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!