I have been deaf now for nigh on 50 years. I was not born deaf so have the privilege of speech. In addition to this I have a strong language base. Note the word privilege. My life may well have been different had I been born deaf. Perhaps I would have had no access to Auslan until my late teens. Perhaps for many years I would have struggled to express myself in the hearing world that I existed. Perhaps my language development, literacy and education could have been impacted. There are many things that could have happened, so I consider myself privileged.

Now that word “privileged” is not used in a good way here. I mean it in a way that indicates that I have rights and advantages over others. This is wrong. I am a firm believer that everyone should have the same access to everything. Be it education, housing, employment – No one should have ‘privilege’ over others. Alas, in our society privilege is everywhere. It’s ugly. We must tackle privilege head on everyday.

My 35 year career has been about fighting unfair privilege. It’s tough and the fight makes me angry, really angry. I have very low tolerance for people that are privileged who make themselves out as victims. I have a very low tolerance for people who are privileged who try to tell me how I should live life as a deaf person. This low tolerance is what has kept me going in the disability sector for 35 years.

You would think that by now I would have got used to it. You would think that I would just retreat into a hole and say, “That’s just the way it is … “ But no, I still get angry. I live and breathe this shit everyday. When I stop getting angry, I will know it will be time to retire.

Yesterday, late in the day on a Friday, I had a late call from a client. They had been suspended from work. They had been called into a meeting to discuss performance. The client refused unless an interpreter was booked or a support person could be arranged. Instead, because they refused the meeting, they were frogmarched from the premises and told they were suspended. They still do not know for how long because since being suspended no communication has happened. You see, the privileged hearing people expect this person to do all the adjusting and refuse to adjust for the client. A simple text or an email seems to be beyond these privileged hearing people.

I spoke to the client for nearly 2 hours. The client was depressed. I mean really depressed. They spoke about driving home and not caring what happened to them. They spoke about how they had requested interpreters and were told no because they were a good lipreader. The boss had said, “… if you don’t hear something, let me know, Ill tell you.” They had requested the staff TV in the staff room have the captions put on. This was refused because the captions were a distraction and annoyed the hearing staff.

As the client told me this story, my anger was palpable. I had to do many things for this client. The priority centred around the depression and making sure that the client was safe. As a professional I did this in a cold and methodical way. As a human being I was seething.

Earlier in the week I had been working with a client that wanted to transfer to our service. They had been supported in a “hearing” organisation that, in the clients own words, “… didn’t understand deaf.” If you are hearing, a transfer is a very straight forward process. There is a number you call, you provide details and request a transfer to the organisation that you want. It takes 10 to 15 minutes.

Of course, if you are deaf and for whom Auslan is your first language, accessing this transfer line is problematic. I have the privilege of speech and a captioned mobile, so I told the client I would ring for them.

Now, before I regale the reader with this tale, I should explain that before calling we tried a number of other ways to make the transfer happen including online means. The online method failed because it sent a code to the clients mobile, which was unfortunately broken. No matter, there was the phone method which hearing people get to use. It’s their privilege.

So I rang. Trusty captions on my mobile telling me what buttons to press to get where I needed etc. I got an operator and explained what I was trying to do on behalf of the client. The operator, point blank, refused to process the transfer. They wanted to speak to my client. I pointed out this was not possible because they were an Auslan user, their speech would not be understood over the phone and so on. Didn’t matter, the operator still refused. “If I help you …. “ said the operator, “… Ill get in trouble.”

I explained why we couldn’t do it online and why the transfer phone line was our only option, all to no avail. The operator said I could try this special line that helped people who use different languages. You see, if you are hearing and don’t speak English you can use this other line through a spoken language interpreter. I explained that this was slightly harder with an Auslan interpreter. But the operator assured me it would work with Auslan too. Yeah, RIGHT!

So, I called this other line and was asked by the AI technology what spoken language interpreter I wanted. I said Auslan and was asked to confirm if I needed a Bengali interpreter. I decided not to respond in the hope that I would get an operator. I did, eventually, but as I was explaining the Auslan issue the line cut out. I tried again with the same result except this time I was asked to confirm if I needed an Arabic interpreter.

