuals who are deaf, family or community positive qualities in the course of service provision.”  As John Lennon sang, “ Imagine, its easy if you try.”   

Now our deafness sector overwhelmingly focuses on the negative. In fund-raising campaigns we have TV advertisements of a young deaf person holding his face and screaming because he his frustrated at being isolated in a classroom.   A few years ago there was the horrendous Cora Barclay Centre television advertisement. In this advertisement the Cora Barclay Centre filmed a young boy signing laboriously. His message was that in years gone by this was how he would have communicated and then in an almost sing song voice he exclaims, “But now their is a better way..”  Implying that sign language was a lesser means of communicating and that the only way to be part of society is to SPEAK.  The Hear and Say Centre, to entice people to donate, has the sickening, “Without your help Zoe’s Mum might never hear her say I Love You” As if only by SPEAKING can one express love. These examples are deficit mentality at it’s worst.

Some how in the deafness sector we need to change this around. We need to be discussing deafness and its strengths. Rather than focusing on the sad and the missing we need to focus on achievements and how these achievements came about. For a start, and I have said this often, people who are deaf are a thriving economy. How many people owe their jobs, cars, food on their table and houses to people who are deaf? Teachers of the deaf, audiologist, the massively rich company Cochlear, interpreters, captioners and so on. People who are deaf are no burden. In fact I would say that if any one needs to be grateful it is the people that benefit from the existence of people who are deaf.

How often do we focus our awareness and educational campaigns on successful deaf people and how they got there? Do we speak of the people who are deaf who have completed PHDs? Do we speak of the deaf lawyers, the chefs, the deaf Olympians, the teachers or the social workers? – Hell we even have people who are deaf who are audiologist. Do we speak of what they are contributing to our society? Do we highlight the life skills that they have developed to live their life’s deaf that go above and beyond the ability to hear? Do we highlight how their families nurtured them? Do we pass on this knowledge to other people who are deaf and their families so that they can develop similar skills allowing them to thrive within our society?

Unfortunately the answer is – very rarely. Our fund-raisers use emotional blackmail and aim for the heartstrings. Would fund-raising not be more effective to highlight what is possible with the right support? Our academics roll off statistics about all that is wrong with people who are deaf and what a tragedy that it all is. As far as I know, in Australia, there is only one academic who focuses on strengths and what deaf people can do to become SUCCESSFUL and functioning. That person is, of course, deaf and can’t even get a job in the deaf sector. In fact the sector won’t even utilise that person’s knowledge and skills in educating the public. The person is an asset going to waste.

 Jonathan Kozol is a human rights activist and author. He has written often of inequality in America, particularly among the African American population. Kozol also believes we focus too much on human deficits. Said Kozol of African American children living in poverty,  Instead of seeing these children for the blessings that they are, we are measuring them only by the standard of whether they will be future deficits or assets for our nation’s competitive needs.”

And so it is with people who are deaf. By focusing almost solely on what is wrong, instead of what is right our Deafness sector perpetuates this mentality. It needs to change because as American actress and academic, Danica McKellar, states, There are stereotypes that have been out there for a long time that tell girls that their main asset, the main thing that they are valued for, is their appearance and also that it’s to the exclusion of anything else. And this is what we do with deaf people we promote incessantly the stereotypes of deficit to the point where it becomes normalcy. It is anything but the case and the power to change this is with us.

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Austar is a Dud

Finally I bit the bullet. I gave Austar the boot. I had been dealing with Austar for almost a year to try and get them to improve their captioning output and quality with no great success. Austar is the company that provides Pay TV to rural areas. It basically provides Foxtel feed to rural Australia. With over 200 channels it has a variety of stuff to watch. Unfortunately very little of it is accessible with captions. So I called them and told them I wanted to switch it off. Put simply it was not value for money. It was no easy thing to do. With Pay TV being the only way that I can watch my beloved West Ham, now back in the English Premier League, I made the call with great trepidation. But it is done and as from September the 3rd Austar will be history in our household.

Funnily enough it actually took longer to switch Austar off than it did to connect it. I called, got hold of an operator and said please switch it off. The operator then spent the next hour trying to convince me to stay on. “ But Mr Kerridge, is their anything that we can do to improve our service that will convince you to stay on?” I then spent the next ten minutes explaining to them that the reason I was switching off was because of the lack of captions. I explained that even when captions were provided that they were often poor quality. Captions were missing and that sometimes captions actually ghosted. Ghosting is when captions actually duplicate, where you get two lots of the same captions making it impossible to read.

