Infantalising the Deaf Community

The recent Rebuttal, What About Me, has caused some controversy. The article aimed to highlight some of the reasons that the Deaf community were frustrated with the media portrayals of Auslan. Many could relate to the article while many others saw the article as an attack on interpreters and the Deaf community establishment. It was neither of these things. So I thought to expand a little more on the themes in this article.

In recent times when interpreters have become prominent on the television, for whatever reason, the interpreter becomes a bit of a celebrity. During the Queensland floods the interpreter became Sign Man. The hearing populace had enormous fun taking the piss at what they saw his exaggerated facial expressions and movements. During the Bushfires the bearded fellow, who we all love, was everywhere. In Perth, the interpreter became the centre of everything. Interpreting for Fat Cat and teaching the Premier of Western Australia some impromptu Easter signs. It was a bit cringeworthy watching the Premier hop around like a bunny. The intent, however, was pure. Pity the poor interpreter who was forced to comply. She could not very well refuse with all eyes upon her.

Let’s be clear, I and the Deaf community, do not begrudge the interpreters the exposure they’re getting. They are a valuable resource and much needed by the Deaf and hearing communities alike. As many have pointed out, many of these interpreters have been part of the Deaf community all of their lives. Many have invested a great deal of time and money to become the very best interpreter that they can be. Studying to be an interpreter is not cheap.

We are all very aware of these things and are thankful that interpreters are there. They are the bridge between hearing and the Deaf communities. Interpreters ensure inclusion and equality. They ensure, and this is not said enough, that Australia can get the benefit of the many Deaf people who have skills and attributes to benefit Australia.

In years gone by Deaf people were encouraged to do trades or simple clerical jobs. They were not encouraged to become professionals. I became a cane furniture worker and a cabinet maker before I set on the path to become a teacher, which later changed to becoming a social worker. I wasn’t encouraged to consider anything beyond manual trades. Communication was thought to be too hard. Not being able too talk on the phone meant it was impossible, apparently, to be employed in professional areas.

That attitude was wrong then, and it is wrong now. Even more so today when there is a plethora of technology. If we really wanted, we probably would never have make another voice call ever again. Email, live text chat, messenger, Teams, Zoom, SMS etc arguably are all that we need. For example, the last three cars that I have bought were arranged entirely online. No phone calls required. I’ve just arranged a move to Adelaide entirely by email and online purchasing. Not one phone call was needed. I know this horrifies hearing people, not talking, but it’s possible.

But I digress; my point is that we have an enormous range of Deaf talent out there. Lawyers, social workers, bankers, nurses, doctors, mechanics, teachers, scientist, artist and so on and so on. Arguably, without interpreters Australia, indeed the world, would not receive the benefit of these talented people. Interpreters are there for Deaf and hearing alike. They bridge the gap, ensure inclusion and ensure the hearing world does not miss out on all of the diverse talent and skills that exist among Deaf people.

That said, interpreters are not heroes. Nor, I am sure, do they want to be. We would not all fall over without them. We would find a way to communicate. The relationship between interpreters and the users (Deaf and hearing) is reciprocal. In this sense, each person in the relationship is there for a reason.

In simple cold and hard business terms, without the deaf and hearing people in need of the interpreter, the interpreters would not have a job. They have a profession that provides them with an income, status and a means to pay their bills because there is a demand for it. I know interpreters are not just in it for the money, but let us be honest, if it didn’t pay, we would have fewer interpreters around.

It’s a not a job for kind hearted volunteers either. There are issues of life and death that interpreters deal with everyday. Issues of money. Issues of the legal system. Issues around personal relationships and so on. We need skilled and committed interpreters. That’s why we pay them good money, they do a tough and vital job. Sure, many do pro-bono work and that’s great. But the job that they do is intense and requires great skill. It is also very stressful, I do not envy them. Nor do I protest at them being paid a fair wage in line with their skills, it’s a vitally important job. I have no time for people who say that interpreters are paid too much, that is poppycock.

That’s why both Deaf and hearing people need interpreters. Doctors need interpreters so that Deaf people follow their advice and prescriptions properly and do not overdose. Banks need interpreters so that Deaf people understand their contracts. Counsellors need interpreters so that marriages are maintained and mental health services provided. Employers need interpreters so that they get the very best out of their Deaf employees and visa versa.

