Issues Affecting the Australian Deaf Community

Auslan, Technology and Deaf Clubs in Context

Australia’s Deaf community, whose members consider themselves part of a distinct sociocultural minority group identified by their use of Australian Sign Language (Auslan), is experiencing significant and rapid change. Recent social and technological influences such as cochlear implants, telecommunications technology, mainstreaming and the closure of Deaf Clubs are changing the way Deaf people communicate, socialise and identify (Page 1).

While demonstrating the strength and resilience of a community galvanised by a shared history, language, identity and world view, this study also draws out the Australian Deaf community’s unease about the future, signified by feelings of loss, disconnection and a weakening sense of Deaf identity. This study further uncovers the importance of “place” for the Deaf community and feelings of displacement as the community changes, and as Deaf Clubs, which represented feelings of home, identity and control, disappear from the Deaf landscape (Page 1).

In 2004, Australian sign language researcher Trevor Johnston claimed that one of Australia’s unique cultural and linguistic minority groups – the Deaf community – could become extinct in half a lifetime. His paper “W(h)ither the deaf community?” (Johnston 2004) offered compelling evidence that suggested the size of Australia’s Deaf community had been declining over recent decades, and that this decline was expected to accelerate. Improvements in medical care, mainstreaming in schools, technological developments such as cochlear implants and advances in genetics were contributing to the declining prevalence and incidence rates of deafness. This, he predicted, could effectively bring an end to the Deaf community in Australia, taking along with it one of the world’s few native signed languages, Australian Sign Language (Auslan) (Page 1).

The Australian Deaf community, like other Deaf communities, is viewed by its members as a group, similar to the way researchers describe an ethnic group. In the case of the Deaf community, it is the use of sign language that most obviously represents cultural distinctiveness. Sign language (specifically Auslan in the Australian Deaf community) is used as a mark of group membership in the home, at special events, in various Deaf Clubs and some schools. Described as “the cement that binds the community together” sign language is also used by the Deaf community to exclude others – many Deaf use a different kind of signing with hearing people than they do with Deaf people (Page 2).

There are other elements of cultural distinctiveness that reinforce the Deaf community’s existence as a perceived group. These elements relate to Deaf identity and assume behavioural, attitudinal and political status. To identify as a member of any Deaf community – to be “Deaf” – has a number of connotations. As well as having deep respect for and skill in sign language, being Deaf also means sharing an orientation towards visual bodily practices (Page 3).

Identifying as a member of the Deaf community may also include being resentful of hearing paternalism, and a belief in the rights and abilities of Deaf people to control their own lives. Deaf people may also devalue speech and lipreading and believe they have a right to affiliate with their own. Members of the Deaf community, including those of the Australian Deaf community, see deafness from a culturo-linguistic perspective – that is, seeing their existential situation primarily as that of a language minority rather than a disabled group. This perspective contrasts with the dominant medical model of deafness, which is based on a deficit theory and regards deafness as a pathological absence of hearing, placing the onus on the individual to adapt to society rather than vice versa (Page 3).

Deaf History

Attitudes towards Deaf people and sign language, which have fluctuated depending on the political and social climate of the time, have greatly impacted upon the creation and sustainability of Deaf communities worldwide. For most of the eighteenth century in France, for example, Deaf people were perceived positively. Deaf people and sign language became the hallmark for increased speculation about the nature of humans and of language by philosophers emerging from the Enlightenment. Evidence suggests that Deaf people were not segregated from society during this period but in fact received an unprecedented level of public attention. Deaf schools were seen as model schools, and all teacher-training institutes were encouraged to partner with them and learn from their methods. Deaf people were also involved in political movements and fought in the revolutionary army. Researchers suggest that sign language was used to foster a distinctive revolutionary political vision where educated signing Deaf people were painted as the “new men” of the revolution, and their language was upheld as uncorrupted and pure – the language of the future. The positive perception of Deaf people during this period, combined with the establishment of Deaf schools followed by Deaf communities, led to the development of a larger collective Deaf identity and a network of national and international Deaf communities (Page 4).

