Is the Deaf community shrinking?
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.
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.