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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.