I don’t watch Channel 9’s ‘The Voice’. I’m deaf and it has no interest for me. But last Sunday night I watched it because in the past few weeks there’s been so much controversy in the deaf community about Andy Dexterity’s plan to perform using Auslan. I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss is about.
I knew nothing much about Andy Dexterity. I had no idea what he even looked like until I watched ‘The Voice’. Having watched him, it was easy to decide he isn’t someone I have any interest in. But equally, I don’t wish him any ill.
Andy obviously isn’t a natural or proficient signer and he isn’t deaf. So the question is, why is he performing on national television using Auslan, and why is he claiming to give a voice to deaf people?
Auslan has a high profile at the moment. It’s a good time to be cashing in on it. The summer bushfires and COVID, with all their televised press conferences where Auslan interpreters stood beside the Prime Minister, Premiers and experts, brought it into everyone’s lounge room. People have been grateful, they’ve cheered, been curious, expressed a desire to learn it, made fun of it, dismissed it, but whatever their reaction, they’ve noticed it.
For deaf people, Auslan is vital, it’s at the core of our community, it is cherished by those of us who use it in our everyday lives. For a long time it was an underground language, forbidden, hidden. It wasn’t called Auslan until the 1980s when Trevor Johnston, a CODA (hearing Child of Deaf Adults), fluent Auslan user and linguist formally studied it for his PhD, named it, compiled a dictionary of it and proved it is a bona fide language. His work has been liberating for deaf people.
Since then, Auslan has come steadily into the light and many hearing people have learned it. Most only learn it for fun, but some go on to fluency and become interpreters or allies for the deaf community. Whether they are born into the deaf community and acquire Auslan as their first language or whether they learn it and join the deaf community later, hearing people who use Auslan in a respectful way are highly valued in the deaf community.
But there are cowboys: hearing people who learn some Auslan, see its potential, and appropriate it for themselves and their own benefit, while claiming to be helping deaf people. This is cultural appropriation. Andy Dexterity is one of those. There are many others, and from time to time, in Australia and overseas, they come under scrutiny, but at the moment it’s Andy in the spotlight. And many people in the deaf community are furious.
Social media has been awash with attacks on him, to the point of vilification. It seems Andy first came to the deaf community’s notice in 2017. He does have some friends in the deaf community, and he did initially try to learn from deaf people and improve his signing. Deaf Australia saw potential in him and because of his high profile in the mainstream invited him to be an Ambassador for Deaf Australia, raising awareness about Auslan and the deaf community. But a lot of deaf people didn’t like him and he was roundly criticised. Some deaf people have continued to work with him, but it seems that the criticism of him over the past few years has been so ferocious he has stopped listening to it. Many deaf people are now frustrated that he won’t talk to them or listen to them.
They are angry because we are fiercely protective of Auslan. It is the language of our community, the language most accessible to deaf people. It opens up our life, gives us access to pretty much everything. Generations of deaf children have suffered because we were forbidden to use it. Even today, hearing ‘experts’, usually doctors, audiologists and speech pathologists, routinely discourage parents of deaf children from using Auslan. Among the many falsehoods parents are told is that signing will interfere with learning speech. The advice from most deaf people is: give them both Auslan and speech from the beginning.
They are angry because Auslan is a beautiful language and an incompetent Auslan user is mangling it in public. It’s painful for fluent Auslan users to watch this. Now that Auslan is coming out into the light, we want hearing people to learn it but we want them to use it respectfully. It’s painful when hearing people treat it as some cute plaything, change it to suit themselves, butcher it and make it ugly or silly. It’s one thing for deaf people to teach a hearing person to use Auslan; we will be patient and tolerant of mangled signs. But if that person then goes out and purports to be an accomplished Auslan user before they are, and an authority on deaf people without first establishing their credibility, it’s infuriating and insulting.
They are angry because Andy is sign singing and he’s doing it badly. On his first appearance on ‘The Voice’, he signed the first verse of ‘Imagine’, but many of his signs were incomprehensible or strange. In the second verse he sang in English and signed some words in Auslan at the same time. English and Auslan are two different languages. Trying to use them both at the same time doesn’t work, and it’s always Auslan that suffers. When it’s done well, sign singing can be very beautiful. We have plenty of talented deaf people who can sign sing beautifully. We don’t need incompetent Auslan users to sign sing. We especially don’t need them to do it on national television.