Once the French revolution passed, however, attitudes towards Deaf people and their language changed. Guided by the belief that nature could be improved by reason, it was felt that teaching Deaf people to speak represented a necessary stage in their evolution to full human status. This view was linked with the development of colonialism, which constructed essentialist similarities between natives and Deaf people. Both groups were perceived to be unable to speak European languages and to use gesture and sign to communicate – and were thus described as “savages” in a belief system which constructed a hierarchy of civilisation, ranging from civilised European men at the top down to savages and animals. Once dehumanised in this way, Deaf people were categorised, along with other “savages”, as targets for the civilising mission of the emerging imperial nation. By saving their souls and thereby orienting them towards society’s dominant values, hearing people could animate and endow with intellect these blocks of “unchiselled marble” or “statues” as the Deaf were described (Page 4).

Movements such as evolutionism and eugenics that took hold in the second half of the nineteenth century in Europe continued to shape negative attitudes towards sign language and created a social climate that favoured restrictive oralist approaches (the exclusive use of lipreading and speech) over manual approaches (the use of sign language) when teaching Deaf children. Political influences, such as the republican ideology that dominated France at the time, reinforced this oralist climate. Politicians believed it was necessary to unify the French people by forcing them to become culturally homogenous. Deaf people were forced to use the national language of spoken French, as opposed to French Sign Language, as this was the only way they could become fully human, civilised and thus French. The trend persisted amongst other European nations, such as Germany and Italy whose governments were also in the process of forging a common culture (Page 4).

It was within this context that one of the most famous turning points in the history of Deaf education occurred. In 1880, delegates at the Second International Congress of Educators of the Deaf in Milan, Italy (where all but one delegate was hearing) passed a resolution declaring the superiority of the oral method over the manual approach when teaching Deaf children. The resolution resulted in the banning of sign languages in classrooms of schools for the Deaf and the beginning of the spread of oralism across Europe. This uniform shift towards oralism was met with outrage by many, and was described in one French publication as a method of “violence, oppression, obscurantism, charlatanism which only makes idiots of the poor deaf-mute children.” The Milan resolution had dire consequences for the lives of Deaf people. Many Deaf teachers and professors were fired from their posts, and as the oralist method failed to produce the results it promised, Deaf people around the world spiralled towards a social underclass characterised by lack of education, unemployment and low status (Page 4-5).

For Deaf people today both in Australia and elsewhere, the Milan resolution has become part of Deaf folklore, and is remembered as a devastating event that not only threatened the Deaf community but triggered the worldwide decline of Deaf people towards a social underclass. The shared memory of the Milan resolution expresses the tragedy of the destruction of a vibrant, healthy and respected Deaf community by the hearing majority. At a deeper level, the Milan resolution may constitute one primary moment in the ongoing experience of the dominance, control and power that hearing people have had, and continue to have, over the lives of Deaf people. For example, during discussion about current leadership in the Australian Deaf community, one focus group participant stated that fallout from the Milan resolution was directly responsible for the lack of current educated Deaf leaders in Australia today (Page 5).

Deaf Clubs

The Deaf community is re-affirmed through its shared experience of domination by the hearing community. It also fosters a collective identity that emphasises the positive sense of being “Deaf”: access to a unique and natural language, a culture, and a national and international community. This provides Deaf people with agency, allowing them to resist the control exercised over them and to enforce power over their own affairs. Certainly, the sense of Deaf pride constitutes a collective memory and has become well recognised as a feature of the collective identity of Deaf people. It is borne out in the plethora of local, national, and international Deaf organisations, as well as events such as National Week of Deaf people, all of which aim to improve the rights of Deaf people and celebrate the achievements of their community (Page 5).

Sydney’s famous Stanmore Deaf Recreation Club, which existed from 1975 to 1993, was a popular meeting place for the Deaf community. It was the home to many Deaf sporting and interest groups, and helped create a strong, unified Deaf community and a positive sense of identity for Deaf people. The decision to close the Club was made, according to some, without the involvement of Deaf people and is frequently singled out in the collective memory of Deaf people as an event at which their voice was overpowered by that of the majority community. Frequently referring to it as their “home” and the “hub” for Deafness, many sections of the Deaf community were devastated at its closure. One focus group participant stated:

Stanmore was then closed by the Deaf Society’s Board who were all hearing. And I felt that they should have asked or included Deaf people in the discussions, because the club was run by Deaf people, but unfortunately, under the guise of the Deaf Society, which was run by hearing people. We felt like puppets. Since its closure I think it’s damaged the Deaf community” (Page 6-7).

