The Invisible People

David Brady missed out again. Mr Brady is the esteemed Chair of Deafness Forum Australia and CEO of Hear for You. He is a staunch advocate for both Deaf and hard of hearing people. He attended a consultation for hearing services and was not provided with access. Puzzling but all too common.

Mr Brady has some rudimentary signing but it is not something he can rely on. He needs assistance to hear through either listening devices like hearing loops or to understand information through captions. These things were conspicuously absent at the consultation. There were, however, two Auslan interpreters. This is great but not if you have a hearing loss and cannot sign. This is the situation for around 3 million Australians of which only a very small percentage use sign language. Estimates range between 7000 and 30 000 people use sign language. Either way the percentage is small.

Michael Uniacke raises this issue in his wonderful article, Disability, Is It Time to Redefine. Mr Uniacke makes the distinction between hidden and visual disabilities of which deafness is obviously one. What this means is that if you saw someone walking down the street, unless you saw their hearing aids or cochlear implant, you would not know if they were deaf. Uniacke points out that for members of the Deaf community this is less the case. This is because through Auslan, which is the name for the sign language Australians use, they are highly visible.

Yet Uniacke also points out that these signing people make up only a small percentage of the population of people with a hearing loss. Uniacke emphasises that the Deaf community are the only disability group that have a language of their own. Some will say they are also the only disability group that have a culture of their own. People within in the Disability community will challenge this and argue that there is actually a Disability culture. That debate is for another day.

Says Uniacke, “In terms of numbers, the hearing-impaired population is a whale, while the Deaf community is a tadpole. In terms of public funding, political influence, and public perception and recognition however, the metaphors are reversed: the Deaf community is a lion, while the hearing impaired are merely fleas. That is the power of visibility, in this case, the power of a visible language.” This is the paradox of funding in the Deaf Sector.

I have made this point often, but out there in the community there are more people that require captioning and listening devices than do Auslan. Yet support and funding for this group is hopelessly inadequate. Organisations, many who should know better, think that to provide Auslan interpreters is enough. I know it is not cheap to provide interpreters but it also means that the bulk of funding is only assisting a very small percentage of people with a hearing loss. That, as Uniacke states, is the power of visability.

Just last week I had a Deaf person contact me because they were attending a workshop organised by a prominent disability programme. She wanted captioning for a colleague and also because the captioning would provide her with a transcript of information presented at the the workshop. Part of the problem for a person who is deaf that uses Auslan interpreters or captioning is that when they take notes, they miss some information.

Many people with a hearing loss have developed a Deaf Skill, which allows us to fill in the missing gaps. This comes from many years experience of only receiving partial information. However, this skill only works if the person is familiar with a topic and its context. It is less effective when you are receiving unfamiliar or new information. Hence my colleague requested captioning so she could access a transcript in lieu of taking notes herself.

So my colleague asked me for assistance to get captioning. I provided her with some contacts. She asked these contacts for captioning and was flatly refused. Why? Because Auslan interpreters were present and this was seen as meeting access obligations.

I would postulate within the audience there were several other people with a hearing loss who had not disclosed this fact. There were probably people for whom English was their second language too. All of these people would have benefited from captioning yet their needs were overlooked.

This is part of the reason that in my last job why I encouraged my employer to book captioning for every workshop or event they put on and only book Auslan interpreters when they were requested. The fact that Auslan interpreters would be provided if required had to be clearly stated on any promotional material.

I take this approach because, in my view, many Deaf people who use Auslan are more comfortable to disclose and request.  The opposite is true for the majority of people who have a hearing loss who do not sign. More often than not they feel embarrassed to request support. It may seem unfair but my view is that limited funding needs to be used to support as many people as possible and captioning does that. It is not a popular view point.

There are many reasons why these people with a hearing loss who do not sign will not disclose. Many are latter deafened and embarrassed to tell people they are struggling. Some are in denial or not realising how much information they are actually missing. Some have been brought up to believe that hearing is superior so they tend not to want to bring attention to their inadequacies. Whatever the reason, these people need support and they are not getting it.

Currently there is a big debate going on within the NDIS about the cut off point for people with a hearing loss when it comes to access. Suffice to say that people who are very deaf, many of whom will use Auslan, will get automatic access.

Those with lesser hearing losses have to  justify their needs. Some who previously were granted access to the NDIS are now having that access revoked. This is because the NDIS believe that they hear too much.

The reasons behind this is, of course, sustainability. The NDIS have to make sure that the funding that they have is targeted at those most in need. However, many people who have a hearing loss and who do not meet the NDIS criteria are struggling.

They need their hearing aids and they need listening devices. This technology is extremely expensive and many cannot afford it. Some require captioning in certain situations. Many are isolated in the community because they can only really function optimally when there is little background noise and where there are few people.

Put these people into situations where the environment is extremely noisy and where many people are talking at once they are extremely disadvantaged. This causes great stress and is one of the reasons why there is a higher incidence of mental health issues among people with a hearing loss. It is a mystery why the needs of these people receives scant recognition.

There may also be a number of people who are Deaf who use Auslan for whom the NDIS may deem as hearing too much. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming months if these people have their access revoked. I suspect the Injuns will revolt if this becomes common place.

In a nutshell, people with hearing loss and who do not sign get a raw deal. Their needs are very misunderstood. An access criteria based almost solely on how much a person can hear is fraught with danger. I have no desire for Auslan users to lose their access, They have fought hard for it and it is needed. I only desire that these millions of non-signing people with a hearing loss get recognition for their extreme disadvantage and get the support that they desperately require.

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