It was a sweltering night last night. Outside the rain poured down as thunder boomed and lightening flashed. Only in Australia can the weather be so contrasting. One tends not to sleep when the house is hot. Last night was no different and I tossed and turned as sweat poured off me with abandon. Sleeplessness has a funny way of making your mind go into overdrive.
No matter how hard I tried to distract myself, my mind kept coming back to the Deaf community. The Deaf community has been good to me. Indeed I owe my career to the Deaf community. I owe my marriage to the Deaf community. I have countless wonderful memories that are all down to the Deaf community. I have life long friends that originated from my involvement in the Deaf community. Most things positive in my life come back to my involvement with the Deaf community.
My mind went back to my first visit to the South Australian Deaf Club back in 1983. I walked in quite apprehensively, not knowing what to expect. The previous week I had gone on a deaf youth trip to the Monash playground and I had been encouraged to come to the Deaf club. I had enjoyed the youth trip so I thought I would give it a go.
As I walked into the Deaf club at the now defunct 262 building I was immediately surrounded by people. Some of these people were fellow students at the school that I attended that were part of the Centre for Hearing Impaired. Some of them were just complete strangers. My signing then was very rudimentary and consisted almost entirely of Signed English. Communication was somewhat stilted.
What hit me were the questions. Who are you? Where are you from? What School do you go to? Do you sign? Are you oral? How did you go deaf? Are your mum and dad deaf? Do you have a brother and sister who are deaf? Do you play cricket? The questions seemed never ending. I had not experienced anything like it in my short life to then.
What surprised me at the time was the diversity of communication. A couple of people twigged on that I was very oral. Wanting to show me that they were very oral too they began to converse in speech. With hearing aids I heard quite a bit back then. I was struck by the sheer loudness and tone of the Deaf accent. It was either extremely high pitched or very low, almost guttural.
Then of course there was the contrast in the proficiency of the signing group. Many people in my age group had just discovered the Deaf community. Many of them also had very rudimentary signing. Many had been part of the failed Signed English experiment. For many their language was delayed and their literacy poor. For many, like me, the Deaf club was their first introduction to sign language.
It was also for many, as I was, the first time that they had felt truly comfortable in a big crowd. It was the first time that everyone almost seemed equal. It was the first time everyone went out of their way to communicate. No matter the various skill levels, we were all in this together. We were going to make it work.
And of course there were the native signers. These were the people who had Deaf parents,siblings and extended family. Naturally their signing was fast and fluent. And to me almost incomprehensible – But even these people also went out of their way to communicate with me and welcome me. It was a wonderful feeling.
This was 1983 and it was my first introduction to the Deaf community. From this first visit to the Deaf club I became involved in the cricket club. I was later roped into being part of the committee. This was the start of countless involvements with various committees and volunteer roles within the Deaf community. From sport, Boards of management, lobbying groups and advisory groups my involvement has been widespread. There are very few communities that love their committees like the Deaf community.
But always there was this diversity. You see many, many – some would say most – people in the Deaf community do not discover it really until their teens. As they discover it they begin to learn Auslan. Some become very proficient. Indeed many for whom Auslan is their second language actually are now at the forefront of teaching and promoting Auslan. Others, like me, become proficient but rather sloppy. Others struggle forever to learn Auslan but still remain active within the Deaf community. In my time the Deaf community has embraced them all.
This is even more so today. As the cochlear implant became more widespread it became the norm. People that attended the 2012 Australian Deaf Games commented that most participants had cochlear implants. Indeed cochlear implants are even the norm at the Victorian College of the Deaf which is a bastion of the Deaf community.
Yet despite the cochlear implant becoming the norm young implantees still seek out the Deaf community. They get involved in social groups and sport. Like me their introduction to Auslan is very much in their teens. Some embrace and learn Auslan at ease. Others, like me become proficient but sloppy. Others struggle to learn Auslan forever. But still they are welcomed into the Deaf community.
And the Deaf community must embrace them. For without these people the Deaf community would struggle to survive. These people with cochlear implants become active members of the community. They are involved in sport, the arts, the politics – in fact they are involved at every level of the Deaf community.
As they have become involved in the Deaf community the values of the Deaf community have also changed. One could argue that music is now a much more valued commodity of members of the Deaf community than it has been in the past. One could argue that needs and priorities of these new members of the Deaf community have also changed. For example technology has become a necessity and English is more widely used. Consequently how the Deaf community represents and supports its members has needed to change also.
With this in mind I was greatly concerned with the new membership structure that that is being proposed for Deaf Australia. As I understand it Deaf Australia wants to test its members proficiency in Auslan. I am not sure how it will be done but it is a complicated structure where Deaf Australia aim to test members proficiency of Auslan. A members proficiency in Auslan then impacts on their voting rights and ability to be a member of the Board. No one is excluded outright but indirectly, a members ability to influence Deaf Australia’s decision making will depend on their proficiency in Auslan.
Personally this type of membership structure alarms me. I can understand that there is a push to preserve Auslan as a language, hence the idea of encouraging proficiency. At the same time it smacks of elitism. It is at odds with the Deaf community that I know that is welcoming and encouraging of everyone. Worse, at a time when Deaf community institutions like Deaf Australia are under threat, it could well scare off potential new members of the Deaf community.
I have a great friend who signs very well. However, he has a cochlear implant and his signing has a very strong English influence. For example he will sign “as well” as in “peter plays cricket and golf as well” as – “as health” In Auslan the correct sign for “as well” is “too” as opposed to “well” which is aligned to the concept of health. My friend will also sign “affairs” as in “public affairs” using the sign that is more aligned to marital affairs. Simple mistakes, but where would he stand in terms of an Auslan proficiency test?
He probably would be fine. My greater concern is that such a membership structure ostracises those members of the Deaf community that are not proficient in Auslan, particularly for those for whom learning Auslan is always a struggle. Ok, I understand with the new membership structure these people can still be involved in committees and so on if they have the right skills but the degree of their influence will depend on their Auslan proficiency. This just seems so unfair.
To me this new structure is at odds with the welcoming and very fair Deaf community that I joined all those years ago. Are we going to extend this structure to other groups like sporting groups where if you are good at sport you can play but have limited voting or decision making rights? It just seems so wrong and very out of place in a Deaf community that needs all the support that it can get.
* I welcome clarification of the Deaf Australia membership structure and apologise if I have inadvertently got it wrong. I am hoping it is not as drastic as I have described it.
* * In the last edition of The Rebuttal we had a poll that asked readers to state whether they thought that Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum should have their funding restored. As of Thursday 8th January statistics indicate that 222 people have read the article The New Frontier. Of these 17%, or 38 readers, responded to the poll – results were: