Changing of the Guard

FOR AN AUSLAN VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE PLEASE SCROLL TO THE END. WITH THANKS TO MARNIE KERRIDGE FOR THE TRANSLATION.

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.

Deja vu, Part 2

Image is of an empty cinema. There there is dim light and rows of seats. The blank white screen is prominent at the end of the rows of seats.

Hello readers. I am here again. It’s kind of Deja Vu. As retirement beckons I have this overriding sense of DeJa Vu. I have worked the best part of 35 years campaigning, fighting and convincing the powers that be that life is not fair if you are Deaf, hard of hearing or have disability/s. I would like to look back and think, yeah its good, life is better now and feel an over-riding sense of achievement. Instead, I feel this incredibly oppressive sense of Deja Vu.

Melanie was on Facebook last week. She was having a moan. And good on her for that. But it’s sad that she is moaning about the same things that I was moaning about 15 to 20 years ago. (For the record, Melanie, I mean moaning in the nicest possible way.) Her moan was about cinema captioning. She started her moan with a question:

WHY CANT WE JUST WATCH A MOVIE WHENEVER WE FEEL LIKE!?

Indeed, why cant we? Melanie and her family had wanted to watch a movie at the cinema with captions. She has a Deaf husband, a Deaf child and they just wanted a night out as a family. Perhaps a quick stop at their favourite takeaway. Perhaps a little evening stroll while slurping an ice-cream on a warm evening. Maybe sitting on a park-bench together as the evening cools and the sun sets in an iridescent haze. Then to the movies, family time at its best. Something that families all over Australia enjoy on a regular basis.

Alas, wishful thinking if you are Deaf or hard of hearing in Australia in 2023. Melanie and her family had to travel more than forty minutes to see a movie. Unlike most people, because they are a Deaf family, they cant just rock up at their local cinema. They have to hunt through the newspapers or online to find a movie that is open captioned. If they are lucky, the cinema will have remembered to advertise that the session is open captioned.

And you know, most people have a choice of movies that they can watch. Hoyts are your best bet. They have Cinemas everywhere. Unfortunately, very few open- captioned options (I couldn’t find any today, this day 22/01/2023). You can try Eastland, Chadstone, Broadsmeadows, Forest Hills, Northlands etc etc – But today there are no open captioned sessions, none! Plenty of closed captions sessions with Captiview, yes of Craptiview fame, but no open captioned sessions.

Why would her family want to chance Craptiview. They would need three of the devices. She and her husband would need to set it up for themselves and their Deaf kid. What are the chances that the the cinema does not have enough devices? Or the devices are flat. Or the signal is crap. Or that their kids cant focus from device to screen. And that mandatory ice cold Coke or choc-top ice-cream, where do you put it when the device takes up the cup-holder. Nah, I fancy Melanie and her husband just said to themselves, “FUCK THAT“. If you want to see just how bad Craptiview can be, just watch this video. It was made in 2013, but from what I hear, nothing much has changed.

Since that time cinemas are now providing more Craptiview options. The problem is that most in the Deaf community loath it for all the reasons I have highlighted and that are shown in the video. They just want to go to a movie, any movie, close to home, sit back and enjoy it. They dont want to go to the ticket office, confess that they are Deaf, ask for the device, hand over their license as proof of ID and walk into the Cinema with these horrible and bulky devices. They just want to rock up and enjoy the movie!

To avoid the scourge of Craptiview they have to scour the Internet and newspapers in the hope of finding a movie that has open captions. THEN, they have to hope that the movies is one that they actually want to see. They have to hope that it’s a genre that they enjoy. In Melanie’s case they need to hope, also, that it’s family friendly and age appropriate for their kids. And then, if by chance they actually find a movie that they like, the likelihood is that they will have to travel an hour or more to get there, factoring in Melbourne’s appalling traffic and parking that comes at a premium and often at an exorbitant price. BUT WAIT, THERE IS MORE!!

Last year Thomas from Queensland entered the lottery to find an open captioned movie. Lucky Thomas, he found one! Alas, like Melanie, he had to travel 40 minutes to get there. Luckily, Thomas didn’t have a family to worry about. It was just for himself. Probably, knowing the Deaf community, Thomas let his Deaf friends know and his Deaf friends were going to meet him there. Open captioned movies being at a premium as they are, many in the Deaf community take what they can. Even if its a crap movie.

So Thomas went about his day. No doubt looking forward to the down-time he was about to experience at the movies. I fancy he was looking forward to catching up with Deaf Dick and Tracy too. Covid restrictions being gone as they are, we can actually meet people. At the appointed time, Thomas set out to the cinema. Braving the traffic and the elements as you do.

He arrived to meet his friends. Hugs and chatter all around. Tickets bought, into the movies they went. No captions, WTF! It was advertised. Thomas and his friends had come all this way for nothing! Angry, they seek out the manager only to be told that there are no captions. Why? Because the cinema had been sent the wrong caption file. FUCK!

This is what Deaf and hard of hearing people all over Australia have to endure everyday for the simple pleasure of watching a movie at the cinema. Is it any wonder many, myself included, have simply given up the ghost and prefer the comfort of our own home and streaming options like Netflix and Stan. We have become hermits, rarely venturing from the comfort of our armchairs because it is just not worth it.