“We can send out a technician to look at the problem for you Mr Kerridge.” At this I suggested that they check my file on the computer and have a look at all the communication that I had with them. I explained that they would see that there were a number of steps already tried that involved swapping set top boxes, moving the satellite dish, visits from technicians and so on. None of this, I explained to them, had made any difference.

“Yes I can see that this has happened. But Mr Kerridge what about if I reduce how much you pay by $20 a month to make up for the lack of access.” I explained that this was not going to be sufficient. I explained that unless they fixed up the captioning,  not only the amount of captioning but also the quality of captioning so that drop outs and ghosting did not occur, then$20 a month was not going to change anything. It simply wasn’t value for money. I suggested that if they would allow me to pay for Fox Sports only so that I could continue to watch West Ham play I might consider that. “I am sorry we cannot do that Mr Kerridge” It was worth a shot, you don’t ask don’t get!

“Mr Kerridge, May I call you Gary?” I said that was fine. “Gary, what if we change your package to suit you so that you are watching movies, would that entice you to stay?” I explained again that unless there were increases in captioning and the quality of that captioning that there would not be much point in doing this. The issue, I pointed out, was about more and better access.

“But Gary, I see you like the Lifestyle Channel and we could offer you the full package at no extra cost?” Of course at this stage I began to wonder whether it was I or the operator who was deaf because nothing seemed to sink in. I explained patiently that they had already offered me this for free but I found out that they actually, after a month, had started charging me for it as they had for the full sports package which they had also offered free. I explained that unless there was more captioning and better quality captioning then the answer was still no.

“Ok Gary, I see it is very frustrating. But do you like documentaries, what if we provide full coverage of all documentary channels at no extra cost.” I explained that there was not much point because nearly all the documentaries were not captioned . “Let me just check that for you Gary.” So I waited while the operator checked. Strangely there was no reply; instead she tried a different strategy.

“But Gary you do realise that Austar have committed to increasing captions?” I pointed out that I was indeed aware. I pointed out the exact figures they had agreed to increase captioning by in the agreed period. I pointed out that they had agreed to increase from 35% of content to 55% of content. I pointed out that sport was to increase from 5% to 15%. I pointed out that this had been endorsed by our friends at Media Access Australia with absolutely no input from consumers. I pointed out that increases were pointless without increases in quality to match. And finally I pointed out that combined it meant that I could access less than 50% of all content on Pay TV so perhaps a fair price for me to pay was 50% of the actual subscription and that I be reimbursed my subscription each month that I document where the captions screw up. (Yes I was a bit fed up by this time.)

“Oh Gary that is disappointing that nothing I can offer can convince you to stay with us we will proceed with your disconnection.” I said that I would stay if I could pay for Fox Sports only. It was my last effort to be able to continue to watch my beloved Hammers. “I am sorry Mr Kerridge I am not authorised to do this.” Now that I was officially unsubscribed I was no longer Gary, I was back to Mr Kerridge. Interestingly enough, even though I am deaf and it’s on file and although I have corresponded with them monthly for the last year or so and that they know to communicate with me either by email or SMS options, that after this phone call they still rang my voice line of my mobile four times. I rang back through the National Relay Service to see what they wanted. I was secretly hoping they were going to offer me Fox Sports. Sadly no, they wanted to know if I had changed my mind. The answer was still no.

I can’t make sense as to why Pay TV is being treated with such kid gloves in regard to provision of captioning. Indeed last year they made record profits of $598 million, an increase of 8.5%. This makes them the most profitable form of television in Australia. (Source: www.crikey.com.au/2012/08/09/foxtel-australias-new-media-titan-rakes-in-950m/  )