Deaf people need interpreters so that they are employed and can do a diverse range of jobs. Deaf people need interpreters so that they can be included and valued members of the wider community. It is a reciprocal and serious relationship that the three stakeholders have with each other. Reciprocal and equal.

The Deaf community want to be that equal partner in the relationship. They don’t want to just be seen as the helped. Deaf community members want to be seen and valued and not seen as those poor people that need to be saved by those super interpreters. They want to be taken seriously as individuals, contributors and professionals. This is why there are frustrated. ( I do not believe that there is one interpreter that sees themselves as a super interpreter. I speak here only of the themes portrayed through the media. This is not something that they have much control over.)

Arguably, the Deaf community are also being infantilised. Sure, I get it that there are Deaf kids that will love to see interpreters hopping around like bunnies, but when this is largely all that is portrayed on the mainstream media, along with the theme of being helped, the wider deaf community feel devalued, belittled and even further marginalised.

This is further compounded by the fact that there is always the AWWWWWW factor in play. It’s great that Emma, the yellow Wiggle, incorporates Auslan into her performances. But I can tell you my hearing colleagues, as one almost, say to me, ” …Isn’t that beautiful ..” They come and get me and they say “Gaz, have you seen this!! – It’s beautiful.” It’s either that or they ask me the signs for swear words.

When the Deaf community see hearing people speaking for them and owning their language, without much acknowledgement the Deaf community, they feel invisible. The ones protesting about the media portrayal of interpreters and the widespread attention given to people like Emma, the yellow Wiggle, just want to be taken seriously. They want Auslan to be taken seriously and to retain a semblance of ownership of Auslan. ( It is true, no-one really owns a language, but when Auslan is constantly infantilised and seen as a tool of help and not identity, it hurts.)

That is what the protest is about. It is really hard to speak up without being seen as taking potshots at interpreters. It is really hard to speak up without being seen as miserable bugger for protesting about Emma and her use of Auslan. But, there are some brave souls that have chosen to do so.

For their trouble many of them are being told to shut up. They are being told to stop being negative and to be more positive. Well, when you are marginalised and made invisible by well meaning media who portray you as needing help or when you have your language infantilised by well meaning hearing people who think they are doing you a favour, its a bit hard to be positive sometimes.

All these Deaf community members want is to be seen as equal and to be taken seriously. They also want Auslan to be taken seriously and not solely seen as a means of entertaining the hearing world. That isn’t too much to ask, is it?

What About Me!??

Gavin Balharie was interviewed by the Guardian in a brilliant piece that highlighted why Deaf people needed to be remembered in times of crisis. He told the story about being on holiday with his Deaf wife and young hearing daughter.  When the bushfires began to approach they had no idea what to do. He and his family didn’t know whether to stay or go. They could see and smell the fires but had no idea as to just how severe or dangerous that they were. Balharie became desperate and, “…recorded the local broadcast on his phone and managed to find a translator to send it to. When they got the video back 30 minutes later, they knew straight away they had to get out of there.”  It was only when he received the information in Auslan that he realised that kind of danger that they were in.

I believe that Gavin and his family eventually got back to Victoria safely, basically driving the opposite direction of the fires and coming home via Canberra. I could be wrong but the point is, but for his interpreter friend who provided a video transcript in Auslan of the recording, Gavin and his family would not have known what to do. They would have been in greater danger than they actually were.

If you are hearing you have any number of outlets to receive information. The car radio is one. Social media is another. You may be in the pub when the news comes on and you would hear it there. Shopping centres have televisions on as well. What this means is that a hearing person would be hard pressed to miss vital information. Not so if you are deaf.

This is part of the reason why members of the Deaf community, just your basic grassroots members mind you, set up the Facebook Page, Auslan Media Access. This was basically a page that aimed to highlight where announcements were not accessible. Members of the page would post on Facebook any announcements about the fires that were on television or social media. They would highlight where Auslan interpreters or captioning were not provided. They even made an impromptu video, Can You See the Interpreter, which you can see below.

Members of the Auslan Media Access page posted in droves. People emailed television stations and their government representatives. Slowly but surely interpreters began to appear on screen regularly. Sometimes they would be there but the camera man would not frame them in. In a relatively short space of time the media and governments got the message and interpreters became part of every Australians life for critical and important announcements. First for the bushfires and then for the COVID-19 situation.

