Pauline Hanson is not all wrong!

Pauline Hanson is a repulsive being. There is no other way to describe her. She is racist and ignorant. Most recently she described disabled kids as a hindrance to the education of normal kids that want to, “.. Get ahead in leaps and bounds.”  You see our Pauline, that upstanding Australian, believes that kids with disabilities get too much attention from teachers and therefore other kids are neglected.  A lot of attention has been focused on her mentioning Autistic children but she actually was referring to all kids with disabilities. Said our Pauline, “… teachers spend too much time with autistic children and children with disabilities to the detriment of other students.” (Taken from the Courier Mail)

Pauline claims she has been taken out of context. She claims it’s not that she doesn’t want these disabled kids educated but rather that they should have special classrooms or more special schools to look after them. This is so the other kids don’t have to suffer them obviously.  Inclusionist have had a field day with her.  They say that since the 90’s the philosophy of inclusion has changed education for the better. (Paraphrased from The Guardian)

I want to address the elephant in the room. As much as I hate to say it, Pauline is not all wrong.  Nor are the inclusionist all right.  In fact one could argue that inclusionism, as it relates to education of kids with a disability, has failed many of them.

Inclusion, according to the Oxford Dictionary is, “….the fact of including somebody/something; the fact of being included.” Unfortunately that is how the education system defines disability inclusion. If they are there then they are included. Of course this is far from the case. Inclusion can be the most secluding thing ever for a person with a disability.

Over almost 30 years in the disability sector I have seen some horrendous things in the name of inclusion. I remember an organisation I worked with enrolled a deafblind girl who was 22 in a walking group. Problem is the youngest in the walking group was about 70. They would walk and she would follow. They would eat and talk and she would just eat. She never said a word to them nor they to her. But she was included so that was ok. Right?

So many times I have seen disabled kids in a school setting. Of course they are mainstreamed but at lunch they sit alone. In group discussions they say nothing and are ignored. When work needs to be done they are taken away into a room with the teacher aid and given a book to colour in. They might be teenagers when this happens.

Back in 2011 I was asked to observe a young deaf girl in her classroom. Her mother was worried as the young deaf girl seemed depressed and not happy with school. The girl was mainstreamed and had a class interpreter.  In the morning the kids sat down at their table. It was Monday and they were to write about their weekend.

Diligently the girl began writing about her weekend. The rest of the kids were all chatting with each other and sharing their stories. The girl watched them. You could see her anxious glances around the table. She was wondering what her peers were talking about and the interpreter did nothing. Later they went for story time. The interpreter would interpret the teacher telling the story. The teacher would ask questions and the kids would answer. For some unknown reason the interpreter didn’t interpret the answers from the kids. This meant that the girl had no access to peer learning.

I later wrote a report outlining what was happening and how the school could facilitate better inclusion. The school refused to acknowledge the report. The interpreter apparently threatened to resign because she felt insulted by the report. The school were angry claiming that I did not understand classroom dynamics. I guess that sometimes the truth hurts. Inclusion was clearly failing this girl.

And I remember being a teacher aid for a couple of young  deaf aboriginal people. In the morning the home class got together and then got to work. When they got to work I was asked to take the aboriginal students to another room and teach them. I was virtually their teacher. They would take part in sport and excursions and sit with me the whole time.  As soon as we returned to the class I would be asked take them into a room and teach them. Is this what we call mainstream education?

And then there was Charlie. He was a five year old in a classroom. Story time that day was a story about animals. The teacher read this innovative picture book to the class. Basically the book allowed the teacher to flip tags that had parts of various animals and create bizarre creatures. The creature might be a mix of crocodile, kangaroo and wombat. A Crokanbat. The kids loved it.

The little deaf guy didn’t have much speech to write home about but he was excited about the Crokanbat.  He got up and pointed while squealing delightedly. He clearly wanted to know what the creature was. The teacher shushed him and when he refused to be quiet removed him from the class and made me take him to the library. Yes this actually happened. His questions unanswered. His language learning opportunities lost. His soul destroyed.

I am sure there are success stories out there where inclusion works really well. But when it does not it is a disaster. It is soul destroying and I am sure it contributes to poor self-esteem and mental health issues later in life for many of these kids with a disability.