In exasperation I called the original transfer line again. I was told the same thing, that they wouldn’t process through a third person. They said that my only option was to call the organisation that the client wanted to transfer from and organise it by agreement. So I did.

So after messing about for half an hour getting through this organisations call centre, I got put on to a case worker who referred me to their manager. The manager refused to process the transfer as well. She said that the clients would need to come into the office and ask for the transfer themselves. I pointed out they were Auslan users and had traveled a fair distance to see us for this transfer (over 50 kms.) I pointed out they wanted to come to us because we were a specialist service for deaf. The manager was adamant …. They had to come in to their office.

It was two and a half hours into the appointment by this time. I apologised profusely to the client. They were very understanding. (I wouldn’t have been) The client said they would pop into the organisation on the way home. They did so, saw the manager for five minutes, who said OK and that they would email me the transfer forms. A week later I am still waiting for the signed transfer forms.

I might get in trouble from work for writing this. I am beyond caring. I am so angry. This client traveled over 50 Kms to see us. They patiently waited 2 and half hours as we tried to resolve things and get them transferred. They were forced to travel back home and attend the office of this organisation. They did all they were asked for and the transfer has still not been processed. If they had the privilege of being hearing, this whole process would have taken ten to fifteen minutes, tops. Let’s also consider that if you are hearing and speak another language, you have more privilege with this system than a person who is deaf!

Yes, I am angry. Not for myself but my client and thousands like them that have to endure this shit every day. Privilege, especially hearing privilege, is rife in Australia! It is a disgrace! As for me, rest assured my anger will drive me on. A few people will be hearing from me next week. It wont be pretty and it wont be fast but change has to happen.

It’s just not fair!

And It’s Farewell From Me ..

Image shows an electric cable has been cut. The cut shows two ends held apart with frayed multi-coloured wires portruding.

“Hi Gary…”, the friendly sounding email greeted me. ” It’s been nice knowing you, but it’s adios. We did warn you, but you ignored us! As a result we have kicked you out! Soz about that, but if you wanna come back, just re-register all over again. Cos you know, we know you just got oodles of time to waste on registering online. And what’s more, you’re Deaf, and its our job to make your life as complicated as it possibly can be. See ya online soon, or not!

Much love

The No Help Desk, National Relay Service

Of course, the National Relay Service didn’t write that to me, but they may as well have. It’s true they greeted me at the start with Hi! They then proceeded to deregister me because I had not responded to them as to whether I wanted to remain registered or not. They did actually tell me I could re-register again if I wanted to, but that’s really not the point.

For you hearing people reading this for the first time, The National Relay Service is a service that Deaf people use to access the phone. In years gone by they used what was called a Teletypwriter (TTY). This was a device where you could type messages to another person who had a TTY via the phone line. What the Government did in 1995 was set up a new system where Deaf people could phone a hearing person who didn’t have a TTY through the National Relay Service . A Hearing Relay Officer would then relay what you typed to the hearing person at the other end and type out what the hearing person responded..

For three decades or so this was primarily the way that Deaf people called hearing people. It’s how they ordered their Pizza or got themselves a taxi. The more hardy, like me, would call girls they had met in the pub and try to charm them through the Relay Officer. The Relay Service was a godsend and, I am sure, even a life saver for many.

Over time, technology lessened our reliance on the Relay Service. First it was SMS, then email, then chat services like Messenger. Eventually services like Skype gave unapparelled visual communication access for Deaf people and led to the establishment of video relay service for people that used Auslan and wanted to make phone calls through Auslan interpreters.

But as technology and the internet took over, the need for the Relay Service became less. But there was and still is always a need for the service for many Deaf people. Like if your car broke down and you needed a tow. You could use Internet Relay Service to call for a tow and a rescue. But the use of the Relay Service for many of us has became very sporadic indeed. Nevertheless, it is often still needed.