The closure of the Deaf Club at Stanmore has resulted in significant changes in the way the Deaf community socialises, and in the transmission of culture and language from generation to generation. Focus group participants lamented that without a central home for Deaf people provided by a place like Stanmore, where people could share news, network and socialise, and children could learn from other Deaf role models, the community will weaken (Page 7).

With the closure of the Deaf Clubs not only in Sydney but also in other Australian states, Deaf people have become even more concerned about the influence of the culture, attitudes and behaviour of hearing people upon Deaf people. In particular, some focus group participants worried about young Deaf people “drifting” towards the hearing world and in doing so, losing their sense of Deaf identity:

There are a lot of people who have never experienced that sense of Deaf identity that we had, that existed in the past. And is it that Deaf people are becoming effectively like hearing people? They are not identifying as Deaf, they’re not linked to the community.

Clearly as younger Deaf people are subsumed by the mainstream culture, what could be viewed as normal social change is perceived by members of the Australian Deaf community as a threat to their future sustainability (Page 7).

As explained in the section above, the closure of Deaf Clubs leads to fewer visible role models for Deaf children, and less cross-generational mixing. It also means that there is less opportunity for the vital transfer of Deaf culture, history and language between Deaf people. Therefore the use of such technology also leads to a less homogenous community and interferes with the customary way in which Deaf culture is passed on from generation to generation. One focus group participant explained:

You get younger people who get together, and they have their technology. If there’s a big event [Deaf social event] they don’t bother going, they just party in their own little group” (Page 9).

Cochlear Implants

The media regularly herald  cochlear implants as “magical cures” and “revolutionary”, and implants are credited as “helping deaf people become part of the hearing world”, suggesting that the only way deaf children can lead a viable life is by being implanted and hence normalised. This perspective, however, is largely contested by many Deaf people. Since the invention of cochlear implants the Deaf community has expressed concern over the effects of the device, including short term physical consequences such as facial paralysis and infection. Others object to the use of cochlear implants on the grounds that they cause conflict with the social, cultural and linguistic beliefs of the signing community. Cochlear implants are designed to make Deaf people as close to hearing people as possible, and are often associated with strict oral-only educational programmes that prevent the use of sign language, instead encouraging deaf children to use the hearing techniques of listening and speaking to communicate (Page 7).

Many focus group participants had strong negative feelings towards cochlear implants. They expressed concern over pressure from intellectuals of the medical community to test for deafness and implant children, describing this pressure as “violating”, “nauseous” and “dislocating”. Specifically, focus group participants indicated that cochlear implants have been implicated in creating and reinforcing divisions within the Deaf community:

I think for a lot of people, when they’re implanted, it changes their attitude. They think that they can hear better. I see a lot of arguments in the playground. People say “oh, I’m better than he is” or “she’s better than her” because of the implant. And when we have the Deaf annual camp for kids, often those children who are implanted form their own separate group” (Page 8).

A major concern regarding cochlear implants, then, is the potential threat they bring of undermining both the cohesion and the collective identity of the Deaf community. Some focus group participants believed that due to the rise of cochlear implants, an increasing number of Deaf people are “choosing the oral route”. This means they choose speech and hearing to communicate rather than sign language, and they choose not to identify as part of the Deaf community (they may in fact reject it) but associate only with the wider hearing community. It is feared that this process of assimilation may threaten the continued existence of the Deaf community (Page 8).


Focus group participants made regular reference to the role of mainstreaming in fragmenting and weakening the Deaf community. According to one participant, mainstreaming produces hierarchies between Deaf children, unlike Deaf schools, which facilitated a strong and often lifelong bond between Deaf people. Mainstreaming contributes to the distortion of Auslan and the use of non-traditional communication techniques, eventually working to dilute and undermine the community:

When kids are mainstreamed in school you see the young kids and they mix more with hearing people. They go off, that one can speak well, they can mix with a hearing person. If the other kid can’t speak so well, they feel more stupid and isolated because they can’t speak as well as the others” (Page 8).