And for me its Deja Vu. I was among the many who campaigned hard for better cinema access for Deaf and hard of hearing people. We started in the early 2000’s campaigning hard for many years. We fought the cinemas, the Government and even each other. (My wife famously got told, very publicly on Facebook, to shut up in a debate over Craptiview.) Some of us thought Craptiview was better than nothing. Others, like myself, thought Craptiview unacceptable and wanted more access to open captions more often and at more cinemas.

We fought the good fight for many years. We attended meetings. We negotiated with cinemas. We sat on Government committees commissioned by the Government and met in Canberra. Hell, we even joined forces with our friends in the Blind community in campaigning for Audio Description for the Blind. We set up the Action on Cinema Access Facebook page. We worked hard!

We did so with high hopes that future generations would have better access than we did. The gains have been marginal. The problems of access, the problems of choice and the tyranny of distance are still there. And Craptiview is still crap. And when Melanie and Thomas post on Facebook about the very barriers we fought so hard to break down, there is an overwhelming sense of Deja Vu!

Never mind, there is Netflix and retirement that beckons for me. As for the younger generation, the fight continues. And fight you must because it is just not fair. My advise to this younger generation is be prepared for the Deja Vu because the hearing community, particularly big business, are not well known for their empathy and willingness to change! Good luck, I’ll watch you all keenly in my retirement!

T’was The Night Before Xmas

T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house
Deaf people were stressing, it’s far from grouse
The hearing coming, deaf slumped in a chair
Lipreading, socialising, its really not fair ….

Christmas is a time to be jolly. It is a time to sit back and relax. It is when you catch up with family and share the love. A tipple or two is to be had. The diet goes out the window. Hugs and kisses abound. It’s a great time for many, but Xmas often highlights awkward social issues and compounds them. This is especially so if you are deaf. While the cheer and gatherings of the holidays are a welcome break for many, some find this time more difficult. For those in the Deaf community, the holidays amplify existing challenges.” Pfieffer, 2020..

For me, 2022 was quite a tough year. It began with so much promise. I was leading a team of very dedicated advocates. One other, whom I was not leading, was deaf too. I felt I belonged and was enjoying the role immensely. And then it happened, as it often does within an organisation designed for people with a disability. An abelist and non disabled person spoils it. To cut a long story short, when I complained about the appalling behaviour of this person to the Board, that person turned on me. Gaslighting and victimisation ensued.

“Screw this ..” I said to my wife. At 57 I just wanted to enjoy my work. I tendered my resignation, with her full support. The Board didn’t want to accept my resignation. I said to them that I was willing to reconsider but under no circumstances would I continue to work with this person. The Board had no choice really, they accepted my resignation.

Before my last day at this organisation, I had found another job. I had two jobs to choose from but the one I chose allowed me to return back to my roots and work with the Deaf community again. I am loving it, but come Xmas I was tired. It had been over a year since I’d had a proper holiday. I was looking forward to a break at our holiday home in Adelaide. In fact, I was craving the break. My expectations for a relaxing break were high.

It is fair to say that both my wife and I were exhausted last year. Working in human services can sometimes take its toll. People you are assisting are often going through difficult times. The behaviour and support of these people needs careful consideration and management. Human suffering or stress can be difficult to experience. It’s not always possible to remain untouched by it.

I am sure I speak for many in this area when I say dealing with the trauma of others can be draining. In a year I have experienced other peoples depression, suicide attempts, family break ups, deaths and cost of living trauma. Human services workers are not made of Teflon, it sticks sometimes. Hence, I am sure many of my colleagues in this area, including my wife, were hanging out for the break.

But for my wife and I that break involved Xmas gatherings of of mostly hearing people of which she and I were the only deaf people. We were both looking forward to it, but it is fair to say we had a fair amount of anxiety and apprehension about what we were about to confront.

We arrived in Adelaide on the 22nd December. Unfortunately, the people who had been renting our house short-term left a mess. We had been hoping that we could just wind down and relax. Alas no, we had to clean up the house as quickly as we could before our ‘hearing’ guests arrived. This was stress we could have done without.

Our first guests were my wife’s family. They are all wonderful people. They came for drinks on Xmas Eve. It’s fair to say that my wife and I were buggered having spent the best part of the day cleaning up and taking rubbish to the tip. Our defenses were pretty low. We all sat outside on the balcony and the conversation was rapid. Following the conversation was hard work. After about an hour I just wanted to crawl into bed. I looked over at my wife and I fancy she was feeling just the same.

This year was different from years gone by. I had an iPad with voice to text technology. It is very good and very accurate. I turned it on and tried my best to pick up the gist of the conversation. The technology is not designed for rapid fire conversations. Of course, with a social gathering there is never one conversation. To the left a couple of people might be talking about theatre. Across the table they were talking about Covid, to my right it seemed they were talking about sunsets and the beaches. All of this was coming up in text at the same time. It wasn’t perfect but I managed to join in bits and pieces of the conversation.

Not so long ago this would not have been possible. What I used to do is find someone who was easy to lipread and try to chat with them. Inevitably after a time that person would tire of just me and seek out others. As I got older, rather than make the effort, I just withdrew. I would find a quiet corner with my beer and hope that people would ignore me. Alas, this rarely happened. Some kind soul, seeing me on my own, would come over and try to chat. Often these kind souls are really hard to lipread. Conversations would be difficult and halting. It will surprise no one that I and my wife are often the first to leave these hearing gatherings. The exhaustion and effort is often just too much.

