Our Nancy

Image is a photo of Nancy. She has just completed a parachute jump. The parachute is pink, still attached to her person and laid before her. She is in a paddock and there are cattle in the background.

The plane rose gently into the sky. It was a beautiful day. This was the day that Nancy had been waiting for. She was both excited and apprehensive at the same time. She remembers a condition of her adventure was that she tell her parents. She remembered the endless preparation for this trip. She had to prove that she was medically fit for it. Communication had to be fine-tuned, there was no margin for error. 

There had been hours of preparation and training for this flight. Communication had to be worked out. Manoeuvres  had to be practiced. The Civil Aviation Authority had to be convinced that Nancy was safe and not a threat to others. She would not be able to hear instructions from the ground to prepare for landing you see.

As she looked down everything looked so tiny. Houses were little building blocks. She could see farmlands, ant sized livestock and dams twinkling in the sunshine. The lush green mountains in the distance were magnificent. It was time, the little Cessna was high enough.

She sat at the door in her bulky gear, goggles and helmet wondering what on earth she was about to do. She awaited the first signal, a simple tap on the shoulder. The long-practiced procedures were rushing through her head. The wind was strong in her face as climbed out and balanced on the wheel strut.– TAP.

And she jumped. In her own words: “Wheeeeeeeee, no hesitationThere goes the plane, now where is the landing spot?  Then the incredible realisation – “I’m all alone, and I’m floating!!” And I did a sort of happy dance in the air.” This was 1963 and in those days there was no tandem jump for beginners. The parachute was released by a static line attached to the plane. Landings were practiced by jumping off a six-foot embankment. One had to jump backwards from the plane and after counting to three, pull the ripcord.

In 1963 Nancy was possibly the first deaf woman in Australia to do a parachute jump. Possibly the first deaf person in Australia, ever. She was to achieve many firsts. This was to be a common theme throughout her life.

Born in April 1940, Nancy Johnston became deaf after a bout of meningitis, at age 6. She was raised in a comfortable home in eastern Sydney, not far from Coogee beach. Her grandfather was a journalist and her mother, in the words of Nancy, “.. was a woman of many talents. She was indefatigable in ensuring I participated in LIFE in general through a good education, sporting groups, independent travelling around town, getting a driving licence etc.“ In short, her mother made sure Nancy’s deafness would never be used as an excuse or a barrier.

Of her upbringing Nancy recalls that, “When I became deaf, no hearing aid could help. I was brought up to think I was a hearing person with a hearing problem. My mother wanted me to continue communicating by speech and lipreading. She encouraged me to be independent from a young age. I was keen on all sports, joined a local swimming club and so on.”

She had been at the local public school for over a year and had developed strong language skills before she became deaf. In a sign of the times, the school refused to take Nancy back after she became deaf. She was then enrolled at the NSW Institute for Deaf and Dumb Children. Nancy remembers that her classmates were 2 or 3 years older than her. She was not taught sign language or finger spelling and was extremely isolated. Nancy has vague recollections of other students finger spelling and signing. She was at the school for only one term before her parents enrolled her in a private girls school that was closer to home. She was to remain at this school for 9 years and loved it.

Nancy explains that while she was at this school, “I was the only deaf girl. I was never bullied or teased. I didn’t receive special treatment from teachers (as far as I was aware). I was Dux of Junior School and represented my school in all available sports.”

For her final two years of schooling Nancy attended a larger private girls school. At this school she had to work much, much harder. It was to be a valuable lesson for her and prepared her well for her university education that was to follow. Despite her desire to go to university it appears that the school was extremely sceptical that she would be able to do so.

Nancy was the first deaf woman to enrol at any university in Australia. She enrolled in, and graduated from, the University of NSW with a science degree. She was only the second deaf person to obtain a degree after Dr Pierre Gorman. It is interesting to note that Nancy’s Great Aunt was the first woman to graduate in Science from an Australian university. Being the first must be a genetic trait of her family.

She received no special assistance from the university. She copied notes from the students next to her. Indeed, Nancy recalls that some of her lecturers did not even know that she was deaf. Despite these obvious challenges, Nancy graduated with a distinction in Zoology. The year was 1962. Nancy later went on to achieve a Master of Rural Science in Genetics from the University of New England.

It is worth remembering that Nancy achieved all of this at a time when there was no access to Auslan interpreters or captioning. Her academic achievements occurred through sheer hard work, grit, and commitment. She relied on notes from her fellow peers and her own reading to reach the enormously high standards that she did. The author of this piece can only imagine the other communication challenges that she must have faced when interacting with her peers and fellow academics.

