Learning to listen with my eyes

Head and should image of Simone BunterWhen I was a teenager several years ago, I was walking home one day and two excitable puppies started following me. Of course, I had to find out where they lived; so I started door knocking.

I rang the bell of one house, and saw a light flashing at the back door. Soon after, a young woman came to the front door with a notepad. I started talking away, pointing at the dogs and asking if they belonged to the woman. Instead of responding, the lady smiled and showed me what she had written on the notepad. It was a single line, letting me know that she was deaf, and asking if I was selling the dogs. I wrote back that I found them and wondered if they were hers, to which she wrote they weren’t and wished me luck to find the owner.

Such a simple exchange. A blip in time that I’m sure this young woman would not remember if I bumped into her now. This simple conversation had my mind buzzing with a million questions. How did she know I was at the door? Does she have to write everything she needs? How does she order a cup of coffee at a café? What if she needs emergency services?

Flash forward a few (OK more than a few) years and I find myself working as an Occupational Therapist, and with people from all backgrounds with all kinds of abilities, including people who are deaf and who speak Auslan. I now understand there are pieces of assistive technology that offer a visual or vibratory alert for persons who are deaf (like the flashing light at the lady’s back door), and know more about other services that can assist (such as the National Relay Service).

But I couldn’t help thinking; what if I could have spoken to the lady without her having to compensate for my lack of knowledge of her language?… I figured; why not learn some Auslan? So, I put the word out to my colleagues and before you knew it, had gathered 15 students eager to learn and understand more about deaf culture.

We have just completed an eight-week course provided by Access Plus; during which our Auslan teacher would come to our Nedlands office for two hours each week. Before we knew it; we were communicating without our voices (albeit very slowly). We can all now hold a basic conversation and share information about our families, what we do, and (importantly) what we want to eat! I asked my fellow Auslan communicators; why did you want to learn?

  • Tiffany, Social Worker: “Communication with clients who are deaf is more enjoyable. I hope they can see that I am trying, and have respect for their language and culture.”
  • Lauren, Occupational Therapist: “I learned Auslan for interest, to learn a new language that I could share with others. To have more options to communicate with people who access our services.”
  • Bonnie, Occupational Therapist: “I’ve always been interested in learning a new language. I got to practice Auslan with a client that used sign and speech together. It was nice to connect with this client and use the same form of communication he used.”
  • Danika, Training and Events officer: “I hope to carry the knowledge forward in a simple form with my new child to be, and try to find opportunities in future work and free time. I learnt how Auslan is as complex and specific as any other language, and also how many of the symbols are almost instinctual, for example just signing ‘relaxed’ feels like lying down after a long day.”
  • Anu, Customer Services Officer: “I signed up so that I can use my Auslan knowledge in communicating with clients who visit ILC, fortunately I have managed to communicate with four individuals who are hard of hearing and they felt very included, became very excited and taught me some more Auslan!”

I want to live in a world where participation, inclusion and living independently are valued and supported. I am so grateful that in a world that frequently pronounces differences, persons in the deaf and hard of hearing community have been so patient and willing to teach us not just their language, but more about their cultures.  I am already looking forward to completing the intermediate course; but for now- I am happy to practice Auslan with my colleagues.

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