Focus group participants raised concerns over the emotional effect of mainstreaming Deaf children, which can produce feelings of isolation. One participant admitted that although he had been integrated successfully into a mainstream high school, he spent some of his time feeling “suicidal”. Clearly, the voice of Deaf people is being overpowered by that of the dominant majority, reinforcing a collective memory of oppression and disempowerment, and reiterating the creation of a binary opposition between hearing and Deaf people:

Who are these hearing people, these hearing professionals, these teachers, these doctors, my parents? These people who made me think I was hearing? These people who had no experience of being Deaf… And I felt like, I can’t believe it. I’ve been ripped off! That they made a decision on my behalf” (Page 8).

A Sense of Place

External factors currently influencing the Australian Deaf community may also in fact be eroding – in some cases destroying – the community’s sense of place. Place creates a sense of identity, home, power and connection – it is heavily linked to the construction of self, arguably “the most fundamental form of embodied experience” (Page 9).

The relationship between place, people and identity is particularly meaningful within the context of Deaf people and Deaf Clubs. Most Deaf people are born into hearing families who do not sign and are unfamiliar with the ways of the Deaf community. They therefore acquire their Deaf culture, language, norms and values – and thus their Deaf identity – from different sources, including Deaf Clubs. The identity that Deaf people ascribe to themselves largely occurs through the Club and their community. For many Deaf people who have been brought up in hearing families, initial contact with Deaf Clubs does not occur until adolescence or adulthood. For some, this experience is seen as a significant turning point in their life as it enables them to recognise a hitherto submerged experience as a socially shared one. It may represent the discovery of their “real” identity and true “home”. One focus group participant recalled his first experience, at age 16, of Stanmore Deaf Club:

“I learnt so much there. The Deaf Club was where I was born again, so to speak. Life started there for me” (Page 10).

Like the family home, Deaf Clubs allow space where the routines of existence can be performed, relatively free from external surveillance and hence offering a sense of autonomy. Further, they are fundamental to the fashioning of identity, relationship and belonging. For Deaf people, Deaf Clubs represent feelings of safety. They counter the negative effects of the stigmatisation of Deaf people by providing a safe haven in which deafness, as well as their natural language – sign language – is valued and nurtured as part of a positive identity rather than discredited (Page 10).

The advancement of technology is one of the main reasons behind the disappearance of Deaf Clubs in Australia, which began in the 1980s, and their decline was further intensified by the growth of mainstreaming, which weakened connections between young Deaf school-leavers and dispersed Deaf people around regional areas as well as big cities (Page 11).

Like Deaf Clubs, Deaf Schools were material spaces that generated feelings of cohesion and belonging – or a sense of place – for the Deaf community. Deaf Schools allowed Deaf children to learn about Deaf culture and sign language. Importantly, they allowed Deaf children to develop a positive Deaf identity. Due to the shift in education towards mainstreaming, however, Deaf Schools have been phased out, destroying the Deaf community’s sense of place, and the notion of connection between members in the process. Recalling his experiences of a Deaf School in Queensland one focus group participant noted:

We all knew each other, we grew up together. And when we left school we still knew each other. I left in 1971 and in 1979 the school actually closed and kids were sent to mainstream, different schools, government schools. Then by 1981 the school had completely closed… Before we knew each other, now we’re meeting people and we go “oh, who are you? Where are you from?” (Page 11).

A sense of displacement seemed to permeate the focus group discussion, and was associated not only with the demise of Deaf Clubs or Deaf Schools, but also reflected more general feelings towards change in the community. This strong negative affect was interpersonal, and was shared amongst members of the group:

Sometimes I feel disconnected. I guess I know I’ve got my friends and community and I’ve got connections there but the core of the community is gone and that’s painful to me. There’s just this emptiness there” (Page 11).

Older Deaf people express concern for the vulnerability of younger generations who no longer have the protection of Deaf Clubs (and through them a sense of “community”) to help develop and nurture a healthy Deaf identity. One focus group participant noted:

Most of the people in my youth group – they’ve got no self-esteem. They’ve got no confidence. And I remember I got confidence from the community. That’s where I learnt how to get involved. They haven’t got that. They’re really lacking that. Where are they supposed to get that from? Their self-image is very negative” (Page 12).

Reference: Ingrid van Steenwyk. (2008). Going, going, but not gone: the impact of social and technological influences on the Australian Deaf community. Anthropology Matters Journal, Vol 10 (2). Pages 1 – 12.