DeJa Vu

Graphic is a cartoon. It has two stick figures in caps. One asks the other, “He bro, have you ever felt deja vu?” The other answers, “I don’t think so, haven’t you asked me that before?”

I have come full circle from where I began my career. In 1989 I was still at University. I was 24, I did not yet have my drivers license. Partly because over a period of time I had broken my leg three times and shattered my elbow as well. My friends will tell you how fed up they were of driving me everywhere. In 1989 I was offered two jobs. One as a porter at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and the other as the Employment Project Officer at the Royal South Australian Deaf Society. I accepted the latter.





I well recall the CEO of the Deaf Society looking at me with distain at the interview for the role. “How do you expect to do this role without a license?”, he asked. It was a fair question, but his facial expression clearly showed he was unimpressed. I promised that I would get my license in haste and I did. I got the job and that was the start of my career. I spent the first six years of my career in employment. Now in the twilight of my career, I am back.

Oh, how it has changed. Back when I started, disability service providers received block funding. As an employment professional I was able to assist whoever came through the door. I, naturally, expected a certain level of commitment from the client to find work. There was the odd difficult client who missed appointments or didn’t show up for interviews. However, by and large, people were motivated to get work.

It was not always plain sailing. I remember finding a bloke a job as a welder. The first week of his job he was late every day. Come the Friday his boss called me in. It turned out that the blokes car had broken down and he was catching three buses to get to work. The bloke said his car would be fixed next week, and he would be there on time.

Come the second week I got called in by the boss on the Friday again. The bloke had been refusing to wear toe capped boots. They were not comfortable he said and he didn’t like them. So the boss, through me, explained it was a rule for safety and that they had to be worn or he could not work. The bloke reluctantly agreed.

Come the third week, I was called in again. This time the bloke was refusing to wear protective gloves. He complained it made it hard for him to weld and his hands got all sweaty. The boss was exasperated by this time. He really wanted to give the bloke a fair go. I asked the boss, “If he wasn’t deaf, what would you do?” The boss said he would have sacked him in the first week when he was late every day. I said, “There is your answer.” And that was the end of that.

I am not sure that I could do that today. You see, we don’t receive block funding. We are paid per the person, based on the jobs we find, the support we give and how long that they remain in the job. Survival of the service depends on jobs and those jobs being retained to generate income. I would definitely have to approach it in a different way.

But that is how it is now, especially with the NDIS. Service providers have to offer a service that the disabled person wants. To retain the client and generate income to keep services going, clients must be satisfied. A lot of the power now resides with the client. We serve them and have to provide a quality service. Just like any business, we have to ensure that we have satisfied customers. If that doesn’t happen, the chances of survival are bleak.

A lot of old school service providers do not like this new world. Understandably, many service providers don’t like the uncertainty of income. They liked the old days when they had some control and knew how much money that they would receive. Many people despise the fact that people with a disability have become a commodity for profit. They find this de-humanising. The NDIS does not suit all people with a disability either. There are many that were better served with the old block funding model where there was certainty of service.

It is what it is. Service providers either adapt or they perish. It is up to them. Many people with a disability also love the NDIS for the control it gives them over the funding and services that they receive. The NDIS is not going anywhere soon, so its either structure the service to fit within the frame work or go out of business. The choice is stark.

However, some things never change. One of the things that never changes is how many hearing people assume what Deaf and HoH people can and cannot do. I think I have told the story of the plumbing apprentice a few times before. Suffice to say, back in 1990 a hearing boss tried to tell me that Deaf people couldn’t work as plumbers.

Apparently, and this is what the boss told me, when digging holes plumbers often dig in different areas. They communicate with each other by yelling across from their holes. It would waste too much time getting out of their holes just to communicate with the Deaf person so that the Deaf person could could lipread.

I was not impressed. My reaction got me called into the office of my manager back at the Deaf Society. She was very empathetic but reminded me that getting angry and sarcastic with potential employers could be counter productive in the long run. ( I’d said to the boss something along the lines of, “You poor hearing person, you really don’t care do you?”)

Sadly, in 2022 this is still happening. Last week I was assisting a client to get into a training course. The client had been refused. The course provider was insisting that a Deaf person could not work in this role because today, with the need to wear masks, communication would be too hard. It would, therefore, be impossible to do the job.