 In the same period Channel 10 profits fell 90.5%. In November 2011 Channel 9 was in such financial trouble that they had to meet with bankers to discuss debts of $2.7 billion. Channel 7 profits, which include newspaper earnings, were relatively healthy with profits recorded of $115.1 million.  Clearly Foxtel is out performing Free to Air TV but it has, for some strange reason, been allowed to get away with providing only 55% access to its programs through captioning. At the same time struggling free to air channels are expected to provide nearly 100% access to captioning. Something is very wrong here. And our friends at Media Access Australia endorse this, perhaps they would like to explain because I have no way of understanding the logic.  (Sources:  www.sevenwestmedia.com.au/docs/financial-results/2011-preliminary-final-results.pdf  – www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2011/s3370129.htmwww.theaustralian.com.au/media/ten-reports-20-per-cent-earnings-slump/story-e6frg996-12261 )

As a snap shot of what Pay TV offers you I asked my 13 year old son Finlay, via Facebook,  to do some research for me. Finlay checked three of the choices on Austar and provided me with information on captioning access between 5 and 6 pm on Tuesday 21st August. He looked at Documentaries and News which provided 34 different programs in that time slot and just 9 of them had captions. My maths tells me that’s a whopping 26.4% access. On Kids shows there were 10 programs showing and 8 of these provided captions at 80% access. On Lifestyle Channel there were 45 programs and 18 of those were captioned and this provided the deaf viewer with a fabulous 40% access to what was on offer. Deaf readers must all be salivating at the amount of access available because for the three options, in total, 39.3% of the programs that were offered had captions. And for this the deaf viewer is expected to pay full subscription. What a great deal hey?

So from 3rd of September Austar is no more in our household. Somehow I will watch West Ham through seeking media streams through the Internet. I and my three lads will connect the Mac to the TV through HDMI and see if we can watch it through HDMI. The three lads are devastated. It gave them another excuse to do nothing but sit on there arses and this has been taken away. The missus is jumping for glee. She is not a TV lover, she is hoping we will all clean house more as a substitute.

Joking aside the amount of access that is being provided by Pay TV in Australia is a scandal. They are the most profitable form of TV yet are being allowed to get away with murder. They will lay blame solely on the channels that they beam into our homes. They will say it is the channels responsibility to provide the access and their hands are tied. Bottom line is that Foxtel provide and promote the package, it is their responsibility to ensure that what they provide as a service is accessible through the provision of captioning. Access to captioning must increase in both quantity and quality. Neither is being provided to the deaf viewer at present time. So my advice is to the deaf viewer – switch off and take your dollar elsewhere. To Foxtel my advice is – Lift your game, its not good enough. To Media Access Australia who provided advice to the decision makers and who endorsed the agreement where Foxtel could provide only a paltry 55% access I ask – What the hell were you thinking?!

Why I am Not a Patriot

In my house we have a wall of history. The wall has posters and photos of prominent human rights activist in history. We have Nelson Mandela – “There’s no easy walk to freedom anywhere”  and John Lennon with the words of the song ‘Imagine’ among others. My favourite is a smaller photo and one that I flogged from the Internet and had professionally framed. The photo is of August Landmesser. His is not a name that is well known but he was  German shipbuilder. In the photo he is at the launch of a Nazi war ship. He is in a sea of men all giving the Nazi salute. Landmesser in this photo has his arms folded defiantly and the look on his face clearly says “F*&k you.” Landmesser was angry, and not without reason. He had fathered two children to a Jewish woman and was being persecuted as a result. He and is Jewish wife were later jailed and his two children placed in an orphanage. It is people like Landmesser that remind me that patriotism is bunk!

“He who joyfully marches to music rank and file, has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.” The above quote came from none other than Albert Einstein. Einstein hated nationalism. He saw nationalism as just blind faith where men just follow others like sheep without any autonomous thought.

There are those that will argue that nationalism and patriotism are different. The late Sydney J Harris, a respected American journalist, described the difference between patriotism and nationalism as thus, “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.”  But for Einstein there was no difference, “Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism — how passionately I hate them!” Einstein’s sentiments are clear. I agree with him whole-heartedly. 