Christmas Day arrived. Being chief cook, I was up early preparing the food. My wife joined me and this was sort of the calm before the storm. My adult kids woke up and my eldest arrived with his partner and step-son. It was fun. My kids are obviously deaf aware. We began to open presents and then my sister arrived early to help.

That was fine. She is easy to lipread as is my brother in-law, John. Then everyone else began to arrive. My nephews and their partners. Suddenly the house was full of chatter as the ‘hearing’ greeted each other. I looked over at my wife, she seemed to be in a mild panic. “What’s up?” I asked. She said she was feeling overwhelmed. I tried to reassure her but if I am honest, I was feeling exactly the same.

These situations give rise to a lot of social anxiety. Society has these unwritten rules of conformity. We had guests in our house. It is our job to make them feel welcome. It is our job to show an interest in them. It is expected and my wife and I are acutely aware of this.

But it is hard. Everyone is chatting. You have no clue what they are talking about. How do you interrupt? How do you join a conversation when you don’t know what people are talking about? I look around and people greet me and smile at me. Sometimes they say something and I have no idea what they have said. I often pretend that I do. It’s awkward and it is stressful. But I had my iPad, it would be different this year. But fuck! It was flat and I had to charge it so first hour was a complete blur. (Not helped by the fact that I mucked up the turkey.)

I looked around for my wife. She had taken herself outside. She was with a small group that included my brother in-law. I joined them. The chaos of conversation inside had worn me out. Later my wife was to tell me that she was so thankful for John. He is laid back and makes sure you understand him. He helped her to relax. I spent a fair bit of time out there with them too. So exhausted and stressed was I, that I didn’t even have anything to eat!

Later my iPad charged and I went inside and had some conversations and mingled. I couldn’t catch everything with the iPad but I managed to find out what people were talking about. Holiday homes, wine, dogs, sick family members, work, music, Melbourne vs Adelaide – Just lots of random stuff. It was actually brilliant having them all there and after a time I began to enjoy myself. When they all left I was kind of sad but also thankful. I was spent.

And that was the pattern for the whole holiday. New Years Eve was spent with my sister in-law and her partners family. It was lovely and they made us feel very welcome. This time I remembered to charge the iPad. This being a smaller gathering, it was easier to get involved. A retired ophthalmologist was talking shop and it was fascinating. My sister in-laws partner was talking single malt whisky. Her partners mother was chatting about the loathsome Scott Morrison and the equally loathsome Royal Family. Before the technology, I would have had no clue.

There were a couple there that I met for the first time. They were fascinated with the iPad technology. They asked me how long I had been deaf, except the caption came up as dead. I said that I was very much alive. They look confused and I explained that the caption had come up as dead instead of deaf. Laughter all round.

Later my wife and I retreated to the kitchen and just sat together. A week of communicating and concentrating had caught up with us and we needed a little time out. I apologized to the host for being so unsociable. The host said not to worry, she understood that for us the communication was hard work and told us to take all the time that we needed. I thanked her. The empathy was very much appreciated.

And that was my Xmas. It was great to see everyone. It may not seem it, but I really did enjoy catching up with them all. But it is hard work. These gatherings give rise to a lot of anxiety and they wear me out. This is what it is like for many deaf people the world over who have to fit in to a hearing world.

It’s bittersweet. Returning to work can be almost respite.

I think the deafness affects me more than I realise; I think it makes me more tired. I loathe parties. I attend, smile and leave.

Stephanie Beacham

Yelly!

Image is of a black and white photo from the early 20th century. It is a group of women in clothing of the times with protest signs saying VOTES FOR WOMEN, GIVE US THE VOTE NOW, EQUALITY FOR WOMEN. The woman in the middle can clearly be seen yelling her protest.

HULLLLLLLLLLLO! Apparently, a new word has been invented … ‘YELLY‘ It is a new advocacy term for people with a disability that are passionate, vocal and driven. That’s my take on it anyway. But, apparently, there are some non-disabled people, people who think that they know better than people with a disability about how to live life disabled, these people are anti- ‘YELLY’. These non-disabled use the word ‘YELLY’ disparagingly. A friend, who has been a brilliant advocate over many years, was told that a campaign they were running was too ‘YELLY‘. Of course, this was by their non-disabled boss who, in my experience, yells all the time. Usually at people with a disability. (This is a semi-fictional account of an incident that happened recently, written in this way to hide peoples identity.)

There are these snobby people that believe advocacy needs to be nuanced. They think in your face advocacy is a bad thing. Typically, these are people that think Unions are thugs and that strikes are an inconvenience. Typically, they think protesters are irresponsible and should get back in their box. Write letters to the newspaper they say. Contact your MP they say. Let management know, politely, that you were left stranded at Bus Stop 36 because the bus didn’t cater for wheelchairs. You know, you ended up in Bendigo when you wanted to go to Ballarat because you didn’t hear the announcement of the platform change. Just write a nice letter to the CEO and let them know. No matter that this is 2022 and these companies are breaking the law. No need to be ‘YELLY’, lets be ‘MEEKY’.

What utter nonsense. I will have you know that every single piece of advocacy we do is ‘YELLY’. When we write a letter to the CEO we are making them aware. This is still a form of ‘YELLY’. But there are lots of types of ‘YELLY’ and combined they make effective advocacy.

