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!!