01 Jun 2021
Imagine being born into a country where you are told from early childhood that you can be whatever you want to be.
That equal access is your birthright. That even if you face the challenges of disability, your country has your back and will give you a ‘fair go’. Only to discover that much of your society, from education to employment to public accessibility and social inclusion, has put you in the too-hard basket.
All because you can’t hear.
Most people don’t think about the difficulties faced by Deaf people in our society. Like most of us in the hearing community, the vast majority of Deaf people are intelligent, able-bodied, capable individuals who want nothing more than the ability to function in society with relative ease, to be connected with our communities, and to pursue a fulfilling livelihood.
Even something as simple as ordering a coffee at a local café, making a phone call, or filling out a form can be far more complicated and difficult for Deaf individuals, especially for users of Auslan (Australian Sign Language).
Allow me to clarify. I’m not referring to the Hearing-Impaired community. Not those who could once hear but have lost the ability, or those with sufficient partial hearing, whether natural or technology-supported, to acquire verbal and written language with relative ease. I’m referring to those who, by necessity or choice, find their most effective means of communication to be sign language.
Many people assume, as I once did, that written communication (e.g. public signage, websites, notices, forms, textbooks) is sufficient for Deaf people to be able to move through our world without too much difficulty. This is simply not the case.
“When reading any text, our minds are translating the sounds of the letter combinations. You will notice this if you help kids learn to read, when you tell them to ‘sound out’ the words.”
Deaf people are faced with the formidable challenge of attempting to master written language on a purely visual basis.
This explains why written communications can be as excluding to the Deaf community as purely verbal communication, and why more widespread recognition and use of Auslan is a necessity to provide equal access, not to mention greater social inclusion.
The many and various challenges for families and Deaf children regarding early intervention, education, language skills, support providers and medical/professional advice are far too numerous and complex to simply summarise. Suffice it to say that all of these issues have a vast impact on the development of a Deaf person and their resulting cultural, socio-economic, educational, and employment outcomes as an adult.
“For example, a Deaf person may enthusiastically enrol in a course, but have to withdraw when the resources are simply unavailable to provide them with the learning support they need.”
This, predictably, has an impact on employment options among the Deaf community. Even those who have overcome the obstacles associated with obtaining vocational education, trades, and university degrees can find that there are simply not enough workplaces that are culturally equipped, or willing to be equipped, to engage a Deaf employee. This is heartbreaking, given that the inability to hear is not, in and of itself, a barrier to any intelligent, agile mind learning, adapting, and performing to its full potential.
There are very few businesses, public organisations and cultural institutions that make provisions for the Deaf. You won’t find an Auslan interpreter available if you can’t find what you’re looking for in a supermarket, or show up to a Tafe open day to look at the courses available. Most museums and galleries will have hearing induction loops for the Hearing Impaired but no Auslan interpretation available for the profoundly Deaf or other Auslan users.
I have come across a couple of notable exceptions that I would like to mention.
In terms of the major supermarkets in Australia, none made any visible provisions online to assist Deaf people, except for Coles. Their ‘Customer Care’ page has a number designated to contact Coles via the NRS (National Relay Service). Following a couple of links through the Coles website leads you to the NRS website itself, which has an Auslan interpretation of how to use the service.
“By far the most impressive Deaf inclusiveness I have come across is with the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, which provides multiple options for Auslan users.”
The gallery runs a free Auslan-interpreted tour each month, and with a booking at 4 weeks notice, the gallery will provide a free interpreter for events, lectures, workshops and talks, for groups or individual Auslan users. There are online videos available of Auslan interpretations of gallery highlights for Deaf people to peruse on their phones while visiting the gallery, and they even run a low-cost program which will teach visitors simple Auslan for visual arts during a 45-minute interactive tour.
With the advent of smart phones, internet access and video calls, there have been some improvements for the Deaf community. Where previously the primary means of distance communication was the TTY (a text-based phone messaging system), now the NRS and other communication services provide video interpreting. This enables a Deaf person to communicate freely in Auslan, and an interpreter can much more effectively and accurately relay their call to the person on the other end of the phone or video link.
While Deafness is somewhat invisible when out and about in public, I have often observed disappointing reactions from hearing people when they notice that someone is Deaf. I have seen them deliberately give Deaf people a wide berth and avoid eye contact. Appallingly, I have even seen hearing people mocking Deaf people. The feelings of isolation and exclusion this could evoke in another human being are potentially devastating, which we average hearing people may never experience or fully understand.
“The good news is that it’s not as hard as you think be more inclusive, and there are some simple ways to communicate more effectively with Deaf people.”
For starters, don’t be afraid of interacting with Deaf people! It may be a different style of communication that you are unfamiliar with, but the Deaf people who I personally have interacted with are very well-acquainted will the foibles of miscommunication and have a great sense of humour about it.
The main thing to remember is to give a Deaf person your full attention when interacting with them. Facial expression and body language are important. The Deaf people I know understand and use basic gestures that are part of hearing culture too, such as fingers for numbers, and the good old thumbs-up. Some are also skilled lip-readers.
It is also quite easy to learn some basic Auslan signs – there are videos all over the internet. There is some excellent advice on the Australian Network on Disability website on conducting job interviews using an interpreter.
Encourage others around you to be more aware and inclusive.
“I highly recommend attending a Deaf theatre performance if you can – it is an extremely entertaining and eye-opening experience.”
You can organise events for the National Week of Deaf People, International Day of Sign Languages, Global Accessibility Awareness Day, or International Day of People with Disability. Teach others around you the signs you have learned.
With very little effort we can spread awareness and inclusion of our Deaf community members, and help to create a fairer society in which inclusiveness is more than just a buzzword.