Image is of a black and white photo from the early 20th century. It is a group of women in clothing of the times with protest signs saying VOTES FOR WOMEN, GIVE US THE VOTE NOW, EQUALITY FOR WOMEN. The woman in the middle can clearly be seen yelling her protest.

HULLLLLLLLLLLO! Apparently, a new word has been invented … ‘YELLY‘ It is a new advocacy term for people with a disability that are passionate, vocal and driven. That’s my take on it anyway. But, apparently, there are some non-disabled people, people who think that they know better than people with a disability about how to live life disabled, these people are anti- ‘YELLY’. These non-disabled use the word ‘YELLY’ disparagingly. A friend, who has been a brilliant advocate over many years, was told that a campaign they were running was too ‘YELLY‘. Of course, this was by their non-disabled boss who, in my experience, yells all the time. Usually at people with a disability. (This is a semi-fictional account of an incident that happened recently, written in this way to hide peoples identity.)

There are these snobby people that believe advocacy needs to be nuanced. They think in your face advocacy is a bad thing. Typically, these are people that think Unions are thugs and that strikes are an inconvenience. Typically, they think protesters are irresponsible and should get back in their box. Write letters to the newspaper they say. Contact your MP they say. Let management know, politely, that you were left stranded at Bus Stop 36 because the bus didn’t cater for wheelchairs. You know, you ended up in Bendigo when you wanted to go to Ballarat because you didn’t hear the announcement of the platform change. Just write a nice letter to the CEO and let them know. No matter that this is 2022 and these companies are breaking the law. No need to be ‘YELLY’, lets be ‘MEEKY’.

What utter nonsense. I will have you know that every single piece of advocacy we do is ‘YELLY’. When we write a letter to the CEO we are making them aware. This is still a form of ‘YELLY’. But there are lots of types of ‘YELLY’ and combined they make effective advocacy.

I can tell you that writing to the CEO and saying:

Dear CEO

Yesterday I went o Bendigo, but I wanted to go to Ballarat. This was because I am deaf and your company announced a platform change on the speakers, but there were no visual announcements. As a result I got on the wrong train. Sadly, I was late for my party. Can you please make things better for Deaf.



Well – This will get you nowhere. But still this meek little protest is a way of being ‘YELLY’ – It is bringing attention to the issue and in its own way is demanding a response from the CEO. The CEO is likely to reply. They will apologise and promise to look into it. When MEEKY dies in 2072, people will still be ending up in Bendigo by mistake. There needs to be more.

Now, on the other hand, if thousands write to the CEO, perhaps with a little more emotion than MEEKY, the CEO might feel a bit more compelled to act. If thousands end up on the platforms and disrupt travel for a week because they want change, the CEO will jump. If the company is splashed all over the media with angry and disadvantaged patrons, the CEO is likely to have to respond publicly and commit to some sort of change. If hundreds yell to the Australian Human Rights Commission and put in DDA complaints, the CEO is going to be swamped. Perhaps, the CEO might even agree to meet a delegation, begin to negotiate change and agree to timelines. None of this will happen quickly, but the process involves many ‘YELLY’ parts, all combining together to create change.

Did the Women’s Suffrage movement push for women’s rights by quiet and polite little requests? No! They used every means at their disposal – The Suffragettes were part of the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign that had long fought for the right of women to vote in the UK. They used art, debate, propaganda, and attack on property including window smashing and arson to fight for female suffrage. In London they, “… maintained a constant presence in Whitehall, petitioning Downing Street, heckling MPs and chaining themselves to government buildings.” There was not a MEEKY in sight. It was ‘YELLY’ from top to bottom. The key was to be consistent with message and diverse with response. And it never stops, even when positive change happens. Just look at the Roe vs Wade situation in America. That women are having to fight this battle again is a disgrace.

Closer to home, the NDIS started on a wave of protests and constant media exposure. Who can forget then AFDO President, Dean Barton-Smith, at the podium of an Every Australian Counts protest letting the Australia know – “The time for talking is over, The time for Action is Now!” Even now, after having the NDIS established, there is a constant protest from people with a disability to make sure the NDIS delivers what it is supposed to. The disability movement have a presence on The Drum, on social media, on Q and A, on the radio and behind closed doors – they are everywhere. People with a disability speak out and demand more from the NDIS – As they must. Never take anything for granted – Bring on the ‘YELLY’s’‘ I say. They have achieved so much!

So be a ‘YELLY’ and be a ‘YELLY’ with pride. Because it’s the only way that change happens. Just remember ‘YELLY’ comes in many guises. And you Non-Disabled – don’t you dare tell us not to be ‘YELLY’ – Because even when the Non-Disabled make the changes needed, we have to continue yelling to make sure they don’t muck it all up. All heil the ‘YELLY’s’

AI – The Next Big Challenge!

Image is of a futuristic scenario. There is a robot hand and a human hand. The forefingers of the two hands are outstretched and touching each other at the tip

Oh, I love technology! I have made it part of my career to find ways to make technology work for me. The latest cool gadget is captioned mobiles. It uses voice recognition technology to caption the speaker, I lost my hearing around the age of 8 or 9 so I have ok speech, people at the other end can hear me. Sometimes they don’t and I have to repeat myself but that’s ok. No matter, after 57 years I now use a mobile to receive and make calls without a third person assisting. Available on an Android phone near you. C’mon Apple, catch up.

I was so excited about this when I found out about it. I contacted Jobaccess and said I have a new employer and need a workplace assessment. So I prepared my case. Basically, when the job assessor came in I had al the information ready for them. I even had a video that showed how it worked. I can be kind of clever sometimes. I met the assessor without an Auslan interpreter and used my iPad with the Microsoft Group Transcribe app to show just how effective this new technology could be. I kind of blew the assessor away. She was a bit gobsmacked. I convinced her, as well, that I needed good internet coverage so she recommended WiFi extenders too. And then I said I could cast the captions to my computer screen using Chromecast so I could read the captions on the big screen. So she recommended Chromecast and an extra monitor, so Jobaccess bought that too.

BRILLIANT!!! Then my friend Michael tried to do the same and they said no. He became a sooky lala. He says there is one rule for me and one rule for everyone else. Spat the dummy good and proper he did. So I became his advocate. Went into battle for him and they bought him the required phone too. I’m not sure if he got extenders and an extra computer monitor as well, but at least he got the phone. Oh technology, how I love thee!

And you know, in the last few years I have basically not booked Auslan interpreters. I kind of prefer the immediacy of communication rather than all the hassle of booking and hoping someone is available. You know, I turn on my Group Transcribe in the office and know what people are talking about. As a boss it is useful. I hear, or see rather, what my team mates are talking about. When I see they are having problems or there is something that needs my input , I am able to pipe up and contribute to this discussion on the floor – For the first time in the 35 years of my career I have felt close to fully involved. Hell, one of my teammates, when they want to chat with me, the first thing they say is, “Put your thing on” – It is that good.