And this happens because the system is horrendously under-resourced. Teachers are expected to be a Jack/Jill of all trades. They are expected to deal with a class and also support kids with disabilities too. Most are not trained in disability and get minimal support from visiting teachers and minimal support from teacher aids. It’s not that inclusion is wrong, it is that the system just does not provide the tools nor the funding to make it entirely successful.

I don’t like segregation either. I would rather the system provide the level of support that it needs top to make inclusion a success. The reality is that it does not and it is the poor teacher that is expected to do it all. It is a recipe for disaster and often is.

As abhorrent as Pauline Hanson’s view are she is not entirely wrong. The system needs to change and it needs to be funded properly. As it stands, at this very moment, inclusion in schools can be the the most secluding thing ever for many kids with disabilities. It is doing them great harm.

So hate Pauline as much as you want but the end of the day she may have done us all a favour bringing the issue to the table. Our job is to keep it there and highlight all that is wrong with inclusion policy in education and everywhere.

A Precious Resource

You know that since I was at secondary school I have actually been receiving a lot of my information second hand. This is because I have had to rely on interpreters, captioning or note-takers to get my information.  I have to put an enormous amount of trust in the person that is supporting me. If they get it wrong, I get it wrong. If they don’t understand, I wont understand. If they pick and choose information that they think is relevant and exclude stuff they think is not – well I have to hope to high heaven they are good judges of information.

At school I had note-takers. This was BC – Before Captioning. The teacher might sign somethings to me in crappy Signed English occasionally but  mostly I relied on their notes. So in class the teacher would jot down the important information. If there were discussions happening in the room I generally got no access to that cos the teacher didn’t note this. In that sense I had no access to peer learning. So what I had to do was learn based on the information my teacher/note-taker thought was important. I passed somehow, not sure how but I did.  I was apparently the first deaf person to matriculate from a Centre for Hearing Impaired in Adelaide. This was in 1983.

It’s true I barely passed but no matter. I was a shit student. There were more important things in life than studying endlessly – soccer being one. But nevertheless I passed on what was really very limited access to information and what I could garner from my own limited reading. Looking back, that’s a  huge achievement.

So after secondary school I decided I was going to be a teacher. A teacher of the deaf (TOD). I reasoned that I would be good at it. After all, who understands deaf people better than deaf people themselves? I remember when completing my last year of school I nominated a number of courses. Parks and Recreation was one. Aboriginal studies another. Teaching was my priority. I was accepted into all of them but chose teaching. I wish I had chosen Parks and Recreation now. Being outside all the time in the wilderness has an appeal. But I reasoned at that time that Park Rangers communicated by two way radio and it would be too hard.  Whoo boy, how I and times have changed.

So I started teacher training at the Salisbury College of Advanced Education. I attended for six weeks or so and sporadically at that. This was 1984 and disability support for tertiary education in South Australia was non existent. I had no note-takers and no interpreters, nothing. I didn’t learn much. Correction, I didn’t learn anything. If this experience taught me anything it was that access to at least some information is better than no access at all.

After six weeks I found out that there was this university in Durham (England) that provided support to deaf students. They had a teacher of the deaf course so I went out and bought me a plane ticket, wrote them a letter and left for England. All before I even knew if I would be accepted or not. Meanwhile I didn’t even withdraw from my course in Adelaide, I just left. No doubt the record reads FAIL somewhere.

So away to England I headed , got myself an interview at Durham, got myself accepted and found out that I didn’t have enough money to afford the fees. No doubt there were grants around I could have accessed.  But the Red Lion up the road and the English Deaf community had more appeal. In short I was too busy having a good time.

Meanwhile in Australia Mum and Dad were besides themselves and trying to find money from the Australian Government to fund my studies. While they were on their hundredth phone call I was probably downing a pint while chatting to some attractive deaf woman. Mum and Dad even got in the newspaper. I still remember their serious faces in the article photograph while holding up a photo of me smiling broadly. The gist of the article was that I was deaf boy wonder trying to make good in England and abandoned by the Australian Government.

BUT mum and dad’s efforts were not wasted because they found out about a teacher of the deaf course that was being set up by the late and great Dr Des Power in Brisbane. So I flew back to Australia and before I knew it I was on my way to Brisbane to study. Dr Power was way ahead of his time. He got funding for interpreters and note takers so that Deaf students could access the course.

