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?

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