Lessons from Dimity


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Dimity has been in the news and upset the deaf community again. Nothing like she did last time, but still…

Our outrage is always essentially the same. How can she keep getting away with the things she says about deaf people? How can hearing people keep believing what she says and keep giving her awards?

She keeps on confounding us! She keeps on winning!

So I’ve been thinking: what can we learn from Dimity?

For those who might not have heard of Dimity Dornan, she is a speech pathologist and the founder of the Hear and Say early intervention centres for deaf children. Hear and Say promotes the use of cochlear implants, hearing aids and auditory verbal therapy (AVT) to teach deaf children speech and language. AVT does not allow the use of sign language or any kind of visual cues, including lipreading.

I know Dimity. I’ve met her many times.

Dimity is very charming. She’s very polite. She shows what comes across as a genuine interest in you as a person. She is, dare I say it, classy!

Several years ago after a deaf community uproar over something she said at an awards ceremony, I met with her at her Hear and Say centre in Brisbane to discuss the issues. The Auslan interpreter was a little late arriving so while we waited Dimity and I had a pleasant chat, relying on my speech and lipreading skills.

Our innocuous little chat came around to the subject of teapots. I love teapots. I told her about the beautiful Russian teapot I’d recently brought back from Alaska. Dimity seemed delighted. Did I like china teacups too, she asked. Oh yes!

Several months later, she invited me to talk with her staff about my experiences as a bilingual deaf person and Deaf Australia’s views on bilingualism. Afterwards, a staff member gave me a gift from everyone: two pretty tea mugs, not expensive but charming.

This simple gift conveyed a powerful message. It told me that Dimity is a thoughtful person. She listens. She’s generous and gives you things she knows you will like. She knows how to make you feel good. She knows how to show you she’s a nice person.

Dimity is well-known, well-connected.

Prime Ministers, Premiers, government and influential people know her. She works hard at networking and building relationships. Presumably she is charming with these people too.

Influence is the most effective form of advocacy. Sometimes being tough and demanding and kicking up a stink does work, but in the long term we achieve far more by building respectful, courteous relationships and using our connections to influence decision making.

I once had a conversation with an influential person who, rather indiscreetly, commented on another deaf advocate. The influential person was sympathetic to the issue I had raised and which this other advocate had also discussed with them but, the influential person told me, the other advocate had put them offside by being rude, demanding and aggressive.

So that’s the first thing we can learn from Dimity. Relationships matter. Manners matter. When we are courteous and build respectful relationships, it is harder for other people to dismiss us.

Dimity is positive.

Publicly she doesn’t openly, obviously and directly trash Auslan or deaf people who use it. Instead she talks about how beneficial speech is. She talks about how wonderful her speech and hearing program is and ignores other wonderful programs, especially bilingual programs. She politely and self-deprecatingly shuts down attempts to discuss Auslan: “I don’t sign well. I leave that to others who can.”

Over the years, I learned to be careful how I discuss programs like hers. I learned to compliment her on her speech training program, and to be clear that our issue is not with speech training, but with the exclusion of Auslan and families who want to give their deaf children access to both speech and Auslan.

This is something we do need to be clear about. Often when we talk about the importance of Auslan, people assume we are excluding speech and English. We need to be clear that we are advocating for bilingualism: for deaf children to have early access to both speech/English and Auslan.

Dimity is well groomed. She dresses appropriately well for the occasion and she always looks good.

In my late twenties, I attended a week-long residential leadership training program organised by the Deaf Society of NSW, along with people like Colin Allen and Carol-lee Aquiline, both now well-known deaf leaders. The program included a workshop about grooming and how important it is, for both men and women, if we want to have influence.

One day many years ago, I sat with many other people at a large table at the Australian Human Rights Commission in Sydney, waiting for a meeting to start. My advocacy colleague walked in hurriedly and sat down beside me. I looked at her. She was on time – just – but her hair was messy and her top, a smart, appropriate top, was rumpled.

“Did you iron that top?” I signed quietly.

“I know!” she signed apologetically. “I ran out of time to iron it! Sorry!”

A messy, rumpled appearance, whatever our gender, gives the message that we are disorganised, possibly incompetent.

I believe my colleague has since learned this lesson; whenever I see her now she looks smart and well groomed.

Whether or not we agree that grooming should be important, in our society it is.

Dimity has won many awards and she and her Hear and Say Centres are often in the news.

Now, I know that getting on the news is not easy. It’s probably easier to win awards. Winning awards can actually be a good way to get on the news.

To win awards we need someone to nominate us, or nominate ourselves.

The deaf community is not good at this. We don’t nominate enough of our achievers for awards. We don’t nominate successful programs and organisations for awards. Instead of criticising, which our community is very good at, we need to show pride in our achievers and promote them.

People often criticise achievers for having a big ego. Some do have large egos, but being an achiever doesn’t automatically mean a person has an outrageously large ego.

I once watched a TV interviewer ask Bob Hawke about his ego.

Bob Hawke replied, “If you don’t have confidence in yourself, how the hell can anyone else have confidence in you?”

Our deaf community needs to understand this. Without confidence in themselves, i.e., a certain measure of healthy ego, our deaf achievers aren’t able to go out there and be achievers. When they go out there and achieve things, they promote a positive image of the rest of us and our deaf community. When we publicly criticise them, we diminish not only them but ourselves and our community. When we support them and promote them, we also support and promote all of us and our community.

Dimity is careful with research.

She publishes research on children who graduate from her Hear and Say program and this research shows the program is highly successful. There are many deaf children with cochlear implants and hearing aids who do develop good speech and listening skills and good English language skills by the time they start school.

Many people impressed by this research do not realise that it excludes children who do not do well. These children leave the program and move into other programs elsewhere, usually bilingual or sign-based ones, before they reach school age. The research reports do not acknowledge that this happens. Instead, if they do mention them, they say that X number of children tested at the beginning of the research “moved away or were unavailable for testing”(1) later in the research.

It’s tempting to say that other types of early intervention programs could do something similar. Since many children in bilingual and sign-based early intervention programs start off in speech and hearing programs like Hear and Say and enter other programs late, their delayed language development adversely affects these other programs’ reports, making them appear less successful. So these programs could exclude these late-entry children from research.

But it’s not that simple. Bilingual and sign-based programs include children with many more variables than those in auditory-verbal programs like Hear and Say. Still, it’s food for thought. At the very least, we need to be making this information about research more widely known.

Dimity does not try to persuade bilingual supporters that they are wrong. She ignores them. She doesn’t talk about bilingualism, she gives it no airtime.

Maybe it’s time we stopped trying to persuade Dimity and professionals working in programs like hers that they are wrong to exclude Auslan. Instead we could focus on promoting the importance and benefits of bilingualism to a wider audience.

Once, in a meeting with Bill Shorten, when he was Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and I was trying to persuade him to provide government support for bilingual early intervention, he said, “I know nothing about these programs. What do they look like?”

I briefly explained how they work and suggested he visit the Aurora School in Melbourne. But I didn’t feel I had answered his question well.

We need to be better prepared to answer questions like this. We need to be able to show bilingualism in operation. We need video clips of successful bilingual deaf children. We need these video clips on line and in TV shows and adverts. We need to be at the point where people don’t have to ask us the question Bill Shorten asked, because they have seen videos of bilingual programs often.

And we should stop spending so much energy trying to persuade professionals to provide ‘unbiased’ information to parents.

They won’t. We’ve been trying to do this for decades and the only thing we have achieved is biased professionals who pay lipservice to bilingualism and Auslan with comments such as “I have nothing against sign language.”

Instead we need to be educating parents to recognise and understand the biases and why particular people have particular biases – including our own biases towards bilingualism. This would help parents be more fully informed and empowered.

Most of all what we can learn from Dimity is to stop worrying about what other people say.

Does Dimity spend a lot of time worrying and talking and protesting about what we say? I doubt it. She is too busy focussing on achieving and promoting the things she believes.

We need to do the same.


1. http://www.hearandsayresearchandinnovation.com.au/UserFiles/files/Publications/Dornan%20et%20al_,%202010_%20Is%20Auditory%20Verbal%20Therapy%20Effective%20for%20children%20with%20hearing%20loss.pdf p365

Good Grief


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Sunset 1

In the past year, just over a year, three people I loved dearly have departed this life. My father in July 2016. My friend of 25 years, Ann Darwin, in January 2017. And my friend of 41 years, Tricia Giles, in July 2017.