It is a far cry from today where, if our politicians forget to book interpreters for media conferences, protests ensue. That is not to say that these protests are wrong or petty, rather it puts into perspective the magnitude of Nancy’s achievements. It is truly awe inspiring.

Nancy’s academic achievements were followed by a glittering career. Below is just a small selection from her resume:

  • CSIRO Animal Genetics for 4 years as Laboratory Assistant while part time Uni student.
  • NSW Dept Agriculture Tick Research Station 1 year Post graduate Scientist.
  • St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London about 4 months. Medical Research Scientist
  • St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney Clinical Biochemistry Dept –Scientist
  • A short stint as a gold assayer in Townsville
  • Royal Brisbane Hospital Clinical Biochemistry – Scientist
  • UQ Faculty of Medicine – Cardiovascular lab at Prince Charles hospital – Research Scientist
  • UQ Faculty of Pharmacy – Research Scientist
  • UQ Faculty of Biochemistry – Senior Research Scientist
  • Casual work at Qld Archives, and private historical research for a client which involved visiting archives across three states

All of this without access to communication support of any kind. No JobAccess, no NDIS, no captioning, no interpreting – just sheer talent, determination and hard work. From her quiet determination and incredible achievements, Nancy demonstrated to Australia what people who are deaf, or who have disabilities, could achieve. In doing so she raised expectations and lay a path that other deaf people and people with disabilities could follow in the years to come.

Nancy, together with her first husband Geoff Hoffmann, bought an old pearler, The Cornelius, in 1973. Recalling the purchasing of this boat Nancy tells the story:

“In 1973 the Englishman who I had met in London finally proposed, on condition I sold my sports car and helped him buy a large old sailing boat! I took 6 months leave to help sail the boat from Broome to Sydney. We lived on board for some time but eventually moved into a small flat while continuing to work on the boat almost every evening.”

The two of them moved to Bowen, Queensland, where their daughter Nicole was born in 1977. The three of them circumnavigated Australia from 1980-1981 with a small crew of friends. It was a real adventure. Nicole was to fall overboard three times and needed to be rescued, once from a crocodile and snake infested river. More about this adventure has been revealed in “The Cruise of the Cornelius” which was published in 2021. Sadly, Geoff died from melanoma in 1983, leaving Nancy to raise their daughter on her own.

Nancy found the Deaf community very late in life. She recalls that at the age of 48 she could only remember meeting one other deaf person through her mother when she was much younger. She recalls that she was shocked because the deaf girl would openly reveal to others that she was deaf. Nancy had always been taught that she was basically a hearing person with a hearing problem. To meet someone who would openly declare that they were deaf was a bit of a shock to her.  

Nancy discovered the Deaf community while she was living in Townsville. She had been looking for something to do and was told about a teacher of the deaf at the local primary school. She met Ray Hildson who told her that she could only help with the Deaf community if she learnt sign language. At the time Nancy had recently had her first cochlear implant. So, at the age of 48, Nancy began to learn sign language for the first time with Doris Boyle.

Nancy learnt of the Deaf community’s rich history, its culture and its language. She was amazed to learn about Deaf sport and the Deaf Olympics. She had always been a keen sports person but was only involved with hearing sport. For her to learn of this rich and vibrant community that had its own language was a real eye opener.

In 1989 Nancy moved from Townsville to Brisbane with her daughter. Nancy saw a newspaper article on the works of Professor Heather Mohay whose published works focused on deaf children and their development. Through Professor Mohay she met Deaf community member, Leonie Milton, who was working for the Professor at the time. Leonie and her husband Ian invited Nancy to a BBQ where she began to meet other deaf people and professionals in the deafness field including Breda Carty, Bobbie Blackson and her hearing husband, Len Bytheway. Through these early friendships she began her extensive lobbying and advocacy for captioning and the National Relay Service.

Bobbie Blackson recalls:

” When I first met Nancy, I could see her fierce intelligence. She was very unassuming, not given to talking about herself because she is a very private person. Over a period, I learnt of her incredible achievements. Her academic achievements, her career, her parachuting, her sailing … I was in awe!! “

While Nancy was living in Townsville, captioned TV was starting to roll out in Australia. Nancy purchased a TV that would allow her to view captions. She was very frustrated as there were very few shows with captions. At the time, very few TV shows outside of Brisbane broadcast captions. One of the only TV shows captioned was the British TV show, Eastenders. Her daughter, Nicole, explained that there was some moderate teasing around having to watch such a trashy show. However, because it was one of the only shows with captions, it was a high priority. 

