Gavin Balharie was interviewed by the Guardian in a brilliant piece that highlighted why Deaf people needed to be remembered in times of crisis. He told the story about being on holiday with his Deaf wife and young hearing daughter. When the bushfires began to approach they had no idea what to do. He and his family didn’t know whether to stay or go. They could see and smell the fires but had no idea as to just how severe or dangerous that they were. Balharie became desperate and, “…recorded the local broadcast on his phone and managed to find a translator to send it to. When they got the video back 30 minutes later, they knew straight away they had to get out of there.” It was only when he received the information in Auslan that he realised that kind of danger that they were in.
I believe that Gavin and his family eventually got back to Victoria safely, basically driving the opposite direction of the fires and coming home via Canberra. I could be wrong but the point is, but for his interpreter friend who provided a video transcript in Auslan of the recording, Gavin and his family would not have known what to do. They would have been in greater danger than they actually were.
If you are hearing you have any number of outlets to receive information. The car radio is one. Social media is another. You may be in the pub when the news comes on and you would hear it there. Shopping centres have televisions on as well. What this means is that a hearing person would be hard pressed to miss vital information. Not so if you are deaf.
This is part of the reason why members of the Deaf community, just your basic grassroots members mind you, set up the Facebook Page, Auslan Media Access. This was basically a page that aimed to highlight where announcements were not accessible. Members of the page would post on Facebook any announcements about the fires that were on television or social media. They would highlight where Auslan interpreters or captioning were not provided. They even made an impromptu video, Can You See the Interpreter, which you can see below.
Members of the Auslan Media Access page posted in droves. People emailed television stations and their government representatives. Slowly but surely interpreters began to appear on screen regularly. Sometimes they would be there but the camera man would not frame them in. In a relatively short space of time the media and governments got the message and interpreters became part of every Australians life for critical and important announcements. First for the bushfires and then for the COVID-19 situation.
It was a momentous achievement. It was achieved through skilful campaigning and very quickly. It even got to the point where broadcasts of the news on ABC would have Auslan translations as well. The people concerned with this brilliant advance in accessibility need to take a bow. That it was achieved in such a short space of time is without precedent.
Of course, with this increased exposure came with it a fascination about Auslan. Mark McGowan, the premier of Western Australia, played it for all it was worth. He made an announcement about how much he had relied on interpreters and posted it on his Facebook page. At Easter he got the interpreter to teach him some Easter signs. Watch it below:
The interpreter actually became a bit of a celebrity. I have a vague memory of her being filmed with Fat Cat, who apparently still exists over in Western Australia. So after years of relative obscurity suddenly Auslan was everywhere.
One would have thought that the Deaf community would rejoice! No they didn’t! Some of them actually got quite angry. They became angry because their language, the centre of their identity, suddenly became the subject of everyones fun. Suddenly, Deaf people became invisible. This is a paradox considering Auslan seemed to be virtually everywhere.
So instead of celebrating the brilliant achievement of getting Auslan Interpreters on television and social media for all critical government announcements, the Deaf community got angry! They are rightly asking, What About Me???
You see, suddenly Deaf people became objects of pity that needed help. The beauty, the validity and the cultural eminence of Auslan was rarely discussed. I am sorry, but in trying to bring attention to Auslan what happened was that it became belittled. It became a welfare object. Providing Auslan helped the poor Deaf people. Watch the video below. The title says it all.
I feel for the interpreter. She is saying all the right things. She acknowledges that Auslan is her first language and that of her Deaf parents. She is highlighting the critical need to access information. But the media turn it into a heart warming help story. This is achieved just by the title and the reporters painful attempt at the end to sign WASH YOUR HANDS. But the worst thing is that there is not a Deaf person in sight. They are the helped, out of mind and out of sight.
This is not the first time that this has happened. I recall that the interpreter who was prominent in the Queensland floods became a celebrity as well. He became known as Sign Man. I think the issue this time is that the Deaf community are feeling that they are being ignored, or worse turned into people that require saving. Everyone seems to be getting credit at their expense. This has become more frequent in recent times due to the exposure given to Auslan by the Yellow Wiggle and Deaf Australia ambassador Andy Dexterity. Some say the exposure is good, others say it is the wrong type of exposure and Deaf people should be the ones who people are remembering and not the hearing performers.
The Deaf community are taking particular offence at hearing people profiting and getting credit at their expense. They feel that these hearing people are profiting from the Deaf community with not much acknowledgement to Deaf people. In Dexterity’s case they feel that he has become a self appointed spokesperson and worse, the Auslan that he uses is often not grammatically correct. That he has given TED talks on the topic further rubs salt in the wound.
I won’t get into the linguistics of it all, but I certainly feel that Deaf people are becoming invisible. I certainly feel that the image being portrayed is that Deaf people are in need of help, and by giving this help they are being saved. The image that we are active and contributing members of our society is lost. That’s why I love the story by the Guardian about Gavin Balharie. It is a Deaf person, a Deaf professional, a clearly talented and skilled person who is Deaf and telling the story. It is positive and we need far more of this and less of interpreters bopping around like bunnies. ( With apologies to the said interpreter, I realise that she was probably placed on the spot.)
But, having said all of this I wish the Deaf people concerned could take a moment from being angry to breath and celebrate what they have just achieved. Through the work of some grassroots Deaf people who set up a Facebook Page and then actively coordinated a campaign to get interpreters on screen for important announcements, thousands are benefitting!
In a few short months virtually every announcement has an Auslan interpreter on screen and in frame. No longer do the media cut the interpreter off because they are a “distraction”. The need and importance of the interpreter has been understood, even if it often does not always feel this way.
That was and is a momentous achievement. Take time to celebrate that. You have all earned it!
Footnote: There are many that say interpreters are better and more easily understood than captioning. I digress. One must remember that 95% or more of people who are deaf (Not Deaf) do not sign. Their need to access information is vitally important. That’s why televisions in public places need to have the captions turned on and all social media postings need to be captioned. These deaf people that do not sign also need to be safe. That the captioning is sometimes of questionable quality is something that also needs to be addressed. Auslan interpreters and captioning, they must go hand in hand.