It was perhaps the first time that I had close to full access to information. I say close because I was till learning Auslan at the time so I didn’t really have full access. The supply of interpreters was also a bit limited. I was the student that had to do without when interpreters were in short supply. I spoke well, you see. So when interpreters were in short supply they were prioritised to the students that were full signers and didn’t speak so well.

Again I wasn’t the best student. I lived at the University Halls of Residence. It was brilliant but also distracting. Beer, social functions, pool tables, table tennis, ready access to the city and night clubs – Well it sure beat being stuck in a dingy little room studying all night.

I generally did OK. I once had an all night study party where we studied for an exam that was at 9 am next day. We had started at 7pm. We had beer, a couple of breaks to play cards, ordered pizza and ribs. Naturally we studied a bit. We finished at 7am next morning showered, had breakfast and went to the exam. How I got a credit for it I will never know.  I reckon that the access that I was being provided played a large part in it.

BUT, alas, along the way I broke my leg three times. I got a bit depressed about that. I was trying to imagine myself in a room with 30 screaming kids, five days a week, for the rest of my life. That was even more depressing than the broken legs. So I upped and left back to Adelaide and enrolled in a Social Work course.

I went from Queensland where I was spoilt for access to Adelaide where I had none. Although support was promised, it was never forthcoming. I actually had to stand out in front of the class and ask students to help me by sharing their notes. This struggle went on for six years until I graduated.

I fought and fought for access including meeting with the Education Minister. I appealed and wrote countless letters to the Vice Chancellor explaining my difficulties. It was not until my final year that I got access to interpreters. And even then I had to fight lecturers to allow the interpreters into their classrooms. Believe me when I tell you that I value all the support that I can get. I’ve worked hard for it and earned it.

So over the years I have used interpreters and captioning in a variety of situations. Work, recreation, training, study, medical and social gatherings. I am always thankful for the interpreter and captioners. I do everything that I can to make sure they have optimal conditions so that they can interpret or caption to the best of their ability. I make a point in giving opportunities to young interpreters so that they can upskill. We all know that there is a lack of supply. If us deafies don’t take some responsibility to upskill the interpreters who will?

My respect for interpreters is immense. When I use them I take control of the situation. I try my hardest to stop people talking over each other so as to make sure the interpreters job is easier. If they have optimal conditions then I get optimal information. I make sure they have breaks. I am patient when I know a speaker is difficult or speaking too fast and will often ask speakers to slow down. Interpreters know that they can tell me when a situation is hard and I will try to rectify it. Good interpreting and translation is a team effort.

I have been at the bottom in terms of access and now I am at the very top. I know that interpreters (and captioners) are a precious resource that need to be nurtured, encouraged and supported. Criticism of interpreters worries me. It’s not that interpreters should be immune from criticism because its only from criticism that they can grow. The problem is that often this criticism is unfair and unrealistic.

I am well aware that interpreters must be good. They are often in situations where people’s futures or lives are on the line. Because of this they sometimes have to take control. This means that they sometimes have to tell people to repeat things. If this slows down the process then so be it.  They sometimes have to ask deaf people to finger-spell more slowly.  Their job is one of immense responsibility and accurate translation is crucial. For this reason if a Deaf person says to me that interpreter X was crap because they asked them three times to slow down their finger spelling I’m likely to go into battle for the interpreter rather than the Deaf person. Sure, its not ideal but accurate conveying of information must be the goal at all times.

Interpreting is a limited market. I would love for them all to be brilliant here and now. Bottom line is there are many that need years to get to the level that we deafies, especially professionals, desire. For that reason we have a responsibility to lower our expectations a little, support interpreters more and help the market upskill and develop.

If an interpreter is struggling with finger spelling now it is only through constant exposure that they will get better. So if they say slow down – just do it, even if you are a big wig academic. Otherwise our lofty expectations may create a world where only the best survive and there are even less to serve the market than there are now. I’ve been there and I have no desire to return.

Death …. deaf … and other thoughts.

By and large death is a good thing. Without death our world would be so horrendously overpopulated that we would long ago have destroyed the earth. I mean we humans are doing our best to destroy it anyway but because of our friend death we have survived this long. You see death has a purpose. That purpose is not just so that we don’t overpopulate but it is also so that others may survive. When an animal dies it decomposes. The decomposing leads to nutrition in the soil that feeds plants, that feeds us and feeds other animals. It is the circle of life as they say. It is a truism that the demise of an animal, be it human or otherwise, is another animals gain.