All of them left us too soon. Although my father was 88, he was fit and healthy until a skin cancer claimed him. Ann was 69 and Tricia was just 60. Cancer took them all.

So thinking about dying and living well has been much in my thoughts for a while. I didn’t realise quite how much until John said to me one night, quite crossly, “You always do this when someone dies!”

“Do what?” I asked, surprised.

“You go on about how we need to be doing more with our lives, as if we’re not doing anything when actually we are!” he said.

He had a point. Since we retired, our lives are slower, we have time to enjoy things we like, to plant and smell the roses and have coffee with friends, but neither of us sits around doing nothing, we are always occupied and going places.

But still, I think a lot about how to live better, how to make the most of my time, what’s really important. These things have different meanings for all of us, but lately I’ve been reflecting on what I learned from Dad, Ann and Tricia and how I might put their wisdom to best use in my own life.

Of course I learned many things from all three of them but there are particular things I think about now.

My father taught me the importance of a simple, honest life.

It’s how he lived his life. He was a farmer. He liked growing things. Even after he retired from sugar cane farming when he was 80, he tended his fruit trees and his garden and he loved mowing his vast lawns on his ride-on mower. He lived simply, worked hard, ate sparingly, looked after his family and contributed to his community.

When we were small, he was the chair of the school P&C and always turned up to help at school working bees, fetes and other occasions. He coached and refereed community basketball. He organised the indoor bowls club he and Mum played with for years. He and Mum organised local dances and for 25 years they taught high school students to dance. He was always on some community committee including the local Leukaemia Foundation branch and the Seniors club.

He didn’t hanker after more possessions or experiences or wider horizons. He was happy tilling his little patch of earth and keeping it and its inhabitants healthy and happy.

In his garden, which one of his grandsons now tends for Mum, are many different plants. One, a simple low-growing plant with bright yellow daisy-like flowers we call “Grandad’s daisies” because he was particularly fond of them.

During the six months before his passing, when he was unwell and we knew his time was near, John commented to me one day that it was sad that Dad had such a short time, only eight years, to relax and enjoy life after he retired.

I thought about that and said, “No. He lived his life the way he wanted. He liked farming and was his own boss for 60 years, he did what he wanted and he was happy, he always enjoyed life. He just enjoyed it differently after he retired.”

Ann taught me the importance of forgiveness and a good laugh.

Ann was involved in many deaf community organisations and gave a lot to her community for decades. We worked together within Deaf Australia, advocating for deaf people’s rights.

She was devoted to her family and often talked about them. A hard task master, family was the only acceptable reason for non-attendance at an event or failure to complete a task on time.

Advocacy can be adversarial, friends can behave like enemies and enemies can sometimes be our friend. Many people made our work difficult and sometimes people hurt us. Ann often said, to me and others, “Put it behind you, move on, think positive.”

Often after a hard day’s work, we’d sit on my back deck or at her kitchen table, with a glass of red wine, talk things over and put things into perspective. And we’d laugh, Ann had a wonderfully dry sense of humour.

Ann and her husband Barry retired a few months apart when they turned 65. They did some travelling, spent a lot of time with family, especially their two young grandsons, and continued to be involved in the deaf community.

Her passing was unexpected and shocked a great many people. She lived in Melbourne and after I retired from Deaf Australia we talked on Skype from time to time but I hadn’t talked with her for a while. This bothered me a lot. She knew I loved her, I had no regrets there, but it had been too long since I’d last talked with her. I thought a lot about that and how important it is to keep in contact with people we love. But I also knew that Ann would have said, “Life is busy. I know you think of me.” Forgiveness matters.

Tricia taught me the importance of being practical and using our time well.

For her this meant doing what we want rather than what others might want, and spending time with those most important to us. Of them all, Tricia was the one most prepared for her passing. When her cancer was diagnosed almost four years ago, she knew her chances of surviving were not good.

She retired from work. She figured she had enough money to live on for three to five years and she didn’t love her job so much that she wanted to spend possibly her last years doing it.

One day I asked her, “What will you do if you’re still here in five years?”

“I’ll have to get another job!” she said, laughing.

Tricia loved the freedom of being retired. She spent a lot of time in her garden. A few years before, she’d had the pool filled in and created a beautiful native garden. She did her research and was very knowledgeable about natives, especially grevilleas.

She did some sporadic travelling, to Bali and within Australia.

She had about two years of remission. When her cancer returned and she knew it was terminal, she set about putting her affairs in order. She did some things she wanted to do for people she loved. She spent as much time as she could with the people most important to her, especially her two children and her siblings. They were wonderful and made it possible for her to die at home as she wanted.

She spent some time alone too, reflecting. She didn’t live very differently to how she’d always lived, but she lived her last years exceptionally well, focussing on what meant most to her.

Living well means different things to us all. This is what I think about a lot. What does living well mean for me? What am I here to do; what have I not yet done that I must? If I knew I had only a short time left, how would I live my life? What would I do differently?

The answer I keep coming back to is simple. I wouldn’t change anything much. I’d do a bit more travel. I’d do a lot more writing. Spend more time with people I love. Tend my garden. Knit. Eat less. Be kind to people.

I like my life. I feel I’ve lived it well. Not everything has happened as I would have liked it to, not everything I wanted from life has been mine, there has been a lot of anguish and a lot of struggle. But it has been a good life, rich in people and experiences. I feel very fortunate.

Death and grief are things we don’t talk about much in our society. We should talk about them more. For over a year now I’ve been talking about them often with people around me, people who loved Dad and Ann and Tricia too.

We talk about how much we miss them. We reminisce about things we did with them. We talk about things happening in our lives and we ask and tell each other: “What would Dad do?” “Ann would say to smile and let it go.” “What would Tricia say?” We wonder where they might be now. We talk about what we believe about the afterlife or lack of it. We tell funny stories about things that happened with them and we laugh sometimes until we cry.

A very special thing that has come from Tricia’s passing is that I have gained a new friend. Jude and I have known each other a long time, but not well. For me, she was always Tricia’s friend. Likewise for her, I was always Tricia’s friend. Now, helping each other with our grief at losing her, we are becoming good friends and it’s like a wonderful gift from Tricia. Just last week, talking about our mutual much loved friend, Jude and I agreed that what we feel is a lot like feeling homesick.

All of us are grieving something or someone. Some don’t talk about it; instead their grief comes out in strange ways, behaviour that is perplexing for others around them.

But for those of us who do talk about it, for me anyway, there is something enriching about grief. It makes us think about what’s important, what we like about our lives and ourselves and what we want to change.

For me most of all it is about being grateful. Grateful for everything I have, and grateful that I had everything I’ve lost.

Nutmeg & Purls


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I’m loving life as a retired person. Now I have time to enjoy, among many other loves, making things. Knitting. Crochet. Sewing.

In the past three years I have made many things. Some as special gifts for special people. Some for me. And some just because I love making them. Some I have sold at craft fairs. And now I have set up a shop on Etsy, called Nutmeg & Purls.

Nutmeg & Purls has had quite a long and loving gestation.

My mother taught me to knit and sew from a very young age. I don’t remember when I actually started. Knitting and sewing are just things I have always done.

I also learned to sew at school. Miallo State School in Far North Queensland in the 1960s was a little two teacher school wedged between a rainforest-fringed creek and a sugar cane field.

When you’re little, the world is big, and we had a ‘down the hill’, a ‘woods’ and, over the fence and through the bush, the ‘Clay Bank’: a fresh water swimming hole with an enormous bank of clay to slide down, a swift current around it and calmer shallow water at the edges. It was a perfect world. It is all still there, my grand-nieces and -nephews go to school there, but it’s different now.

The school is much larger and to my adult eyes the hill is tiny, the woods just a small stand of tall trees and the Clay Bank sadly is over-run by crocodiles and unswimmable. But it’s still a magical school wedged between a rainforest-fringed creek and a sugar cane field.

My first teacher, Mrs Newman, taught me to sew by hand and then on a Singer treadle machine. At high school I learned sewing every year to grade 12 when I made my own white debutante gown.

I sewed a lot at home too under my mother’s watchful eye. Sometimes she rescued projects I abandoned. One particularly complex dress I threw into a corner of the sewing bench in frustration when I was about 18. Later I found her at the sewing machine finishing it for me.

Shane, an Aboriginal boy who lived next door and called my mother Mumma Lloyd his entire life, was playing on the floor beside her. He was then about three years old.

“I don’t know why you threw this in a corner, it’s a lovely dress,” Mum said.

