Brave New World – Part 2

bobIf you were Deaf or hard of hearing the late 80’s and early 90’s were a heady time. This was a time of great social change. In the late 80’s and early 90’s the Australian Association of the Deaf (AAD) was formed and then funded by the Australian Government. It was the end result of years of lobbying and its formation and funding was rightly celebrated with great gusto by the Deaf community. The Deaf community have a lot to be thankful for from those early pioneers who fought so hard to establish AAD. It is now known, of course, as Deaf Australia.

Deafness Forum Australia were also formed in the late 90’s. My memory is very vague about the formations of Deafness Forum. Suffice to say that the hearing impaired component of Australia’s hearing loss community protested that they were not recognised or funded in the same way as AAD. From this I believe the Australian Government decided to fund what is now known as Deafness Forum.

It was around 1993 that Deafness Forum Australia came into being. At one stage I believe that AAD were on the verge of being unfunded so that the Deaf community could be represented under Deafness Forum umbrella. AAD protested against this vehemently. They rightly argued that the way Deafness Forum was structured meant that the needs of the Deaf community were always in danger of being undermined and out-voted by the larger groups that made up Deafness Forum.

The groups that made up Deafness Forum were largely based on a medical and hearing viewpoint. These groups were the majority and the danger was that AAD and the needs of the culturally Deaf would be swallowed up by the issues of this larger group. The Government of the day obviously empathised with the views of AAD and decided to continue to fund both groups.

For a time AAD and Deafness Forum tried to find a way forward to work together. AAD were adamant that the voting structure of Deafness Forum needed to be restructured to ensure that the needs of the larger hearing impaired groups and ear health groups did not unfairly dominate. I don’t know for how long the two organisations tried to find a way forward but a resolution was never found. Indeed these early attempts to find a way forward led to a frosty relationship between AAD and Deafness Forum.  This frosty relationship still exists to this very day.

Nevertheless, despite these two deafness peaks not being able to get along, it is no coincidence that their formation led to great change and improvement in the life of people who are Deaf and hard of hearing. Some of the changes that occurred around and after the formation of AAD and Deafness Forum included:

  • Telstra agreeing to provide TTYs as part of phone rental. This came about after Geoff Scott launched a DDA complaint against Telstra that ultimately ended up in court. I know that AAD Supported Scott heavily in his case. I am not sure of Deafness Forum input but I am sure they were also working diligently in the background.
  • The National Relay Service came into being after a wonderful campaign that involved just about every deafness organisation in Australia. Who can ever forget its launch in 1995. It went down like a wet blanket with technical issues. Not to worry, it was up and running the next day. Ordering home delivered Pizzas now became a reality for people who were Deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Captioning improved out of sight. One must never forget that subtitled television was limited largely to Home and Away, Neighbours and a few select ABC shows. Indeed I remember that 60 Minutes began captioning their show and then stopped because people who were Deaf and hard of hearing complained that not all the stories were captioned. Consequently, 60 minutes decided that people who were Deaf and hard of hearing were ungrateful cretins and stopped captioning the show altogether.
  • Universities and TAFE began to accept responsibility to provide support for students who were Deaf and hard of hearing. I can tell you that in Adelaide in the late 80s and 90s there was virtually no support beyond buddy systems. For myself it was not until 1993 that I got interpreters for my social work studies. The provision of such support was the result of the introduction of the DDA and some concerted lobbying by our Peaks, particularly at state level. ( I was involved in the South Australian Association of the Deaf at the time as a rather inexperienced and ineffective secretary.)
  • AAD were instrumental in getting phone companies to allow SMS to occur across companies. When SMS started you could only SMS to a friend that had a mobile phone from the same company, for example Telstra to Telstra. AAD’s efforts were instrumental in allowing SMS to occur between different phone companies.
  • Communication support for people who are deaf and hard of hearing steadily improved. The Howard Government introduced Auslan for Employment, the National Auslan Booking Service for private Doctor Appointments and made incredible improvements to the workplace modifications scheme. All of the came about because our peaks consistently kept the issues under the nose of the Government. Live remote captioning also was recognised and funded under the JobAccess program.

These are just some of the fantastic changes that occurred after AAD and Deafness Forum came into existence. It is not a coincidence that most of this change all came about in the first 15 years or so that these two organisations existed. They both had direct access to the Government and were able to create awareness and ensure the Government seriously considered these important issues. Sure, advances in technology helped, but it needed skilful lobbying to ensure that people who are Deaf and hard of hearing could take advantage of these technological advances.

And so here we are in 2014. Come December our two Peaks will be defunded. Kyle Miers, Chief Executive of Deaf Australia has confirmed that the current model for funding peaks will cease in December. Miers stated in Deaf Australia’s August Members update, You may be aware that the government has changed the way that peak organisations are funded. Our current funding will cease at the end of December 2014 after so many years of the peak-funded program.”

Miers goes on to explain, “Deaf Australia has put in several funding applications seeking for funding for program initiatives and projects. These funding programs look favourably on organisations being part of a consortium as well as national peak organisations. We will know the outcomes of these submissions later this year.”

Deafness Forum are in the exact same boat. The uncertainty around the future of the two deafness peaks is very concerning.  There is no guarantee that Deaf Australia or Deafness Forum will be successful with any of the applications that they have put in for funding. Likewise there is no guarantee that the Consortium that they are aligned with will be successful in obtaining consortium funding.

The key word that I am hearing at the moment is the Consortium. My understanding is that the Australian Government has streamlined the number of Advocacy Peaks that it is funding.  There are seven or eight key peaks that have been guaranteed their funding. Among these are organisations such as the National Disability Services and the Australian Federation of Disability organisations.

Peaks such as Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum will not receive funding as they have done previously. It seems that the Government has some funding available and is looking favourably on organisations that form a Consortium.  What this is exactly I do not know. It seems that the Consortium is a consortia of organisations that pool resources to form a large advocacy organisation.

Where it gets confusing is that there is apparently more than one consortia. The different consortia’s are competing for what is a very limited pool of funds. The successful applicants of this so called consortia funding will be announced in December.

A source tells me that Deafness Forum have already aligned itself with one consortia. Deaf Australia are not part of that consortia. It would seem from Mr Miers announcement that Deaf Australia are clearly positioning themselves to be part of a consortia. Which one? We do not know.

My source tells me that some organisations are likely to receive funding outside of the consortia funding. These are likely to be organisations that support women with a disability, children with a disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a disability. The so called consortiums are scrapping for the money that is left over.

The future for Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum as we know it is about to change dramatically. If they are part of a consortia they are going to have to be very skilled and diplomatic to ensure that the needs of people who are Deaf and hard of hearing remain prominent. They are also going to have to support the bigger message of the consortia that they are part of.  This message might not always fit into their ideological framework. It would seem that as part of their role in a consortia they will lose a lot of their autonomy. It will be interesting to see how it pans out.

One thing is for sure the challenges being confronted by both Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum are great. To survive they will need to diversify and compromise. Here is hoping that the voice of people who are Deaf and hard of hearing does not get lost in this Brave New world.

Unfortunately for Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum it is a case of adapt or perish. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan:

Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

I wish them both all the success in the world as they navigate this Brave New World.

## Please note the views expressed within are the interpretation of events by the author. They are by no means necessarily correct. The Rebuttal welcomes clarification of information and events in the interest of better informing people within the deafness and disability sector.

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