Automatic captioning is an example of AI or artificial intelligence. Wikipedia defines AI as;

“Artificial intelligence is intelligence – perceiving, synthesizing, and infering information – demonstrated by machines, as opposed to intelligence displayed by animals and humans”

So when a computer program hears a voice and then is able to transcribe it to captions, this is an example of artificial intelligence. A program or machine replacing what a human might otherwise do. It’s interesting, because recently I spoke to a very good friend who is a live captioner. He said that since automatic captioning has begun to improve, work for his business has started to dry up. That makes me feel a bit shit. My thirst for immediate communication, low on hassles and cost, is putting people out of work! That’s a bit of a downside.

You know, my job involves advising Deaf and hard of hearing people of their options. It would be remiss of me if I didn’t explain to them and demonstrate the solutions at their disposal. Like me, many of them are amazed. It has meant that they can now consider other jobs that involve intimate human interaction. It has meant they can access the phone, group chats, deliver customer service and the like. It is wonderful – BUT, the downside is that it is changing life as we know it in a negative way too.

The amazing thing, or the sad thing really, is that AI is like a real person. Some AI is great, but AI also discriminates. You see, I speak ok. Not every deaf person does. It is fine to know what others are saying but how do you contribute if you don’t have good speech or are an Auslan user. What I am seeing is people are now saying, “Oh great, Johnny can use this technology with us. Problem solved!” Shit, NO! Johnny has literacy issues, Johnny needs to be heard too, communication is two way! This technology might work for me, but it wont work for Johnny! It is a real danger that people start to think it is a one size fits all! It isn’t, other options are still needed.

And do you know, businesses are increasingly using artificial intelligence as part of their recruitment processes. People apply for jobs online. Artificial intelligence is now screening these applications. The blurb of the companies that promote this recruitment process is that it’s fair. There is no bias. It just picks people who can do the job. Sounds good? No, its a nightmare if you are deaf or have disabilities.

A few weeks ago, as an experiment, I applied for a job using one of these online application processes, just to see what would happen. Within ten minutes I was invited to an interview over Zoom, that afternoon. OK! Now imagine you are deaf and an Auslan user. You have to go for this interview. It doesn’t ask if you have any access requirements. It just jovially says, congratulations, you have been invited for an interview and sends you a link. Just like many real people, AI can be clueless.

So I logged in at the allotted hour. A man was there. He said something, but of course there were no captions. Their Zoom didn’t have a captioned option either. I explained to the bloke that I was deaf and needed captions, silence. Truth be known, I had Microsoft Group Transcribe running and could follow what he was saying. BUT, as I was talking seven or eight more people joined the interview. It was a group interview. The man just ignored me and began to speak to everyone else, talked about breakout rooms and how there was a task in the breakout rooms and we had to leave voice responses to the questions. I got out there and then.

I was horrified. I imagined any number of Deaf community members applying for this job, (Packing and picking in a warehouse by the way.) I imagined they wouldn’t have Group Transcribe. They wouldn’t have Auslan interpreters. In reality they would have no access, no hope and would be totally excluded!

Since I did this experiment other clients have spoken to us about the same issue. They apply online. They get invited to interviews. They don’t know what is going on. They are expected to hear, respond and speak their responses. It is horrific! This wonderful technology that has the potential to include so many is now doing what humans have been doing for hundreds of years, it discriminates. Sadly, AI can also be AUI … Artificially Unintelligent.

And here lies our one of our next great advocacy battles. This battle is to make these AI systems accessible and inclusive.

To the credit of the companies involved with the recruitment, they accept and recognize the problem. They have agreed to meet to discuss a way forward. It’s gonna be a long road but at least they have come to the table. To resolve this we are gonna need a bit of real intelligence. Wish us luck!


Image is a silhouette of a woman sitting in a field. there are dark cloud in the background. She is holding her face in her hands.

It has been a difficult week. I am in no mood to mince words. People in the Deaf and Disability communities are hurting. Rather than easier, this world of ours is becoming more and more difficult to navigate. On one side of the coin a large proportion of the Disability community fear just leaving home. This is because of Covid and the Governments dropping of all restrictions. No masks, no isolation and so on. If you are fit and healthy, wonderful. You can get Covid and likely recover, no complications. But if you are elderly, have severe degenerative disability or are immuno-compromised, catching Covid can be a death sentence. Just simple things like mask wearing and isolating when you catch Covid can save lives. But nope, seemingly no one cares.

In the Australian Deaf community there have been two suicides within a week. I wont go into detail because people are hurting. However, once again it throws a light on mental health and deafness, indeed all disability. The National Library of Medicine suggests that the incidence of depression and anxiety in deaf people is 25% higher. A recent study of mental health episodes amongst people with a disability found that one third of all people with a disability in Australia experienced very high levels of psychological distress during the pandemic while only 8% of the general population did.

Why? Well, because our society is disabling people more than it needs to. The isolation, lack of employment, lack of accessibility and never ending barriers takes its toll. Indeed, there has been no improvement in the disability employment rate for 28 years. Dylan Alcott was on TV this morning pleading with employers to take on people with a disability. This in a time of labour shortages where employers cannot fill vacancies.

Sometimes when I see figures like this I feel like an imposter. I feel like 35 years as a disability advocate has been a complete waste. You want to just throw in the towel and crawl under a rock. That is until Sky News come up with headlines like this:

Inside the ‘failed’ NDIS: How it secretly funds sex work and why the scheme will eventually cost Australians $100 billion every year

Now, at this point I have to say that what follows are the opinions of myself and no one else. They do not reflect the views of my employer, friends or family. Although I am pretty sure a good proportion of my friends and colleagues will be cheering me on.

I have a message for the author of this piece, Jonathon Lea. How dare you scream that the NDIS is a failure. What would you know? What would you understand about getting out into the community three or four times a week, where as in a past life you would be lucky to get out once a month? How dare you suggest the amputees who are getting prosthetics are part of a failure. Or the physically disabled who are getting bathroom renovations so that they can shower are part of a failure. Or the Deaf person who can get an interpreter for their brothers wedding is part of a failure. Or the person with speech difficulties who gets a communication device to communicate with others is part of a failure. How dare you suggest that all of these people are a burden. Sure, the NDIS is far from perfect and I am one of its biggest critics, BUT, to call it a failure is the height of ignorance.

And here we go again. The cost. It’s expensive! Those dastardly disabled are such burdens. Apparently the disabled are sending the country broke. $100 billion it will cost! Mr Lea, let me give you some advice; open your mind. If you bothered to do your research you would see that for every dollar spent on the NDIS, $2.21 is generated. It is creating whole industries out there mate. It creates jobs in the care industry, it creates jobs in the technology market, it creates jobs in innovation, it creates jobs for Auslan interpreters, it creates jobs for tradies who do the renovations and adjustments, it creates jobs for professionals and therapist. We could argue that the NDIS is an absolute pillar of the economy.

Do you know about the multiplier effect Mr Lea? Where when a person with a disability goes to the movies they take family and friends with them? Did you know on average one disabled person will bring four others with them to a cafe, a tourist venue, a winery and so on. Mr Lea, thousands upon thousands of businesses’ and employees owe their careers and incomes to people with a disability. Imagine if we go back to the dark ages and these disabled people were restricted to the odd outing here and there throughout the year. How dare you call them a burden and suggest that they are taking money from other areas where it is needed. You are an absolute ignoramus! Oh! You have no idea what I really want to call you!

