Why does sign language compel otherwise intelligent men to make comments of such inane stupidity about deaf people?
Perhaps the juiciest part of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s press conference late in June to announce universal screening of newborns for hearing impairment was the lone question asked by an unknown journalist at the very end. This press conference was a joint affair between Mr Rudd and the former Opposition leader, Brendan Nelson. The hapless journalist asked Dr Nelson a question about the latest turmoil in the ranks of the Liberals. “We’re here to talk about deafness and hearing,” scolded Dr Nelson, and that was that.
The journalist’s feeble attempt to get onto something interesting was a rich indicator of how dull was the news that Mr Rudd appeared to be doing something to help deaf babies become hearing. The Herald Sun’s perfunctory report showed the obligatory photo of Mr Rudd with a small boy whose name, according to the caption, was Tanya Plibersek. The report in the Sydney Morning Herald was more engaging, but still framed the event in the context of political foes dropping their differences. No wonder journalists were bored.
Politicians have always taken advantage of being seen promising to help disabled kiddies and scoring photo opportunities with small children. But Dr Nelson was only half right. The press conference and announcement had everything to do with hearing and nothing to do with deafness. In the room was a bellowing elephant to which everyone, apparently, was deaf.
The press conference took place at the Shepherd Centre in Sydney, which describes itself as one of Australia’s leading providers of audio-verbal therapy for hearing-impaired children. It is a place where specialists devoted to the sense of hearing regard deaf people and sign language in much the same way that butchers regard vegetarians.
There is of course nothing wrong with a screening program to detect hearing impairment in newborns. My concern is what the centre’s founder, Dr Bruce Shepherd, said after Dr Nelson declared that all small deaf children should have a cochlear implant (aka the bionic ear) before the age of one: “It means that these children, rather than becoming drawdowns on the community and welfare, will become productive members of the community and go on to lead productive lives and happy lives, able to communicate with the entire community and not just with the few who might be able to sign.”
Dr Shepherd’s statement, with its murky subterranean cavern of insinuations about deaf people and they way they live, takes some beating. My own reaction was, “here we go again”. Dr Shepherd is not the only one to say something like that. Jack O’Mahoney, the former CEO of Cochlear, the implant’s manufacturer, said the same thing. So has Professor Graeme Clark, the inventor of the cochlear implant. So did the late Peter Howson, the former minister in the McMahon government. But unlike Dr Shepherd, they did not make such statements in the presence of beaming prime ministers.
It has long fascinated me why sign language provokes otherwise intelligent men into making comments of such inane stupidity about deaf people. There was one immediate clue: two of the three dignitaries presiding at this press conference were medical doctors, with Dr Nelson the former head of the Australian Medical Association. Little wonder they regard deafness as a pathological condition which requires a cure. Such an attitude is the polar opposite to that of deaf people, for whom deafness is simply a part of their lives.
There is another clue. The raison d’être of specialist places like the Shepherd Centre is small deaf children. The good Dr Shepherd sets a shining example for the staff who know very little about the lives of deaf adults, apart from a conviction they live silent and unhappy lives. They know nothing about the language they despise.
There is a third clue. There was a scene in the film Rabbit Proof Fence, where the abducted Aboriginal girls were having their first meal at the Moore River settlement. An Aboriginal overseer rebuked one of them for speaking their native language: “We’ll have no wangka here. You talk English!” The admonishment was repeated by one of the sisters at the settlement.
This comparison with the historical suppression of sign languages is not exact. Hearing children can learn another spoken language more readily than deaf children. However, common to this suppression of sign languages and aboriginal languages, and our third clue, is fear. It is fear that those who hold power might not only not know what is going on, but also that the speakers and users of minority languages might actually know more than they let on.
Sign language in Australia, which is known as Auslan, is not going to conveniently disappear. It is a subject for study at VCE level, at adult education centres and universities, and numerous people – academics, researchers and interpreters – make a living from it. Auslan is a community language. Across the Tasman, New Zealand has three official languages – English, Maori, and New Zealand Sign Language.
The cochlear implant does not somehow “immunise” children against deafness, in the way the good doctors suggest. Deaf people with a cochlear implant are a normal and unremarkable sight at gatherings of the deaf community. It is normal to see deaf people with cochlear implants using fluent Auslan.
Dr Shepherd does not explain why deaf people lead unproductive lives, and how a cochlear implant will magically make them productive. The ability to lead a productive life, in the sense of seizing opportunities for example, comes just as much from within the individual as from external trappings. The state of being deaf itself proffers numerous opportunities in life to those willing to look beyond ignorance and stereotyping. And if opportunities for deaf people are limited, then Dr Shepherd’s self-serving attitudes are one of the reasons why.
Doctors Nelson and Shepherd are saying to parents of young deaf children that the cochlear implant is the only way (and the truth, and the light, one is tempted to add). Parents are much more intelligent than to swallow that. They need to gather as much information as they can about deafness, and this includes meeting people for whom deafness is a normal part of their lives. Parents who do this will gain a far richer knowledge of deafness than the good doctors will ever want them to know.
Dr Nelson has no idea that parents of deaf children have numerous choices open to them. The cochlear implant is one of those choices, but it is emphatically not the only choice. The benefits of a cochlear implant for deaf adults and children have been much extolled, and rightly so. But the good doctors doth praiseth too much. By their own logic, a cochlear implant is the ideal prescription for legions of unhappy hearing people who lead unproductive lives and who are drawdowns on the community and welfare.
As the Chief Protector of Aborigines lamented in the very last line of Rabbit Proof Fence: “If they would only understand what we are trying to do for them”. Exactly. If these good doctors would only understand what deaf people are trying to do for them.
This article appeared in Online Opinion in August 2009 under the headline ‘Deaf to the Potential’.