I can tell you that writing to the CEO and saying:

Dear CEO

Yesterday I went o Bendigo, but I wanted to go to Ballarat. This was because I am deaf and your company announced a platform change on the speakers, but there were no visual announcements. As a result I got on the wrong train. Sadly, I was late for my party. Can you please make things better for Deaf.

Sincerely

MEEKY

Well – This will get you nowhere. But still this meek little protest is a way of being ‘YELLY’ – It is bringing attention to the issue and in its own way is demanding a response from the CEO. The CEO is likely to reply. They will apologise and promise to look into it. When MEEKY dies in 2072, people will still be ending up in Bendigo by mistake. There needs to be more.

Now, on the other hand, if thousands write to the CEO, perhaps with a little more emotion than MEEKY, the CEO might feel a bit more compelled to act. If thousands end up on the platforms and disrupt travel for a week because they want change, the CEO will jump. If the company is splashed all over the media with angry and disadvantaged patrons, the CEO is likely to have to respond publicly and commit to some sort of change. If hundreds yell to the Australian Human Rights Commission and put in DDA complaints, the CEO is going to be swamped. Perhaps, the CEO might even agree to meet a delegation, begin to negotiate change and agree to timelines. None of this will happen quickly, but the process involves many ‘YELLY’ parts, all combining together to create change.

Did the Women’s Suffrage movement push for women’s rights by quiet and polite little requests? No! They used every means at their disposal – The Suffragettes were part of the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign that had long fought for the right of women to vote in the UK. They used art, debate, propaganda, and attack on property including window smashing and arson to fight for female suffrage. In London they, “… maintained a constant presence in Whitehall, petitioning Downing Street, heckling MPs and chaining themselves to government buildings.” There was not a MEEKY in sight. It was ‘YELLY’ from top to bottom. The key was to be consistent with message and diverse with response. And it never stops, even when positive change happens. Just look at the Roe vs Wade situation in America. That women are having to fight this battle again is a disgrace.

Closer to home, the NDIS started on a wave of protests and constant media exposure. Who can forget then AFDO President, Dean Barton-Smith, at the podium of an Every Australian Counts protest letting the Australia know – “The time for talking is over, The time for Action is Now!” Even now, after having the NDIS established, there is a constant protest from people with a disability to make sure the NDIS delivers what it is supposed to. The disability movement have a presence on The Drum, on social media, on Q and A, on the radio and behind closed doors – they are everywhere. People with a disability speak out and demand more from the NDIS – As they must. Never take anything for granted – Bring on the ‘YELLY’s’‘ I say. They have achieved so much!

So be a ‘YELLY’ and be a ‘YELLY’ with pride. Because it’s the only way that change happens. Just remember ‘YELLY’ comes in many guises. And you Non-Disabled – don’t you dare tell us not to be ‘YELLY’ – Because even when the Non-Disabled make the changes needed, we have to continue yelling to make sure they don’t muck it all up. All heil the ‘YELLY’s’

AI – The Next Big Challenge!

Image is of a futuristic scenario. There is a robot hand and a human hand. The forefingers of the two hands are outstretched and touching each other at the tip

Oh, I love technology! I have made it part of my career to find ways to make technology work for me. The latest cool gadget is captioned mobiles. It uses voice recognition technology to caption the speaker, I lost my hearing around the age of 8 or 9 so I have ok speech, people at the other end can hear me. Sometimes they don’t and I have to repeat myself but that’s ok. No matter, after 57 years I now use a mobile to receive and make calls without a third person assisting. Available on an Android phone near you. C’mon Apple, catch up.

I was so excited about this when I found out about it. I contacted Jobaccess and said I have a new employer and need a workplace assessment. So I prepared my case. Basically, when the job assessor came in I had al the information ready for them. I even had a video that showed how it worked. I can be kind of clever sometimes. I met the assessor without an Auslan interpreter and used my iPad with the Microsoft Group Transcribe app to show just how effective this new technology could be. I kind of blew the assessor away. She was a bit gobsmacked. I convinced her, as well, that I needed good internet coverage so she recommended WiFi extenders too. And then I said I could cast the captions to my computer screen using Chromecast so I could read the captions on the big screen. So she recommended Chromecast and an extra monitor, so Jobaccess bought that too.

BRILLIANT!!! Then my friend Michael tried to do the same and they said no. He became a sooky lala. He says there is one rule for me and one rule for everyone else. Spat the dummy good and proper he did. So I became his advocate. Went into battle for him and they bought him the required phone too. I’m not sure if he got extenders and an extra computer monitor as well, but at least he got the phone. Oh technology, how I love thee!

And you know, in the last few years I have basically not booked Auslan interpreters. I kind of prefer the immediacy of communication rather than all the hassle of booking and hoping someone is available. You know, I turn on my Group Transcribe in the office and know what people are talking about. As a boss it is useful. I hear, or see rather, what my team mates are talking about. When I see they are having problems or there is something that needs my input , I am able to pipe up and contribute to this discussion on the floor – For the first time in the 35 years of my career I have felt close to fully involved. Hell, one of my teammates, when they want to chat with me, the first thing they say is, “Put your thing on” – It is that good.

