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Deaf to the potential

By Michael Uniacke - posted Tuesday, 4 August 2009

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 much more engaging and readable, 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.

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About the Author

Michael Uniacke is a freelance journalist who frequently writes on issues around disability, deafness and hearing impairment.

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All articles by Michael Uniacke

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