At the Cross Roads

crossIf you ever wanted proof that the Deaf community consists of talented, committed and passionate people you only had to be at the forum that was organised by Deaf Victoria last week. Deaf Victoria organised this forum so that its members could begin to understand the new membership structure that was being proposed by Deaf Australia, as well as the Deaf Friendly Scheme.

The great thing about this forum was that it was live streamed. the live streaming technology was provided by Vicdeaf. The technical expertise was provided by staff who were Deaf and employed by Vicdeaf.  Of course the live stream was all set up and run entirely by technical people who were Deaf. They had the live stream programmed to receive captioning, ably provided by Bradley Reporting. And of course there was also Auslan interpreting. Here we had live streaming, interpreting and captioning – all organised By Deaf Victoria, a very small and not very rich organisation. It was world class best practice in accessibility and all organised by Deaf people. Deaf Victoria put some of our bigger and far better resourced agencies to shame.

Looking at what Deaf Victoria achieved you would not think that one of the Deaf Communities most cherished institutions, Deaf Australia, was at the cross roads. Sadly that is exactly where Deaf Australia are. The organisation that fought so hard to bring us equal access in telecommunications, captioning, recognition of Auslan and improved access to education and employment is in danger of folding. This is because the Australian Government has deemed Deaf Australia surplus to requirements and has cut their funding. The funding was recently reinstated until the end of June to help Deaf Australia to transition to the new order. Even so, make no mistake that the future of Deaf Australia is in grave danger.

Deaf Australia has known this for quite some time. In an effort to try and expand its membership and increase its income it has worked hard to design a new membership structure and the Deaf Friendly Scheme. At the forum Kyle Miers and Todd Wright sought to explain and get support for what Deaf Australia has recently implemented through its constitution.

Unfortunately what Mr Wright and Mr Miers were proposing was not well received, particularly the new membership structure. The purpose of the new membership structure is to ensure that Auslan remains strong and that the integrity of Auslan sustained. The gist of the new membership structure is that people who are deaf, who join Deaf Australia, be assessed in terms of their Auslan proficiency.

If prospective members who are deaf pass the assessment they only have to pay a once off $100 for life membership to Deaf Australia. They also get the privilege of being able to sit on Deaf Australia’s Board. If they fail they can become members and vote at the AGM, but they cannot sit on the Board. The members that fail will be supported and encouraged to continue to develop their Auslan skills and can resit the assessment at a later date, but with an additional cost.

The aim of the new membership structure is to expand Deaf Australia’s membership base to include people who are hard of hearing. Deaf Australia want to embrace diversity and include members who are hard of hearing, even those who may not be proficient in Auslan.

It was a fairly complicated membership structure that included proviso for casual Board membership if people had particular skills that could benefit Deaf Australia. It also had membership for organisations and people who are hearing, but these members have no voting rights. Clearly much thought and debate had gone into the development of this new membership structure. Unfortunately it was not well received by people that attended the forum in person or virtually.

It is fair to say that the whole membership structure was pretty much loathed by the majority. People who had been signing all their life didn’t respond well to the idea that they needed to be assessed to become members. People questioned the fairness of embracing people who are hard of hearing but not allowing them to be full members of the Board unless they passed the Auslan assessment. Questions were asked about the fairness to hearing parents of kids who are deaf who had to pay ongoing membership. In fact no one came out and said that the new membership structure was a terrific idea.

People seemed to think that people who are hard of hearing  were being used simply to expand Deaf Australia’s membership base without really considering their needs for representation. It seemed that people were questioning the motive of embracing people who are hard of hearing  but not allowing them on the Board unless they were deemed to be proficient signers. The consensus seemed to be that if you have them as members you at least had to give them a voice on the Board. If Deaf Australia were worried about the integrity of Auslan, and about Auslan users being swamped by the potential influx of members who are hard of hearing, they could simply introduce rules to ensure the Board is always an Auslan majority.

The biggest bone of contention was that Deaf Australia failed to consult properly before introducing the structure. Mr Miers stated that they had consulted with 36 members out of 150 and the 90% of those 36 were in favour. That would mean that 32 out of 150 members were in favour. Most likely some of them that actually voted were current Board members too. Out of a potential membership base of a possible 9000 this was considered a proper consultation. It did not go down very well. In short those at the forum, in person and virtually, rejected the new membership structure outright.

It wasn’t the result that Deaf Australia wanted. The Deaf Friendly Scheme also received a lukewarm reception.Claims that the Deaf Friendly Scheme had the potential to generate $2 to $3 million,  for Deaf Australia were met with great skepticism.(or was it $1 to $2 million?)

Still you cant blame Deaf Australia for trying. As Mr Wright said, if members didn’t like what was being proposed they were welcome to propose an alternative. While the criticism of Deaf Australia was heavy there was very little in regard to alternative ideas. Alternative ideas are desperately needed.

At the other end of the spectrum Deafness Forum are also at the cross roads. Rather than worry about membership and income streams such as a Deaf Friendly Scheme, Deafness Forum are trying to realign Deafness with the health agenda rather than the disability one. Deafness Forum is aiming to have Deafness recognised as the tenth National Health Priority. In this way they hope to be able to tap into different sources of funding.

Already the skeptics in the Deaf community are taking aim at the Deafness Forum proposal. Mostly because they do not want people to get obsessed with “fixing” deafness. Personally I think Deafness Forum are on the money.

Why? Because health is far reaching. You can argue that participation in recreational and sport activities is essential for positive mental and physical well being. In this way funding for things such as interpreting and captioning for recreational and sports activities can be secured. You can argue that the health of people who are deaf is at risk because they cannot properly access the health system. You can argue that crisis mental health support for people who are deaf is lacking, thus putting them at greater risk of mental illness and suicide. You could argue that access to language, including Auslan, is essential for the ongoing mental health and well being of young people who are deaf and their families. There are many possibilities. At the moment it is all hypothetical. The only thing that is clear is that both Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum are seriously at the cross roads.

It is not all doom and gloom though. If the recent Deaf Victoria forum is anything to go by it is clear that the Deaf community is alive and thriving. It’s members care. Not only that, these members are savvy, talented and passionate. That alone will maintain the Deaf community for many years to come – with or without Deaf Australia or Deafness Forum.

That said, I hope that both Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum do survive – Let’s get in behind them. The constructive criticism received by Deaf Australia at the forum last week proved that the community is strong, do care and have much to contribute – Long may it continue.

* Since originally posting this article I have edited it to acknowledge the contribution of Vicdeaf who provided the live streaming assistance and also the Deaf staff that provided the technical assistance. This needs to be acknowledged. Viccdeaf are a wonderful supporter of communication access to the Deaf community. They are certainly not an organisation that neglects their responsibility in this regard.

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