The Deaf community are a proud lot. They are proud of their language. They are proud of their culture. They are proud of their community. Mostly they are proud of their independence. They have no time for people talking of deficits. Deafness to them is a way of life and one which they cherish. Barriers occur for them only in an Audist hearing world that doesn’t properly consider the diverse needs of our society.
Many in the Deaf community abhor being lumped into the disability bucket. It’s not that they see disability as inferior, its more that they want to be recognised as a cultural group with its own language and institutions. Institutions you ask? What the? Well they abound in the Deaf community really. Deaf societies used to host the much heralded Deaf clubs until hearing people closed the bulk of them thus severely fragmenting the Deaf community. The Australian Deaf Games are an iconic institution that is among the oldest sporting competitions in the world. The Australian Theatre of the Deaf is another proud institution. The Deaf community is rightly proud of its community, history and institutions.
But to survive the Australian Deaf Community has had to compromise. You see hearing people refuse to fully recognise the Deaf community as a distinct community with its own culture and history. Well some do but the people that control the tax payer dollars largely do not.
What this means is that even though the Deaf community do not really relate to disability they have always been willing to accept disability money to survive. Deaf Australia is funded, or was, from disability funds. The Deaf community accept subsidies that are provided under the disability equipment scheme to access telecommunications. This is much less now because the advent of mobile phones and the internet has meant additional equipment is largely not needed. Hell, I cannot remember the last time I set eyes on a TTY. And of course many , many members of the Deaf community accept money under the Disability Support Pension. They do so because its a hell of as lot more than the Dole.
This is not a criticism, it is just pointing out that despite the Deaf communities wish to be seen as cultural and linguistic group it is very rarely funded for that. Mostly funds come from disability funds and because of this the Deaf community and its members are firmly labeled in the disability category. It is all about survival and one must take what they can to survive.
Last weekend I attended the Deafness Forum Summit. I was speaking on mental health and deafness. At this forum Deafness Forum announced its hearing health campaign. They have been consulting about this for quite some time and it is no secret. Deafness Forum have chosen this route as a way to access funding so that it can survive as a peak body for Deaf, hearing impaired and people with ear disorders. We all know that Deafness Forum had its funding cut under this current Liberal Government as did Deaf Australia. Like Deaf Australia, Deafness Forum is fighting for their life. Health funding is seen as a way to enable Deafness Forum to continue to represent its target groups.
Some in the Deaf community have been particularly scathing of Deafness Forum’s focus on HEARING HEALTH. “I am not sick” they say, “I don’t want to be represented that way.” They rightly point out that they are a cultural and linguistic group and hearing health focuses on sickness and deficit. It is not that I do not agree, I do, but its never stopped them accepting disability money has it? And believe me the people that control disability money see disability as a deficit that needs to be eradicated too.
I fully support Deafness Forum’s approach in targeting hearing health. I have been heavily involved in their consultation. As I see it members of the Deaf community get sick. They have among them some of the highest rates of mental health issues in Australia. A lot of this because they are isolated and made to be as “hearing” as possible. This is something that is often impossible. We need a mentally healthy Deaf community. Why not use hearing health as a way to target these issues?
What about access to the health system. Immediate access to Auslan interpreting at entry points of hospitals and places of crisis intervention. This comes under health doesn’t it? What about programs like weight watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, drug and alcohol rehabilitation or simply fitness programs? All of these contribute to members of the Deaf community being healthy. Like it or not there is much that the Deaf community can achieve to become healthy and strong under the health umbrella. Culture and linguistics wont carry the message alone.
The problem is that word hearing. As soon as people read hearing health they start to think about fixing and curing. It promotes the stereotype that deafness is a deficit that needs to be fixed. This is something that many in the Deaf community abhor, myself included. That said, I think its a bold and clever move by Deafness Forum to target this area. As I said the Deaf community have had no qualms accepting disability money to survive until now. Why not health?
The majority of people that have a hearing loss acquire their hearing loss much later in life. They want to be fixed. They want programs that will protect their hearing. They want support programs for things that make their lives hell such as tinnitus and Menieres Disease. We should not begrudge them that. What we can do is find the avenues that health will benefit the Deaf community. Access to the health system, mental health and well-being are paramount among them.
Deafness Forum have created a very slick and professional campaign. They even have a Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/breaksoundbarrier/ You will note the slogan, Break the Sound Barrier. Members of the Deaf community will hate it, as I do. I warned Deafness Forum away from the use of such catchy phrases. I reasoned that hearing health was stereotypical enough without adding to it. I reasoned that for many people no amount of sound will benefit and that the issue was about access and well-being and we needed a focus on that. All to no avail. You can’t win them all. I just know that this slogan is going to make it even more difficult to get the Deaf community onside. Hearing Health was hard enough.
But Deafness Forum are fighting for their lives. They have to play the game otherwise they will fold. They are at least fighting hard and we need to get behind them. We deaf people need strong representation, especially with the NDIS coming.
It has been said that if Labor get back in at the forthcoming elections that they will refund the disability peaks. That may well be so but I don’t think they will fund Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum as separate entities. If Labor get in my prediction is they will fund a deafness peak to cover all groups. It will be a case of you’re in or you’re out. As I have said before COLLABORATE OR PERISH.