The National Relay Service changed hands a few years ago. The new provider insisted on users having to register. Because you know, life is just too easy for Deaf people. You can just imagine the executives in their offices saying to each other… “These Deafies, they have it all on a platter. Endless supplies of interpreters. Open captioned movies three times a year. Hospitals that meet their every communication need and access to education and employment wherever they go.” Clearly the executives decided Deafies had to be brought down a wrung or two. So they came up with the concept of registering for the Relay Service, true story. And just to make it a little more difficult they decided to kick Deafies out sometimes and make them reregister.

I jest, but it really isn’t funny. Why, why, why – should Deaf people have to register at all? Whereas hearing people can call any time and anywhere, Deaf people have to jump through hoops. And then whatever device they use – Phone, iPad, laptop, work laptop etc- they have to sign into each and every one of those devices to access the Relay Service. And don’t forget your password, whatever you do, because otherwise you will have to sign into all those devices all over again after you reset it.

Too add insult to injury, you have to register for a service that often does not answer. It often takes many minutes to connect. It often drops out mid conversation. It’s a shambles of a service now. A far cry from the wonderful and efficient service it was when it was introduced.

And what if you re a person that doesn’t check your personal Gmail too often. The National Relay Service has sent you an email saying to get in touch or you will be deregistered. You don’t see it, you get deregistered., You’re driving in the country and your car breaks down. You try to use the Relay Service to call for help but cant because, unbeknown to you, you have been deregistered because you didn’t reply to the email. Or the power goes off at home and you need an electrician. Or you need to call your elderly mother to see if she is alright and she isn’t tech savvy. I bet you our dear friends at the National Relay Service didn’t think of these scenarios when they came up with this ridiculous and grossly unfair idea of registration.

For me, it doesn’t matter anymore. I have my captioned mobile. I can call anyone at any time without the need for a third person. But I have the privilege of speech. Many Deaf people do not, let alone people with a speech impediment that also use the Relay Service. What of these people? Having to register and then running the risk of being unknowingly deregistered is just not fair.

As for me… It’s farewell from me National Relay Service. You have destroyed a once proud and essential service. I might not need you anymore but just remember, many people still do. LIFT YOUR GAME.

Changing of the Guard


Glen Flindell

I was at the Australian Open tennis last weekend. There was a special tournament on featuring Deaf tennis players from all over the world. My mate, Glen Flindell, was playing. He is knocking on 43 and he is still out there. He has probably seen better days but he can still give the youngsters a run for their money. The tournament was probably a bit of a changing of the guard as far as Deaf tennis in Australia goes. He jokingly told me he was over the hill and wished he had a time capsule to take him back ten or fifteen years to when he was at his peak. Indeed, Ashlee Narker, at just 16 years of age, was beating everyone in sight at singles and doubles. She eventually won the tournament. Australia’s Deaf tennis is in good hands.

I watched Narker play her doubles match. Sitting next to me was a nine year old deaf boy. He was an Auslan user and had two cochlear implants. On his implants he had magnets of Buzz Lightyear and what looked like a replica of a red and white ice hockey puck. I thought of my day when I was a young deaf lad. I was encouraged to wear my hair long to cover my hearing aids. Here was this young lad with neon green cochlear implants, further being shown off by bright red cartoon magnets. His mother told me he had a whole collection of these magnets that he wore with pride. It is how it should be.

I had a chat with this young boy. I signed to him and asked him who he was going for. Narker was playing doubles. Her partner was a brilliant young woman from Tapei. Their opponents were from Greece and Japan respectively. The young lad was of Asian descent and told me he was going for the team with the Australian in it. Indeed, watching Narker would have been inspirational for him. He chatted about his school and the fact he was returning to school on Monday after the holidays. I suggested to him that in 7 years time, when he was 16, he would be out there playing just like Narker. He flashed me a beaming smile and nodded in agreement. You could see that Narker was his inspiration.

Ashlee Narker.

From Flindell to Narker and this 9 year old deaf boy, I was acutely aware that the Deaf community was seeing a changing of the guard. But what would the future be for this 9 year old deaf boy? He was possibly watching Deaf sport for the first time. I wonder what impact it was having on him. I remembered my first involvement in Deaf Sport. Every single member of my team signed. I was a fledging Auslan user at the time. It was an eye opener for me.