Automatic captioning is an example of AI or artificial intelligence. Wikipedia defines AI as;

“Artificial intelligence is intelligence – perceiving, synthesizing, and infering information – demonstrated by machines, as opposed to intelligence displayed by animals and humans”

So when a computer program hears a voice and then is able to transcribe it to captions, this is an example of artificial intelligence. A program or machine replacing what a human might otherwise do. It’s interesting, because recently I spoke to a very good friend who is a live captioner. He said that since automatic captioning has begun to improve, work for his business has started to dry up. That makes me feel a bit shit. My thirst for immediate communication, low on hassles and cost, is putting people out of work! That’s a bit of a downside.

You know, my job involves advising Deaf and hard of hearing people of their options. It would be remiss of me if I didn’t explain to them and demonstrate the solutions at their disposal. Like me, many of them are amazed. It has meant that they can now consider other jobs that involve intimate human interaction. It has meant they can access the phone, group chats, deliver customer service and the like. It is wonderful – BUT, the downside is that it is changing life as we know it in a negative way too.

The amazing thing, or the sad thing really, is that AI is like a real person. Some AI is great, but AI also discriminates. You see, I speak ok. Not every deaf person does. It is fine to know what others are saying but how do you contribute if you don’t have good speech or are an Auslan user. What I am seeing is people are now saying, “Oh great, Johnny can use this technology with us. Problem solved!” Shit, NO! Johnny has literacy issues, Johnny needs to be heard too, communication is two way! This technology might work for me, but it wont work for Johnny! It is a real danger that people start to think it is a one size fits all! It isn’t, other options are still needed.

And do you know, businesses are increasingly using artificial intelligence as part of their recruitment processes. People apply for jobs online. Artificial intelligence is now screening these applications. The blurb of the companies that promote this recruitment process is that it’s fair. There is no bias. It just picks people who can do the job. Sounds good? No, its a nightmare if you are deaf or have disabilities.

A few weeks ago, as an experiment, I applied for a job using one of these online application processes, just to see what would happen. Within ten minutes I was invited to an interview over Zoom, that afternoon. OK! Now imagine you are deaf and an Auslan user. You have to go for this interview. It doesn’t ask if you have any access requirements. It just jovially says, congratulations, you have been invited for an interview and sends you a link. Just like many real people, AI can be clueless.

So I logged in at the allotted hour. A man was there. He said something, but of course there were no captions. Their Zoom didn’t have a captioned option either. I explained to the bloke that I was deaf and needed captions, silence. Truth be known, I had Microsoft Group Transcribe running and could follow what he was saying. BUT, as I was talking seven or eight more people joined the interview. It was a group interview. The man just ignored me and began to speak to everyone else, talked about breakout rooms and how there was a task in the breakout rooms and we had to leave voice responses to the questions. I got out there and then.

I was horrified. I imagined any number of Deaf community members applying for this job, (Packing and picking in a warehouse by the way.) I imagined they wouldn’t have Group Transcribe. They wouldn’t have Auslan interpreters. In reality they would have no access, no hope and would be totally excluded!

Since I did this experiment other clients have spoken to us about the same issue. They apply online. They get invited to interviews. They don’t know what is going on. They are expected to hear, respond and speak their responses. It is horrific! This wonderful technology that has the potential to include so many is now doing what humans have been doing for hundreds of years, it discriminates. Sadly, AI can also be AUI … Artificially Unintelligent.

And here lies our one of our next great advocacy battles. This battle is to make these AI systems accessible and inclusive.

To the credit of the companies involved with the recruitment, they accept and recognize the problem. They have agreed to meet to discuss a way forward. It’s gonna be a long road but at least they have come to the table. To resolve this we are gonna need a bit of real intelligence. Wish us luck!

Scum

Image is a silhouette of a woman sitting in a field. there are dark cloud in the background. She is holding her face in her hands.

It has been a difficult week. I am in no mood to mince words. People in the Deaf and Disability communities are hurting. Rather than easier, this world of ours is becoming more and more difficult to navigate. On one side of the coin a large proportion of the Disability community fear just leaving home. This is because of Covid and the Governments dropping of all restrictions. No masks, no isolation and so on. If you are fit and healthy, wonderful. You can get Covid and likely recover, no complications. But if you are elderly, have severe degenerative disability or are immuno-compromised, catching Covid can be a death sentence. Just simple things like mask wearing and isolating when you catch Covid can save lives. But nope, seemingly no one cares.

In the Australian Deaf community there have been two suicides within a week. I wont go into detail because people are hurting. However, once again it throws a light on mental health and deafness, indeed all disability. The National Library of Medicine suggests that the incidence of depression and anxiety in deaf people is 25% higher. A recent study of mental health episodes amongst people with a disability found that one third of all people with a disability in Australia experienced very high levels of psychological distress during the pandemic while only 8% of the general population did.

Why? Well, because our society is disabling people more than it needs to. The isolation, lack of employment, lack of accessibility and never ending barriers takes its toll. Indeed, there has been no improvement in the disability employment rate for 28 years. Dylan Alcott was on TV this morning pleading with employers to take on people with a disability. This in a time of labour shortages where employers cannot fill vacancies.