“I couldn’t figure it out. I got frustrated,” I explained.

“Ah yes! Your daddy is like that,” she said sagely.

She asked me to put the dress on so she could adjust the fit.

“I don’t know why you have such big hips!” she complained.

“I can’t help it, my mummy is like that!” I said sweetly.

Shane looked up and laughed, making us laugh too.

Sometimes, with particularly thorny projects, we sought advice from Aunty Clare. She was a dressmaker and made the most beautiful things, including countless bespoke bridal gowns.

Aunty Clare had four children and her house was small so she worked at her kitchen table. Her house was always amazingly neat. I can’t imagine how she kept all her sewing paraphernalia under control.

One day as I watched her hand stitching, she began unpicking her work.

“Made a mistake,” she commented.

“No one will notice it,” I said.

“Maybe not. But I will know it’s there,” she said and went on unpicking.

Aunty Clare taught me to crochet when I was about fourteen. I absorbed her attitude to mistakes and to this day I can’t leave a mistake, I have to fix it because even if no one else notices it, I will know it’s there.

My mother didn’t learn to crochet until after I’d left home. Mum and I still share knitting and crochet patterns, and I have many vintage patterns she has given me. You can’t buy them anymore, except sometimes in antique shops, I have found some there. Mum still helps me out sometimes with particularly difficult knitting patterns and I help her out with crochet. She also does smocking but I have never learned this beautiful old craft. Sadly, not many people smock anymore. Lately I’ve been thinking of asking her to teach me.

I also have a love of sheds.

When I was growing up on our sugar farm, Dad had a huge open sided shed with a hard earth floor. It housed tractors and ploughs and all sorts of other farm machinery, tools and workbenches and all sorts of bits and pieces.

We loved the shed. We’d find hammers and nails and bits of wood to hammer them into. We’d find empty hessian bags and use them to build cubby houses. We’d sit in the tractor seats and become imaginary cane farmers and headland explorers. We found all sorts of things to play with in the shed. We’d sit on piled up bags of fertilizer and eat luscious oranges and mandarins picked from trees growing in the chook pen.

Thirty years ago Mum and Dad built a new house on a hill at the back of the farm but Dad still used the big shed until he sold the farm when he was 80. It slowly fell into disuse, becoming increasingly dilapidated until part of it fell down in a storm and it had to be demolished a few years ago. The space where it once stood is now empty and forlorn.

On the hill Dad’s much smaller shed is still there, a year after his passing. On the tool board in his distinctive writing is scrawled a command: “If you borrow it, return it!” People still borrow things from Dad’s shed and mostly they still return them.

I’ve always envied men their sheds. Then soon after I retired, a friend gave me a fabulous book about women’s sheds. It was a revelation! Lots of women have sheds! For writing. For gardening. For painting. For crafts. For whatever they want. I couldn’t believe it! Browsing through this beautiful book, my soul began to sing.

I had to have my own shed. Or a version of a shed. Our house block is awkward for sheds but our house is large enough for us not to need them. The shed John does have is only large enough for storing garden tools. Instead of a work shed, he has work areas in the house and the garage.

I have a sewing nook in our large study. And I have converted a part of the sleepout of our 1930s tin and timber Queenslander into my knitting and crochet ‘craft shed’. I have drawers full of yarns and patterns, jars filled with knitting needles and crochet hooks, and clear plastic boxes storing finished work. Inspiration is everywhere in my ‘craft shed’.

So a couple of years ago when I’d started accumulating finished work and needed to find an outlet for it, I decided to set up a shop on Etsy and, needing to come up with a name for my shop, I started thinking about something to do with craft sheds. I played with variations of that idea for months but everything seemed lame. Then I played with other ideas to do with stitches and witches. That didn’t work either. Finally I sat down and wrote a very long list of things I love and words associated with them. John liked the idea of a two-part name, Something & Something, and he added Nutmeg to the list. And one day it just all fell into place and I had a name: Nutmeg & Purls.

So Nutmeg & Purls is about beautiful things I love and that I hope you will love too.

I love purl, a knitting stitch both contrary and restful. And I love our cat, Nutmeg, a British shorthair. She keeps me company while I stitch. There’s a lovely photo of her in the shop.

We set up the Etsy shop in 2015, but only now have I put some stock in it. We need to take photos of everything, which is a process in itself, and when you’re retired, you’re so busy!

So far the shop has a collection of finished baby blankets. Soon I will add some baby clothes and beautiful vintage lacy women’s tops in soft cotton, in time for summer.

Everything in the Nutmeg & Purls store has been hand made with love and care. I hope you will enjoy browsing and returning from time to time to check for new stock. These things take time to make so stock numbers will always be quite small. If you decide to buy something, for yourself or as a unique gift for a special someone, I’m sure it will give many years of pleasure.

And it would be wonderful if browsing Nutmeg & Purls   inspires you in your own unique crafts journey.

‘Tis the season for forgiveness


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Soon it will be Christmas. ‘Tis the season to be jolly and spend time with loved ones. For most of us deaf people it’s also the season for great angst – as I wrote last year:  https://lifeanddeaf.net/2015/12/09/christmas-angst-is-coming-to-town/

This year I’ve been thinking a lot about acceptance and forgiveness.

When I was in my thirties, a friend, let’s call him Sam, hurt me deeply and I struggled to deal with my emotions about it. Sam wanted to meet to discuss what had happened but I just wanted to shut him out. During a conversation with a mutual friend, let’s call her Jane, I asked: “What does forgiveness mean?”

Sam could, I told her, tell me he was sorry, he could say sorry a thousand times but it wouldn’t change what he had done and it wouldn’t remove the emotions I was feeling.

Jane said she thought forgiveness meant giving Sam the chance to talk things over with me, sharing with him what I was feeling and the effect his actions had on me; it was about allowing him into my confidence, not shutting him out.

I thought about it and agreed to meet Sam and we talked for a long time. Sam struggled to understand my point of view because he genuinely was sorry and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t let it go, but he listened. And finally he said: “I understand now. I have lost your trust. And I need to work to rebuild that trust.”

Sam and I are still friends. Our friendship is different and both our lives have changed, but we are still friends.

From that experience I learnt a lot about forgiveness, lessons that have made my life much richer.  But forgiveness and acceptance mean different things in different situations and relationships and I’m still learning new things about it.

My father died a few months ago.  He was a lovely man in so many ways, kind, generous, tolerant, and I loved him deeply, just as I know he loved me. But ours was not an easy relationship simply because I am deaf and communication was difficult. As is common with many fathers of deaf children, he largely left the communication to my mother. 

After I left home, my parents often visited me wherever I was living. Most years I spent some time, usually in the summer, with them at the Far North Queensland sugar farm where I grew up. I went swimming with Mum and watched the cricket with Dad. It was the only time I ever enjoyed cricket. 

As we got older, Dad and I both made more effort to communicate more directly with each other but our communication was always more limited and never as easy as that enjoyed between him and my siblings.

Of course I could say that he could have learned to sign, as could all of my family. I just never expected that of my childhood hearing family. I was born hearing and became deaf when I was eight, after I had already acquired fluent English and speech.  As happens for so many people, the ‘experts’ told my parents not to let me sign. When I did learn Auslan in my twenties my mother asked one day if it would help if she too learned.  Although touched and grateful for her offer, I told her not to worry about it. She and I already had quite easy communication. I just always accepted that signing isn’t part of my relationship with my parents and siblings.

My father was 88 when he died and I was almost 60.  For others an easy man to know, he was much loved within our large extended family and his local community. Throughout my life I thought a lot about our relationship and I grieved for it, I wished we could be more close.

A few years before his passing, I realised that our relationship wasn’t going to change, there wasn’t really anything either he or I could do to change it.  It was what it was. 

I also realised that I actually did have a good relationship with my father and I did know him well.  My knowing him was based less on verbal communication and more on observing, doing, sharing and just hanging out together. 

And so I reached acceptance and forgiveness – of both him and myself – and I was able to let my father go with love. Now I grieve only that he is no longer here. This will be our first Christmas without him.

The feeling of not being close to or knowing our parents well, especially our fathers, seems to be common among deaf people who grow up in hearing families.  Recently I was discussing this with a deaf friend who told me that at her father’s funeral her siblings shared stories about him that she hadn’t known before.  One day she mentioned to a mutual acquaintance, a very down to earth deaf woman, that she’d recently been to her father’s funeral. Before she could say anything about it, this understanding woman said kindly: “And you learned something.”