But the worst of this is Mr Lea trying to show that he understands why a person with a disability needs intimacy by way of sex:

“Stephanie has cerebral palsy, a degenerative movement disorder which leaves her bound to a wheelchair and dependent on 24-hour carers who sleep in a spare room..

But once every few months she pays a male escort to visit, to do the sort of things consenting adults do, and maybe stay for the weekend.

Stephanie prefers not to say how much they cost, nor how she fudges her claim. Only that she does.

Sex isn’t supposed to be against the law. But it is, when taxpayers are footing the bill.’

And that’s what he said. He basically said Stephanie has no right to intimacy and that it is wrong that the tax payer should assist her to fulfil what others do most days. I don’t know Stephanie. It is possible that Stephanie has coordination issues to the point that she cannot use sex toys. Or it is possible that her coordination is such that self intimacy is beyond her. It’s possible that she asked for assistive technology through the NDIS to assist her with her intimate needs but this was denied.

But I don’t care. Stephanie has a right to human touch. Stephanie has a right to human interaction. So what if she pays a support person for this. After all, does not the NDIS proclaim it is the persons right to lead an “Ordinary Life.” Stephanie is a human being that has social and intimate needs. She is living in a world where people with disabilities are victims of sexual abuse. She is living in a world where she possibly does not fit into societies warped sense of “attractive”. She is probably very lonely, isolated and in need of human company and intimacy. And Mr Lea shows his empathy by saying this – Sex isn’t supposed to be against the law. But it is, when taxpayers are footing the bill.’ I read this and felt physically sick!

I am tired. I am sad. I see my Deaf and Disabled community struggling every day. I see it impacting on their health as they struggle to fit in with this increasingly non-disabled world. It’s making them sick. It’s sometimes making them kill themselves. And then Mr Lea comes along and suggests that Stephanie is a criminal for wanting and needing intimacy, in his words, “Every few months.” Yes, here and there, where it can be had! Would you like to live such a life Mr Lea?

Mr Lea, you and Sky are a disgrace for printing such inhumane and demoralizing crap! You are SCUM!



My experience with being me:

Image is of a brain on its stem. It is bein pulverised at the front and back by red swinging demolition balls. Fragments of the brain are seen breaking off.

“You’re too loud!”I stopped talking.

“You closed the cabinet/door too loudly!” (I also quickly apologize if I think I may have done something loudly or too hard. Not to the Hearing person, but to the door or cabinet. Yeah)I am painstakingly careful to the point of refusing to participate in family kitchen/party activities.

“My Gosh, I could hear you stomping from the other side of the house! Walk softly!” – I learn to walk toe-heel steps so softly no one knows I am present. (I have scared people when suddenly appearing.)

“You chew too loudly!” – I eat alone more often than not. And when I do eat with others I am wary of making sound so I tend to eat very slowly. (And then they complain I eat too slowly.)

“You breathe too loudly!” – I often find myself gasping for air to avoid annoying others with my breathing.

A lover asks, “Are you into me? You’re too quiet when we’re making love!”During intimacy I make no sound at all. Lord knows I don’t want to embarrass my lover.

These are my lived experiences just being a kid, and then an adult with being hard of hearing and now Deaf.

I once had a strong, jovial laugh and high energy.

Now, no one knows I am present and they don’t know when I am gone because I will simply disappear when I am told I am too much.

JC Wordsmith

I am not sure if JC Wordsmith is an actual person, but can you feel their TRAUMA? I certainly can.

Lately, I have started to think that I no longer want to be deaf. I have been exposed to so many stories of deaf trauma in the past few weeks that I have begun to wonder if it is all worthwhile. Whether it is adults, children or parents of deaf kids, the deaf experience seems to be one big TRAUMA! Everywhere I look be it at the theatre, on TV, in my work, on Facebook or just in everyday life, there is so much TRAUMA in the deaf experience. Nearly all of it is to do with interacting with a hearing world. It is exhausting.

Last night was no different. I turned on New Amsterdam on Stan. A new episode arrives every Wednesday. Marnie and I watch it religiously. Last night, the psychiatrist was assessing a two year old boy. He had severe behavioural issues. He screamed, he spat, he hit, he threw and was generally a real handful. His parents wanted answers. As it turned out, the boy was deaf. The smart psychiatrist diagnosed him in five minutes as having, “Language Deprivation Syndrome” (It is TV land; they’re allowed )

As it turns out, the parents had been ill advised. Hearing professionals told them if their lad learnt to sign, it would impact on his speech development. They said sign language would prevent him lipreading. They said sign language would narrow down his circle of peers and he wouldn’t be able to function in a hearing world. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

So clever psychiatrist starts gesturing and signing to young deaf lad who immediately smiles and responds, and even copies the psychiatrist signing, verbatim. The parents look on in wonder. To continue their education, the clever psychiatrist takes the young deaf lad and parents to see a deaf doctor operating in the theatre. The young deaf lad is in awe, perhaps seeing hope for himself in the future. The parents are amazed.

There has to be a happy ending, right? It’s TV land after all. The psychiatrist, without a hint of irony and with a big smile, says the young deaf lad needs to go to a deaf school for total language immersion. Only problem is the school is four hours away and the young lad will have to reside there. His parents look horrified for they will be separated from their child! We never got to know what happened. The last scene with the deaf lad is seeing the parents’ horrified faces at the prospect of being separated from their child. Truth be known, a lot of this is what parents of deaf kids experience in real life, even if it was condensed. It is pure TRAUMA, nothing less.

Moving on to Facebook; a friend screams on her status that she hates the NDIS. They have denied her funding for a visual alert system that will notify her of fire or someone at the door no matter where she is in the house. It is colour coded too, so she knows whether it is the door bell or the fire alarm going off. The NDIS say it is too expensive and want her to get an inferior system that relies on batteries and remembering to wear a pager. God forbid if you forget your pager or the batteries go flat and there is a fire. You are literally toast. (Apologies for the visual image.)

They denied her hearing aids too, despite these being recommended by a hearing professional with detailed reports. Too expensive, apparently. She is appealing which means she has to get even more reports with no guarantee that the hearing aids she wants will be approved. The paradox is that the NDIS pays for these reports and the reports, along with the appeals process, probably cost more than the hearing aids themselves, Meanwhile, my friend is made to feel devalued and to jump through hoops. – TRAUMA!

Moving on to theatre; I am attending a Deaf story telling night. There is a deaf woman on stage. She is recounting her upbringing in a hearing family. She talks of her isolation around the dinner table as her family banter rapidly expecting her to lipread them all. Inevitably, she gives up, finishes her dinner quickly and retreats. She talks of having to watch TV on her own because her family don’t like subtitles. Sitting on her own, she would often glance at the rest of the family watching TV together, talking and laughing in the other room. She tells the tale of her family learning Auslan to communicate with her Deaf boyfriend. When she and her boyfriend broke up, they stopped learning because she was oral and could supposedly communicate with them without problems. – TRAUMA!