Over the years I was involved in the Australian Deaf Games. Through cricket, golf and soccer. Auslan was always central to our communication and sense of community. In 2005 I volunteered for the Deaflympics in Melbourne. Deaf people from all over the world. Different sign languages from different countries. Sign language was central to everything. Everywhere you looked people were signing. These are the memories that I and others took away from these events. The sport was important but that sense of community and cultural gathering was what it was all about.

So here I was at the Australian Open, watching the Deaf tennis. In the stand I caught up with the Deaf community. Of course, we all were using Auslan. People I hadn’t seen for a while, big smiles big hugs and endless conversations in Auslan. Marnie and I are becoming grandparents. Everyone was asking questions about the little one. Oldies like me exchanged health stories. Hip replacements, knee replacements, medication and tales of where their children were now. It was marvelous. It would have been brilliant for this nine year old Auslan user to see.

But out on the court it was different. None of the players seemed to sign. The umpires did a little bit. They would brush the top of their hands to indicate a let. They would use number signs to indicate the score for the deaf players. But as I watched these deaf players, seemingly none of them signed. I watched Australia’s John Lui get beaten by a hard hitting player from India. No one spoke, no one signed – they were fully immersed in the game. They shook hands at the net, they spoke to each other, they didn’t sign. I thought that was odd.

I went to watch the next game. The Indian player who had beaten Lui sat in front of me with two people who were probably his parents. He had two hearing aids on. He and his parents conversed in spoken language. No signing. They may as well have been hearing. I looked out at the game I was watching, Narker was playing. I could clearly see Auslan interpreters behind the umpires chair. There was a minor disagreement as to whether the ball was in or out. The foreign player spoke to the umpire, the umpire spoke back. No need for the interpreters. Narker and the foreign player said something to each other. No signing.

I watched the doubles. Surely now the players would sign to each other. Alas, no. It was interesting to watch. The doubles teams would get together to talk tactics. One would turn their back on their opponents and the other would stand directly in front of them so that their opponents could not see what they were conversing about. I felt for sure they would sign to each other, just small signs but hidden from their opponents. But no, they spoke to each other. I found this strange, not because they didn’t sign but because the doubles partners were from completely different countries. I wondered how much they had actually understood of each other and how much was bluff. Plenty of nods and thumbs up, but I wondered if some of this was actually a Deaf Nod and they had no clue what the other had said. Cynical of me, I know.

I did note that they had some signals that they would use behind their backs when their partners were serving. This is common in tennis and does not really equate to sign language. Despite this. my observation was that communication was primarily spoken language. From what I could see sign language was absent or distinctly in the minority.

Later, I watched Australian women’s players, Narker and Macy, socialising with each other. They were obviously good mates but they didn’t sign to each other ether. I watched Macy play doubles with her German partner – no signing, they spoke. I watched Narker play with her partner from Taipei – they spoke too. They were playing against a Greek and Japanese combination who spoke to each other as well. For me, an old fart from the past who came from a time where participants of deaf sport all signed and where if you were oral you either learnt to sign or sunk without trace, it was a huge culture shock.

I wondered if this is the way of the future. I wondered if cochlear implants have become so dominant, where speech has become so dominant over sign languages, that this is the future of Deaf sport. I wondered if in the future Deaf sport will be dominated by these oral implantees and where signing participants will be the minority. Rather than this huge gathering of signing sports people that I had experienced, those that sign will be the minority. Confined to small pockets where they communicate with each other while the oral dominant participants SPEAK to each other.

Is that the changing of the guard that we are witnessing. I hope for my nine year old Deaf Auslan user friend that this is not the case. I hope that Deaf sport will always be about the Deaf community, its culture and its beautiful and diverse sign languages. Because while the sport is important it is not as important as the Community for which Deaf games have always been a cultural gathering of significance. My wife tells me she noticed a couple participants signing off court. Who knows, may be I am overreacting.

Interesting times, interesting times indeed.

Footnote** I write this piece, not to start a war about communication methods, rather as an observational piece as to how the make up of the Deaf community and institutions like sporting events have seemingly changed over the years.