This experience with my father has changed how I think about these things. I understand that many (but by no means all) deaf people do experience very difficult relationships with their parents. But I wonder now if we give too much emphasis to the verbal communication aspects and see things too much only from our own point of view.

I do believe that most parents try to do the best they can for their children. They don’t always get it right or get good advice from experts or the support they need.  It can be incredibly hard and heartbreaking for them.

I wonder now if perhaps more of us would find acceptance and forgiveness, be happier and healthier if we tried to understand our parents’ experience as well as our own and if we treasured more the non-verbal and doing aspects of our relationships with them. 

Every relationship is different, as is every acceptance and forgiveness. Some things we accept and forgive without fully realising it. For people who are regularly treated poorly, this can become something we do automatically as a form of self-preservation. It isn’t good for our own health to get upset about every insult and injustice.

In the early 1990s when I was a librarian at the State Library of NSW I was out one day with my hearing boss. I had purchased my ticket for some forgotten event and was waiting nearby for Val to buy hers.  Preoccupied with people-watching, I was startled when Val joined me, all upset. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“I just told that ticket seller off,” she said. “Did you know how rude she was to you when you were buying your ticket and had trouble understanding what she was saying?”

“Oh that?” I said. “That stuff happens all the time.”

“Really? I had no idea! How can you put up with it?” she asked, shocked.

“You just do,” I said. “If I got upset about it every time it happens I’d be a nervous wreck.”

We might turn a blind eye to people who are rude to us because it’s not worth the emotional energy of trying to – usually unsuccessfully – challenge it. Sometimes forgiveness means letting go and moving on.

But it doesn’t mean giving up and putting up with all the terrible ways that people and society often treat us.  

It was Val who one day told me that in every difficult situation we always have three choices: accept it, change it, or leave it. I have often used this bit of wisdom in all kinds of situations and generally I find it to be true.

But sometimes it isn’t practical. Not for us deaf people.  Some things are unacceptable, leaving the situation may not be in our best interests and changing it is difficult because change depends on other people changing their behaviour.

This is true of things like abuse of our rights, poor education, prejudice, discrimination in the workplace, exclusion from the community.  In these situations we can adopt a form of acceptance and forgiveness (“for they know not what they do”) while we do the long-term work of changing it. 

Many deaf people find this very hard to do. So many are angry. So many are terribly hurt and damaged by the treatment we receive. Quite understandably they rail against the injustice and demand their rights in ways that achieve little if any change. And so many struggle with mental health issues.

For 30 years I dedicated my life to advocating for the human rights of deaf people. I loved it and am proud of the advances I helped achieve. In many ways life is better for us now than it was 30 years ago. In some ways it isn’t and some of our achievements are being eroded, especially by mean-spirited governments. There are still a lot of ignorant and uncaring people out there and we still have a long way to go.

I believe now that our society is not yet mature enough to accept deaf people, or indeed disabled people in general, as equals.  Hopefully one day it will be, and it’s important that we all continue to work towards this, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Have I given up now that I’ve retired from active full-time advocacy? No way!  I still believe advocacy is vital and I still help Deaf Australia a bit behind the scenes, still support and encourage friends in their advocacy efforts.

But I believe that we all need to find some kind of acceptance and forgiveness that makes it easier to live our lives in positive, healthy ways.  I believe that we all spend too much energy focussing too much on the hurt and the negatives. We need to change how we think.  We need to focus more on the positives in our lives.

The negatives will still be there and we will still need to work at changing them.  But when we accept, forgive and count our blessings (and we all have some) we are stronger and more able to cope with the negatives.  We are more able to keep them at a distance and live our lives with health and happiness.

A good place to start is with our own families this festive season. We could do what Sam and I did all those years ago. We could allow them into our confidence, talk things over with them, share with them what we feel and listen to their point of view. We might be surprised by what we learn.

Or if that’s too hard, and for many people it will be, we could do what I did with my father. We could think about how love takes many forms. It’s not all spoken. Much of it is based not on verbal communication, but on observing, doing, sharing and just hanging out together. 

I wish you all a joyous and forgiving Christmas!


The best we can with what we know


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Al McEwin

With Alastair McEwin, Breda Carty in background.

Last week Alastair McEwin started his new job. He is Australia’s new Disability Discrimination Commissioner. And he’s deaf. He was born deaf, into a hearing family. He speaks and he uses Auslan, he’s bilingual.

In the past year or two we have seen a number of other deaf people take up high level roles: Dean Barton Smith as CEO of Deaf Children Australia, Leonie Jackson as CEO of the Deaf Society of NSW, Rebecca Adam as interim CEO of the WA Deaf Society. They join Matthew Wright CEO of Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Kyle Miers CEO of Deaf Australia, Brett Casey CEO of Deaf Services QLD, and Colin Allen volunteer President of the World Federation of the Deaf, who have all been in their positions longer.

Deaf Australia’s CEOs and the WFD’s Presidents have always been deaf people, and AFDO’s CEOs have always been people with a disability, but the other organisations have always had non-deaf CEOs until now. And many in the deaf community have been highly critical of the ongoing failure to appoint deaf people to high level positions, especially in deaf community organisations.

Things are changing now and it’s so exciting.

Of course, many things have been changing for a long time. It’s been slow, but things have changed.

Last year at our annual Christmas-time lunch, my friends Breda and Maree and I were discussing deaf community issues and Breda commented on how much things have changed in the past twenty years.

I said, “Yes, but twenty years is an effing long time!” and for some reason we all found that very funny.

When I went to university in the 1970s I was the only deaf person there, no one had any idea what to do with me and there were no support services. Support services started appearing in universities in the 1980s, an initiative of the late Des Power at Griffith University in Brisbane that was slowly taken up by other universities nationally, and deaf university students now are generally well supported. Of our new high flyers, Alastair, Brett and Rebecca all have law degrees, Leonie has an education degree, Dean has a marketing degree, Kyle has a leadership and development degree and Matthew has an arts and human resources degree.

When I became Executive Officer of Deaf Australia in 2001, following in the footsteps of Brett Casey and Carol-lee Aquiline, there were no deaf CEOs elsewhere in Australia. Hearing people were sceptical of deaf people’s ability to lead and to manage organisations.

One day in 2003, soon after we moved the Deaf Australia Sydney office to the RIDBC campus at North Rocks, a hearing teacher at one of the RIDBC schools wandered in to see what we were all about. I was not in the office and one of my staff, Natalie, talked to her. The teacher asked if Natalie was deaf and when she said, “Yes, we are all deaf,” the teacher seemed amazed. The question was asked a number of times in disbelief. For our part, Natalie and I were shocked that someone who taught deaf children could have such a poor opinion of our abilities.

But deaf people too are not always supportive.

There is a breed of deaf person who looks at deaf achievers and turns up their noses and signs dismissively, “Oh, you’re clever!”

The implication is: “You’re not one of us!”

There is a breed of deaf person who looks at deaf achievers and relentlessly criticises every minor mistake –  real, imagined, misinterpreted or misunderstood.

There is a breed of deaf person who, when a deaf achiever does something this breed doesn’t like, decides never to forgive them. This one thing then cancels out or at least taints every good thing the achiever does.

There is a breed of deaf person who has been indoctrinated to believe, often subconsciously, that hearing is better than deaf and therefore no deaf person can ever really be successful.

And there are people like me and my friend Gaye who, when one of these achievers was appointed, looked at each other and said, “That’s so great! But do you think they are the right person for that job?”

And then we looked at each other again and said, “We’re always saying deaf people should be appointed to these jobs. Now we’ve got one and we’re doubtful! Let’s just shut up and give them a go!”

And this, my friends, is what I sincerely believe we all need to do. Give each other a go!

There is a lot of negativity in the deaf community. And a lot of this negativity is there because it’s what we’ve been taught and how we’ve been treated in a world overwhelmingly designed for and lead by people who hear and know nothing much about deaf people. It’s what we know. 

But there’s also a lot of good people and a lot of positivity in the deaf community. It’s time to build on that.

It’s time to stop cutting down the tall poppies. It’s time to put aside doubts and jealousy and grudges and support each other to do the best we can.

Of course, there are a lot of deaf achievers at all levels and in all walks of life. In education and academia, in the trades, the law, the arts, in sports. But it’s the leaders, the CEOs and the publicly prominent who seem to cop the most flack.

