An Opportunity Missed.

AuslanHearing people love Auslan don’t they? I mean whenever I am on a gig at work and using interpreters, without fail some well meaning hearing person will approach the interpreters. Usually to tell the interpreters how wonderful they were. The hearing person will wax lyrical about how fascinated they were, of the beauty of the signs, of the speed of the translation and usually will ask if Auslan takes long to learn.

These people are sometimes over the top. Sometimes even emotional. Sometimes even religious, offering their prayers and blessings. To me it doesn’t really matter what their intentions are, their interest is a great way to raise awareness and educate the wider community. Thankfully most interpreters that I know are polite and obliging in answering these peoples questions. Mind you, I sometimes understand why people who are blind despise guide dogs. One blind friend once told me that they despised guide dogs because all people ever do is talk about the bloody dog. It’s a bit like that with interpreters.

As an advocate one of the things that I am consciously aware of is that bridges need to be built between the Deaf community and hearing people. One must realise that hearing people usually have the best of intentions. Often they can be over enthusiastic.  Sometimes they can be unwittingly patronising. Some are even clingy and earn themselves the rather disparaging label of “Deaf Wannabes.”  Who among us has not wanted to slap certain hearing people who tell us, hand on heart, that they really wish they were Deaf?

I don’t always succeed in building bridges. Sometimes I react in anger and burn them. How we react is often dependent on our mood. Sometimes I react in anger and wish I had followed the 24 hour rule before mouthing off. Usually my anger is directed at Deaf people or professionals that should know better. I am human and this sort of reaction is natural. However, for the most part I try to be patient, especially when I can see someone is genuinely interested and simply wants to be educated.

And so this happened recently. On the Auslaners Facebook page a well meaning teacher sought guidance as to how she should teach Auslan.  Her enthusiasm and excitement at the prospect was obvious. This is what she asked:

” Hi everyone. Thank you for including me in this group. I am not a deaf person. I am a teacher who is about to start teaching AUSLAN as a primary school subject. I’m very excited as I’ve always wanted to learn and this a perfect opportunity for me. I really want to do this right. Are there any tips that people could give me so that I am respectful and meaningful in my teaching? Any teachers on here? Are there any stupid questions because I have a lot of questions? Thanks for your time.”

It is very clear from her query that she knows very little about Auslan.  It seems that she wanted to develop a program where she was learning along with her class while at the same time teaching them. Clearly she wanted to lead the process. What is also very clear is that she was as keen as mustard.

For me this is a wonderful opportunity to educate someone about Auslan. It is a wonderful opportunity to create awareness and interest among a group of young kids. Some who may become so interested that they end up becoming interpreters later. I really cannot count the number of interpreters who have told me that they became interpreters because of some chance exposure to Auslan when they were at school. Sometimes its just learning finger spelling. Sometimes it is just having a Deaf classmate and wanting to learn how to communicate with them. Completely random exposure to Auslan has led to many wanting to learn Auslan properly. As a result they go all the way and become qualified interpreters.

Now in a world where interpreters are in such short supply we must take every opportunity to encourage the learning of and exposure to Auslan. The post of this teacher SHOULD have been seen as an opportunity to inform, guide and educate her about how Auslan should be taught. What a fantastic way to build bridges and promote Auslan to potential interpreters of the future. Not to mention the deaf awareness that it could create.

It seems that many on the Auslaners Page felt this way too. Some were very encouraging.  An early response made it very clear that it is better that Auslan is taught by a suitably qualified Deaf person BUT that the teacher could learn along with her students and support them:

“…. your question is a good one. To be respectful and meaningful, I strongly recommend that you learn alongside your students, with an open mind, demonstrating your genuine interest, and encourage your school to hire a qualified person to do the teaching. You haven’t said where you are, but contacting the local Deaf services (or maybe even by enquiring here?) should land you with an awesome teacher!  Welcome to the world of AUSLAN (sic), I hope you understand the response – AUSLAN (sic) should absolutely be taught in schools as a subject!”   

This is good solid advice and offers wonderful encouragement. It may have disappointed the teacher a little because it made it very clear that she really should not be the person teaching it. I am OK with that because the response was positive and encouraging. Most of all it was welcoming.

But then sterner comments began to creep in … Here is a selection of some of them:

” You can’t be learning Auslan while teaching it.”

” I don’t know how to put this correctly. So I’m just going to say it. You would never have someone who hasn’t learned (and is proficient in) French, teaching French. You wouldn’t have a non-English speaker teaching English the subject.  You can’t teach a language that you don’t know. And language and culture are inextricably interwoven. I am a qualified teacher (History and ESL) and I’m a qualified professional Auslan interpreter as well. I would never step into a Japanese class and think I would do the language any justice.”

“My perspective as a hearing person, who is a competent but not fluent Auslan user, who also works in education and early childhood intervention, is that there are serious questions that the school and department need to answer. You have been caught in the crossfire. But as others have said, one would not expect other languages to be taught by non-users. Additionally, maybe this is a terminology issue – are you teaching the children or developing their awareness/increasing their exposure to Auslan? Finally – at a macro level, why are we not expecting primary school children to become fluent in another language? Their critical learning period for language ends at 7yo, so starting younger than school age, with an expectation of fluency is exactly what we should be aiming for.” 

“…You might think we are angry. I can’t say for others but I am insulted that we are not ‘good enough’ to be asked to teach let alone find the funding…. Sorry, it’s my language and it belongs to the Deaf Community.”

All of the above comments were well meaning. In many ways the above comments are absolutely correct. Unfortunately what these comments did was intimidate this well meaning teacher to the point that she left the group. The chance to influence her, guide her and educate her was lost. In turn the chance to create awareness among young kids, potential interpreters of the future, was lost too.

In between these comments I am pleased that people tried to rescue the situation. They suggested learning Auslan as a cultural program rather than a language one. They suggested a cultural program could be a means to create interest in the kids and educate them about the Deaf community. They suggested contacting the local Deaf society too to get guest speakers who were Deaf and so on. But unfortunately the more militant IT MUST BE DEAF voice drowned them out. Intimidated, the teacher left the group. The chance to assist the teacher and create awareness  in the wider community was lost with it. To be fair the militants were not wrong but perhaps it could have been said in a more gentle way.

Indeed many in the group turned on themselves. Some actually left the group in anger and frustration.  It was a sad outcome to what was a positive and enthusiastic query from someone that could have helped build bridges and create awareness about Deaf people and their language. It was an opportunity lost.

May we all learn from it and find a better and kinder way to respond in the future.


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