Is the Deaf community shrinking?

Karli Dettman
My husband and I are Deaf. We use Australian Sign Language to express ourselves. It is known as Auslan. The Deaf community is an important part of our lives. We were concerned when we heard that our Auslan use is getting smaller. We recently attended a presentation on this issue. But I came away feeling unsatisfied. I want to know why so many children are not exposed to Auslan. I think Deaf children should be taught Auslan. They need to have pride and confidence. Then they can teach the next generation. This will keep the Deaf community strong.
Posted by: 
Karli Dettman on 28/06/2011
Three people (two men and one woman) sitting in a coffee shop having a conversation in Australian Sign Language
3 people in coffee shop using sign lanuage 2

We use Auslan to express our thoughts

My husband and I are Deaf. We use Australian Sign Language (Auslan) to express our thoughts and feelings. We sign to our hearing kids. We also socialise and work with Deaf people. The Deaf community is an integral part of our lives. We feel accepted and fulfilled.

I remember my husband and I were alarmed by a 2002 report that the Deaf community and Auslan might be endangered. The report was written by Trevor Johnson. It was called W(h)ither the Deaf community? Population, genetics and the future of Auslan. Mr Johnson is also the author of the Auslan dictionary. He came up with the term Auslan. He is a hearing person who has Deaf parents who use Auslan, just like our children. We identify with Trevor and understand why he wanted to raise this sensitive topic. He argued that Auslan is under threat.

Auslan use shrinking

Mr Johnson says there are many reasons why Auslan use is shrinking. One is that Rubella, which causes deafness in children, is now almost non-existent thanks to vaccinations. About 50 per cent of Deaf babies and adults also now receive cochlear implants. Young Deaf people now typically attend mainstream schools. They are often not exposed to Auslan at an early age.

The Victorian Council of the Deaf and Victorian Deaf Society recently held a presentation on this issue. The seminar was presented by Robert Adam, an experienced sign language researcher. It was attended by about 100 Deaf people at a building that housed the first ever Victorian school for Deaf children established in 1866.

Real language

Mr Adam says Auslan is a real language with its own structure and grammar. He says magnetic resonance imaging technology had been used to examine brain patterns. Researchers compared how Deaf and hearing people acquire language. The research showed there was no difference between sign and spoken languages.

The United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises sign language as a real language. Mr Adam says Deaf identity and culture are also widely acknowledged and respected. Bilingual education is encouraged at Deaf schools.

But Mr Adam says the Federal Government has a responsibility to ensure Deaf children have access to Auslan. He says a report published last year showed Deaf children with cochlear implants had a lower reading level in comparison to other Deaf children.


While there was some interesting material presented at the recent forum, I came away feeling dissatisfied. Many of my questions were not answered. I wanted to know why there are still many kids who get no exposure to Auslan. It is sad that some people become isolated and have mental health problems. Some people do not even know Auslan exists and how strong the Deaf community is. I also wanted to know why such a high number of families with deaf kids cannot communicate in Auslan.

I feel sad when I hear things like Deaf community events being cancelled due to a lack of numbers. But I am pleased that Deaf schools are providing bilingual programs and employing more Deaf teachers than ever before. I think their specialised support can help Deaf children to have pride and confidence in their identity. People need strong role models to learn from. They can then offer the same support to the next generation. This can help keep the Deaf community strong.

Readers comments (5)

This is a great article. I would hate to see this be true of Auslan and the Deaf community. I think it is extremely important that all children have language and a language that suits their needs and situation, such as Deaf children having Auslan. It is extremely hard and unfair not to allow Deaf children to be exposed to a language that would be so natural to them and for them to learn. I am a hearing adult and as a hearing adult we learn by what we are exposed to and this is no different for a Deaf person. Being bilingual is great and mainstream schools for Deaf children can be successful for the Deaf child if they are still able to be taught in Auslan. I think there still needs to be alot of work done towards Deaf awareness and acceptance so that hearing adults with Deaf children can give their children an excellent chance of being bilingual and by having Auslan as their first language.

This is an excellent article. The lack of recognition of the value of Auslan, its crucial role in language development and how it enhances reading and conceptual development is a theme our educators refuse to acknowledge.

It is an ongoing battle. Unfortunately many kids are only exposed to Auslan well after it is obvious they are struggling to acquire spoken language, consequently they are playing catch up.

Its not rocket science. But the obsession with speech remains. Not that its not needed, but rather it is the holy grailof language to the exclusion of everything else.

Good article on a very important question. I think we would need to look at the huge numbers of young people brought up in oral settings who have gravitated to other deaf people and become exposed to Auslan. I'd like to know about deaf children with cochlear implants who in adolescence become attracted to Deaf community events and other Deaf people. Furthermore the rise in the profession of sign language interpreting means that a great many hearing people are becoming exposed to Auslan. And classes and courses in basic Auslan continue around the country. Yes, the Deaf community is changing, but we would need to look carefully at many other things before we could say it is shrinking. Auslan itself as a language continues to get a lot of airplay.

Interesting read. I am a hearing social worker who is employed in the Deaf sector. I have noticed many deaf youth who have not had a lot of exposed to Auslan ( in the family or in mainstream schools). Many of these students want to learn Auslan as they start to question and develop a sense of identity. As a support worker it can be difficult to connect oral youth and their families ( from various locations across Victoria) with Auslan courses and resources ( which can be difficult to find or fund). In addition, in Melbourne, you cannot study certain levels of Auslan at Tafe part time. Without flexible learning options it can makes it even harder for oral deaf people and their families to learn.Hopefully in the future children, families and students can access more funding and more Auslan programs.
On a positive note, when I work with these oral deaf youth and begin to link them in with Deaf colleges and Auslan, their sense of identity and community in the world deepens. As a hearing person, I am just happy to learn such a vibrant and expressive language !

Thanks for sharing. I love your writing style and it brought on interesting & some balanced comments. With regards to number of people using Auslan I believe a lot more hearing people like CODAs and students learning Auslan, some become interpreters etc. Wonder if numbers shrinking is actually deaf people using the language for actual communication but Auslan users apart from deaf people are growing or the same or still less? Penny for thoughts ;)

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