The Australian deaf community started changing rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s. This was the decade when the welfare and interpreting roles were split into two separate professions, when Auslan was recognised as a real language and given a name and a dictionary by Trevor Johnston, when Deaf Australia (then known as Australian Association of the Deaf) was established to lead and represent deaf people and modern deaf advocates began emerging, when TAFE and universities began providing support services, when Deaf Studies was introduced by Breda Carty and we all learned more about ourselves and our community, when Australian Theatre of the Deaf was formed and began bringing Auslan and deaf stories to us and the masses. And so much more. It was a truly vibrant time to be part of the deaf community.

Those of us who were part of that era did what we could with what we had. Many of us didn’t have all the skills and experience we needed for the roles we took on, either voluntarily or paid, but we believed in ourselves, each other and our cause, we learned on the job and acquired skills and qualifications along the way.  The work we did back then paved the way for today’s achievers.

I’m so proud of what we achieved back then and in the years since. And I’m so proud of today’s achievers. They are paving the way for tomorrow’s achievers.

One of my mantras for life is: we all do the best we can with what we know at the time.

What we know changes as we learn and grow. What we did yesterday we might do differently today but it doesn’t mean that what we did yesterday was wrong or not good enough. It was the best we could do with what we knew at the time.

So let’s stand by today’s achievers and support them.

Let’s give them the space and the grace to learn and grow and do the best they can for us with what they know at the time. We will, I am sure, be richly rewarded and our community will also learn and grow and breed new achievers to do even better with what they know.

When we support achievers in our community we all benefit from their achievements.

Smoky Blue Mountains


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Three Sisters

After our night out in Sydney, we sleep in while the family gets up early and goes to Sydney for another day at the festival. John and I want to see more of the mountains and we’ve had enough of the trek up and down the mountain. I can’t imagine how so many people who live here manage to make that journey to work day after day.

Breda has suggested we might find Wentworth Falls and Leura worth a visit.

Wentworth Falls is small but busy, with interesting antique and home décor stores that give me ideas for things I could make. In a second-hand bookshop I pounce upon a pile of old knitting patterns and am thrilled to find a few worth buying. They are unbelievably good value.

We find a bakery for lunch and soon realise we have chanced upon what seems to be the local meeting place. It’s crowded. People stand around chatting, blithely blocking the counter queue and the aisles between tables. They all seem so excited to have run into each other. John tells the staff the pies are excellent and he will come back.

We drive on to Katoomba. In the 1980s a workmate lived here in a little house on a back street down near the Three Sisters and I once got the train up to spend a weekend with her, walking from the station to her house, my overnight bag getting progressively heavier. As we drive through town I think of her and wonder where she and her children are now. Later, at Willoughby, I ask Marg about her, she still sees her often.

It’s Saturday and Katoomba too is busy. Down near the Three Sisters, tourist buses line the kerbs and people wander everywhere. ‘Hazard reduction’ burnoffs are happening here, we can’t see the mountains for smoke and I doubt anyone can actually see the Three Sisters. Crazy people wander about in the smoke, breathing it in. It’s definitely not the best day to sightsee in the Blue Mountains but if I were a tourist and today were the only day I had here, I guess I too might be wandering around in the smoke trying to see as much as I could.

We take the scenic route to Leura. But we can’t see a scenic thing. The trees and the road are blanketed by smoke and John drives slowly. It’s looking like we won’t be exploring Leura, there’s too much smoke, but when we drive into the village, the air is remarkably clear. It’s a miracle!

Leura is a pretty town. Its main street has gardens down the middle and lots of interesting, if somewhat expensive, shops. We find a citrus scented candle as a small gift for our hosts, the makings of dinner at the local supermarket, and some exquisite chocolate for dessert in a gourmet chocolate shop. Back home John takes over the kitchen and has dinner simmering on the stove when our friends return home from a successful day in Sydney.  John says food always tastes better when someone else cooks it.

Breda has enjoyed browsing the festival bookshop and has brought home some fabulous books. There is even one for me, an early birthday present, about writing. I read it back home in Brisbane and, together with my earlier conversations in Armidale with Ginny and Rod, it helps me break through my writer’s block.

After dinner we play Trivial Pursuit in front of the fire that Rowan has built. His Scouting days have been useful. Some discussion is required on how to divide up the teams and we eventually settle on boys versus girls. Since there are two of us and three of them, Breda and I declare that we reserve the right to phone a friend. The boys aren’t too happy, so we agree to use it only for music-related questions since we’re both deaf and can’t, we reason, possibly be expected to know those answers. And twice we don’t know the answers to questions about songs and we text Maree.

The boys do well but girl power wins! We probably overdo the high fives in our delight with ourselves and Maree.

“It’s only a game!” say the boys.

“Of course it’s only a game,” we agree. High five!

There’s a local farmer’s market on Sunday morning. The family buy provisions and I stop at a stall selling waxed gingham, where a woman shows me how to use and reuse it in place of cling wrap.  I hand over $25 for a 3-piece pack and as we walk away John tells me I got sucked in again. True. It was ridiculously expensive. I could probably learn how to make it for a few dollars but I figure I’ve supported a locally based environmentally friendly cottage business and that’s a good thing isn’t it?

Leaving Cameron and Rowan to enjoy the markets, Breda, John and I set off for Blackheath. On the way we stop to browse a row of antique shops, one in particular has a huge range of goods including more old knitting patterns that John points out. I’m in heaven, two days in a row!  John finds a lovely old lidded serving bowl that is perfect for one of his specialities, mushy peas. Breda excitedly waves me over to an amazing find: a large collection of old sewing materials including a Singer sewing machine, buttons, thread, crochet cotton, trims, and all sorts of period clothes.

At Blackheath we go first to look at Govett’s Leap. I’ve never been this far up the mountains nor seen Govett’s Leap. It’s breathtaking. http://www.blackheath-nsw.com/Govetts_Leap.html

Breda gives us a little education on bushfires. Down below us is the Grose Valley. At the bottom, far away and unseen, is the Grose River. When there’s fire in the Grose Valley they generally leave it, it’s too hard for firefighters to get in there. But in the October 2013 bushfires, when fire in the Grose Valley threatened to join up with the Springwood fires, a frightening possibility, they did go in and backburned in the Grose Valley to set a firebreak between the two fires. I get goose bumps listening to her. As beautiful as the mountains are, I doubt that I could live in such a notorious fire zone.

We wander around Blackheath village and check out the cafes for lunch, finally settling on a café in what would have once been the foyer of the old picture theatre. Inside is a massive antique store. John spends ages in there while Breda and I walk down the street to check out a craft market, returning to browse the antiques.

Before leaving home this morning I declared I wanted to stop on the way home and have a drink on the terrace overlooking the mountains at the Hydro Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath. But I change my mind. Breda and John are flexible. We go instead to see the Three Sisters. John and I have both seen them on other occasions, but Breda declares she will not feel she has done her hosting duties until we have been to see them. She wants to convince John that the Blue Mountains are more than just rocks and trees.

There is still smoke in a part of the vast Jamison Valley but mostly the mountains are clear today and we get a wonderful view of the valley and its famous rock formations. We take our time admiring it all. http://www.bluemts.com.au/info/thingstodo/threesisters/

Over the past few days Breda has been telling me about the trails in the mountains, and the people who regularly walk and run them, in particular an annual run that finishes at night with runners climbing a long set of stairs from the valley up the side of the mountain. She showed me a spectacular photo of a string of lights curving along the mountainside, runners with their headlamps shining in the dark. Now she points out where the paths and stairs are, although we can’t actually see them from here.

Beside me, John gazes out at the view. He’s quiet. I look at him and say, “It is pretty impressive isn’t it? Govett’s Leap and this.”

And finally he admits it is. It’s not just rocks and trees.

That evening, John and I enjoy a gin and tonic that Cameron has made for us while we watch television. As always, Taffy stands beside me, her chin on my knee for a long pat. She’s older now, more mellow, and now when I say and sign, “finished, go,” she goes. Cameron works in the study, Rowan reads on the couch and in the kitchen Breda cooks up a storm for dinner.

Tomorrow we are leaving these majestic mountains. Tonight we enjoy once more the conviviality of these dear friends in this warm and loving home.

We will return!

Writers, artists, rocks and trees


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Sydney Harbour Bridge

John and I leave Armidale early in the morning, heading south. The day before, on our drive through Uralla, Ginny pointed out Moons Bakery, open from 4.00am and a truckies’ favourite. But it’s still too early for us to think about food.