Yet we humans are obsessed with staying alive. I understand that we have to survive for a certain amount of time. If death happens faster than life then there will be no life left. There has to be balance. Likewise if we are staying alive at a rate that is so much greater than death then the resources of the world cannot cope. Humans know this. We hear all the time that a certain animal is breeding at such a rate that it needs to be culled because it is killing itself and there is not enough food to go around. Kangaroos, koalas, rabbits, wild horses and so on have all been subject to culls. Of course humans would never consider culling themselves but the Chinese tried a one child one couple policy. The forced abortions and sterilisation that followed, as well as the persecution are just some of the many shameful examples of mans inhumanity to man.

I have had great cause to think about death lately. Recently my father died and some good friends have passed this year too. I am a fatalist and accept death for what it is. I sometimes think humans should concentrate more on alleviating pain rather than the obsession with prolonging life. Of course it is a fine balance. If there is a disease that is going to make us all perish so that there are no humans left then of course we need to find a way to beat that and survive. But if our obsession is just about staying alive forever then we are not doing ourselves or the world any favours.

My father believed in god. He did not believe in god in the traditional religious sense of heaven and hell. He believed that the world had far too much order to have just been created randomly. He could not fathom that some randomly colliding particles led to everything we see today. He believed that the world had a delicate balance that  needed to have been worked out and planned. Whether this was by a God or some other supernatural power he did not know. But for him there had to be something. In that sense he was a profoundly spiritual person.

And death and life, I guess, are part of that balance. It is a delicate balance too. We humans are so selfish and so besotted with living that we fail to see this. We fear death far too much and need to really understand its purpose. For my father his death was timely. His body had worn out. Death was welcome for him as it alleviated his pain. If he had a choice he would have liked to have controlled when he died rather than just fading away and suffering as he did. But, alas, death as it relates to humans is far too complex for that.

I was protected from the worst of my fathers suffering by the tyranny of distance. My father lived in South Australia and I in Melbourne. While I saw him as often as I was able his care was with my mother, sister and my sisters family. They provided for him in every way that they possibly could. He was very lucky indeed.

That is one of the positives of death and suffering. Mainly that it mostly brings out the best in people. When people are sick and in pain by and large people rally around. They offer support be it morale or a simple cooked dinner. They show that they care in a way that they probably didn’t in times more sedate. My father would have known that he was loved. I think he held on as long as he did because he felt that love and cherished it.

My father and I had a complex relationship. It was complex because it was built on empathy. You see, he and I struggled to communicate. I was deaf and he a mumbler. He was so very hard to lipread. My mother and my sister would be my interpreter, particularly in the later part of his life. My kids would also interpret for me. My son Tyler assisted me to communicate with my dad for an article I wrote about his life. At the  end my eldest son was there to interpret  for me when he was near death. I am grateful for their assistance.

I am often angry that deafness deprived me of what one might call a normal relationship with my dad. When I was young and before I became deaf he and I had many great conversations. We talked about religion, politics, football, cricket and life. He was the one who told me to defend what I saw as right. He said never take a backward step and stand up for myself. He told me many a joke and my children still suffer these jokes. Even when I lost my hearing we still managed to communicate. He would gesture, write in the air or on his palm. He never gave up.

But as he and I got older we became less tolerant and committed to communicating with each other. We relied too much on others, or mostly I did. Consequently we communicated less and less. But we understood each other in a way many people cannot. A nod, a look a shrug of the shoulder or a raising of the eyebrow was all it took. Towards the end when he could not get out of bed any more I shook his hand. It was a typical strong hand shake. He held on just a little bit longer than normal. Just his way of saying, this might be the last time, acknowledging me and letting me know he loved me. It’s more than words can do.

But even so I get angry sometimes. I wish I could have just sat at the end of his bed and talked. Asked him  where it hurt and what he wanted me to do. Or simply have a chat about life and stuff to distract him from the inevitable. But we could do none of that. We just had to settle for assistance from my mum, a nod  a look and that firm handshake. I wish it could have been more. That it was not pisses me off often. It is one of the really cruel things about deafness – It isolates.

That my dad is dead is not something that worries me so much. Death is needed, inevitable and often good. That my deafness prevented me from knowing him better, well that is harder to come to terms with. Such is the way of death and deaf.