Of course there are those that will mock Einstein. They will remind us that he, among others, developed the early science that led to the development of the Atom Bomb. Consequently the Atom Bomb was used to kill and maim millions of Japanese and bring an end to World War II. Einstein was said to have felt great remorse about this as he had written to the President Roosevelt recommending that the Bomb be built. It is said that five months before Einstein died he said, “I made one great mistake in my life… when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them.”  It is worth noting that Einstein was born in Germany and renounced his German citizenship in 1933. He did this in disgust at developments that were happening in his home country. He was not just a great mind but a great humanitarian who stood by his principles. (Source: – http://www.optimalmodification.com/whatdidalberteinsteininvent.html )

Let’s be clear, I was once one of those senseless patriots. I was born near the East End of London. In 1966, at the age of 2, my parents migrated to Australia for a better life. We were among a great influx of migrants and upon arriving in Australia resided at the migrants hostel in Wollongong. My father managed to obtain employment as a welder for Holden in Adelaide and the family moved there. We lived in the Northern suburbs of Adelaide which was, at that time, a kind of little Britain. I swear that at school the only Australian that I knew was an Aboriginal girl who had white parents, no doubt one of the stolen generation. My neighbours to the left five houses down to Goodall Road were all British. To the right a further, six houses down, they were all British except for one where Italians resided and who had the mandatory vegetable patch and glasshouses in the backyard.

My fondest memories are the FA Cup nights. In 1971 the FA Cup final was beamed live to Australia. Leeds beat Arsenal with a goal from Alan Clarke. In 1971 we went to the Holmes house to watch it. The Holmes were from Yorkshire, mad Leeds supporters and great family friends. There we had pie with mushy peas flavoured with mint. We had golden syrup dumplings for desert. You can’t get much more British than that.

Over the years I became a mad England supporter. My friends were also mad England supporters. When the England cricket team came to Australia to compete for the Ashes we all cheered them on. As a teenager I wore a Harrington jacket and a T-shirt with the Union Jack emblazoned on it. I was English and proud of it and I let the world know. This is not the case anymore.

Lets be clear. I still follow the English cricket team, I still watch the FA Cup, I am still English to my bootstraps, hell I was born there. But I follow England now not from a sense of pride, but more simply because once you pick a sporting team you stick with them. To be honest I follow what ever team Australia is competing against be it Pakistan to Wojohnistan. It is kind  of fun being in the minority. I follow the English sporting teams in the same way as people who follow their football team – through thick and thin. I follow West Ham United in the English football. Let me tell you following West Ham is heart breaking, they rarely win anything. But lets be honest, what is there to be proud about for having been born in England? Nothing really, it was just the card that fate dealt me. But there is a hell of a lot about England to make me feel ashamed.

England, like most of Europe has a history of greed. Systematically, for hundreds of years, England sought to plunder the world for as much of its wealth as possible. From America to Africa to India to Ireland and to Australia (to name a few) England set on a path to systematically plunder the world. It certainly is nothing to be proud of. They did so under the guise of, ‘best intentions’ but as the historical website Crawfurd.dk notes, ” Some of the worst things imaginable happened with the best of intentions ..”  For the English these ‘best intentions’ were in the guise of civilising the natives and introducing (forcing) them to accept Christian values. The truth is really that they wanted to get rich and quick and woe betide any natives that stood in their way. Of course England are not alone in this. Other European countries like the French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese had the same aim with equally tragic consequences.

England did so under the guise of patriotism and imagined superiority. Waving the English flag and pretending that what they were doing was for ‘the good’ of everyone while stealing resources that they had no right to own, England caused great harm. Particularly to the ‘natives’. Put simply England stole countries and killed the original inhabitants either through violence or by introducing disease. The Australian Aborigines, the American Indians and the black populations of Africa all suffered or died in England’s quest for a ‘better world.’ It is not something for which anyone can be proud.

In the last four hundred years there have been many, many incidents of genocides that have been attributed to the English. For example as the result of the Cromwelian wars in Ireland 200,000 women and children starved and 12,000 were sold into slavery. In the colonisation of America many millions of American Indians were slaughtered or sold into slavery. In the second Boer war in Africa 30 000 Boer women and children died in concentration camps. Closer to home 15 000 Tasmanian Aboriginals were killed or died of diseases introduced by the English, wiping out the entire race of Tasmanian Aboriginals. To this day Australian Aboriginals are a displaced and dispirited people largely as the result of the English. White Australians, mostly of English descent, continued this destruction and oppression through the White Australia Policy and the stolen generation. In all it has been estimated that over the last 400 years England has been responsible for the deaths, displacement, torture or raping of over 50 million people. Proud of my country? Not at all but I do feel a sense of real shame. (Source – http://www.godlikeproductions.com/forum1/message1098555/pg1 )

I write this as a sense of patriotism is sweeping the world as the result of the Olympics. In a good natured kind of way countries point out that they are superior simply on the weight of medals that they have one. If they did not win more than another country the patriots will argue that “per head” they won more medals than anyone. In an effort to demonstrate superiority rich countries pump billions into sport to come out on top at the Olympics even though this money could be better spent on the homeless or the disabled. Others use drugs and questionable training methods, bordering on cruel. And all because they want their country to be seen as THE BEST.

