I walked into the classroom and she flashed me a beaming smile. She finger spelt her name and showed me her sign name. Her signing was a bit rudimentary but easy enough to understand. She was at a school in remote Australia and I was her support. She was tall and graceful, even regal. There was an evident gentleness about her. I had just taken a break from full-time work so that my wife could further her career. I was the support person at the school and she was one of the first deaf Aboriginal people that I had ever supported.
Amanda sat with Carly, the other deaf Aboriginal person in the class. They sat together at the back. In the morning the schools home class got together. The class teacher would update the kids on the recent happenings, changes and events of the day. There was no interpreter. Being deaf myself meant that I could only pick up some of what was being said. I did my best to relay this to Amanda and Carly. They didn’t get much really.
At 9 o’clock it was time to go into classes. I expected to follow Amanda and Carly into the class but no. The classroom teacher came to me me and gave me the days lesson. I was to take Amanda and Carly into a room and teach them. I have half a teaching degree but I am not qualified. Nevertheless, I found myself as their teacher.
During the day no-one spoke to Amanda or Carly. Not the predominantly white students and not the all white teachers. Amanda and Carly sat together or sat with me. They gossiped and giggled as teenage girls do. The language of the two Aboriginal girls was delayed. Their conversations were very rudimentary. They would see a boy and girl together point, cover their mouths and giggle. Carly spoke often about her hometown. She would tell me several times a day where she was from. I from XXXXXXX, I back soon. Home, yes home, soon” (I have deliberately not said the name of the town so as to not identify who Carly really is.)
Carly hated school and it was her intent to go home. She had a rich benefactor who was head of a mining company. He apparently paid for her to attend the school. He paid her flights, accommodation and other costs. One day the man visited the school. The school made a big song and dance of the visit. They put on a morning tea for him. Carly was nervous and worried. When the man arrived she bowed her head and would not make eye contact. She followed the man into the room looking down at her feet. She would give him his tea and some food, never once looking at him. I found this really concerning and bizarre.
I am a white person so cannot really speak with any great expertise about the customs and culture of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander communities. At any rate across the various communities and nations the customs and culture will vary. I do know that averting the eyes in some Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander communities can be seen as a sign of respect. The mining head was at least 60, Carly was 16. She used to tell us how she was going to marry him and have his babies. I do not know what went on, but I do know I felt very uneasy about her relationship with this man.
I remember looking forward to my working day with Amanda and Carly. I would walk into the room their faces would light up. Amanda would sometimes bring me food from her home to try. Kangaroo tail and goanna. I found the Kangaroo tail incredibly tough to eat. As I gnawed at it Amanda giggled uncontrollably.
One day we were out on a sports trip. These trips usually involved Amanda, Carly and I sitting together. They never mingled and we would just chat until the event was over. I suppose people would say it was my role to facilitate interaction, but hell I am deaf too – there was not a hell of a lot that I could do. No one really cared about them anyway. We came back from the trip and Amanda’s family were gathered around a truck. Amanda ran off to see them. She came back wailing and crying. She held her head in her hands and rocked back and forward.
I asked her what was wrong. She just signed dead, dead, dead. I asked her who had died and she did not know. She was just mimicking the behaviour of her family members. They could not really communicate with her either and Amanda had no idea who had died. Nevertheless, she mourned and grieved in support of her family.
I vividly recall teaching Amanda one day. I was trying to teach her basic fractions. I was using pie charts and unit cubes and trying to link portions to the fraction written on the blackboard. Amanda had a defensive mechanism that when things got hard she would cry. I tried to ignore this and keep her on task.
As I was teaching her the head of the visiting teacher service walked in and saw Amanda was frustrated. She beckoned Amanda and encouraged here to sit on her lap. She cradled Amanda’s head on her shoulder. She admonished me. Told me to stop. Told me that Amanda had no need to learn fractions because she would just live at home and raise children. I was told not to waste time on things that would not be needed. Amanda was 17 years old.
I worked with Amanda and Carly for only one year before leaving to take up another job. I never saw them in person again. From time to time an Aboriginal friend who supports Amanda would contact me to let me know how she was going. Amanda apparently remembered me fondly. I am glad that I at least had that positive impact on her.
About a year ago as I was getting out of the car, 17 years on from when I had last seen Amanda, my phone rang. The Aboriginal support person was calling me on FaceTime. I answered and the person was with Amanda. It was a beautiful surprise and I had a chat with Amanda. Her smile was as broad as ever. Her natural grace was still evident. I spoke with Amanda who told me she had been in jail, she was a bit frightened and my Aboriginal friend was helping her.
It transpired that Amanda had entered a community where she was not allowed according to the Lore. Of course Amanda would have likely not understood this. She had been confronted and in defending herself she had assaulted someone. I am not sure of all the details but I do know that it was considered severe enough to lead to her spending some time in jail.
I know that she had to go to court with very little support. She went to court with no understanding of the process nor the likely outcome of her court appearance. The end result was that she ended up in jail.
This is, apparently, not uncommon. Many Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people in jail are deaf or have disabilities. They go to court with little support or understanding of the process. Many are unable to explain their actions. They are unable to say, for example, whether they acted in self defence. They are unable to explain that they have little or no understanding of the law or Lore. They have no defence and no support. Yet, they end up in jail.
Just recently I received an update about Amanda. She has been diagnosed with an acquired brain injury, probably as result of numerous head injuries from assaults. She also has Frontal Lobe Atrophy brought on by years of alcohol abuse going back to her childhood. She is losing her short term memory. She now has behavioural issues and will attack people she sees as a threat. I am told that she carries bricks in her bag as a means of defence because she trusts no-one. She has to go to court again with the threat of jail – despite all of her various disabilities.
This is a far cry from the gentle, graceful, regal young woman I once knew and for whom a smile was never far away. I am told she remembers me and sometimes asks about me. I hope she remembers me fondly and that the memory gives her some comfort in her current dreadful existence. I weep for her.
As for Carly, she apparently lives on the streets in a remote outback town. In the last few months she has been raped 7 or 8 times. She never did marry the mining head, who quite possibly abused her too.
It is worth noting that despite being only 3% of the population Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 29% of people in Australia’s jails. They are more likely to be fined and pulled over when they are driving and then end up in jail for not paying the fines. It has been said that 90% of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people in jail also have a disability. Many of them deaf!
Amanda was one of them and maybe will be one of them again. How many more Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people like Amanda are in or will end up in jail?? This is Australia’s shame!
Footnote: Amanda and Carly are real people, their names have been changed to protect their identity.