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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