Back to Facebook. A mother has discovered that cochlear implants apparently can provide data of usage to hearing professionals. Hearing professionals are able to use this data to ascertain how often the device is used. There is a family that, apparently, give their child a break from the cochlear implant because it causes exhaustion and headaches if used all day. Hearing professionals have ascertained when this break happens and have told the parents to ensure the cochlear implant is used throughout the day until bedtime. Cue guilt for the parents and never ending exhaustion of the child who has to use the cochlear implant 24/7. – TRAUMA!

Does it ever end? No wonder deaf people have some of the highest incidences of mental health issues in the world. This constant fight to meet the standards and demands of hearing people is absolutely exhausting and worst of all, TRAUMATIC.

I know the life of deaf people is far more positive than the traumatic stories we see and hear everyday. I know that deaf people are not all a bunch of sad sacks. There are happy stories out there. Like how I met my deaf wife at the front door and I was wearing Humphrey B Bear boxer shorts.

I have a challenge to readers of The Rebuttal. Send me your happy deaf stories and I will compile an article or a series of articles to highlight these positive stories. Email them to me at Please! Because, quite frankly, I have had a gutful of all this TRAUMA! It’s exhausting!

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”
― Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss

It Ain’t Necessarily So!

I was following a discussion on a Facebook group last night. A mother was asking whether mainstream schooling or support within a Deaf school or Deaf unit was better. It is an age old dilemma for parents of deaf kids. Some advised the mother to choose deaf schools or units so that her child could be around deaf kids, communicate easily, make friends and get the support that they require. Some advised the mother that mainstreaming is better and that exposure to hearing kids is good for development and speech. I fancy that at the end of the discussion the mothers dilemma was even greater because there was no clear consensus.

One of the responses that struck me went along the lines as follows:

” My Johnny is doing great in a mainstream school. He has heaps of hearing friends and is involved in everything. I asked him if he was happy and he said he was. He doesn’t really need signing, he is doing great .. “

Perhaps I am getting old, but I often read such comments with a great deal of skepticism.

I say ‘Old‘ because I realise things are very different now than from my time at school. Hell, I am 58 and when I left school cochlear implants had been around for about 5 years. Implantation in young kids was very rare then, it is not now. Virtually every deaf kid who can gets an implant these days. That isn’t a bad thing.

My observations are only anecdotal. I cant back them up with any research, but I am sure that there is plenty out there. What I see is that kids who were implanted early, many of them have great speech and great English language development. Not all of them. Some don’t respond well to implantation and you will need someone more qualified than me to explain why. However, what I do see is that many implanted kids have good English and great speech.

What I also see, despite the better speech and English language, is that they still often struggle in hearing settings. Particularly as they get older. Particularly as they begin to be ‘self directed’ and don’t have the support of a school or a visiting teacher. I have spoken to many of these young kids and, despite their good speech and language, they often tell me how frustrated that they are at school.

What it seems to come down to is that once they get into an environment where communication is not controlled, where all are talking at once, where there is a lot of background noise and where everything is spontaneous, these kids with implants become very frustrated and isolated.

Again, I point out that these are my anecdotal observations. However, as I stated, many of these kids find their way to the Deaf community later. They begin to learn Auslan, they begin to experience full inclusion where communication is not such a struggle. They begin to feel fully valued. For many, perhaps for the first time, socialising becomes fun and something to look forward to rather than hard work.

It probably isn’t a lot different from ‘successful oral people‘ of years gone by who later found their way to the Deaf community. Those people who were told that – ” … your speech is so good, no one will know that you are deaf.” What this backhanded kind of compliment tells them is – ‘Hearing Good, deaf Bad’ This is kind of stone age isn’t it? But that is the message that came through.

In my time I was told things like, ” Your hearing aid is so small, no one will ever know.” or “Grow your hair long and no one will ever see it.” The message is the same, ‘hearing Good, deaf Bad’ Cover it up, hide it and everyone will think you are are the SAME as them. That would be until the hearing aid started whistling. Cue everyone looking at you and pointing to their ears to let you know that your hearing aid is whistling. Talk about standing out!

If anyone had asked me back then if I was happy, I would have said yes. If anyone had asked me if I had friends, I would have said yes. But was I happy? A lot of the time, no! I was acutely aware of my difference and tried everything to hide it. Hell, it took me wagging school 14 days in a row before the school contacted my parents and people kinda twigged that perhaps all was not well.

And kids are cruel. Knowing I was a lipreader some would come up to me after school and mouth things like, “Are you a poof …?” No disrespect to lgbtqia+ friends and readers, but that’s what they did. I would look at them kind of blankly and they would all giggle and walk off slapping themselves on the back in acknowledgment of their own hilarity.

School in the mainstream was not fun. For me to openly say that I was not happy was to acknowledge my deafness. There was no way that I was doing that. As a kid, particularly as an adolescent, that is the last thing that you want to do. It can be tough, and while I am sure cochlear implants might have made this easier, the fact that a lot of young people with implants find their way to the Deaf community as they get older suggests that many of these issues probably still exist.

In 1996 I was employed as the Project Officer for the National Mental Health Education Project for Young Deaf People. I was able to research some of the social impacts of deafness on young deaf people. I came across many who were mainstreamed. Many socially struggled. I found that there were different types of young deaf individuals.

Those that sat on their own at lunch time. Those that chose a different friend every month. They would find a friend and smother them to death because it was easy to communicate with that person. Often times this ‘FRIEND’ would start to avoid them. So they would find another friend and the cycle would recommence. There were those who, in an effort to control communication and avoid having to listen, just spoke all the time, played the clown and spoke over others. AND – there were some that were well adapted and coped very well. Some could be any of the above mentioned at any given time.

The variations were stark. The impact on the self esteem and mental health of these young people could be severe indeed. I am pretty sure that many Deaf and hard of hearing people who read this will be triggered by what I am writing. I know that many took the pain of their younger years into adulthood. It took a lot of counselling and hard work to overcome the negative experience.

My own view is that it comes back to the fact that in these early days the message is, even if it is unconscious, ‘hearing Good, deaf Bad’. There is no value for deafness, no value for differentness. The consequence of this is that the young deaf person feels not valued unless they can show they can exist as a ‘HEARING’ person in a ‘HEARING’ world. It is that message, in my view, that does untold damage that can take years to repair and unpack.

I believe society can help by being loud and proud about being deaf. Let deaf kids meet other deaf kids. Let them socialise regularly. Value Deaf schools and units that support deaf kids. See them as viable options that add value to the education and development of deaf kids. The Deaf identity has a place, a very important place. The hearing world needs to value all of these things.

So your deaf kid says they are happy? Hopefully they are, but it ain’t necessarily so!

Pulling the Finger Out

Image is of a young Deaf girl, She has long brown hair in a pony tail and is wearing a hearing aid. She is using sign language.