I don’t feel a sense of patriotism about the success of England in the Olympics. I am just in awe of the performance of individuals. I am in awe of the speed of Bolt. I am in awe of how the body can contort and jump as it does in the gymnastics. I am in awe that a marathon runner can keep a pace of almost 20kph for 2hours. I am in awe of Oscar competing with the able bods with his prosthetic legs. These are the achievements of human beings. The country they came from is not important.

Most of England’s coaches were Australian apparently. Australians, by and large if they are not the original and real owners of the country, descended from British stock. The athletes that won so many medals for England were primarily black and they descended from Africa mostly. The Australian cricket team has a South African coach and the English cricket team a Zimbabwean one. The English cricket team also has a smattering of South African batsman. No one really cares about their country or origin just as long as they can take part and hopefully win. For many it is just about how much money is on offer.

What I like to be proud of is the talent and ability of PEOPLE. Who cares where they come from, we should be proud of what they have achieved. They and us should be proud that they have talent and that they have developed it to the maximum through sheer hard work. We should be proud of people like Mandella, Mother Theresa, Fred Hollows and the millions of people that seek to make a better life for those that fall on hard times. It is all about the people whatever country they are from. And for this reason I say it again – Patriotism is bunk.

 

The Changing Face of the Deaf Community!

In 1978 I gave up. I had struggled with my hearing loss in a mainstream school for four years. Academically my results were rock bottom. Psychologically I was a mess. My self esteem was shot. It all came to head when I was caught wagging school. I had not been to school for two weeks. What I would do is catch the bus to school and head off to the shopping centre. There I would remain until home-time. I would not be able to this today. Kids only have to have a day off and the schools are on the phone to find out where they are.

I came home one day after touring the shopping centre to be confronted by my mother. “How was school?” she asked. I lied and said it was fine. “Is that right?”, queried my mother, “Then why did the school call me at work to tell me they had not seen you at school for two weeks?” The cat was out of the bag.

I basically broke down and confessed that I was not coping. I told my parents I needed to go to a deaf school. At that time I thought deaf schools were like an institution. Recently I had seen the movie on Helen Keller, The Miracle Worker, I had visions of rat infested old buildings and cruel superintendents. I imagined I would be like Oliver in Oliver Twist, begging for more food.

This was the catalyst for me to become enrolled at school that supported the “Hearing Impaired”. This was a mainstream school with a unit within it that provided support for students with a hearing loss. Believe it or not, after four years with a hearing loss, attending this school was the first time I had ever met another person, young or otherwise, who had a hearing loss.

I was immediately fascinated. Deaf kids at the school actually signed. Initially I would sit on the steps and watch them. Gradually I introduced myself and began to learn finger spelling. Some were more oral and I naturally tended to mix with them because I could communicate with them. But as my signing became, “better”, I began to talk to some of the, “others”.

It must have been painful for them. I probably finger spelled 80% of what I said. What I signed was a cumbersome form of signs in English and sloppy finger spelling. (My finger spelling has not improved to this day.) But I was persistent. I would try to tell them jokes. They all looked at me as if I was some maniac. Nearly all my jokes involved word plays and puns. Of course for the majority of these deaf kids such word plays were meaningless.

I noted with interest that many of the students appeared to have literacy issues. They wrote in a strange sort of broken English. While it made sense, the grammar was all over the shop. The spelling was terrible. The level of written discussion was very basic and child-like. This made no sense to me at all. These kids were deaf, not intellectually disabled. It puzzled me as to why they had such poor literacy.

This was perhaps my first introduction to members of the Deaf community. As I became older I began to attend the Deaf club on Friday nights at the wonderful old 262 building in Adelaide. One of my earliest memories of the Deaf club was attending a youth group function. We met outside of 262 and caught the bus up to Monash Adult Playground on the Murray River. I had just turned 18. I remember sneaking off and having a beer at the pub over the road. Coming home and snogging with some cute young deaf girl at the back of the bus made it a trip to remember.

