I was a sucker. I watched Deaf Divide on SBS. I told myself that I wasn’t going to. I told myself that it was going to rehash old arguments that should have been settled long ago. But like a cat struck by curiosity I had to have a look. I cringed the whole way through.
We have been having these arguments since forever. Many years ago, this priest or brother from a deaf school in NSW went on a crusade. He went on radio. He went on TV. He was in the newspapers. He told whoever would listen that hearing aids were so good that there was no need for deaf kids to use sign language ever again -EVER!!
I was a fledging advocate back then. Encouraged by Damian Lacey, then CEO of the Royal South Australian Deaf Society, we launched a protest. Lacey allowed the Deaf Society to provide all the resources that we needed. The Deaf Society provided us with resources and printing materials so that we could design banners and posters. He provided Deaf Society cars so that we could transport Deaf people to the protest.
The oral zealot, for want of a better term, was speaking at the Cora Barclay Centre. We timed our protest for his and parents’ arrivals. Of course, we championed Auslan. We wanted parents to know that this zealot was giving them false hope and we wanted them to see this vibrant, proud and active community in full flight.
It was vitally important that we were heard. Yet again some zealot who believed that hearing was the only way to exist was trying to undermine the Deaf community. Yet again parents, already struggling to come to terms with having a deaf child, would be given false hope in technology. Yet again, the Deaf community and its members were having to justify their existence.
That was in 1990. Thirty-one years ago. What the Deaf Divide showed me on Tuesday was that we have not progressed one iota since then! It’s easy to blame hearing people for the problems, but you know, Deaf people are at fault as well.
For every hearing zealot, you have a Deaf zealot too. These zealots are anti-cochlear, anti-hearing or anti-anything that is not Deaf. One mother on the Deaf Divide spoke of being spat upon by a Deaf person because she had chosen a cochlear implant for her child. We have all heard of the Deaf zealots screaming child abuse to hearing parents who have chosen to give their child a cochlear implant. These zealots are every bit as bad as the hearing zealots.
I fully empathise with hearing parents who have a deaf child. For most of them it is the first time they have really had to confront deafness. They, mostly, see deafness as a deficit. Not being able to hear is something that they cannot comprehend. They need a lot of support.
We Deafies have to accept that hearing parents of deaf kids want their kids to be able to hear. Hell, there are even Deaf parents of Deaf kids who want their kids to be able to hear. Some Deaf parents choose cochlear implants for their Deaf kids too. They realise that being able to communicate better with the hearing community will be a benefit to their deaf kids. Even these Deaf parents have been subject to abuse from Deaf zealots.
The Deaf parents are also subject to abuse from hearing zealots. Doctors who tell them, “We are very sorry your child is deaf”. Professionals that ty to convince them from the very first day to give their child an implant. I have heard stories of Deaf parents being accused of child neglect for refusing to give their child an implant.
What these doctors and professionals do is constantly make Deaf people justify their existence. They make it seem like that the choice to remain Deaf and let their child be Deaf is negligent. When hearing professionals insist, wrongly, that to allow access to sign language will impede speech development they are saying that sign language is inferior to speech, it isn’t.
It’s like a tug of war. The hearing world and the Deaf world each have one arm of the Deaf child and they are tugging the child this way and that. Meanwhile, parents of deaf kids, hearing and Deaf, look on in bemusement while the two factions fight over their child.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Look, we know that cochlear implants have benefitted many deaf kids. They speak better, they write better and their literacy is stronger. Dr Greg Leigh from Nextsense acknowledges this. Deaf kids now have access to spoken language in a way that they have never had before. This is a good thing because they have language, we should all rejoice.
BUT! As good as cochlear implants are, they are not perfect. Not all deaf kids thrive with cochlear implants. Deaf kids with cochlear implants can still struggle in noisy environments. Not all deaf kids with cochlear implants can miraculously talk on the phone. Deaf kids with cochlear implants still use captioning. Many enter adult life and experience social isolation in the hearing community and seek out the Deaf community. There is no one size fits all.
All of us in the Deaf community want these implanted deaf kids to learn Auslan. Many are being prevented from doing so because some biased hearing professional will tell their parents that Auslan will impact on their spoken language development – This needs to stop, it is unmitigated bullshit. Such misinformation from hearing professionals devalues Auslan and every Deaf person that uses it.
The Deaf community also need to realise that learning Auslan in a hearing family is hard work too. For Auslan to develop well it needs good language models. Parents and immediate family need to learn it so that the deaf child can communicate with everyone. But parents and immediate family take time to become proficient.
Trained Auslan teachers are in short supply. Parents in rural areas can’t get access. While there is no doubt that Auslan will benefit the deaf child there are barriers for its acquisition within a hearing family that need to be addressed. It is unrealistic to just expect hearing families and deaf kids to easily become proficient in Auslan when the lack of trained personnel and resources is a real barrier to its acquisition.
But all these issues are overlooked while the “Zealots” promote their own agenda. The deaf child and the parents, both hearing and deaf, are forgotten. The warring zealots are more interested in promoting their own agendas rather than working together for the benefit of the deaf child and their families.
That is what I saw watching the Deaf Divide. Just an enormous division that seems to have gotten wider with the years. It seems we have not learnt our lessons from the past and its time that we did.
Cochlear implants are a good thing. Auslan is a good thing. Together the deaf child is on a good thing. Combined they have the potential to provide deaf kids with a strong language base and full access to education and employment. It doesn’t need to be one or the other. It can and probably should be both.
But it won’t happen if the zealots continue to war. It won’t happen if organisations promote speech and listening in their promotional materials but not Auslan. It won’t happen if the barriers to learning Auslan in a hearing family are not addressed properly. It won’t happen if hearing professionals continue to lie and insist that acquiring sign language will impede the development of spoken language.
Most of all it won’t happen if in 2021 we cannot learn from the mistakes of the past. This is equally true for both Deaf and hearing factions. If the Deaf Divide taught us anything, it is that the deaf divide is as wide as ever. It doesn’t need to be this way.
It is time for Deaf and hearing factions to come together and banish the divide. If we don’t these same arguments that existed 30 years ago will still exist 30 years into the future. It will be same shit, different barrel. We all owe it to deaf kids of the future to stop this happening.