The roads are quiet and we make good time. We pass through Murrurundi and hit racehorse country. The vast Emirates Park, with a picture of a horse and jockey on its stone gateway, has black post and rail fences. I’m surprised. Aren’t these fences usually white? What’s with this rebellious black?

We come into Singleton in the Hunter Valley and see coal trains and power stations. From Singleton we take Putty Road to Windsor, through the mountains and forest, a quiet narrow two-way road with little traffic.

The road seems to go on forever, up and down mountains, winding and straightening out and winding again, with beautiful views over the mountains. We are in the Hawkesbury Valley now. Finally we come into Windsor and stop at nearby Richmond for a break. It was a beautiful drive for me but exhausting for John.

Still, as Breda and I later agree, rather this quiet endless road than the racetrack that is the Pacific motorway into Sydney.

From Richmond to Springwood in the Blue Mountains we take Hawkesbury Road up the mountain on hairpin bends, it’s breathtaking. We pull into a lookout and through the smoke haze see Sydney’s towers in the distance.

I’ve been to Springwood many times. When I worked for Deaf Australia, I often stayed here with Breda and Cameron, getting the 7.30am train to Sydney each day with Breda, but John hasn’t been here before.

We drive around looking for a supermarket, I know there is one on the main street but I can’t seem to see it. Eventually we find one on a back street but the shelves are almost completely bare, as if there is some impending disaster and everyone has raided the shop. We’ve never seen a supermarket like this. What’s going on? Later Cameron tells us he’s surprised the store is still open, it’s been going out of business for months. He also tells us where the other supermarket is and I can’t believe I missed it.

After managing to find some supplies to contribute to the household pantry, we find Cameron, Taffy the dog and Kasha the host student at home. Breda isn’t due home for a few hours and Rowan has just left for work, delivering pizzas in this his gap year.

The back deck is the perfect place for a late afternoon tea. I love this house, it’s very Breda and Cameron and it backs onto the Blue Mountains national park with wonderful peaceful views of mountains, trees and changing light. Today we have a glorious pink sunset.

I’ve previously met Kasha when talking with Breda on Skype, and it’s good to meet him in person. He boards here for school terms but is going home for an extended weekend. Deaf community families often have deaf students boarding with them like this so they can attend a school that best suits them. We chat about school and home, he seems a nice, friendly, confident teenager. It always gives me hope, for deaf people, for the deaf community and the future, when I chat like this in Auslan with young deaf people.

This is a bilingual household where everyone uses both English and Auslan to varying degrees of fluency. Breda, Kasha and I are deaf, Cameron, Rowan and John are hearing. No one gets excluded and conversation is wide-ranging and animated.

Kasha leaves early next morning and Breda, John and I get an early train down to Sydney, leaving Cameron to work at home on his video productions.

We are going to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, a major reason John and I have made this trip.

Breda and I had been so excited to learn the organisers would provide some interpreted sessions. Two keynotes and a couple more, they said. We interpreted this optimistically and pored over the program, sending in our list.

Oh no, came the reply. All sessions in one venue are being live captioned, so they really could only stretch to a total of three interpreted sessions in addition to the two high-profile keynotes.

Over four days!

Most of the festival program is free but the captioned sessions have an entrance fee. We are so disappointed. But still, we are going. But only to the free sessions. Why should we have to pay for access? Other people at the festival don’t have to.

Today’s interpreted session is about history writing. Breda enjoys it. Although history interests me, I struggle to stay awake. John is unimpressed.

Breda goes to work and John and I stroll along the waterfront from Walsh Bay, under the Harbour Bridge towards Circular Quay. There is a cruise ship in port and everything looks so splendid: the sparkling water, the big white ship, the Opera House, Circular Quay with its ferries and background of skyscrapers. We stop at the Rocks for lunch at the Munich Brauhaus before catching a ferry to Watson’s Bay – because it’s the next one leaving and because being on a boat on the harbour is my number one thing to do in Sydney. Some smoke from burnoffs in the mountains hangs over the harbour but it’s a beautiful sunny day and we drink it in, standing in the boat’s prow, the wind in our hair.

In the 1980s I lived for a year at Neutral Bay and worked at the University of NSW, getting a ferry and a bus to work each day. In the winter dark I’d often sit out on the ferry deck on the trip home, rugged up against the cold, looking at the city lights, the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and the clear night skies and watching the seagulls flying along beside the boat, and I’d fall in love all over again with this glorious harbour.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, anyone tired of Sydney Harbour is tired of life.

We get the 2.48pm train back to Springwood. I want John to see how spectacular the mountains are in the late afternoon light, but he falls asleep!

“It’s just rocks and trees!” he says. “It’s not like it’s Niagara Falls!”

Next morning, while everyone else works, John and I drive to Faulconbridge, the next town up the mountain, and visit the Norman Lindsay Gallery. http://www.normanlindsay.com.au/

Wandering through the gallery, admiring the incredible art, mostly of nudes, John turns to me and says, “This bloke was a sex maniac!” But he’s impressed.

Lindsay’s talent was very broad: drawing, painting watercolours and oils, etching, sculpture, writing and even model ship building.

The gallery is in the house where he lived. It’s a lovely white sandstone house with big rooms and high ceilings, verandas with columns, a grape arbor along one side, and a large detached kitchen connected to the house by an enclosed walkway with sculpture courtyards on either side. In the grounds are sculptures, fountains, a painting studio, an etching studio and a café. This artist was surely not impoverished.

We take the path down to the swimming pool at the edge of the bush. It is empty of water and a little overgrown with grass but it’s easy to imagine how magnificent it was in its heyday. It is enormous, the concrete edge on the opposite side looking out over the mountains like an infinity pool. Beside the steps down to it are curved stone terraces like an ancient amphitheatre.

“Imagine how many people might have sat here watching the goings-on in the pool!” John comments.

We catch an early afternoon train down to Sydney where I meet up with Breda at Walsh Bay for the second interpreted Writers’ Festival session. John goes off to do his own thing for an hour, he’s had enough, he says, of writers pontificating.

Breda and I both enjoy this session, especially Don Watson talking about how management-speak (‘agile’, ‘impact’) is taking over our everyday use of language. We duck out a little early to dash for the train at Circular Quay, via what feels like a million stairs through the Rocks.

At Town Hall we weave our way through the crowds outside, to find our seats to see Gloria Steinem in conversation with Jennifer Byrne. John and several deaf people are already there and Cameron joins us soon after.

We have front row seats, reserved because we need to be able to see the Auslan interpreter. Being deaf does on occasion come with extra benefits – and it doesn’t hurt our hearing partners either!

Sydney Town Hall is magnificent, with soaring organ pipes, a gallery above, leadlight and beautifully ornate embellishments. Tonight it is packed. This event has sold out.

Gloria Steinem is inspiring. Even John is engrossed. She talks about her latest book, My life on the road; her childhood with a father who packed the family into the car each year, moving them to a new place; and her own choice as an adult to spend a lot of time on the road, meeting, listening to and working with people.

Afterwards Breda, Sofya and I buy her book and join a long queue. Ahead of me I see Yvonne, a woman I knew many years ago when I lived in Sydney. I catch her eye, she excuses herself from her friends, and we catch up while the queue slowly moves us towards the marvellous Ms Steinem, who signs my book and smiles when I say and sign ‘thank you’.

Across the road we join the rest of our group at a restaurant in the resplendent Queen Victoria Building. Champagne is poured and we drink in celebration with Alastair McEwin, on his appointment as the new Disability Discrimination Commissioner, which he is due to take up in July. We are all so excited to see one of our own take on this influential role.

But Al is still Al, this guy from Adelaide we’ve known for so many years, still making us laugh. We tell him he’s going to have to watch himself now, people will be watching him.

It’s a deaf community goodnight – the “long goodbye” – and we have to run for the train but we make it home just before midnight.

It’s been a great night. All these people I’ve not seen for a while, Gloria Steinem’s enthusiasm for life at 82 and the promise for the future that Al’s appointment brings, fill me with optimism.

Autumn in Armidale


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Gostwyck Chapel

Gostwyck Chapel

Travel isn’t just about the places we go. It’s also about the people we meet and the friends we visit along the way.

Two years after retiring from full time work, I am missing the travel and the opportunities to catch up with interstate friends that were a bonus of my job for 13 years. So when John takes a redundancy and we plan our first short trip, it is mostly about catching up with friends in NSW we haven’t seen for a while.

Our first destination is Armidale.