Sometimes when I see figures like this I feel like an imposter. I feel like 35 years as a disability advocate has been a complete waste. You want to just throw in the towel and crawl under a rock. That is until Sky News come up with headlines like this:

Inside the ‘failed’ NDIS: How it secretly funds sex work and why the scheme will eventually cost Australians $100 billion every year

Now, at this point I have to say that what follows are the opinions of myself and no one else. They do not reflect the views of my employer, friends or family. Although I am pretty sure a good proportion of my friends and colleagues will be cheering me on.

I have a message for the author of this piece, Jonathon Lea. How dare you scream that the NDIS is a failure. What would you know? What would you understand about getting out into the community three or four times a week, where as in a past life you would be lucky to get out once a month? How dare you suggest the amputees who are getting prosthetics are part of a failure. Or the physically disabled who are getting bathroom renovations so that they can shower are part of a failure. Or the Deaf person who can get an interpreter for their brothers wedding is part of a failure. Or the person with speech difficulties who gets a communication device to communicate with others is part of a failure. How dare you suggest that all of these people are a burden. Sure, the NDIS is far from perfect and I am one of its biggest critics, BUT, to call it a failure is the height of ignorance.

And here we go again. The cost. It’s expensive! Those dastardly disabled are such burdens. Apparently the disabled are sending the country broke. $100 billion it will cost! Mr Lea, let me give you some advice; open your mind. If you bothered to do your research you would see that for every dollar spent on the NDIS, $2.21 is generated. It is creating whole industries out there mate. It creates jobs in the care industry, it creates jobs in the technology market, it creates jobs in innovation, it creates jobs for Auslan interpreters, it creates jobs for tradies who do the renovations and adjustments, it creates jobs for professionals and therapist. We could argue that the NDIS is an absolute pillar of the economy.

Do you know about the multiplier effect Mr Lea? Where when a person with a disability goes to the movies they take family and friends with them? Did you know on average one disabled person will bring four others with them to a cafe, a tourist venue, a winery and so on. Mr Lea, thousands upon thousands of businesses’ and employees owe their careers and incomes to people with a disability. Imagine if we go back to the dark ages and these disabled people were restricted to the odd outing here and there throughout the year. How dare you call them a burden and suggest that they are taking money from other areas where it is needed. You are an absolute ignoramus! Oh! You have no idea what I really want to call you!

But the worst of this is Mr Lea trying to show that he understands why a person with a disability needs intimacy by way of sex:

“Stephanie has cerebral palsy, a degenerative movement disorder which leaves her bound to a wheelchair and dependent on 24-hour carers who sleep in a spare room..

But once every few months she pays a male escort to visit, to do the sort of things consenting adults do, and maybe stay for the weekend.

Stephanie prefers not to say how much they cost, nor how she fudges her claim. Only that she does.

Sex isn’t supposed to be against the law. But it is, when taxpayers are footing the bill.’

And that’s what he said. He basically said Stephanie has no right to intimacy and that it is wrong that the tax payer should assist her to fulfil what others do most days. I don’t know Stephanie. It is possible that Stephanie has coordination issues to the point that she cannot use sex toys. Or it is possible that her coordination is such that self intimacy is beyond her. It’s possible that she asked for assistive technology through the NDIS to assist her with her intimate needs but this was denied.

But I don’t care. Stephanie has a right to human touch. Stephanie has a right to human interaction. So what if she pays a support person for this. After all, does not the NDIS proclaim it is the persons right to lead an “Ordinary Life.” Stephanie is a human being that has social and intimate needs. She is living in a world where people with disabilities are victims of sexual abuse. She is living in a world where she possibly does not fit into societies warped sense of “attractive”. She is probably very lonely, isolated and in need of human company and intimacy. And Mr Lea shows his empathy by saying this – Sex isn’t supposed to be against the law. But it is, when taxpayers are footing the bill.’ I read this and felt physically sick!

I am tired. I am sad. I see my Deaf and Disabled community struggling every day. I see it impacting on their health as they struggle to fit in with this increasingly non-disabled world. It’s making them sick. It’s sometimes making them kill themselves. And then Mr Lea comes along and suggests that Stephanie is a criminal for wanting and needing intimacy, in his words, “Every few months.” Yes, here and there, where it can be had! Would you like to live such a life Mr Lea?

Mr Lea, you and Sky are a disgrace for printing such inhumane and demoralizing crap! You are SCUM!

THAT IS ALL!

Trauma

My experience with being me:

Image is of a brain on its stem. It is bein pulverised at the front and back by red swinging demolition balls. Fragments of the brain are seen breaking off.

“You’re too loud!”I stopped talking.

“You closed the cabinet/door too loudly!” (I also quickly apologize if I think I may have done something loudly or too hard. Not to the Hearing person, but to the door or cabinet. Yeah)I am painstakingly careful to the point of refusing to participate in family kitchen/party activities.

“My Gosh, I could hear you stomping from the other side of the house! Walk softly!” – I learn to walk toe-heel steps so softly no one knows I am present. (I have scared people when suddenly appearing.)

“You chew too loudly!” – I eat alone more often than not. And when I do eat with others I am wary of making sound so I tend to eat very slowly. (And then they complain I eat too slowly.)

“You breathe too loudly!” – I often find myself gasping for air to avoid annoying others with my breathing.

A lover asks, “Are you into me? You’re too quiet when we’re making love!”During intimacy I make no sound at all. Lord knows I don’t want to embarrass my lover.

These are my lived experiences just being a kid, and then an adult with being hard of hearing and now Deaf.

