I first met Phil Harper at a Deaf youth club in my mid-teens. I found him to be very friendly and approachable. I came away feeling stronger and prouder as a young Deaf person. Phil later would became one of my role models. He ran youth leadership training programs. He was a natural presenter and delivered interesting workshops. I wanted to be like him.
I was surprised when interviewing Phil many years later to discover he had struggled at school just like me. It is a reminder that people who face challenges when young are often very determined to achieve later in life. It definitely applies to Phil's life.
Phil was born deaf but it was not discovered until he was over two years old. He was the only deaf child of three siblings. His father worked in the banking industry and his mother worked in community services when the children were older.
His parents were positive role models.
They always were helping people, volunteering and involved in organised social and sporting activities, says Phil.
Struggled at school
Phil attended a mainstream state primary school. He moved to a private school at Grade 5. The aim was to get more individual support along with a visiting teacher of the deaf.
Phil was disappointed to fail Year 11.
My language skills (English and writing) were not good enough, Phil explains.
I tried again through a tech school the next year, but again failed. He finally returned to school when he was 25 years old. He says his language skills had finally caught up. He won a history prize.
Phil's first job was at the Australian Taxation Office. But he only lasted for a few months. He handled files in a warehouse. Phil says it was very boring. But he did learn much from interacting with hearing adults. His next job was at the Victorian Railways. He performed clerical work for a few years before leaving to complete his schooling.
After completing Year 12, Phil studied youth work. He then worked for the Victorian Deaf Society (Vicdeaf) for many years. But he felt that many Deaf people relied too much on Vicdeaf's services and support.
Phil says he started to socialise with other Deaf people in his early 20s. He was a founding member of Earforce, a group for deaf oral people who eventually mixed more with the Deaf community and learned to sign. He also got involved with the disability rights movements and the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981. The contacts he made influenced his views about human rights, leadership and consumer power.
In the 1980s, Phil established an advocacy and information service called Deaf Service Network. It later merged with the Victorian Council of Deaf People and is now called Deaf Victoria. Phil says the service provides
a strong philosophy of demonstrating how Deaf people could manage their own lives, provide services, leadership and advocate for their own rights. He says it
worked closely with the Deaf community, parents of Deaf children, schools and other Deaf services. Phil managed the service for 13 years. He was also the founding member of Deaf Australia.
In his spare time, Phil developed a strong interest in advocacy in telecommunications. His advocacy was instrumental in the establishment of the National Relay Service (NRS) and the TTY (teletypewriter phone) program. More recently, he has been involved in establishing the Video Relay Service and Video Relay Interpreting service.
Phil says it was a natural progression to move from youth work to technology access.
Youth work and community development work was all about working with the community (both individually and collectively) to help them grow and become strong in themselves, says Phil. Involvement in technology access was a logical development as during the 80s and 90s, communication started to go beyond face-to-face. Technology was becoming communication tool enabling different ways to communicate or share information with each other. But Deaf people were missing out.
I volunteered (like others) to represent the Deaf community in improving access to these important services, continues Phil.
(It) eventually lead to the establishment of the NRS and TTY program. We had to learn to organise ourselves as a strong advocacy body. People, in particular the government, started to listen and respect us.