The Forgotten People

Picture is of Star Wars character, Yoda, taken from a comedy sketch about bad lipreading – He has apparently said – Poke me in the coconut.

I read this lovely little story on the Channel 7 News page. This young woman, a manager of a food section in Woolies, noticed that there was a couple that came in and used Auslan. The young manager took it upon herself to learn a bit of Auslan. She started with YouTube videos learning basic greetings. Eventually she did a course to become more proficient. She recalls how the faces of the Deaf couple lit up when she first signed to them. The young manager is determined to develop her skills so that she can converse easily with the couple. Her commitment to inclusion was seen as an INCREDIBLE ACT.

Australia has a fascination with Auslan. Ever since the Cyclone Marcia in 2015, it seems that Australia has become fascinated with Auslan. Mark Cave, who did the bulk of that interpreting back in 2015, got dubbed SIGN GUY. Cave, a CODA (Child of a Deaf Adult), was a bit taken aback by all of the attention. Watchers became fascinated with what they saw as his ANIMATED facial expressions and gestures. Said Cave at the time, “It’s been very surprising, extremely unexpected, particularly because there’s been interpreters used for previous natural disasters so I didn’t think it would cause as much of a stir as it has, It’s been good in a way because it’s raising awareness about the deaf community and about Auslan and the need for interpreters”

Cave is a brilliant interpreter. He was not the first to interpret disaster announcements but his particular style seemed to capture the watchers attention. Since that time, Auslan interpreters have become more common. They have become pseudo-media personalities. One in Perth was on TV dancing with Fat Cat and teaching the Premier Auslan. Mikey Webb was described as high profile and “Much Loved” when he went missing from Covid announcements for a period of time. This was owing to the fact that he had to isolate after having been a close contact.

Others have been subjected to being mocked and laughed at when the watcher doesn’t know what they are signing. We have all had to roll our eyes when yet another hearing person gasps in horror at the Auslan sign for available because they think its looks like the interpreter is giving them the bird.

Mostly, its been terrific. It has brought attention to the needs of the Deaf community, and their need to access information in their own language. I am all for it and celebrate it. Very often I am approached by people on the NDIS that have lost access to Auslan for their kids or for themselves. I am a fierce advocate for them. However, I do wonder about the “OTHERS”

I first became aware of the “OTHERS” twenty years ago. I was working at the NSW Deaf Society at the time. I attended a function that was both Auslan Interpreted and Oral Interpreted. The Oral interpreter was a lovely and genial man with a mop of white hair. English is my first language so I decided to watch him. I thought that I would probably understand more through him.

For those that may not know, an Oral Interpreter basically mouths the words in slightly exaggerated mouth movements for lipreaders. So, I watched this lovely old guy do his stuff. To my horror, I could not understand a word that he was saying. He appeared to have a very thick Scottish accent ( I am not joking.) I quickly gave up on him and focussed on the Auslan Interpreters. I looked around me and it seemed that even the Oral deaf in the room were also watching the Auslan interpreter. Possibly because the lip movements of the Auslan interpreter were infinitely more decipherable than than the Oral interpreter.

I don’t mean to mock him because he was a really nice fellow. (I know that sounds patronising too.) But it set me thinking. What happens to these deaf, hearing impaired, hard of hearing, who do not use Auslan ?(Choose your preferred term.) What happens when they don’t have access to an Auslan interpreter to lipread? This guy was the first, and still the only, Oral interpreter I had ever seen. How did these people access information when they attended events, like the one that I had just attended?

I need to reiterate here that I love Auslan. I support Auslan. I support Auslan interpreters. Indeed, Auslan interpreters have been one of the primary reasons I have been successful in my career. BUT, it is a truism to say that Auslan users are the minority. In fact, Signbank suggests that there are only 6500 Deaf people in Australia for whom Auslan is their preferred mode of communication.

Yet, despite this, for all the media coverage we see it is almost like Australia thinks that if you are deaf, therefore you must sign. Anecdotally, I can say this is true. In these Covid times, where everyone is wearing a mask, I have to often disclose that I am deaf. The number of people that then begin to finger spell or demonstrate their own rudimentary signing to me is quite staggering.

I mean, they don’t even know me but they choose to sign anyway. What if I did not sign? (and the majority of people who are deaf don’t). Well, then it is going to be embarrassment all around, isn’t it? I wonder if this is why many people who have a hearing loss and do not sign, choose to remain mum rather than subject themselves to this embarrassment.

I go back to my original example; the Woolworths manager and her INCREDIBLE ACT. What if she had noticed a deaf couple who didn’t sign, but nevertheless needed alternate communication? What would she have done?

If she had chosen to write on a note pad? If she had chosen to upload a voice to text app to her phone so that the deaf couple had access to text based communication? If she had set up at every counter and check-out, a tablet that has a voice to text app so that deaf people that didn’t sign had access to communication? If she had set up signage around the store telling people to disclose they are deaf ‘cos all staff have the app on their phone? If she had done all of this, and thus providing better access to the majority of deaf people, would she have got as much attention? I wonder. (Or would the store have told her to shut up because they didn’t want the expense?)

It bugs me too, that nearly all the focus on accessible theatre is Auslan. Again, I think it’s great. BUT, how many thousands of deaf people are missing out because so little theatre is captioned. It bugs me that this vast population are so silent. The Deaf community (Auslan users), if a politician forgets to use an interpreter at important announcements, they go ape-shit. And rightly so, but if something is not captioned, and it often isn’t, there is not a peep. (Deafness Forum Australia, I am looking at you!)

I fancy that the Oral interpreter I described is now out of a job. Technology and the advent of Live Remote Captioning has made the need for him almost obsolete. While the uptake of this technology has been wonderful, it gets virtually no publicity. I wonder if my favourite captioner, Roxanne, will ever be described as ZIPPY FINGERS, in the same sense of awe that Sign Guy is held. Probably not.

And who is promoting all the new solutions for the deaf people that don’t sign? Automatic captioning gets more accurate everyday. Android 12 allows phone calls, both outgoing and received, to be automatically captioned. IT IS AWESOMELY ACCURATE. Who is promoting this and where is the sense of awe and awareness that should be occurring surrounding the access that this technology is providing? Apart from my work, awareness campaigns seem non-existent. (Deafness Forum Australia, I am looking at you again.)

Meanwhile and thankfully, Auslan interpreters are virtually everywhere. They are rightly getting accolades and creating fantastic awareness. But the “OTHERS”, the forgotten deaf people; who is creating awareness of the access tools at their disposal? Who is lobbying to get society to implement and introduce these solutions? No one it seems! (Deafness Forum Australia, I am looking at YOU!!!)

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