A few years ago, lolling about in Mum and Dad’s pool with one of my sisters, she and I had a conversation about disability politics, during which I referred to myself as disabled.
My sister stopped lolling and stared at me.
“You’re not disabled!” she said, shocked.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “You and I don’t see me as disabled, but society does.”
“I’ve never thought of you as disabled,” she said. “It’s never occurred to me to think of you that way! You’re just you. A bit different. But disabled? No way!”
A few days later, she said, “I can’t get over this idea of you as disabled! I’m so shocked. It’s ridiculous that people see you that way!”
On Monday 13th July, appearing on ABC channel 24 with the other 2015 Australians of the Year, Young Australian of the Year Drisana Levitzke-Gray said: “Deaf people don’t see ourselves as disabled. We see it as deaf gain rather than hearing loss.”
It wasn’t long before someone named Tony commented on Twitter: “You don’t have a sense of hearing. Deaf people are disabled. Deal with it.”
Drisana said many things during this live television broadcast. She talked about being the fifth generation of deaf activists in her family, four of them women, and about deaf people’s human rights, in particular their right to use Auslan. She talked about the need for access. She talked about the government cutting Deaf Australia’s funding and the impact this has on advocacy for deaf people’s human rights. She talked about how she deals with criticism and people’s expectations of her. But this one small comment about disability was the one thing Tony homed in on.
Who’s this guy Tony? Who cares what he thinks?
But his comment is typical of the social attitude I was referring to in my conversation with my sister.
It is typical of the bigotry exemplified many years ago by a journalist who, when I objected to his use of the term ‘deaf and dumb’, said that it was a perfectly acceptable term to use because all his friends used it.
It is typical of the widespread practice in our society of seeing anyone who is different as ‘other’ and in need of changing to fit whatever is perceived as the ‘norm’.
This question of whether or not deaf people are disabled arises regularly. Deaf people often talk about it. Deaf people and hard of hearing people don’t always agree about it. Non-deaf people are frequently baffled by it.
Hard of hearing people or people who become deaf later in life often do experience their deafness as a loss and see themselves as disabled. Many of these people refer to themselves as hearing-impaired.
For people who are born deaf or become deaf early in their life, being deaf is a normal state of being, we don’t feel we have lost anything, and we dislike the term hearing-impaired: we don’t see ourselves as impaired.
For many of us, being deaf adds a dimension to our life. It brings a different way of experiencing and interacting with the world. When we embrace Auslan and the Deaf community, it brings us a wonderfully rich and expressive language, a unique culture and a world-wide community of friends, understanding, acceptance and belonging that transcends borders, race, religion, gender, politics.
This was what Drisana was talking about when she used the term ‘deaf gain’.
But people like Tony find this hard to understand. Indeed, they often don’t even stop to think about what Drisana might have meant. They see only the absence of hearing and see attempts to explain this different ‘deaf gain’ reality as a denial of reality – their reality.
I was often asked about this issue during the years I was an advocate with Deaf Australia. Many people pointed out that organisations like Deaf Australia received funding from disability programs. How then, they asked, could we say we weren’t disabled? We had to decide what we were one way or the other, we couldn’t have it both ways.
Ah but we could, I argued. And this is how I explained it:
Disability is relative. If you’re a hearing person and you can’t sign, and you walk into a room full of deaf people communicating in Auslan, who’s disabled? You or all these deaf people? Who needs an interpreter? You or all these deaf people?
By ourselves, and with each other, deafness doesn’t disable us, we just find our own ways of doing things.
It is when we go out into an environment designed by people who hear, for people who hear, that we become disabled. It is not our deafness that disables us, it is the environment, limitations and expectations that are imposed on us by others who are unlike us.
For six years from 2008 to 2013 I was a member of the National People with Disabilities and Carers Council, which provided advice to the Minister and Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities. The Council, a large and wonderfully eclectic group, was handpicked mainly by Bill Shorten and after its first meeting, a group of us sat in the Qantas lounge at Canberra airport, discussing how we’d first met Bill Shorten and how unusual he was for a politician in that he seemed to ‘get it’ about disability.
I related the story of how I’d used the ‘in a room full of deaf people, who’s disabled?’ explanation when I first met Bill. In our group was Milly Parker, who went on to become a well-known disability advocate. Milly, who has a brain injury, runs her own business, making gourmet dog food and selling it internationally.
She listened to my story and said, “That’s right, Karen! In my business and my home everything is set up in a way that works for me and I’m not disabled. I only become disabled when I go out into a different environment and other people put their expectations and limitations on me.”
During many years of working with people with all kinds of ‘disability’ I have learned that deaf people aren’t the only ones who don’t see themselves as disabled. We aren’t the only ones who wish that other people would stop trying to change us and put road blocks in our way.
Elizabeth Hastings, the first Disability Discrimination Commissioner put it this way:
“…disability is part of the human community… Certainly disability is not always convenient, attractive or desirable, but it is an ordinary attribute of being human. Even though my disability is also not especially convenient, attractive or desirable, it is my life and I have absolutely no wish for it to be otherwise. Not everybody will feel the same way about his or her circumstances. However many people with disabilities do think and feel the way I do – that we do not wish to be altered, cured or transformed. We do wish our equipment would work reliably, and that education, transport, shopping and professional and other services, work, entertainment, banking, insurance and information were accessible to us.” 1
When I was Executive Officer at Deaf Australia I often worked with Damian Griffis, Executive Officer at First People’s Disability Network. One of the things that Damian often explained at various meetings was that in traditional language there was no word for the concept of disability. Aboriginal people with disability are supported and accepted as members of their community.
So who’s disabled?
Isn’t everyone, in some way, sometime? At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter. What is important is how we make the most of what we have, how we live our lives, how we treat other people and how our society supports and accepts us. As Elizabeth Hastings put it, disability is part of the human condition. It’s normal.
And to people who would like to think it isn’t, I say: deal with it.
- Hastings, E. 1997. Keynote address. Presented at the Social Options Conference, November 21, Adelaide, Australia.