Many years ago, as a fledging Deaf community member, I attended a workshop on Deaf culture, run by the wonderful Breda Carty. This was the early 1990s and Breda would visit different Deaf Societies around Australia talking about Deaf culture and Deaf history. I was fascinated to learn about the rich history of the Deaf community, much of it associated with its institutions. The institutions were not necessarily bricks and mortar, but things like the Australian Deaf Games, Deaf Clubs, Deaf Theatre and so on. What became clear to me is that these institutions, along with bricks and mortar institutions like Deaf Societies and Deaf Schools, were crucial to the identity and existence of the Deaf community.

The 1990s were a wonderful time. The Deaf community were led by highly driven and determined people that wanted the Deaf community to thrive. I was in awe of people like Colin Allen, John Lovett, David Peters, Brian Bernal, Anne Bremner, Bobbie Blackson, Robert Adam, Don Cresdee, Katrina Parker, Paul Bartlett et al who gave up so much of their time to advocate for the needs of the Deaf community. Much was achieved from their advocacy. We, in the Deaf community, need to be very thankful for having these people fight for us.

Despite the best efforts of these wonderful people, the institutions of the Deaf community have been constantly under threat. I have been lucky to have been able too attend Deaf clubs all over Australia. Being South Australian, I have a particular affinity for the grand old 262. I met my first Deaf girlfriend there and it was the start of my professional career in the Deaf sector. I sat on their Board for a time too.

I loved Stanmore in NSW. I was gob-smacked when I first visited it in 1988. Marlee Matlin was touring at the time. Blimey, it had lawn bowls out the back. There was a squash court too. The Deaf club, with its little bar, was sensational. I worked there as well, for just under a year. Every Tuesday, I played squash downstairs with my mates and then headed to the pub in the main street. Sadly, by the time I started worked there, the lawn bowls was no more. The cost of maintaining the rink proved too prohibitive.

I first visited Jolimont in Victoria in 1985. I was studying in Brisbane at the time to be a Teacher of the Deaf. Malcolm Peters was studying with me and he invited me down to Melbourne to stay with him. Like with Stanmore, I was totally awestruck. The full size snooker tables were a thing to behold. I sat for hours at the bar drinking cocktails made by David Peters. I was a bit worse for wear the next day. I was lucky enough to work at Jolimont too. Every morning starting the day having coffee upstairs with John Lovett, David Peters, Bill Hynes and Greg Culpitt was a great way to start the day. Jolimont was an absolute hub of activity. I shouldn’t forget that I got married there at the quaint old church on the grounds.

And you know what? I even worked at Townsend House. I set up a brilliant program called Successful Adults in Life (SAIL). Current Deaf Australia President, Debra Swann, began her career in the Deaf sector working for the program. In the background was the grand old Townsend House building. I ran workshops in the building for deaf youth. I used to love walking the grounds and breathing in the vast history of the place.

But my favourite, my all time favourite, was working at VSDC. VSDC is now known as Deaf Children Australia. I was a case manager there working with Deaf kids and their families. The old Bluestone building is steeped in history from top to bottom. Next door is the wonderful Victorian College for the Deaf. (VCD)

One day my boss, Dorothy O’Brien, asked me to assist clean up the archives that were in the basement. The basement is a bit like a rabbit’s warren. I remember being fascinated by the communal bath. The bath is a relic of the times when Deaf kids boarded at the school. The archives themselves were absolutely fascinating. Down there were records of past students. Many of them were to become staunch advocates for the Deaf community. Confidentiality forbids me from stating the names of these people. Suffice to say, I feel privileged to have been able to see and experience such a wonderful and valuable record of the Deaf community and its history.

What I liked about working at VSDC was seeing the Victorian College for the Deaf in action. It was a vibrant school. In 1997, all the rooms at the college had a home class. Many of the students were proficient users of Auslan. The school was a hub of interaction. No one missed out. From primary to Yr 12, the kids all interacted. I used to go over and play soccer with the kids. I could go into the lunch room and chat with the teachers. From time to time, I’d pop my head into Joe Corbett’s office for a chat. Joe was the principal at the time. How the VCD kids were so fully included was a stark contrast to the many isolated and lonely deaf kids I supported in mainstream schools. Many, if they were lucky, got the support of a visiting teacher once a month.

During my time at VSDC, there was a tragedy. A student was sadly killed when struck by a train. VSDC case managers were over at the school supporting the staff and kids in their grief. All of us banded together. It was almost as if VSDC and VCD were one.

My fondest memory is seeing the Deaf kids running through the old Bluestone building. I used to love chatting with them in the corridors. It was a truly wonderful and inspiring time in my career. I wish I could experience it again.

I have been so lucky to have experienced all of these wonderful Deaf community institutions, both socially and professionally. Where are these institutions now? All of them, sadly have been sold and closed. 262, gone. Stanmore, gone. Jolimont, gone. Townsend House, gone and turned into a retirement village. VSDC and VCD- still there, but just.

What happened? Well, the dollar spoke. Sometimes it was just a matter of surviving so these wonderful old institutions were sold off. What happened to the Deaf community? Well it survived, but all of its Deaf clubs were closed leading to the community becoming incredibly fragmented. Only now are efforts being made to restore Deaf clubs, and thank god for that.

What of the Victorian College of the Deaf? Will it survive? Last week my wife, Marnie Kerridge, gave the Colin Allen Lecture for Deaf Australia as part of the National Week of Deaf People. She implored the Deaf community to value the school before it is gone. That old model that I was fortunate to witness in the late 1990s is no more. Instead the college has become a school for those Deaf kids that the mainstream cannot deal with. Deaf kids with additional needs.

And that’s fine, because every community looks after all of its members. Like society, the Deaf community has members that need extra support. It is right that the school helps them. BUT – the value of the Victorian College of the Deaf is mostly the interaction it brings, the sense of belonging and the development of strong and expressive language skills through Auslan. The beauty of interacting with one’s peers, never being left out, all included; that’s the value of VCD. That’s the model we need to restore. It is much more than just a school for Deaf kids with additional needs.

BUT, VCD needs the community to get behind it. We need to get back to the days when VCD and Deaf Children Australia were almost as one. Where DCA had its doors open to the kids, where DCA staff were an extension of the school. We need to get back to the days when VCD valued DCA as much as DCA valued them. Partnerships and respect, just like my time there.

But mostly, the Deaf community needs to value the school and what it can offer. They need to realise the strong and important role the school can play in the human and language development of Deaf kids. Because if they do not, the school will be gone. And like those other beautiful institutions that I was fortunate enough to know and love, it will be gone and lost forever!

The Deaf community need to get behind VCD. Organisations like DCA, who exist because of the Deaf community, need to get behind VCD. It’s time to pull the collective finger out before it is too late. You have been warned.

The Deaf Community is Adonis!

Graphic is a painting of Adonis. Image is an ancient painting of a young man with curly brown hair. He is wearing a leopard skin cloak draped over his left shoulder. The right side shows his exposed chest.

I made the mistake last night of saying Deafness Awareness Week. If looks could kill, the one my wife gave me certainly would. In my defence, I was just showing my age. It is, of course, The National Week of Deaf People. There is a huge difference between Deafness Awareness Week and the latter. My slip of he tongue, or fingers, was quite unforgivable.