Deja Vu! It took me all the way back to 1990 and the plumber. It took me all the way back to my studies when my social work lecturer questioned whether I could be a Social Worker because it was not feasible to be a Social Worker and use Auslan interpreters. It took me back to times when I was refused jobs because of assumptions made by bosses that communicating in the workplace were challenges too hard to overcome. It took me back to the many excuses hearing bosses make around risks that Occupational Health and Safety regulations (OHS) could not accommodate. The bosses have not a shred of evidence, it is just their assumption.

But there is Deja Vu and there is Google. Today, unlike in 1990, I can Google jobs that Deaf people do. I can find Deaf plumbers or Deaf Tradesmen. I can find Deaf Chefs. I can find Deaf Physiotherapists, nurses and any number of health professionals including doctors. Just on Google I can find these people describing how they do their jobs and the adjustments that they make. None of it is assumption, it is just cold hard evidence. Then there is technology, hoo boy, I have all the answers that back in 1990 I did not have. Evidence is a very powerful medium!

So you hearing people out here who are making these assumptions about what Deaf people can and cannot do, its 2022 and assumptions do not hack it. There are answers and we have them, jut ask us! Let Deja Vu be left where it should be, in the past!

I’m Back!

Image is of three young people on their laptops communicating with each other by video conference.

After 20 years of working within hearing organisations and programs, I am back. Back in the Deaf sector and loving it. The last Deaf and HoH program I worked on was back in 2002. That was with the wonderful Successful Adults in Life Program for young people with a sensory disability – Deaf, HoH, Blind, Vision Impaired and Deafblind. I was privileged to lead a team what was wholly formed with people who had a disability. Probably one of the few teams like it in Australia at that time. How things have changed.

Since that time I have worked mostly as an National Disability Coordination Officer. Other jobs in this 20 years included an access coordinator, NDIA Senior Planner, Senior Local Area Coordinator and as an advocate. Of course, the biggest challenge for me in the last 20 years was communication.

For many years I required Auslan interpreters. My experience in advocating for Auslan interpreters has been well documented within these pages. Suffice to say it was a constant struggle. I saw today that Australia has 571 qualified Auslan interpreters to service the Deaf community. That is covering work, education, health, courts, weddings, funerals and the many situations that Deaf people use interpreters for with their NDIS plans.

Not surprisingly, the supply of interpreters nowhere meets demand. It is probably worse now than it has ever been. In years gone by it was difficult to source interpreters, but now as the Deaf community uses NDIS funding, as more Deaf people move into professional roles and as more Deaf people begin to source tertiary education the demand is sky high. Booking agencies are struggling to meet demand. Add Convo Australia to the mix, now providing online interpreting 24/7, you begin to see that the demand for Auslan interpreting has never been higher.

In my 20 years out of the Deaf sector this is, perhaps, the biggest change that I have seen. Going back 20 years, I think it was easier to source an Auslan Interpreter. You always needed to book in advance, but you probably had more chance of getting an Auslan interpreter 20 years ago than you do now. Australia simply cannot train enough interpreters to the level required to meet the rapidly increasing demand. The consequence of this is that many miss out.

Working within hearing programs and hearing organisations for the last 20 years I have been fortunate that where ever I have worked, my employer has never baulked at providing me with the access that I required. I mean, the Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL), where I worked as a Senior Local Area Coordinator, once called me in to find out if there was a way to reduce interpreting costs. I and one other Deaf employee managed to spend $84 000 in 8 months. Even though the costs was high, BSL still provided for my and the other Deaf employees every communication need.

But the thing with working in a hearing organisation is the need for immediate communication. As a senior you have to respond to situations. Workers will come into the office with a problem and you have to communicate with them there and now. Clients will come in and need advice and there is a need to be able to respond to them as well. Up until a few years ago, all I could do in those situations was make do as best I could. I had to be incredibly innovative and resilient.

Sometimes I would grab a work colleague to scribe for me. Sometimes I would write notes. Sometimes, if I was lucky, the person might be easy to lipread and I could make do. Often it was hard. Accents, beards, mumblers and the like, all came into the mix. Nevertheless, I had to meet the challenge. Immediacy of communication was just me and them, making do the best we could.

Overtime things have changed. Email, SMS, live text chat etc, all these things made communication easier for me. I well recall a client coming in very distressed and I could not lipread them. It was a busy period and I couldn’t grab a colleague to scribe. I asked the person if they had Facebook Messenger and they did. I grabbed a spare laptop and had them sign in. Across the table we communicated successfully Via Facebook messenger. That was how it was sometimes.

