An Evolution of Complaining

Caption is of a man. His mouth is taped shut with the label – Complaining.

It has been my lot in life that my career has been based on complaining. As a disability advocate the whole concept of positive change for people with a disability in Australia is based on a complaints system. All our disability laws are based on submitting complaints to activate the law. Don’t complain, no change happens. That’s the status quo.

Back in 2015 I wrote an article about complaining and how it impacts on us all. The gist of it is that when you complain it wears you out. It causes stress and anxiety. The more you complain the more stress and anxiety you experience. If you complain about something and don’t get a resolution, complaining about it a second time increases the anxiety and stress. In the article I quoted research to back it up. I wont bore the reader with it today, but take my word for it, complaining is bad for your health. At 57 and 30 odd years of this gig, I can tell you that I am a bit tired.

I can recall my first act of complaining for change. I wrote a piece for the Parents of Hearing Impaired Children’s newsletter. I think I might have been about 19 at the time. I complained about teachers of the deaf at my old school. I said that teachers working with kids who used sign language should at least be able to understand the students that they were working with. I argued that they should be able to sign in a way that students understood them. (I had not yet heard the name Auslan at this stage.)

I recounted how my old art teacher had been given a temporary position as a teacher of the deaf. The art teacher could barely finger spell, let alone read back sign. I wrote that this was not on and that we needed better teachers of the deaf who knew what they were doing. This was the first time that I was summoned. I’ve been summoned many times since.

So my old Coordinator at the Centre for Hearing Impaired called me into his office. Accused me of disloyalty, talking rubbish and being counter productive. Basically told me if I could not be loyal to shut up.

The theme of under qualified teachers of the deaf has always been a bone of contention for me. Many years later I spoke with one of the senior lecturers at Melbourne University about teachers being shit at Auslan. (Auslan was a thing by this time.) He said that University had to produce teachers of the deaf that could work with such a wide range of students that all they could really do was offer two weeks Auslan and hope that if they worked with students who used Auslan they could build on what they had learnt.

He basically said that teachers of the deaf were expected to be a Jack and Jill of all trades and adjust to whoever they were employed to work with. He also said that if I ever mentioned his name he would deny that he said it until he was blue in the face. ( I have never publicly said his name and in respect of his honesty, never will.)

In 1989 I became the Employment Project Officer at the then Royal South Australian Deaf Society. I had to develop employment resources and also place Deaf people into employment. I dealt with the old SkillShare system, employers, Department of Social Security and Government bodies. In 1989 we didn’t have a DDA and access to services and support for people with a disability was the absolute pits. (The DDA is pretty useless anyway, but I have written about that many times.)

As you can imagine I was forever complaining to someone about lack of access. I called the Department of Social Security one day through an interpreter (No relay service yet and the interpreter was someone who worked at the Deaf society, not necessarily a qualified interpreter.) I was quite angry because they were refusing to allow an interpreter for an interview for the dole for one of my clients. I was very blunt back then, they hung up on me saying I was to call back when I was able to modify my tone.

One day I met an employer. We were trying to get someone a job as a plumber. He had to to an aptitude test that had English that would trouble a PhD student. I was trying to get a modified test for my client, who had literacy issues. The employer said this,

“Plumbing is not good for Deaf people. They dig holes. The holes are far apart. Workers yell out to each other from their holes. A Deaf person cant do that. Plumbers are a funny breed, I myself am an electrician and electricians are ok. But plumbers!!!!… I would try for a different job.”

My response to that was to stand up and say, “You just don’t really care, do you?” I remember the interpreter of the day ushering out the Deaf person from the room while the boss and I hammered it out. Of course the Deaf person didn’t get the job. My conduct earnt me a session with my manager who was surprisingly empathetic. Despite her empathy she reminded me that such an aggressive approach would not get me many wins. She was right, of course.

My battle with the University of South Australia to get interpreters is well documented in these pages. Suffice to say that after 6 years, countless support group meetings, loads of letters to the top dog, the involvement of the Education Minister and finally the introduction of the DDA – I got interpreters in my final year of University. (Thank you Lucy.) Only for my Social Work Lecturer to try and deny them based on his view that I couldn’t be a Social Worker and rely on interpreters. That was a whole other battle. No wonder this complaining gig wears us out.

Over the years I became more sophisticated. I learnt that there was away to complain and have impact. It’s a truism that it’s not what you know, but who you know. So I developed extensive networks within the sector. I took part in countless consultations. I got involved in a number of high powered Government committees. I even got paid for some of them and got flown business class.

I loved flying in business class in my shorts and Crocs. It’s true I tried to convince the Government to fly me economy because a flight that was around $150 economy could cost over $1000 business class. They would have none of it. I console myself by telling myself that I have provided, and still provide, countless hours of support and advocacy voluntarily.

But even so, the complaining is relentless. You repeat the same stories over and over again. Government Departments are beasts. You spend a year educating a bureaucrat to the point that they finally understand, then they leave. They are replaced by another clueless poppy that has come from the taxation department, with no clue about disability. And we start all over again.

I could outline the complaining I do on behalf of participants of the NDIS. I’ll just say that I really wouldn’t want to know how much the NDIA are paying for legal fees to try and reject VisuAlert for the seven people that I am assisting. (I heard last year that they spent $55 million on legal fees.) Repeating the same arguments to the same lawyer 7 times is frustrating, but someone’s got to do it. I fancy Sarah, the lawyer I see at the AAT hearings, feels as frustrated as I do at hearing the same arguments over and over again. I can see the pain in her eyes, I swear I can.

Yeah, I am a little tired. It has been 33 years. Somehow I still have the passion and the wherewithal to keep going. But last week I almost felt like packing it in when I heard that a high ranking Government official, responsible for accessible infrastructure, said something along the lines below:

” .. We don’t get a lot of complaints. That shows that things are really quite good. Really, compared to other states, we are leading the nation.”

Yeah right, buddy. Have you ever tried getting on and off one of those old trams when you are in need of a hip replacement? I can tell you first hand its hard, painful and embarrassing. And if you are in a wheelchair and wanting to get on at the tram stops in my area, its a long roll to the city. People are just tired of complaining for so little gain, so they stop! The official has no clue, absolutely no clue.

And that’s why we are tired. That’s why I now find myself reverting, increasingly, to the blunt no nonsense approach to advocacy I had in the early days of my career. I just tell it as it is and bugger the sensibilities of the clueless bureaucrats.

I’m just tired and it is time Australia caught up with comparable countries. I’m still here, cos as I said, someone’s got to do it and I still have a passion for a fair go. But yeah, retirement, BRING IT ON!!

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