Cyclone season in Townsville could be a time of danger. The lack of captions meant that Nancy had no access to emergency announcements. The TV only showed two words in huge block capitals, ‘Cyclone Warning!’, and the rest of the announcements were only spoken. Daughter, Nicole, remembers: “I did a lot of interpreting adult things and I got quite grumpy about it”.

These were the early inspirations that motivated Nancy to want to lobby for improved captioning access. She became heavily involved in the NWPC (National Working Party on Captioning) which was supported by the Australian Caption Centre. She was to be the first Chairperson of NWPC for two years. Nancy was the Queensland representative. She was to spend many years lobbying for improved access to captioning. She gave much of her time to raise awareness and run workshops all over eastern Queensland about captioning, including Communication Access Realtime Captioning. (CART). Much of this was done as a volunteer and she often took leave from her day job as a research scientist at the University of Queensland.

Old timers, like this author, who are Deaf or hard of hearing, will remember a time when there were virtually no captions on television shows. They will recall a time when things improved so that free to air TV stations had to show captions from 6pm to 10 pm. Today we have captioned TV for almost every show, 24/7.

University students who are hard of hearing, who do not sign and could not access Auslan interpreting, had no access to captioning. Through Nancy’s early lobbying efforts, awareness of CART and its applications began to increase. Now university students get access to Live Remote Captioning through a variety of providers such as Bradley Reporting, Red Bee Media and Ai-Media. It’s now provided through the internet and has been a life saver for many people working and studying through the pandemic. We have a lot to thank Nancy and those early captioning pioneers for. They put an enormous amount of work and dedication into improving captioning access.

Nancy’s voluntary work and lobbying were not limited to captioning. She was involved with Deaflink and was heavily involved with setting up the National Relay Service, including the establishment of the initial offices. She was secretary of Deaflink in its final years before it evolved into Australian Communication Exchange (ACE) and the National Relay Service (NRS). She was to remain on the ACE Board until 1999.

In 1988 Nancy received her first Cochlear Implant. In her own words:

I had, after all, been totally deaf for 42 years. I was warned not to expect too much – probably just environmental sounds – and encouraged to meet and/or correspond with a couple of other people with whom I would be similar. Actually, due to my ears being stuffed up with bony growth I ended up being one of only 8 people in the world at the time with an extra-cochlear cochlear implant, thanks to an innovative surgeon willing to give me a go. It took a long time and lots of hearing practice but eventually I could distinguish some sounds – but understanding speech has always eluded me. The implant did help with lipreading and a great improvement in my voice, giving me the courage to speak to a roomful of people.”

Of course, Nancy being Nancy, having a cochlear implant was not enough. She had to use her experience to help other people who had an implant. She was involved with the cochlear implant advocacy group Cochlear Implant Club and Advisory Association (CICADA) She established the first CICADA branch outside of NSW. In 1997 she was awarded The Quota South Pacific Scholarship to present at an international conference on cochlear implants in the USA and also at a US state conference. Part of the scholarship also involved attending an international conference for HOH people and investigating real-time captioning methods. (A history of CICADA can be viewed here – https://cicadaqld.org/history )

OH! – and did I tell you she was also a Board member of the Queensland Deaf Society where she was instrumental in introducing CART for all Board meetings. She assisted at Deaf Deaf World workshops too, training the early relay service TTY operators. All of this, and she started when she was 48!!

In 2000 Nancy resigned from all her commitments – ACE, QDS, NWPC and CICADA and moved to New Zealand. She moved to be with Dave Gibb, whom she was to marry in 2004. Dave has two cochlear implants. Nancy explains her motivation for travelling across the ditch:

“… the reason I came to NZ initially was to have a ride on Dave’s huge Italian MotoGuzzi motorbike after daring someone else to do so – and she did, to my utter surprise – so I had to do the same! A planned short 5 day visit morphed into 3 weeks motorbiking from one end of NZ to the other. My posterior has never been the same. About a year later I moved over for good.”

In New Zealand she has had little involvement in the Deaf community. She lives a relatively quiet life when not touring the country with Dave, a caravan and a dog. Nancy is currently researching and writing about her family trees and is on track to publish her second and third family history books, having already published 15 photography/travel books privately for family and friends.

Nancy might be across the ditch but we here in Australia have not forgotten her. We all owe her a depth of gratitude for her work and commitment to people who are Deaf and hard of hearing. Thank you, Nancy. You are one of the unsung heroes of the Australian Deaf and hard of hearing communities,

We will never forget you, OUR NANCY

With thanks to Bobbie Blackson and Nicole Dunbar (Daughter) for their assistance in writing this piece. Thank you, Dave and Nicole, for keeping it a secret when we reached out to them. Thank you, Nancy for giving your time in being interviewed. It was an honour.


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