UNIACKE, Mike: Visited him yesterday. Appeared confused, and smelt of the drink. Could not explain his absence from Divine Service for the past month, but promised to start attending. Said I would be keeping an eye on him.
I made that up of course. In the welfare records of the old Adult Deaf Society of Victoria, there was no such entry in my file. My file had just one single entry; I visited the Society in the mid-1970s to talk to one of the people on the welfare staff, Melby Dyson, an older Deaf Society stalwart. I was in a Welfare course, and working on a research project into welfare and Deaf people. I chatted with Melby, and in one sentence in my file he recorded the fact of my visit.
In 1979, I was a newly minted welfare officer and started with the Society in Melbourne. All the welfare files were maintained in a row of locked filing cabinets. They held all the case notes. The early ones were handwritten, but by the time I started, they were all typed. The files themselves were arranged in alphabetical order in manila folders. Some other files on Deaf individuals were as thick as airport thrillers and told extraordinary stories, of incidents, interventions by various members of the welfare staff, opportunities, letters, complaints, contacts with other welfare agencies, police matters including police interviews, attempts to find employment, accommodation, and so on. Sometimes these files hinted at lurid stuff, like sexual peccadilloes, petty crime, and hints of marital discord between couples.
My employment as a qualified welfare officer marked the changing of the guard. The old-style welfare officers were mostly men like Ern Reynolds, Melby Dyson and a few others who had worked among the Deaf community as their life’s vocation. Between them, these two men must had clocked nearly one hundred years of working with the Deaf community, but their era was coming to an end. My arrival, like that of my colleagues on the welfare staff at the time, was in the new age of the professionally trained welfare worker.
All this came flooding back to me at the State Library of Victoria, as I poured through the boxes of the old welfare cards, with their notes and records of Deaf people from about the 1940s to the 1970s. It was part of what I’m doing a lot of – research and reading original material from the Deaf Society’s vast historical treasure trove. As my historical fiction novel comes together, I pour through this material, partly to get background on particular incidents, but also to get a feel for the times. What were people thinking, doing, worried about? What were the big issues? What was the language they used? And then I came to the welfare cards, and handwritten comments like:
N . . . not a good mixer, rather effeminate.
That sort of judgement was not uncommon, and reminded me of one of the most jaw-dropping entry in the case files, during the 1960s, I had ever seen:
admits to masturbation, but ‘not now not for a long time’.
This sort of entry raises a couple of pungent questions, notably around . . . why? As in, why would any Deaf man talk about wanking to the old guy from the deaf welfare? The conversation that raised this point doesn’t bear thinking about beyond the obvious query from the beady-eyed welfare officer: “ . . . and now, my good man, have you abused yourself lately?”
However, those are my late 20th century trained sensibilities, reinforced by my 21st century worldly experience. There was a time when masturbation was considered perilous to one’s moral development. And one’s moral development was absolutely a concern of welfare staff for much of the previous century. The Society at the time was underpinned by a certain Protestantism, and religion was far closer to the surface. If you wanted to be on the Deaf Committee, you were expected to be a Prod and attend Divine Service every Sunday. Try telling that to the present Board members of Deaf Victoria.
This explains how those welfare records were riddled with what today we would call value judgements. You can see them in my fictitious case note at the beginning of this blog, with its gently scolding tone, its insinuation that I drink (of course I do), I was probably a bit pissed (not now not for a long time), and I don’t go to church (also true).
The value judgements work in other directions as well, as per this invented, down-dated modern example:
KEREIDGW, Gary: Possibly a foreigner. One of the more intelligent deaf. Thinks he knows everything. Wants watching.
One of Ern Reynold’s trademark comments were with regard to a Deaf person’s intelligence, or a perceived lack of it. “Intelligence” was one of his classifiers of Deaf people. His favourite backhander to someone who frustrated him was to describe him (invariably a man) as “not over-bright”. This was a rather clever each-way bet. He could damn the hapless Deaf man with faint praise, or more usually, praise him with faint damnation.
Ern Reynolds was not stupid. He knew the Deaf community and its people perhaps better than anyone, during an era that was very different to what it is today. He was a man of his times, and would have chafed at restrictions on how he could do his work, and what he could say about the Deaf people he knew so well.
The welfare index card reproduced here is an example of Reynolds’ work. It concerns a Deaf man, John Patrick Bourke, who died in 1960. Bourke was a trenchant critic of the Adult Deaf and Dumb Society of Victoria, notably its superintendent (or today, the CEO), Ernest Abraham, who held that position for almost 40 years from 1901. Bourke, a prolific writer, was one of the first Deaf persons to be banned from the Society, after the Board grew sick of the highly critical letters he had published in newspapers, and of his unrelenting criticism. He did not mellow with age, and ended his days at the Society’s Blackburn Home. On this index card, Ern Reynolds described him as “a stormy petrel in the deaf world”. It was a perceptive and insightful comment.
The welfare notes give some remarkable glimpses into the lives of many Deaf people now long dead. When they lived, it was during times and with attitudes and values we would barely recognise today. But in spite of these massive differences, it’s obvious to me that in the end they were still very much like we are now. They were excited by much the same things, they had much the same concerns, they played all kinds of sports, and mostly seemed to enjoy the company of others like themselves. What is precisely the same, then and now, is why there is a Deaf community.
Russell Watts says
Hilarious Michael ! Best wishes Russell Watts