I once had a strong, jovial laugh and high energy.

Now, no one knows I am present and they don’t know when I am gone because I will simply disappear when I am told I am too much.

JC Wordsmith

I am not sure if JC Wordsmith is an actual person, but can you feel their TRAUMA? I certainly can.

Lately, I have started to think that I no longer want to be deaf. I have been exposed to so many stories of deaf trauma in the past few weeks that I have begun to wonder if it is all worthwhile. Whether it is adults, children or parents of deaf kids, the deaf experience seems to be one big TRAUMA! Everywhere I look be it at the theatre, on TV, in my work, on Facebook or just in everyday life, there is so much TRAUMA in the deaf experience. Nearly all of it is to do with interacting with a hearing world. It is exhausting.

Last night was no different. I turned on New Amsterdam on Stan. A new episode arrives every Wednesday. Marnie and I watch it religiously. Last night, the psychiatrist was assessing a two year old boy. He had severe behavioural issues. He screamed, he spat, he hit, he threw and was generally a real handful. His parents wanted answers. As it turned out, the boy was deaf. The smart psychiatrist diagnosed him in five minutes as having, “Language Deprivation Syndrome” (It is TV land; they’re allowed )

As it turns out, the parents had been ill advised. Hearing professionals told them if their lad learnt to sign, it would impact on his speech development. They said sign language would prevent him lipreading. They said sign language would narrow down his circle of peers and he wouldn’t be able to function in a hearing world. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

So clever psychiatrist starts gesturing and signing to young deaf lad who immediately smiles and responds, and even copies the psychiatrist signing, verbatim. The parents look on in wonder. To continue their education, the clever psychiatrist takes the young deaf lad and parents to see a deaf doctor operating in the theatre. The young deaf lad is in awe, perhaps seeing hope for himself in the future. The parents are amazed.

There has to be a happy ending, right? It’s TV land after all. The psychiatrist, without a hint of irony and with a big smile, says the young deaf lad needs to go to a deaf school for total language immersion. Only problem is the school is four hours away and the young lad will have to reside there. His parents look horrified for they will be separated from their child! We never got to know what happened. The last scene with the deaf lad is seeing the parents’ horrified faces at the prospect of being separated from their child. Truth be known, a lot of this is what parents of deaf kids experience in real life, even if it was condensed. It is pure TRAUMA, nothing less.

Moving on to Facebook; a friend screams on her status that she hates the NDIS. They have denied her funding for a visual alert system that will notify her of fire or someone at the door no matter where she is in the house. It is colour coded too, so she knows whether it is the door bell or the fire alarm going off. The NDIS say it is too expensive and want her to get an inferior system that relies on batteries and remembering to wear a pager. God forbid if you forget your pager or the batteries go flat and there is a fire. You are literally toast. (Apologies for the visual image.)

They denied her hearing aids too, despite these being recommended by a hearing professional with detailed reports. Too expensive, apparently. She is appealing which means she has to get even more reports with no guarantee that the hearing aids she wants will be approved. The paradox is that the NDIS pays for these reports and the reports, along with the appeals process, probably cost more than the hearing aids themselves, Meanwhile, my friend is made to feel devalued and to jump through hoops. – TRAUMA!

Moving on to theatre; I am attending a Deaf story telling night. There is a deaf woman on stage. She is recounting her upbringing in a hearing family. She talks of her isolation around the dinner table as her family banter rapidly expecting her to lipread them all. Inevitably, she gives up, finishes her dinner quickly and retreats. She talks of having to watch TV on her own because her family don’t like subtitles. Sitting on her own, she would often glance at the rest of the family watching TV together, talking and laughing in the other room. She tells the tale of her family learning Auslan to communicate with her Deaf boyfriend. When she and her boyfriend broke up, they stopped learning because she was oral and could supposedly communicate with them without problems. – TRAUMA!

Back to Facebook. A mother has discovered that cochlear implants apparently can provide data of usage to hearing professionals. Hearing professionals are able to use this data to ascertain how often the device is used. There is a family that, apparently, give their child a break from the cochlear implant because it causes exhaustion and headaches if used all day. Hearing professionals have ascertained when this break happens and have told the parents to ensure the cochlear implant is used throughout the day until bedtime. Cue guilt for the parents and never ending exhaustion of the child who has to use the cochlear implant 24/7. – TRAUMA!

Does it ever end? No wonder deaf people have some of the highest incidences of mental health issues in the world. This constant fight to meet the standards and demands of hearing people is absolutely exhausting and worst of all, TRAUMATIC.

I know the life of deaf people is far more positive than the traumatic stories we see and hear everyday. I know that deaf people are not all a bunch of sad sacks. There are happy stories out there. Like how I met my deaf wife at the front door and I was wearing Humphrey B Bear boxer shorts.

I have a challenge to readers of The Rebuttal. Send me your happy deaf stories and I will compile an article or a series of articles to highlight these positive stories. Email them to me at adefinty2@gmail.com. Please! Because, quite frankly, I have had a gutful of all this TRAUMA! It’s exhausting!

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”
― Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss

It Ain’t Necessarily So!