We drive out of Brisbane on a warm May morning and through the stunning Cunningham’s Gap to the New England highway at a pace that is apparently leisurely. We’re mostly driving at the speed limit, but maniacs come up swiftly and sit on our tail, so sometimes when they take too long to overtake John pulls over to let them pass. That first day sets the tone for the rest of our road trip.

“Bye bye, have a nice day,” I say, waving below dashboard level, as cars speed past us.

“You’ve got to make good karma,” I say to John. “There’s no point getting cranky with them.”

Soon he too is waving. “Bye bye, have a nice day!”

We’d planned to have a few stops along the way with a leisurely look around towns we pass through, but a later than planned start changes this. We stop only for lunch and a legs stretch in Stanthorpe.

Late afternoon we are sitting at Ginny and Rod’s dining table in Armidale scoffing champagne and cheese. Eddie is at uni in Sydney and Mickey is in his room after a hello hug. I love Armidale, it reminds me a little of England and the late autumn colours don’t disappoint. I always expect it to be cold but it is warmer than our last visit, in April last year.

Still, we’re Queenslanders so the heaters are on and the house is warm as we look out onto the chilly front garden and watch the neighbour’s young children play on their bikes in the street, it’s a cul-de-sac, quiet and safe. As the evening progresses, we get hot and start opening windows.

Over dinner the talk roams over politics, journalists, family, books, the parlous state of Armidale’s economy and its University, writing and reminiscing: Ginny and I have been friends a long time, since 1979 when we studied together for our Post Graduate Diploma in Librarianship at the University of NSW.

My favourite story of the night is one Ginny tells about one of Rod’s children from his first marriage visiting one day many years ago to sit him down and tell him that everything is his fault.

“I was trying not to listen,” Ginny says, “but then I walked past the door and peeked in and noticed Rod was asleep!”

“It was boring!” Rod declares.

I am full of admiration for his dispassion.

I’m the only deaf person in the group and no one signs fluently. But everyone includes me and does their best to make it easier for me to lipread them. When we get stuck John helps out with a bit of sign language.

Ginny and Rod are always a great source of food for thought. When we mention how entertaining we find David Marr’s and Gerard Henderson’s verbal sparring on ABC TV’s Sunday morning Insiders, Rod comments that David Marr doesn’t understand working people and you don’t have to scratch him very far to find the bourgeois.  He gives me a copy of Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Bill Shorten and emails me a copy of his unpublished response to it. Both, when I read them back in Brisbane, are educational and intellectually challenging.

But Rod can be difficult to lipread, and I don’t have to always be the centre of attention, so sometimes I give us all a break and leave him and John to chat, John loves talking politics with Rod, who once worked for Gough Whitlam, one of John’s heroes. He gives John a signed copy of A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam in Politics.

In the morning we have brunch at a trendy café and wander around the centre of town, admiring the beautiful old buildings, shocked by the staggering number of empty shops. Whole arcades are empty. We walk past Barnaby Joyce’s electoral office and the men make jokes about Deputy Dawg that go over my head.

We check out Rod’s favourite second hand bookshop, chockful of books often hard to find. Rod tells me this is because academics leaving town offload their large collections here. I buy a hardback How tea cosies changed the world.  Later, in Springwood, when I show this marvellous book to Breda she asks me to make her a quirky tea cosy for her next birthday.

Rod drives us south to Uralla, where on last year’s visit we wandered around the antique shops and I bought a lovely old soup tureen that John doesn’t like because it’s green. From there we take a narrow road through rolling drought-brown pastureland to the tiny Gostwyck Chapel, built as a memorial to a fallen WW1 solider, at a fork in the road and surrounded by beautiful old elm trees. The chapel is lovely and I’m disappointed it’s closed, I love old churches. We wander over to a nearby creek, across its dry bed, and back over its rustic white wooden bridge. In the distance we see Deeargee woolshed, it’s massive. http://www.uralla.com/gostwyck-chapel-deeargee-woolshed-60.html

Back in the car we drive through farm properties sparsely populated with sheep, back to Armidale and out to the University of New England. Ginny and Eddie both did their Bachelor degrees here a generation apart.

We wander across the campus to Booloominbah House, once a White family homestead and now the campus administration building. http://www.une.edu.au/campus-life/campus-information/booloominbah-historic-house

Another White family homestead, with fascinating stories attached to it, which we have previously twice admired is Saumarez, out near the airport. http://www.visitnsw.com/destinations/country-nsw/armidale-area/armidale/attractions/saumarez-homestead

Over afternoon tea at Booloominbah we wonder what will happen to this imposing old building and its once thriving university, which now seems in its death throes. There are few students to be seen and, Ginny tells us, fewer staff, the tennis courts we walked past are unkempt and the whole place feels deserted and sad. It should feel full of life, a place where things are happening, where young minds are dreaming of how they will change the world.

That night we have dinner at the recently refurbished historic New England Hotel (Peter Allen sang here), snug and warm near the fire. Afterwards we wander up the street to a café/bar for coffee and dessert, with Ginny pointing out buildings and telling me stories from her youth here.

The bar is deserted and the bartender tells us we can’t have coffee, they’ve just shut down the machine and are closing early because there wasn’t much custom.

Ginny is incensed. “We’re customers!” she tells him as the rest of us walk out. “You’re going to go the way of other businesses here if this is how you operate!” She joins us outside and indignantly tells me what she has just said, adding sadly, “It’s contagious!”

We go home and finish off last night’s chocolates with coffee. I feel so sad for Ginny that this town she has always loved so much and to which she and Rod moved the family three years ago, is doing so poorly. We talk about their plans to leave this place and start again somewhere new. There is hope of better times and my spirit feels replenished by this time spent with these much loved friends.

John and I drive out of Armidale early next morning, bound for Springwood in the Blue Mountains. As I look at the last of the autumn leaves I hope fervently that next time we visit (as we surely will, it’s on a major highway) things will be looking up for this lovely New England town.

Checkout Chats


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Some people love shopping. Some don’t.

My mother loves shopping. She likes to take her time to browse and compare before making a decision, and she likes to just look at what’s on offer, with no intention to buy.

My father is the opposite. He likes to know what he wants and where to get it before he leaves home. Then he likes to go into the shop, find the item and get out of there as quickly as possible.

I take after my father when it comes to shopping.

Like my mother, my husband John loves shopping. So when my parents visit us or we visit them in North Queensland, John and Mum do the shopping while Dad and I stay home and everyone is happy.

But shopping is not just about finding the items you want. It’s also about the chats at the checkout.

John and my mother seem to enjoy chatting with the checkout staff. Sometimes I do too. It depends.

I’ve had some great chats in shoe shops. Perhaps because, unless we buy our shoes in self-serve shops like Big W, it’s hard to buy shoes without having some kind of discussion with the attendant, so by the time we get to the checkout, we’ve sorted out a way to communicate.

But checkout chats in supermarkets? Give me a break!

When I was young, grocery stores didn’t sell the wide range of things they do now, so we went to a number of other stores as well: the butcher, baker, greengrocer, chemist.

One Saturday morning in 1980 in one of the various flat-shares I lived in for many years in Sydney, it was my turn to do the shopping. Over breakfast with my flatmate I had a whinge about having to go to the butcher. Our butcher was always crowded so they had a system where you gave your order to a butcher who packaged it and took it to the cashier who then called you. It was very stressful for me. There was usually a queue at the cashier so even if I watched my butcher carefully the cashier didn’t always call me as soon as he gave her my package.

Secretly I hoped my hearing flatmate would offer to go to the butcher for me. But she was, and still is, a wonderful friend who never patronised me. She looked at me and calmly said, “Go to the supermarket.”

Ah! Why hadn’t I thought of that? Supermarkets had only recently started selling meat and that was the day I abandoned the butcher for the easier self-serve supermarket.

Shopping in supermarkets was a boon for deaf people for years. Until they introduced the deli counters that use those ghastly number systems that require you to wait until your number is called; even the electronic number displays don’t always work. And until their checkout staff started getting all friendly and chatty.

Nowadays John and I usually buy our groceries at our local Woolworths and Aldi. The thing I like about Aldi, apart from the cheaper prices, is their checkout attendants are quite unfriendly and uninterested in chatting with anyone.

But Woolworths! They apparently train their staff to be friendly. Their friendliness is mostly inane and insincere, but still, they’re friendly.

“How are you today?” “Do you have a big weekend planned?”  “What are you doing for Christmas?” “Have you seen any good movies lately?”