Deafness Awareness Week takes us all the way back to the 1970s. This was a time when hearing people decided to make society more aware of the scourge of deafness. It was all about the tragedy of what being deaf was. How it needed to be fixed . Hearing people would show little kiddies with hearing aids speaking. Parents would be seen crying as they told the story of how they felt when the found out little Johnny or Jill was deaf. Educators would go to the media trying to convince the world that to ‘Speak is to Listen’. You get the gist.

We have seen some pretty awful stuff coming from hearing people who have this negative view of deafness. The worst probably being the Cora Barclay Centre advertisement. In the advertisement a young lad is seen signing poorly and haltingly, and then suddenly he bursts into speech, almost in a sing-song fashion. He exclaims, ‘.. and now there is a better way.’ True, the aforementioned advertisement was not part of Deafness Awareness Week, but it is the sort of crap that Deafness Awareness Week often spouted.

National Week of Deaf People is the complete opposite. It is a fabulous celebration of Deaf people and the Deaf community. It celebrates Sign Language (Auslan), the Deaf community, Deaf culture and Deaf achievements. It is a coming together of a loud and proud community in all its glory and diversity. It is everything that is positive about being Deaf. It is about how the Deaf community, Auslan and its culture enriches the lives of not only Deaf people, but society in general.

This beautiful community, sadly, is always under threat. Why? It is because the majority of hearing people see the word DEAF in a medical light. They see DEAF as being deficit and needing to be fixed, even eradicated. Over the years the Deaf community have had to fight to survive, but survive they do. But it isn’t easy.

Doctors are at the forefront of this, of course. Sometimes it’s through genetics. They want to eradicate deaf babies by identifying the gene. They want to identify it in the womb so that parents can choose to abort the deaf child before it is born. Recent advances in stem cell therapy and nerve regeneration are also continued threats to the existence of the Deaf community. (Although the latter two offer great hope to later deafened people who often really struggle to adapt to having lost their hearing.)

Sometimes it is technology. In years gone by it was hearing aids. Hearing aids and the obsession with making deaf children speak. So obsessed were hearing people in getting deaf kids to speak they denied them access to sign language and paradoxically in some cases, any language. I’ve written about this in the Lost Generation previously.

In more recent years, it has been cochlear implants. When the cochlear implant was first introduced, it caused great anguish in the Deaf community. There was a lot of negativity and fear about implants. Who could blame the Deaf community for reacting in this way given the sustained attacks by the medically obsessed hearing community on them in years gone by?

Be it Milan, be it hearing aids, be it obsession with oral education – over the years, the hits have kept coming. In the early stages of cochlear implants, the vibe was really negative. The Deaf community reacted very angrily, some may say too angrily. The cochlear implant was an enormous trigger of trauma for many people in the Deaf community. Who can blame them considering the harm that had occurred to many Deaf community members by the medically obsessed hearing sector.

Thankfully, this negativity towards cochlear implants has largely dissipated. You see, as good as cochlear implants are, they are not perfect. Many deaf people with cochlear implants still struggle in the hearing community. The reasons are varied and complex. Factors can include if the environment is not perfect, if the environment is noisy, if people don’t take the time to speak one at a time and the fact that there are sometimes extreme variations in the success of implantation.

These variables have led to many deaf people with cochlear implants still being very isolated within the hearing community. What happened to these deaf people? Well they found the Deaf community of course. They became Deaf and the Deaf community has continued to thrive.

Technology is not always a negative thing though. Look at how the Internet has opened up doors for the Deaf community. Look at how it has opened up telecommunications for the Deaf community. The Deaf community now have Convo Australia where they can access interpreters on their mobile phone any place any time, and funded through the NDIS.

Interestingly, the Deaf community are often wary of technology though. Probably this is because of the negative impact of technology in the past. Some of this technology, particularly the internet, is changing the lives of Deaf people as they know it. Many Auslan interpreters prefer to work from home and online. Many Deaf people prefer face to face interpreting. Indeed face to face interpreting is crucial for many situations, particularly medical. Still, many deaf community members are bemoaning the demise of regular face to face interpreting. This is something that the Deaf Community is going to have to accept and adapt to moving forward.

Then there is voice recognition technology where speech is converted to text. So accurate is the technology becoming that in many cases Auslan interpreters are not needed, particularly if the person has clear speech. I confess that I am in love with speech to text technology because it gives me immediacy of access, in the same way Convo Australia does for many Auslan users. That said, I am under no illusions that as this technology gets better and better it is yet another challenge that the Deaf community must adapt to in its battle for existence.

Who is to say that one day avatar technology wont become so good that there will be a usable app in your mobile where speech is converted into sign language, complete with expressions – Pah! on your mobile, anytime any place, without the need to access a live sign language interpreter. Far fetched? Perhaps, but we used to say that about speech to text technology and look where that is now!

Will the Deaf community survive this onslaught of technology and medical developments? I have no doubt that it will. Like any resilient community it will adapt and confront these challenges head on. The Deaf community is little like Adonis from Greek mythology. It cannot be destroyed. Just when it seems to be on its knees and and finished, Hades in the guise of incredible resilience, fueled by pride and determination restores it!

Happy National Week of Deaf People everyone and also Happy International Day of Sign Languages. Long may we all be together, because together we can and are achieving great things!

Pete’s Day

Picture is of the lower half of a mans head and upper part of his body. He is wearing a dark jacket and striped shirt. His hands are upright on his chin, tips of his fingers touching. His mouth suggests that he is anxious.

Pete woke up. He stared at the ceiling as he thought about what he had to do today. It was Saturday and being Melbourne, it was raining. Pete is deaf and 48 years old. His day seemed pretty standard. Post office visit, shopping at the supermarket, followed by a snooze at home and then his nephews 18th birthday. His heart began to race!! He pulled the covers over his head, wishing he could stay in bed all day.

At 9.30am he reluctantly dragged himself out of bed. He showered and got dressed. For breakfast he made himself some crumpets with melted cheese. He sat down to watch the news and played with Muppet, his dog. He was really just delaying the moment that he had to head out the door. With luck, the post office would be closed before he got there.

He let out a big sigh and headed out the door. He had to get to the post office. The present he had ordered his nephew was ready to be picked up. It had been waiting at the post office for over a week. Pete had been procrastinating, avoiding the post office for as long as he possibly could. His nephews birthday was today, he couldn’t wait any longer.

Pete arrived at the post office with 15 minutes to spare. He sat in the car for a few minutes gathering the courage to go in. The post office was owned by a lovely couple who were obsessive in their wearing of masks in these Covid times. As Pete walked to the door of the post office he stopped, he took some deep breaths and he entered.

There was a line, thank god. It delayed a little bit more the moment he was dreading. Eventually, he found himself at the head of the line confronting the nice owner. He handed over the delivery notice and the owner said something through his mask. Pete closed his eyes momentarily, this happened every time. Pete tapped both his ears with his forefingers to indicate that he was deaf. Still the owner spoke through his mask.