Later, I discovered that Live Remote Captioning was generally more available. I began to use that more. Sometimes a client would call and ask if they could come in in a couple of hours. I would know the chances of getting an Auslan interpreter were zilch. I would get a hold of Barney and say I need someone in two hours, can you serve? Barney would check and get back to me within ten minutes. (I usually sent these requests through Facebook messenger) Nine times out of ten Barney would find me a captioner at short notice. Once Barny let me know someone was available, I would go online and confirm the booking.

Then in 2018 things changed dramatically. Android introduced Live Transcribe. Live Transcribe is a free app that basically is voice recognition technology. Someone told me about it and I was very skeptical. To my surprise, it was very accurate. In 2018 it was far from perfect, but it was usable. Colleagues would come to my desk, and if they were hard to lipread, I would switch it on. Presto immediate communication.

I began to use Live Transcribe in meetings where I could not get interpreters. Or when clients walked in and needed immediate advice. As I said, it wasn’t perfect, but it was usable. It meant I was able to flexibly address a variety of work situations there and then. Indeed, overtime Live Transcribe became better and more accurate. It was a bit of a godsend.

Then Covid hit. By this time I was back working as an NDCO. When I won the NDCO role I was interviewed over Zoom. This was 2019 and I had never heard of Zoom at the time. I still required interpreters because Live Transcribe on my phone didn’t really pick up computer generated voices very well. Then one day I experimented using a tablet rather than the phone. The Tablet worked immensely better.

What I would do was set up the tablet on a stand next to my computer. I would dial in and I would access the meeting that way. I was very fortunate to have very savvy colleagues. They made sure they only spoke one at a time. If they ever forgot, I would just hold up my hands and a chorus of apologies would ensue.

Of course Live Transcribe would sometimes get the phonetics wrong. If this happened I would stop the meeting and read out what had been transcribed and my colleagues would then let me know what they had said. Sometimes it was hilarious. Like when the USEP program got transcribed as the New Sex Program. We had many a laugh over these phonetic errors.

Then one day I discovered another program, Microsoft Group Transcribe. This was only available on Apple devices. I uploaded it to my iPad. Blimey, it was even better than Live Transcribe. It was more accurate and you could even use it with the TV. It would transcribe what was being said on TV. Live Transcribe, at least I found, was not so good with the TV and was, overall, less accurate than Microsoft Group Transcribe.

All of this happened within a couple of years. Then Zoom and Teams video conference platforms introduced automatic captioning. At first I found Teams and Zoom automatic captioning a bit clunky and stayed with Microsoft Group Transcribe. But like with any technology, it got better over time. It got to a point where a colleague would want to discuss something with me. They would call me on Teams, I would turn on the captions, I had immediate communication.

It drops out sometimes or the captions are wrong sometimes, but generally the accuracy is outstanding. In fact, so good is this technology that for the last two years I have not spent all of my Auslan For Employment budget. Previously the paltry $6000 that was provided would be wiped out within the first two or three months.

Then Android 12 gave us the captioned mobile. I’ve written about this before, but now I can make and receive calls. I don’t need a go between or a National Relay Service, I have immediate access to the phone 24/7. All of these developments in the last two years, it is incredible .

I am well aware that I have usable speech which makes all of this technology possible. Not every Deaf person is in the same boat. I am determined to lessen my demand on Auslan interpreters through this technology. Not because of the cost, but so that the short supply of interpreters can be directed to Deaf people that really prefer and require it.

So here I am, back in the Deaf sector. I am at an organisation where 95% of my colleagues all use Auslan. Those that don’t are quickly learning it. It’s refreshing to be able to meet someone in the kitchen and just strike up a conversation without having to switch on my iPad to access captioning. It really is wonderful to just be able to relax and converse with nearly everyone. I think for the first time for many years, I am actually excited to go to work.

That is not to say past workmates didn’t go out of their way to facilitate communication. They did, I was very fortunate. But I look back over twenty years and I see how much more access I have through this technology and it never fails to blow my mind. I mean, two of my current team are learning Auslan and the technology facilitates communication for us until they develop some proficiency in Auslan. It’s kind of weird calling your colleague at the next desk on Teams so as to access captioning but hey, whatever works.

The last 20 years out of the Deaf sector have made me a better and more resilient professional. I’m glad I did it and it taught me so much. Thanks to all my past work colleagues who made my working life such a wonderful and inclusive one, I will never forget you.

But I’m back now, and loving it! Here is to the next chapter.