In those early days I met many wonderful Deaf people who have remained friends to this day but I was always struck at the diversity within the community. There were some deaf people that were very bright and I naturally struck up a rapport with these people. I remember the first night I attended the Deaf club. I was surrounded by Deaf people firing any number of questions at me. “When Deaf you?” – “Deaf you how?” – “School where?” –“Family Deaf or hearing?” This inquisition was perhaps my first introduction to Deaf culture. I learnt that when a deaf person comes to the Deaf community for the first time establishing the origins of the deafness and association with the Deaf community was par for the course. From Australia to England to Denmark the inquisition has been the same for me the world over.

But always I was struck by the diversity. There were the well adjusted “Deaf” people and there were the “Deaf” who were linguistically challenged. Then of course there were the Deaf who were linguistically proficient in sign language but who had only rudimentary English literacy. This always fascinated me. What was the cause of such linguistic diversity? Why was the spectrum of human development among the community so different? I wanted to know.

There were those that were severely deaf, those that were profoundly deaf. There were those that were oral and who would have their ‘oral’ conversations in the corner. There were those that were fiercely proud of their Deafness who spoke of history and culture and oppression of sign language. There were the sports groups that brought everyone together regardless of linguistic ability. If you could bowl or hit the ball to the boundary with frequency you were in the cricket team. No one cared if you couldn’t structure an English sentence or linguistically you were performing the same as a 9 year old.

BUT it all fascinated me. I wanted to understand why linguistically and intellectually there were such extreme differences among the Deaf community. I read on the subject voraciously. I remember watching a very early video on Deaf history that had been made by Paddy Ladd in England.

The video told the story of deaf education. It told of the French educator Siccard, of Clerc and Gallaudet. It told of how in the past sign language had been embraced as a means of education and as a result there had been deaf lawyers, teachers, doctors and the like. It told of Milan in the 1880’s where educators of the deaf decided that sign language was out and oralism was in. It told of how this oppression almost led to the destruction of sign language and the Deaf community. It told of how ‘oralist’ would wheel out their ‘success’ stories while keeping the ones who oralism had failed, (of which there were many), behind closed doors. It explained how as a result the education and development of deaf kids was severely impacted. I was appalled.

I read When the Mind Hears by Harlan Lane. As an academic Lane is oft criticised for being biased but he told an eloquent and harrowing story of oppression and how this impacted on a generation of deaf kids. I learnt very quickly that Deaf adults who had Deaf parents were generally better adapted and linguistically superior. I learnt that deaf kids given access to sign language and good sign language models earlier were better adapted and performed better academically. I learnt about age and onset of deafness and how this impacted or assisted with linguistic development.  I learnt how parents and professionals persisted with oralism, even when it was clear it was failing the child. Nothing hit home to me more than reading Oliver Sacks book, Seeing Voices, where he described deafness as a preventable form of intellectual disability.  Slowly I began to understand why there was such linguistic and developmental diversity among the Deaf community. The oppression of sign language and the inability of professionals to see the wood for the trees was leading to a generation of ‘Intellectually limited” deaf people that was, for the most part, entirely avoidable.

And then came the cochlear implant. In the early days of the cochlear implant the Deaf community was vocal in its objection. This was entirely understandable. The Deaf community had been subject to any number of failed experiments. Oralism had failed many. Cued speech was cumbersome and clumsy form of communication. Signed English was an appalling failed experiment. The Deaf community had seen it all before. Attempts to make them ‘hearing’ had failed. The Cochlear Implant was another attempt and they were having none of it.

Predictably early responses to the cochlear implant from the Deaf community were emotional even violent. The Deaf community were particularly vocal about early implantation calling it child abuse. According to the Deaf community it was the child’s right to decide. The child should not have an invasive cochlear implant imposed on them.

I remember one well known advocate being interviewed on TV for one of the morning shows. The advocate had apparently come upon evidence that the cochlear implant had led to paralysis of some deaf recipients. In the ensuing confusion the Deaf community thought that some unfortunate recipient had become wheelchair bound. What had actually occurred is that the cochlear implant, in a few cases, had led to facial paralysis owing to a nerve being damaged in the operation.