Pete looked behind himself, there were five people waiting. The people in the line stared at him with what seemed to be a mixture of fascination and pity. He turned bright red, he knew he was holding them up. Suddenly the owner began to mime driving a car. Pete understood that he wanted his drivers license for ID. He hurriedly got his driver license out and offered it to the owner. The owner nodded and went off to get Pete’s item. Item received, Pete moved hastily for the exit, acutely conscious that the eyes of all the customers were upon him.

He got back in the car and rested his head on the steering wheel while gripping the sides with both hands. For some strange reason his heart rate was a bit elevated. This happened every time he went to the post office. He could not understand why the post office owner couldn’t remember that he was deaf. Why did it have to be so hard? He took a moment to gather his wits and headed for Woolworths.

Woolworths was relatively uneventful except at the checkout. The young checkout woman didn’t make any eye contact and looked down as she muttered questions to Pete. He could not understand a word she was saying. He just nodded, hoping that this was the right response. The checkout woman asked him if he had Fly Buys. When he nodded she waited for him to offer the card. After a moment or two it was clear that Pete didn’t have Fly Buys, she moved on to the next question.

She asked if he wanted a sticker for the crockery special. The nod saw Pete get offered a sticker he really did not want. She asked if he wanted to make a donation to the local firies. His nodding came apart at the last request because she also asked him how much he wanted to donate and he nodded again.

For the first time the checkout woman made eye contact with him. She just stared at him like he was the strangest man that she had ever met. She asked him again if he wanted to donate. This time he shrugged his shoulders. Her mouth opened a little bit as if to ask “What’s wrong with you?” The checkout woman gave up trying to solicit a donation and asked Pete if he wanted a receipt for his purchases instead.

He did, but he didn’t hear the question. For reasons known only to Pete, rather than nod he shook his head. As he stood there waiting for his receipt, she looked at him as if he was a complete nutter. She actually physically recoiled from him. He turned beetroot red and gathered his shopping. He left as fast as he could without, he hoped, looking like a maniac.

Pete drove home and went straight to bed. A simple trip to the post office and supermarket had left him spent. He needed a rest before his nephews 18th. Pete slept for three hours!

Pete awoke at 4pm. The party started at 6.30pm. It was a party where he would be the only person who was deaf. He really didn’t want to go. The thought of endless lipreading and communicating with a large number of hearing people made him feel a little sick. As the time for the party got closer his anxiety increased. Pete hated these gatherings but he was close to his nephew. He had to be there.

Although the Party started at 6.30pm Pete didn’t arrive until 8.00pm. He sat at home delaying leaving for as long as possible. He felt very ashamed about this because his nephew deserved better. He looked down at Muppet the dog and wished that everyone was as easy to communicate with as him.

Arriving at the party he was greeted by his sister. His sister knew a little Auslan and spent a bit of time chatting to him. After a while she left Pete to his own devices. Random people that Pete knew came to say hello. With exaggerated lip movements they asked him how he was. His little niece came over to say hello and slowly finger spelt her name … B E T T Y … He gave her the thumbs up and his niece squealed with delight and ran off to tell her mother how clever she was. A couple of people actually ruffled Pete’s hair. After all, he is only 48 years old.

Largely, Pete just sat alone. He really did not have the energy to lipread all night long. It was far safer just to sit alone with his beer and party pie. Then there were the speeches. His nephew mentioned Pete. Saying how wonderful Pete was and how lucky he was to have Pete as his uncle. Everyone turned to clap Pete and slap him on the back. He gave everyone the thumbs up. He had an inkling it must have been because his nephew had said something, he knew not what.

At 10.15pm Pete left. He was the last to arrive and the first to leave. He gave his nephew and sister a hug. They implored him to stay. He made some excuse that it had been a long day and that he had a splitting headache. It was true that he had a headache, but the truth was he just wanted to get out of there. Being there was just awkward and exhausting.

He headed home and poured himself a whisky. A bit of Netflix with captions and a cuddle with Muppet the dog. Within 10 minutes he had fallen into an exhausted slumber in his chair. This was a day in the life of Pete. As he drifted off to sleep he told himself that tomorrow would be a better day. He hoped!

Victim Blaming

Image is the head of a young person. Her head is surrounded by hands and she is looking on very stressed. The caption reads – Stop Victim Blaming

I once worked in an organization that loved to blame the victim. The organisation were not particularly good at self-reflection. If a worker was struggling it was the workers fault. The workers were unprofessional or they were tardy. They were irresponsible or they were liars. There could be no other underlying reason. It was the workers fault and that was it. I once looked on in horror as my senior colleague accused a worker being lazy and of making excuses so that they could get home early. The worker wanted to leave eight minutes early so that she could pick up her child for an appointment. Said my senior colleague, ” I told her NO! She has only been here for a few weeks and she doesn’t have the time in hand. She will hate me, but I don’t care!” The senior senior said this with a haughty air of superiority. To my horror my fellow seniors concurred. There is a reason I am not working there now.

When someone is not performing at work there can be any number of reasons. They could be receiving a lack of support. There may be troubles at home. There may have been rapid changes in processes that the worker has found hard to adapt to. They may have misunderstood information because English is their second language. They may have episodic mental health issues that they are too frightened to disclose. There are a myriad of reasons and a good workplace looks deeply into reasons for underperformance. A bad and unaccountable workplace blames the victim.

And you know, if you have a disability, if something is not going right, the disability is blamed. If a deaf person hasn’t understood, its because they’re deaf. It couldn’t possibly be because information was badly presented could it? It couldn’t possibly be because a process has been badly designed, could it? It couldn’t possibly be because the person delivering information was a bad communicator, could it? No, it has to be because someone is deaf – Communication problems and all the ensuing issues are all the deaf person’s fault! Of course! (Please read dripping sarcasm into these comments.)

A deaf friend of mine was telling me that they had made a complaint about their supervisor. The supervisor was aggressive, bullying and prone to gaslighting. My friend had a disagreement over reporting requirements with the supervisor, who then abused them and belittled them. The supervisor blamed the disagreement on my deaf friends inability to understand them. They claimed that the automatic captioning was inaccurate and as a result the misunderstandings were resulting from my friends inability to “hear” the supervisor properly.

Incensed, my friend complained to HR that they were being victimised and blamed for the disagreement. They complained that the supervisor was refusing to accept any responsibility for the disagreement and trying to blame my friends deafness for all the problems. Sadly HR backed the supervisor. They ordered that every meeting that my friend attended with the supervisor have a second person in attendance and it had to be recorded. No other person in the organization was subject to this sort of treatment or requirement. My friend quit her job in disgust. This is what we call victim blaming!

Today I had a very upset friend contact me. My friend has “dual” disabilities and has worked in the “NDIS Sector” for a number of years. It seems that their work place were discussing recent developments of the Disability Employment Service (DES) where a number of providers lost their contracts. One of my friends co workers said this – “It can be hard for the DES because many people with a disability don’t want to work. They prefer to get their $600 a fortnight, health care/concession card and rental subsidies rather than work.”