I was following a discussion on a Facebook group last night. A mother was asking whether mainstream schooling or support within a Deaf school or Deaf unit was better. It is an age old dilemma for parents of deaf kids. Some advised the mother to choose deaf schools or units so that her child could be around deaf kids, communicate easily, make friends and get the support that they require. Some advised the mother that mainstreaming is better and that exposure to hearing kids is good for development and speech. I fancy that at the end of the discussion the mothers dilemma was even greater because there was no clear consensus.

One of the responses that struck me went along the lines as follows:

” My Johnny is doing great in a mainstream school. He has heaps of hearing friends and is involved in everything. I asked him if he was happy and he said he was. He doesn’t really need signing, he is doing great .. “

Perhaps I am getting old, but I often read such comments with a great deal of skepticism.

I say ‘Old‘ because I realise things are very different now than from my time at school. Hell, I am 58 and when I left school cochlear implants had been around for about 5 years. Implantation in young kids was very rare then, it is not now. Virtually every deaf kid who can gets an implant these days. That isn’t a bad thing.

My observations are only anecdotal. I cant back them up with any research, but I am sure that there is plenty out there. What I see is that kids who were implanted early, many of them have great speech and great English language development. Not all of them. Some don’t respond well to implantation and you will need someone more qualified than me to explain why. However, what I do see is that many implanted kids have good English and great speech.

What I also see, despite the better speech and English language, is that they still often struggle in hearing settings. Particularly as they get older. Particularly as they begin to be ‘self directed’ and don’t have the support of a school or a visiting teacher. I have spoken to many of these young kids and, despite their good speech and language, they often tell me how frustrated that they are at school.

What it seems to come down to is that once they get into an environment where communication is not controlled, where all are talking at once, where there is a lot of background noise and where everything is spontaneous, these kids with implants become very frustrated and isolated.

Again, I point out that these are my anecdotal observations. However, as I stated, many of these kids find their way to the Deaf community later. They begin to learn Auslan, they begin to experience full inclusion where communication is not such a struggle. They begin to feel fully valued. For many, perhaps for the first time, socialising becomes fun and something to look forward to rather than hard work.

It probably isn’t a lot different from ‘successful oral people‘ of years gone by who later found their way to the Deaf community. Those people who were told that – ” … your speech is so good, no one will know that you are deaf.” What this backhanded kind of compliment tells them is – ‘Hearing Good, deaf Bad’ This is kind of stone age isn’t it? But that is the message that came through.

In my time I was told things like, ” Your hearing aid is so small, no one will ever know.” or “Grow your hair long and no one will ever see it.” The message is the same, ‘hearing Good, deaf Bad’ Cover it up, hide it and everyone will think you are are the SAME as them. That would be until the hearing aid started whistling. Cue everyone looking at you and pointing to their ears to let you know that your hearing aid is whistling. Talk about standing out!

If anyone had asked me back then if I was happy, I would have said yes. If anyone had asked me if I had friends, I would have said yes. But was I happy? A lot of the time, no! I was acutely aware of my difference and tried everything to hide it. Hell, it took me wagging school 14 days in a row before the school contacted my parents and people kinda twigged that perhaps all was not well.

And kids are cruel. Knowing I was a lipreader some would come up to me after school and mouth things like, “Are you a poof …?” No disrespect to lgbtqia+ friends and readers, but that’s what they did. I would look at them kind of blankly and they would all giggle and walk off slapping themselves on the back in acknowledgment of their own hilarity.

School in the mainstream was not fun. For me to openly say that I was not happy was to acknowledge my deafness. There was no way that I was doing that. As a kid, particularly as an adolescent, that is the last thing that you want to do. It can be tough, and while I am sure cochlear implants might have made this easier, the fact that a lot of young people with implants find their way to the Deaf community as they get older suggests that many of these issues probably still exist.

In 1996 I was employed as the Project Officer for the National Mental Health Education Project for Young Deaf People. I was able to research some of the social impacts of deafness on young deaf people. I came across many who were mainstreamed. Many socially struggled. I found that there were different types of young deaf individuals.

Those that sat on their own at lunch time. Those that chose a different friend every month. They would find a friend and smother them to death because it was easy to communicate with that person. Often times this ‘FRIEND’ would start to avoid them. So they would find another friend and the cycle would recommence. There were those who, in an effort to control communication and avoid having to listen, just spoke all the time, played the clown and spoke over others. AND – there were some that were well adapted and coped very well. Some could be any of the above mentioned at any given time.

The variations were stark. The impact on the self esteem and mental health of these young people could be severe indeed. I am pretty sure that many Deaf and hard of hearing people who read this will be triggered by what I am writing. I know that many took the pain of their younger years into adulthood. It took a lot of counselling and hard work to overcome the negative experience.

My own view is that it comes back to the fact that in these early days the message is, even if it is unconscious, ‘hearing Good, deaf Bad’. There is no value for deafness, no value for differentness. The consequence of this is that the young deaf person feels not valued unless they can show they can exist as a ‘HEARING’ person in a ‘HEARING’ world. It is that message, in my view, that does untold damage that can take years to repair and unpack.

I believe society can help by being loud and proud about being deaf. Let deaf kids meet other deaf kids. Let them socialise regularly. Value Deaf schools and units that support deaf kids. See them as viable options that add value to the education and development of deaf kids. The Deaf identity has a place, a very important place. The hearing world needs to value all of these things.

So your deaf kid says they are happy? Hopefully they are, but it ain’t necessarily so!

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!