John now avoids the checkout attendant who always asks the movies question. It makes him feel interrogated and tempts him to give the guy a long lecture about how inaccessible movies are for me and the impact this has on our movie-going.

I think he should just give him the long lecture. In a very loud voice! And preferably when I’m not there.

And they don’t seriously care what I’m doing for Christmas or this weekend, do they? They’re just being friendly. Presumably the idea is that if the staff are friendly the customers will feel welcome and come back.

I guess lots of customers do feel that way. Sometimes I do too, when some cool checkout attendant is unfazed when I tell them I’m deaf. They seem to know what to do and go on chatting with me. We have a laugh or two.

But these delightful occasions are rare.

Usually, when I feel forced to tell them I’m deaf because I haven’t understood what they’ve said, they give me the blank or scared look or the “oh sorry” and clam up as if I’m some weirdo who might contaminate them if they keep talking.

I’m often tempted to say, “That’s ok, I didn’t want to talk to you either.”

This stuff is stressful for deaf people. Knowing they’re going to say something to me, I make a habit of trying to watch them as I unload my groceries onto the conveyor belt. But often I miss the moment and find them looking at me as if I’m rude.

I hate being rude so sometimes I’ll say ‘hello’ first. But this doesn’t seem to work very well, they often don’t respond, I guess because they haven’t heard me – I have no idea how noisy a supermarket might be.

None of the attendants at my local supermarket ever seem to remember that I’m deaf, except one. She loves chatting so waiting in her queue is infuriating. But when I appear in front of her she clams up and ignores me until she gives me my receipt and then she smiles half-heartedly at me. I’ve learned to bypass her checkout, not only because it’s so slow-moving. She makes me feel unloved!

When John and I do the shopping together, it’s a relief to leave all this to him. I don’t even bother to watch the attendant to see if they’re talking to me. Sometimes they do and John either answers them or tells them I’m deaf. I know this is not ‘politically correct’, I should tell them myself, but I don’t care. Even if I do tell them they still go on to ignore me and chat only to John. I can’t be bothered with this nonsense.

The world is full of people who have no idea how to communicate with deaf people. We meet them every day as we go about our lives, it is part of the deal when you’re a deaf person. Most of the time I make an effort to educate them in a friendly way.

But I’m over Woolworths checkout attendants!

If stores like Woolworths are going to, as they apparently do, instruct their staff to be friendly and chatty with customers, the least they can do is train them properly.

Train them how to communicate with everyone!

What a fabulous thing that would be! I’d love to then be able to enjoy a checkout chat.

Christmas angst is coming to town


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Christmas is coming, and with it the angst1 so familiar to those of us who find ourselves the only deaf person in a gathering of family or friends.

Most of us belong to hearing families, many of whom don’t use Auslan. Even for deaf people who don’t sign, who rely on lipreading and perhaps hearing aids or cochlear implants, participating in group conversations can be difficult.

So family gatherings can be troubling, and rarely more so than at Christmas, when family is so much a part of the festivities. We want to be there, we want to be part of our family, but we so often feel excluded.

When I ask deaf friends if they had a good Christmas the replies usually go like this: “Ah, it was good to see everyone, the food was yummy, too much as usual, but you know how it is, everyone had a great time talking and laughing and mostly forgot to include me so by the time the day was over I couldn’t wait to leave.”

Unlike many I have heard about, my own family is pretty good. They tell me from time to time what the discussion is about. They sometimes tell funny stories directly to me while others listen. With my husband’s family, John takes on this role. It helps, but it’s not the same as being in a group where everyone signs and communicates easily.

I once took one of my sisters and her husband to a gathering of Auslan-using friends and interpreted only sporadically for them. Afterwards my sister commented on how educational it had been for her.

“Now I understand better what it’s like for you in a group of hearing people,” she said.

A friend, let’s call him Jack, whose family has deaf and hearing members who all use Auslan, once told me a story about a dinner with a hearing aunt. The aunt had also invited a hearing non-signing friend and as the dinner progressed, she and her friend engaged in an animated spoken conversation.

Feeling excluded, Jack decided to make a subtle protest and began to chew his food loudly.

His aunt looked at him and frowned. He stared back meaningfully and continued to chew loudly.

Finally she signed to him discreetly, “Shh! You’re eating noisily! You’re rude!”

Jack signed back, “You’re rude! You’re only talking to him! I’m here too!”

“He’s important!” signed the aunt.

“I’m important too!” signed Jack.

This wasn’t a Christmas dinner story. Deaf people have these experiences all year round, but we seem to feel the pain of them more acutely at Christmas time.

It’s important to do our best to educate our hearing family and friends about how to communicate with us and how to include us in family events. To help us, here are a couple of resources:



Encouraging our families to change can be a long, hard and often unsuccessful road. Rather than endlessly struggling with our own hurt and frustration, I have come to believe that it’s kinder to ourselves to chill out about it a bit, look at it from different perspectives, not just our own, and use strategies to better care for our own wellbeing.

In family gatherings no one is more important than anyone else, and that includes us. Of course every family is different and family dynamics can mean this isn’t always true, but generally speaking, in families everyone wants to feel that they are as important as others.

As deaf people we spend so much of our lives fighting to have our needs met and our rights respected that it can be easy to forget this point. But within the family it is a key point. Sometimes hearing family members also feel their needs aren’t considered. As deaf people our needs are sometimes a bit different but are not more, nor less, important than anyone else’s.

This year we will have Christmas with John’s family, who are less experienced at including me than my own family is. Over the years, John has become better at it, but there are times when he gets caught up in the conversation and forgets. Even if I kick him under the table or give him a meaningful stare he will sometimes respond with a blank-faced, “What?”

So I have found it’s more effective to remind him just before we arrive at such events that I’m going to need him to tell me from time to time what’s happening. And to remind him that saying, “They’re talking about the cricket. Bob thinks the Aussie’s aren’t so good this year and won’t win,” is much more helpful than just saying, “They’re talking about the cricket.”

John tries hard, he wants to do it well, and he does from time to time tell me what’s going on and check that I’m ok, but these things aren’t easy for him either. We have had many conversations about it and he has shown me perspectives I’d never thought of.

Conversations in groups of people can sometimes be about things that don’t interest him. So if I ask him aloud, “What’s she talking about?” it can put him on the spot because he doesn’t know and doesn’t want the person speaking to know he wasn’t listening. He isn’t there to be my interpreter and I don’t expect him to listen to and interpret everything.

Conversations also frequently overlap and sometimes John just hasn’t heard something I’m asking about, he’s been listening to a different conversation.

Sometimes in families there are dynamics that impact on people’s desire or ability to interpret or summarise conversations.

If Aunty Val and Aunty Flo get into an argument about some ancient family history, others may not want to enflame it by repeating any of it for us. A solution might be for someone to tell us quietly in another room, but we might need to ride out our frustration until a suitable moment.

If Grandpa and Dad are discussing some scientific theory that no one else understands, others are only going to be able to tell us they have no idea what they are talking about, it’s some science thing. This can annoy us. We think they just can’t be bothered to explain it to us. But sometimes it really is true. Contrary to what many deaf people often assume, sometimes hearing people really don’t understand things they hear.

Over the years I have become less troubled by the angst so many of us feel in gatherings of hearing people, and my mental health is stronger for it. Conversations with John and others in my family have helped me to better understand the dynamics from a hearing person’s point of view as well as my own.

I have also learned strategies that help me. These include getting involved with the setting up and cleaning up, turning on the TV captions, having one on one conversations, and just zoning out and turning my thoughts to my own interests.

And I have stopped trying to look like I understand what’s going on when I don’t. I don’t care too much anymore what other people think or whether they might feel uncomfortable about my exclusion.

Sometimes I just leave the group and go and read in a chair for a while. No one seems to mind (and I don’t much care if they do) and I’m happy doing that.

And I often take my knitting with me to family gatherings. It’s ideal. I can simultaneously knit and look around, I can be physically in the group and periodically participate in the conversation and still feel I’m doing something enjoyable and personally meaningful with my time.

Perhaps this year I’ll take my knitting to Christmas lunch.

I’d love to hear how you deal with the deaf Christmas angst. However you deal with it, I wish you all a very merry Christmas!

  1. Angst, often confused with anxiety, is a transcendent emotion in that it combines the unbearable anguish of life with the hopes of overcoming this seemingly impossible situation. Without the important element of hope, then the emotion is anxiety, not angst. Angst denotes the constant struggle one has with the burdens of life that weighs on the dispossessed and not knowing when the salvation will appear.   http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Angst