This is, again, victim blaming. This is why Robodebt came to being. Because welfare recipients are burdens that abuse the system. They are lazy good for nothings that cost Australian taxpayers billions. Indigenous communities are also full of alcoholics and abusers who must be controlled with cashless debit cards. You see the pattern? Blame the victims, the ones who are living in poverty and need help. Because they are a burden. Lazy good for nothings. ( Again read this with dripping sarcasm.)

My friend, disabled and compassionate, said this in reply, “Well, if I could live on $600 a fortnight, Healthcare/concession cards and rental subsidies I would have retired years ago.” BOOOOOOOOOOOM! And do you know what happened? The person that stated people with a disability prefer to live on $600 a fortnight and other handouts complained about him. Why? Because he apparently belittled her and infringed on her right to express an opinion. Yes, I suggest you all read this paragraph again if you are shocked and in disbelief.

But what happened next is worse! My friends manager actually called them. Told them off for being insensitive to his colleagues comment and told him to tone his responses down. My friend, the person with a disability, insulted by a colleague, and who spoke up to give people with a disability a voice got told to shut up and get back in his box.

That my friends, is victim blaming. That it is happening to people with a disability in the disability sector in this day and age is a disgrace. AN ABSOLUTE DISGRACE!! We have to do better than this!!

The Lost Generation

Image is an old black and white photo of a teacher of the Deaf teaching a group is deaf children to listen and speak. He is speaking into an antique manual voice piece, the students are holding tubes from the voice piece to their ear

I watched the Barry Priori documentary last night. Barry is a legend in the Australian Deaf community, he passed away recently. He was an Auslan educator and staunch advocate for all things Deaf. The documentary touched on Barry’s life. It was supposed to have been 90 minutes but due to Barry’s untimely death it was shorter. There were many positive things to come from the documentary. Barry’s oral upbringing was not one of them.

I know it is 2022 and we should be well past this debate. But sadly, the treatment of Barry and a generation of Deaf people from his time must never be forgotten, EVER. The history of oralism is one of human abuse. The horrific tales of the treatment Deaf people received at the hands of oralist must be told over and over. Why? So that people are never treated in this way again.

Barry and his friends Deane, Don and Katrina were interviewed and told of their experience of oralism. They told of their fear of being caught signing. They told of being smacked if they were caught. They told stories of being made to sit on their hands. Of being forced to HEAR as hearing teachers cruelly covered their mouths as they spoke. They told of times at boarding school where they had to wait for lights out and teachers to leave before they could sign to each other in limited light. The treatment was incredibly cruel.

I was horrified to hear Katrina’s story. So hell bent were they on making her speak properly that if she did not pronounce a word or sound properly they would lock her in a cupboard. This might be a simple sound like CH or SH. They would lock her in the cupboard, whereupon she would have to keep trying the sound until she got it right. Once she got it right they would let her out. I cannot imagine the trauma that this treatment would have caused. Likely the scars would be permanent, causing trauma right up to this very day.

How far back do we go? Back to Milan in 1880? The obsession of hearing people to make deaf kids hearing clones has been around for hundreds of years. I can only speak from my own time and I can pin-point the 1960’s to 1980’s as being particularly awful times. Around these times oral educators seemed to have accepted that relying totally on hearing was damaging deaf kids and that their needed to be some sort of manual prompts to assist.

The motives of the hearing people were mostly pure. They likely recognised that deaf kids were growing up illiterate. Worse, the deaf kids were being damaged mentally, both conceptually and cognitively. It is not for nothing that Oliver Sacks described Deafness as a preventable cause of intellectual disability.

In the 60’s they tried cued speech. This was a system that used hand symbols near the mouth to indicate sounds. The idea was that deaf kids were being made illiterate because they had no access to phonological information. By providing manual access to phonological information it was thought that a deaf kid would learn speech and English better. There are many that will swear by cued speech but the reality is that it was an abject failure. It had some advantages for single word recognition but research will tell you that as a language acquisition tool it failed spectacularly.

Later in the late 70s and 80s Signed English was introduced. I remember this well. I lost my hearing when I was about 8 or 9. I struggled in mainstream schools for a number of years. At the age of 14, in 1978, I found myself at the Strathmont Centre for Hearing Impaired Students.

It was the first time that I had met another deaf kid. I was struck by how poor their English was. They couldn’t string the simplest of sentences together. I could not work this out. They were just deaf. With the naivety of youth I could not understand why this would make them “stupid”. Now, I know there will be people offended by this last remark, I am just quoting directly what I thought at that time – I assure you, I don’t think this way now.

They signed together in break time and seemed to communicate brilliantly. I know now that they actually did. Some of these kids were from Deaf families and were using Auslan, but I didn’t know this at the time. I saw their Auslan as mime, gesture and broken English. I watched them in class struggling to understand the signing of their teachers. I thought it was the kids problem because they were slow. What I know now is that the teachers couldn’t sign for shit. I wonder now how much the teachers actually understood of what the kids were signing to them.

Of course, the teachers were using Signed English. But very badly. The reality is that they would sign a few words and speak a few words. Or they would speak mostly and add a sign here or there. (This was called Total Communication.) The kids were supposed to learn from them in this way. It was just a jumble of information that often made no sense. The end result was a lot of illiterate deaf kids with language deprivation. Yes, I know that other issues including lack of family interaction and access to “overhearing” also impacted. However, you cannot underestimate the deep damage this terrible education system caused to many of these deaf kids.

And you know, many of these deaf kids were being introduced to Signed English in their teens. But unlike me, they were not born hearing and with developed language. They had been born deaf, struggled through an oral system and then in a last ditch attempt to “help” them they found themselves at Strathmont. Cast offs from a system that had failed them.

Many of these kids began to mix with native signers at the school and started to learn Auslan. They started to interact and make friends with deaf kids. Rarely did they interact with hearing kids at the school unless forced to. The access to Auslan through these other deaf kids improved their communication to a degree, but the reality is many of these kids were language deprived. They lacked conceptual development, they had poor literacy and their maturity and ability to deal with adult concepts was severely delayed. In short the system screwed them.

Even today the failed experiments of cued speech and Signed English from the 1960s to 1980s impacts on Deaf people. For example, at work Deaf people are expected to complete online compliance training for them to continue in their employment. The training is written in complex English language that they struggle to read and understand. In my current role I am assisting people in their 50s and 60s to make sense of this online training. I often have to assist these deaf people to fill in forms. The stress and trauma that these people experience at struggling with these basic English tasks is very real! The barriers experienced by Deaf these people throughout their lives have been severe. These are the people that were damaged by that awful period of Deaf education in the 1960s and 1980s.

Victor Hugo said – “

“What matters deafness of the ear, when the mind hears? The one true deafness, the incurable deafness, is that of the mind.”

And that is what oral deaf education caused over so many years, a deafness of the mind. Particularly so, in that awful period of the 1960’s to 1980’s. Will the hearing world ever say SORRY for the damage that they caused to this generation of Deaf people? I don’t think they ever will, but there is no doubt in my mind that they should! They are a lost generation!

Watch Barry’s story on ABC iView – For more information click the link –