Ironically the cochlear implant has become the face of the new Deaf community. It is probably fair to say that many in the Deaf community saw the cochlear implant as a threat. For them the cochlear implant was going to make potential members of the Deaf community ‘hearing’ and as a result, over time, the numbers coming into the Deaf community would reduce. This would  gradually lead  to the death of the Deaf community. From my observation this has not been the case.

Young people with cochlear implants appear to still be seeking out the Deaf community. The cochlear implant is an amazing piece of technology but it does not cure deafness. While it appears to assist the recipient when the communication environment is ideal it has its limitations. Large groups and noisy backgrounds still present problems. Individuals with cochlear implants still experience the same issues as deaf people of the past. In large groups they are isolated, communication is difficult and conversation hard work.

What this means is that many young people with cochlear implants seek out other deaf people and this ultimately leads them to the Deaf community. Often it is sport that brings them together. At the recent Australian Deaf Games in Geelong it was almost as if every other participant had a cochlear implant.

Recently I attended the Deafness Forum Summit in Melbourne. Now Deafness Forum are hardly a bastion of the Deaf community. However, there were a large number of young people who had cochlear implants who attended. In between sessions you would notice them all gathering to talk. Some spoke and some signed but still, even with cochlear implants, deaf people sought each other out.

Rather than become a threat to the existence of the Deaf community it could be argued that young deaf people with cochlear implants have changed the make up of the Deaf community. These young Deaf people are different from those first Deaf people that I met all those years ago. My observation is, and lots of people are not going to like this, that they are linguistically superior to many Deaf people I met when I first entered the Deaf community..

To me it is undeniable that the cochlear implant is far superior to simple aided hearing. From what I am observing, young deaf people implanted earlier are developing much better spoken language than in the past when I first entered the Deaf community. Consequently they have better literacy and are performing better academically. I have no research to back this.  It is purely observation from having met many of these young people professionally and through the Deaf community.

But still the cochlear implant can not overcome all the barriers to social participation. Still these young people seek out other deaf people to share like experiences and for ease of communication. While I am sure the cochlear implant helps in many ‘hearing’ social situations young deaf people with implants are, increasingly, becoming members of the Deaf community. The difference now is that many of these young people have normal language development, normal literacy and are very savvy of their needs. The diversity of linguistic and intellectual development that I first noticed when I entered the Deaf community has now narrowed. One might argue that it is now almost non-existent among the younger generation.

With this change has come a change in values. Recently, for example, there was a Facebook debate about the relevance of Deaf Australia today. Deaf Australia is, of course, the advocacy organisation that represents Auslan users.  Increasingly Auslan users are becoming people with cochlear implants who have learnt Auslan as their second language. What this means is that their needs are different. While many of them will chose to access Auslan Interpreters for study or work others appear to prefer communication support through Live Remote Captioning. There are indications that many prefer English structure for their communication support. Technically though, because these people are members of the Deaf community and use Auslan,  they are represented by Deaf Australia.

This group of Auslan users also have technological needs. They need maintenance on their implants. They need batteries for their implants. Some need implant upgrades and rehabilitation. Perceivably there are some young kids with implants whose parents have decided that Auslan is beneficial to their linguistic development that require early intervention.  Perhaps in the future this will be provided by the NDIS.

In the past Deaf Australia simply represented mostly Auslan, interpreters, telecommunications and captioning. The question is; Have Deaf Australia moved with the times to meet the needs of this new young group of people entering the Deaf community who require representation on a variety of fronts including technology? It’s easy to say that is Deafness Forums role. But is it? Particularly given that this new breed of Deaf community members are “Auslan Users”

Indeed we have a situation where Deaf adults who have been brought up in the Deaf community have decided to have a cochlear implant later in life. The reasons are varied. Some do it for professional reasons, others so that they can hear their kids and some do it simply because they want access to sound. Deaf adults are having Deaf kids and deciding to provide these kids with implants so that they have the best of both worlds. The Deaf community has changed forever.

Like it or not the cochlear implant is now part of the every day issues relating to the Deaf community. The question we need to ask is whether our representatives at Deaf Australia have kept track with the change. Are the issues that they represent relevant to this new breed of deaf Auslan users with cochlear implants. The times they are a changing and perhaps the time has come to change with them.