If I Could Change One Thing About Australia It Would Be: The Way We Treat Deaf Children

The current focus on ‘fixing’ Deaf children by making them hear and speak assumes they’re ‘broken’ – and it can make their lives worse.

Brought to you by Australian Of The Year Awards

Brought to you by the Australian of the Year Awards

In association with the Australian of the Year Awards, we’ve asked five influential and accomplished Australians to share an idea for change that they’re passionate about.

Our second guest is Drisana Levitzke-Gray, the 2015 Young Australian of the Year. Drisana comes from a Deaf family and learned Auslan as her first language. She has represented Australia at the World Federation of the Deaf, and in 2014 became the first Deaf Australian to participate in jury duty. Here Drisana draws on her experiences as a native speaker of Auslan to argue that the way Australia treats Deaf children needs to be radically re-thought.

More than 90 percent of Deaf children are born to hearing parents, and often that Deaf child is the first Deaf person those parents have ever met. When that child is in the hospital, within the first two days, the doctors and nurses do a hearing test called the Newborn Hearing Screening. When they’re identified as Deaf, the medical professionals phrase it as having ‘failed’ the test – so the very first thing that those parents hear is that their child has failed a test. The implication that something is ‘wrong’ with their child can have a huge impact on how parents feel and bond with their newborn.

The medical field has become focused on an ideology which maintains that speech and listening equals language, placing less importance on literacy and other methods of communication. There’s an assumption that being Deaf is a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘fixed’. So parents are told that they need to spring for expensive therapy or implants to help their child hear and speak — the assumption being that their child needs to speak in order to succeed in society. Hearing parents are often told not to sign to their Deaf children, and are often encouraged to isolate their children from other Deaf people too.

Children in that situation will still be Deaf at the end of the day – it doesn’t matter what kind of therapy they have, or whether they have cochlear implants or hearing aids – and they will never be treated equally in a hearing society. They will miss information, they will need to ask people to repeat things; people will get frustrated with them, and they won’t have the same access to everyday experiences.

That’s why I believe Deaf children in Australia should have access to Auslan – Australian sign language – from birth.

Based on my experience in the Australian Deaf community, I would say that the average Deaf person born to hearing parents will come into contact with Auslan in their late teens, when they begin actively seeking out other people who are like them. Then they will discover that we have a Deaf community, and that there’s a language and a culture that goes along with it. If they join the Deaf community late, they have to learn Auslan quite late – and I’d estimate at least one third of the people in the Deaf community learned Auslan at this later stage. I’ve found that these Deaf young adults often end up frustrated that nobody has told them about this community before; as adults who find it hard to communicate and socialise, they can often end up socially isolated, with low self-esteem and confidence. It’s no surprise that Deaf young adults are much more likely to have mental health issues than their hearing peers.

In other cases, a Deaf person might come into contact with Auslan in their early teens as a language of last resort, if their literacy, their cognitive abilities, or their social behaviour are well below standard, and the lip-reading and speech skill development that are emphasised by the medical community hasn’t worked. It’s great that these children are brought into the Deaf community, and we do what we can, but if they’ve missed the critical language acquisition period in the first six years from birth, there are limits to what they can learn.

Younger children, on the other hand, pick up sign language very easily and naturally. Babies can sign from six-to-eight months old, which means parents don’t need to wait until their child is able to speak to find out they want milk; in fact, there’s a huge movement called Baby Sign Language for hearing babies. Meanwhile, when a child is born Deaf their parents are told that they shouldn’t sign to it; that signing will undo the work of speech and hearing therapies. It makes no sense to me that sign language is promoted for hearing babies because of all of the benefits it brings, while Deaf children are denied those same benefits.

I’m not against cochlear implants, or hearing aids, or other technologies; I believe in being bilingual and bicultural. Auslan is my first language; English is my second. We have a lot of research that proves that bilingual, bicultural models – teaching Deaf children sign language and giving them access to whatever technology and speech therapy might be necessary – ensure that they do better than those who only have access to speech methods. If later they say, ‘I don’t want a cochlear implant’ or, ‘My cochlear implant is fantastic and I don’t want to use Auslan’, that’s fine: at least they’ve had the opportunity to access both. It shouldn’t be one or the other, but Auslan has to be the base, because it’s the most accessible.

Many families of Deaf children miss out on Auslan because they have to pay to access Auslan education for their family, which is a shame. Auslan education is not classified as a therapy in the same way that speech therapy is, but it is nonetheless therapeutic for those Deaf children to learn a language and be included in their families. We need to reclassify Auslan education as a therapy, so further streams of funding will immediately become available for it.

The national curriculum is currently being developed to include Auslan as a language other than English (LOTE) for years K–10, and that will be the beginning of real change: Deaf children who are isolated in mainstream schools may see some of their peers use Auslan, and will perhaps be encouraged to learn it in an Auslan LOTE class. This could mean they’re more inclined to join the Deaf community earlier.

Ultimately, I want Australians to celebrate and cherish Auslan. It’s doesn’t just belong to Deaf people; it’s a language for all of us.

Do you know someone whose ideas for change have made Australia a better place? Want their hard work to be supported and recognised? Nominations for the 2016 Australian of the Year Awards are now open. Head to the Australian of the Year Awards site to submit a nomination before August 3.

Drisana Levitzke-Gray, 2015 Young Australian of the Year, was nominated for being a proud advocate who promotes the rich language and culture of the deaf community.