A teacher takes some students to the forest and asks them to each bring her a stick. When they return, the teacher takes each student’s stick in turn and breaks it. She sends them back into the forest to collect more sticks. Again she takes each stick and breaks it and sends them back to the forest.
The third time the students return, they confer and when the teacher asks for their sticks they give them to her together in one bundle. The teacher cannot break the sticks, the bundle is too thick and strong.
I first saw this story told by Laurene Gallimore, a deaf African-American professor from Gallaudet University, at the World Federation of the Deaf Congress in Brisbane in 1999.
This simple story is a powerful illustration of why it is so important for deaf people to work together in one large group in the best interests of the group as a whole, rather than individually on their own interests. It is why we need Deaf Australia, which brings us together to advocate for our human rights.
Reminding each other of this story is more important now than ever before because Deaf Australia is experiencing its biggest threat since its establishment 29 years ago.
It is not just that Deaf Australia will lose its government funding at the end of June this year, it’s also that the deaf community has become more complacent and politically apathetic.
When I first got involved with Australian Association of the Deaf (AAD), as Deaf Australia was then known, 26 years ago, it had about $1,000 in the bank. It relied on membership fees and small donations from Deaf Societies. Volunteers did the work, we paid our own costs for attending board meetings, sleeping on each other’s couches, and as Secretary I paid some of the administration costs myself. Meetings and events were well attended and people were very passionate about the issues we worked on.
For several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Colin Allen was President and I was Secretary, we met at his office at least once a week after work to do AAD work. His employer generously allowed us to use their equipment and supplies.
Our funding requests to government were regularly refused on the grounds that a ‘deaf’ organisation, Australian Deafness Council (ADC, the earlier version of Deafness Forum) already received secretariat funding.
Deaf people established Deaf Australia in 1986 as their representative organisation, controlled by deaf people, because the deaf voice had been ignored during many years of trying to work within ADC. Like Deafness Forum, ADC was not controlled by deaf people and the majority of its members were service providers. But government didn’t care.
In those days Deaf Societies hosted an annual national deafness conference. At the 1992 conference in Perth, Brian Corcoran, a bureaucrat in what is now the Department of Social Services, made a presentation. Afterwards, an audience member asked why government wouldn’t fund AAD and when Mr Corcoran trotted out the usual answer the audience went wild, stomping their feet on the floor and demanding funding for AAD.
Colin and I were working in the conference office at the time and missed the excitement but someone came running to fetch us. Colin introduced himself to Mr Corcoran, expressed his regret that he had been subjected to such an angry outburst, and explained why the community was so angry.
Brian Corcoran was actually a very nice, reasonable man. His department paid the travel costs for Colin, myself and an interpreter to meet with him in Canberra soon afterwards. We were also accompanied by Anne Mac Rae, then CEO of the Deaf Society of NSW.
Anne Mac Rae was a wonderful mentor to us and to AAD. She didn’t do things for us, she taught us how to do them ourselves. Over several years, she taught me how to write funding submissions, coached us in preparation for meetings with government and accompanied us to several meetings where she occasionally contributed to discussions but mostly observed and later gave us constructive feedback on how to do better next time.
Our meeting with Brian Corcoran was a turning point. He genuinely listened to us. He explained that government policy didn’t allow him to give AAD secretariat funding but we could apply for advocacy and information service funding, and he offered his department’s advice on what was needed for a successful application.
So that was how AAD/Deaf Australia became a funded organisation in 1992. It has received funding continuously ever since. In 2001 government decided to recognise AAD/Deaf Australia as the legitimate organisation representing deaf people who use Auslan. Funding was increased and changed to secretariat funding, even though Deafness Forum was already funded.
Much has been achieved in the 23 years that Deaf Australia has had paid staff.
But now, if government can’t be persuaded to reinstate funding and alternative funding can’t be found, at the end of June this year there will be no staff. If Deaf Australia is to continue it will have to become wholly voluntary again.
Will this work? I think so, up to a point. The board will likely take on more work. Some of us will do some work voluntarily again. But new and passionate younger volunteers with new ideas and the vitality of youth are needed.
The community is different now. People are accustomed to taking Deaf Australia for granted and having staff do the work. Over the past few months, a few members have called for deaf people to step up and show their support for Deaf Australia – to become members, make donations and so on – but little has changed.
All deaf people benefit from Deaf Australia’s work, but its membership fluctuates between 300 and 500. Numbers could be much higher.
Over the years I have heard many reasons why people aren’t members: it’s too expensive ($30 per year); they don’t like the President or the CEO or someone else on the board or staff; they don’t like something it did, in particular, the cinema captioning issue and closing the website discussion page 10 years ago; they don’t like politics; they want more immediate benefits and freebies; it doesn’t lobby for something they want – someone once said that even though they use the NRS (National Relay Service), NABS (interpreting service for health appointments) and the EAF (Employment Assistance Fund) these are things that Deaf Australia has already done for them and they want it to work on getting free hearing aids before they will join.
But by far the most common reason is they don’t know about Deaf Australia or understand what it does for them.
Deaf Australia has never been great at beating its own drum. It has never had enough peacocks strutting its stuff.
Many people assume that only service providers and hearing people do the things for them that Deaf Australia does. I would be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time I told a deaf person that Deaf Australia lobbied for the NRS, for NABS, for the EAF, for Auslan in education and early intervention, and so on and was told in reply: “No! ACE did it! Deaf Society did it! DCA did it!”
It can be hard to convince deaf people that the big picture is more important than any one single issue or personal dislikes and grudges, and that politics matters to all of us, especially because we are a minority group.
For years I tried to persuade my friend Kevin Lyons to become a member. He was happy for his wife Gaye to be a member, but sport was his thing and he wasn’t interested in politics.
Then Gaye started working with me at Deaf Australia and going home with stories of issues we were working on, how hard we had to work to win small steps forward. Now Kevin is a committed member and he worries about the future: what will happen to deaf people’s rights if Deaf Australia has no money or staff and even worse, has to close?
We need Deaf Australia. It is the only national organisation that is wholly controlled and run by deaf people themselves. It is the only national organisation that has no driving interests other than the rights of deaf people, that lives and breathes “nothing about us without us”.
But right now, Deaf Australia needs us.
Now is not the time to be dragging out personal dislikes, ancient grudges, criticisms and personal agendas.
Now is the time for the big picture, for all of us to talk to each other about what Deaf Australia achieves for us and why we need it and how each of us can support it. It’s not hard: become a member; make a donation; get involved in campaigns; and encourage your family and friends to do the same.
We need to make the bundle of sticks that is Deaf Australia thicker and stronger. Otherwise we will all be just individual sticks in the forest.