They are angry because Andy is claiming to speak for us, to give us a voice. I have a voice, and so do other deaf people, we use speech and we use Auslan and interpreters. We don’t need Andy, or anyone else, to be our voice. We especially don’t need a hearing person, who knows little about us, to spread misinformation about us on national television, to patronise us, talk about us as if we are ‘poor little deaf people who don’t have a voice’.
Deaf people are marginalised and we do need allies. But Andy is not behaving like an ally. An ally is a person who understands us, shows respect, and walks beside us, helps us to make our voices heard. An ally does not take all the attention for themselves and claim to be our voice, an ally brings us into the spotlight with them.
In a way, Andy has tried. And some deaf people have tried to help him do better. For ‘The Voice’ he had a deaf Auslan consultant, Sue, who helped him with his signing. She was seen backstage on Sunday night. I didn’t see Andy acknowledge or introduce her, but we don’t know everything he did or said – TV programs never broadcast everything that’s filmed so we only saw what ‘The Voice’ chose to broadcast.
There is no black and white way to interpret English into Auslan. Songs in particular can be, and are, interpreted in many different ways by different people. And we don’t know how much of Andy’s signing was edited out and what impact this had on what we saw on TV. Film/video editors who aren’t themselves fluent in Auslan can easily mangle it. This is why credible Auslan video producers who aren’t fluent in Auslan use Auslan consultants for both filming and editing. We don’t know if ‘The Voice’ did this, we only know a deaf Auslan consultant worked with Andy on his signing.
And we don’t know if Andy gets any better as ‘The Voice’ progresses. He isn’t finished on ‘The Voice’ yet. All the criticism and anger on social media, and now being picked up by the mainstream media, is actually achieving more attention for ‘The Voice’ and Andy. It is making Andy more famous!
Sue appears to have tried to do the right thing and support Andy to be better at Auslan. All the criticism of him must be devastating for her because it can be seen as criticism of her as well. Sue has also been an Auslan consultant with Emma Watkins (Emma Wiggles) but the deaf community seems to like Emma’s use of Auslan.
There’s another aspect too that I think we need to consider. When people have complained that Andy won’t talk to or work with the deaf community, are they saying that Sue isn’t a member of the deaf community? How hurtful that must be for her and others who have tried to help Andy! What do they mean by ‘the deaf community’? Do they mean themselves? But it’s not just the most publicly vocal or the most Auslan-fluent of us who are ‘the deaf community’. Surely all of us who sign, respect Auslan and identify with the deaf community are ‘the deaf community’. But no one does or even can consult with everyone, or even the majority, in the deaf community.
How do we decide who should be consulted in these situations? There are guidelines on how to identify who is an ‘acceptable’ Auslan consultant, contained in the English to Auslan Video Production guidelines developed by Melbourne Polytechnic and Macquarie University in 2015 (1). The first requirement is ‘a proficient Auslan signer’. But there is no definition of what ‘proficient’ means.
Andy does need to try harder, do better. If he truly wants to be an ally for deaf people, rather than indulging in cultural appropriation and keeping the attention and the benefit for himself, he would do better to work side by side with one of our many accomplished Auslan performers, himself singing in English and his deaf performance partner signing in Auslan. And rather than talking for deaf people, he would do well to show respect and defer to his deaf performance partner to discuss Auslan and deaf people. But again, we don’t know how much of what Andy has done on ‘The Voice’ has been edited out. We don’t know if he wanted to have a deaf Auslan performer with him and ‘The Voice’ wouldn’t allow it.
We in the deaf community also need to think about and discuss some things among ourselves and we need to do some things better.
How effective is it to constantly criticise? What do we do when people continually criticise us? We turn away from them. If Andy ever wanted to be an ally – and it’s possible that in the beginning, he did – he has been criticised so relentlessly and so publicly he turned away from most of us some time ago. Is that really surprising?
Andy is one person. One cowboy. There are plenty of others. There are plenty of videos out there of incompetent signers sign singing badly, ‘teaching’ Auslan and other sign languages badly. Why are we giving so much attention to Andy? There are so many other important issues that need our attention. Why are we expending so much time and energy on just one person?