It was a momentous achievement. It was achieved through skilful campaigning and very quickly. It even got to the point where broadcasts of the news on ABC would have Auslan translations as well. The people concerned with this brilliant advance in accessibility need to take a bow. That it was achieved in such a short space of time is without precedent.

Of course, with this increased exposure came with it a fascination about Auslan.  Mark McGowan, the premier of Western Australia, played it for all it was worth. He made an announcement about  how much he had relied on interpreters and posted it on his Facebook page. At Easter he got the interpreter to teach him some Easter signs. Watch it below:

The interpreter actually became a bit of a celebrity. I have a vague memory of her being filmed with Fat Cat, who apparently still exists over in Western Australia. So after years of relative obscurity suddenly Auslan was everywhere.

One would have thought that the Deaf community would rejoice! No they didn’t! Some of them actually got quite angry. They became angry because their language, the centre of their identity, suddenly became the subject of everyones fun. Suddenly, Deaf people became invisible. This is a paradox considering Auslan seemed to be virtually everywhere.

So instead of celebrating the brilliant achievement of getting Auslan Interpreters on television and social media for all critical government announcements, the Deaf community got angry! They are rightly asking, What About Me???

You see, suddenly Deaf people became objects of pity that needed help. The beauty, the validity and the cultural eminence of Auslan was rarely discussed. I am sorry, but in trying to bring attention to Auslan what happened was that it became belittled. It became a welfare object. Providing Auslan helped the poor Deaf people. Watch the video below. The title says it all.

I feel for the interpreter. She is saying all the right things. She acknowledges that Auslan is her first language and that of her Deaf parents. She is highlighting the critical need to access information. But the media turn it into a heart warming help story. This is achieved just by the title and the reporters painful attempt at the end to sign WASH YOUR HANDS. But the worst thing is that there is not a Deaf person in sight. They are the helped, out of mind and out of sight.

This is not the first time that this has happened. I recall that the interpreter who was prominent in the Queensland floods became a celebrity as well. He became known as Sign Man. I think the issue this time is that the Deaf community are feeling that they are being ignored, or worse turned into people that require saving. Everyone seems to be getting credit at their expense. This has become more frequent in recent times due to the exposure given to Auslan by the Yellow Wiggle and Deaf Australia ambassador Andy Dexterity. Some say the exposure is good, others say it is the wrong type of exposure and Deaf people should be the ones who people are remembering and not the hearing performers.

The Deaf community are taking particular offence at hearing people profiting and getting credit at their expense. They feel that these hearing people are profiting from the Deaf community with not much acknowledgement to Deaf people. In Dexterity’s case they feel that he has become a self appointed spokesperson and worse, the Auslan that he uses is often not grammatically correct. That he has given TED talks on the topic further rubs salt in the wound.

I won’t get into the linguistics of it all, but I certainly feel that Deaf people are becoming invisible. I certainly feel that the image being portrayed is that Deaf people are in need of help, and by giving this help they are being saved. The image that we are active and contributing members of our society is lost. That’s why I love the story by the Guardian about Gavin Balharie. It is a Deaf person, a Deaf professional, a clearly talented and skilled person who is Deaf and telling the story. It is positive and we need far more of this and less of interpreters bopping around like bunnies. ( With apologies to the said interpreter, I realise that she was probably placed on the spot.)

But, having said all of this I wish the Deaf people concerned could take a moment from being angry to breath and celebrate what they have just achieved. Through the work of some grassroots Deaf people who set up a Facebook Page and then actively coordinated a campaign to get interpreters on screen for important announcements, thousands are benefitting!

In a few short months virtually every announcement has an Auslan interpreter on screen and in frame. No longer do the media cut the interpreter off because they are a “distraction”. The need and importance of the interpreter has been understood, even if it often does not always feel this way.

That was and is a momentous achievement. Take time to celebrate that. You have all earned it!

Footnote: There are many that say interpreters are better and more easily understood than captioning. I digress. One must remember that 95% or more of people who are deaf  (Not Deaf) do not sign. Their need to access information is vitally important. That’s why televisions in public places need to have the captions turned on and all social media postings need to be captioned. These deaf people that do not sign also need to be safe. That the captioning is sometimes of questionable quality is something that also needs to be addressed. Auslan interpreters and captioning, they must go hand in hand.