I do think that Deaf Australia made a mistake asking Andy, back in 2014, to be an Ambassador for them. I expect they had faith in his ability and passion to raise awareness of the organisation and Auslan, and in a way he is doing that: hearing people who aren’t familiar with Auslan don’t know he’s mangling it. If some of them then go and learn Auslan they will find out, but would they have bothered to learn if Andy hadn’t exposed them to it? Deaf Australia couldn’t have known he would go rogue. But now that he has, and even though, since December 2019, he is no longer a Deaf Australia Ambassador, I think they do need to do more to distance themselves from him.
I was actively involved with Deaf Australia for 25 years until I retired in 2014, I still help out sometimes behind the scenes, and I’m very loyal to Deaf Australia, I believe we need this organisation. But Deaf Australia, and people involved in it, do make mistakes sometimes. We all do.
Admitting our mistakes, cutting our losses and moving on is important for all of us. So is forgiveness. The deaf community can be very unforgiving. Not just to outsiders but to our own. Someone makes a mistake and some people hate them forever, for them it wipes out all the good things this someone does. Is this reasonable? Does it really help us?
Deaf Australia and many of our leaders suffer because of this. It probably scares off potentially great leaders. This inability to forgive makes it so much harder for leaders and organisations like Deaf Australia to cut through when people in the community won’t listen to what they say or do, with an open and objective mind and work with them to make things better. So we all suffer collectively from a lack of support for our leaders and organisations. There are many layers to this. Some of them, for example, our history and experiences that make us angry, are easy to understand; some we need to explore further.
We need to think about this situation with Andy from many different perspectives. There is our own, the anger and disappointment. There are others. What is all this anger doing to the people who do want to be allies? Is it scaring them off? Does it make them afraid to get involved with us because we might criticise them too, refuse to forgive when they make mistakes? Are we scaring away hearing parents who are thinking about learning Auslan and letting their deaf children be part of the deaf community? Will they want their children to be involved in a community that behaves like this? Even I feel a little nervous writing this: will other deaf people attack me for questioning them, for asking them to think about these things?
As Gandhi is supposed to have said (but apparently didn’t): We need to be the change we want to see in the world.
We need to show people what good Auslan looks like, how we want to be portrayed.
We need to support our deaf Auslan performers in any way we can, to get out there and be seen. When we think they could do better, we need to encourage and support instead of criticise.
We need to provide a framework for people who work in the Auslan space. As mentioned, there are guidelines for who is an ‘acceptable’ Auslan consultant. We also need Auslan proficiency testing; and something similar to the interpreters’ NAATI accreditation system so that people not fluent in Auslan will know what is good Auslan and whether they should use particular materials or advisers. And maybe other things. But who should develop these things? The deaf community of course, but who in the deaf community?
In the past, Deaf Australia tried, within its limited resources, to do some of this, with their Auslan Endorsement System and their Deaf Friendly Scheme. But many deaf people didn’t like either of these frameworks so they haven’t taken off. If deaf people don’t like what Deaf Australia has tried to do, what kind of framework do we want to address these issues? And if they don’t want Deaf Australia to do this type of thing, who do we want to do it? How should we decide who should do this?
What’s happening with Andy is not new. It’s happened before with other people who have appropriated Auslan and used it badly and it will happen again unless we decide on a different approach. Anger and criticism, while understandable, hasn’t worked and usually doesn’t with most things. Let’s learn from this experience with Andy and respond to it differently next time.
Let’s all take a deep breath and think about the bigger picture. We are living in a time of transformation. It’s a time to do things differently.
What’s really important? What do we really want? How can we get there? What do we want for our community? What do we want Deaf Australia to be and do? How can we support Deaf Australia to do what we want it to do? Do we want to kill off Deaf Australia and set up a completely different organisation? What kind of organisation? How can we support our leaders and encourage more people to become allies? How can we make them feel welcome and appreciated when they try? How can we encourage and support them to be better? Our leaders, our allies, our organisations, our community are what we make them, what we build them up to be.
We can do this! We need to stop putting so much of our energy into fighting with outsiders and with each other and we need to work better together. We can do it!
Auslan translation by Robert Adam:
Grateful thanks to those deaf people who gave me constructive feedback on early versions of this blogpost, and to Robert Adam, who did the Auslan translation, and Colin Allen for video editing.