Have you noticed Auslan (Australian Sign Language) interpreters on TV with the Prime Minister, Premiers, other Ministers and emergency officials over the last 6 months as we’ve gone through fire, flood and plague crises? Have you noticed how much interest and comment they have attracted from the media and the general public? And have you noticed even on the Wiggles, Emma Watkins (aka “the Yellow Wiggle”) has been inserting snippets of Auslan in song and dance routines, just as other pop culture performers have incorporated Auslan into their commercial performances, comedy routines, or video clips? As a proud member of the Deaf community I know I should feel excited, even thrilled, to see such unprecedented attention from the mainstream hearing world on my community’s language and needs.

And yet, as a 3rd generation Deaf, native Auslan signer I can’t help feeling somewhat ambivalent.

Let me be clear at the outset – I definitely see the positives. I appreciate the awareness all the publicity brings to the fact that Deaf people exist, amongst those who otherwise might never give us a thought. I welcome the way the attention on Auslan enhances its status in the community and legitimises it as the natural language of the Deaf. I applaud the boost in awareness of the importance of inclusion and accessibility for the Deaf community. And I know that the little girl I once was would have been thrilled to see a Wiggle signing, and I’m glad that Deaf children today get the opportunity to see that which I never did at their age.

So why do I feel ambivalent? Why, when I see hearing interpreters (through no fault of their own) being interviewed by the mainstream news media about Auslan (and not just about interpreting as such) do I feel even more excluded and invisible? When seeing a hearing musician or performer distort or mangle my beloved Auslan to fit it into their lyrical cadence or rhyme or punchline or just when I see them “show off” their basic level Auslan to impress their fans/followers/groupies/mum why do I feel my eyes roll and just a bit resentful, even “ripped off”.

Let me try and explain, as a multi-generational Deaf native Auslan signer with Deaf grandparent, Deaf parents, Deaf siblings, Deaf aunts, uncles and cousins etc, why I, and many others like me, have come to feel this way. First I need to explain what Auslan means to me – what it is, and more importantly what it isn’t. Auslan is NOT a creation of “clever” hearing people, like teachers of the Deaf, or speech pathologists, invented to provide accessibility to poor disabled deaf kids, the “lesser” alternative for the ones too “dumb” to learn how to speak. Auslan is also NOT a “play-thing” for the amusement of the hearing – so they can use it as a novelty trick or to gain social kudos for learning a few basic signs. It is NOT just an adjunct to English – a different and imperfect mode of essentially the same language – for the use of the hearing impaired and anyone else who finds a use for it.

For me and those like me it is none of those things. For us, Auslan is our birthright. It is our “mother tongue”, our only natural language. It is our means of deep connection with each other, with our friends and family and with our own inner thoughts. It is the means by which we can fully express ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, our intellects. It is therefore to us, an indispensable enabler to being fully human.

I can’t forget how Auslan and its many international antecedents and equivalents originated. They were created by Deaf people like me, forged in the fire of oppression, stigma, exclusion, disempowerment, abuse, and all the mental illness and intergenerational trauma that flows from that. Their sign language was their tool to subvert that oppression. To rise above it. To form the bonds of Deaf Community in which they could find comradeship, love, and above all, the most critical weapon in the mental and spiritual armoury of any Deaf person – resilience. Sign languages have always been to the Deaf our totem of resilience, both individual and communal. And for centuries these languages have been nurtured, developed and passed on by Deaf people like me, for the purpose of overcoming this never-ending cycle of oppression and exclusion and forming the foundations of Deaf Community pride and resilience in every place and time they have been allowed to flourish.

Yes, it is our birthright. But with rights come responsibilities, and as multigenerational Deaf, the Deaf of Deaf, Auslan is also our responsibility. Our responsibility to be its custodians – to protect, to nurture and to enhance it. To keep it alive in the face of attempts by ill-informed hearing “professionals” or pathologists or technology extremists to suppress or subjugate it. To keep it pure when others seek to colonise it, or corrupt it into a pidgin signed form of a spoken language. To continually renew it and evolve it and adapt it as the world changes, as every other living language does, to keep it fit for purpose. And above all, to be there to pass on its magic to every generation of Deaf who did not have the good fortune to be born into a Deaf family, who are often forced to subordinate their own natural communication needs to suit the convenience of those close to them. To induct them into the subtleties and intricacies and etiquette of Auslan and thus help them pass through the portal to their Deaf cultural awakening. Because Auslan is unquestionably both the beating heart, and the most defining manifestation of Australian Deaf culture, and by extension, Deaf identity.

You see, it is not necessarily that Deaf people feel that they own their sign language either in the legal sense, or in the sense that an artist feels moral or spiritual ownership of their work. It is more that they feel they belong to it, and it is at the very root of who they are. It is this that differentiates Deaf sign languages from spoken languages despite those also being key cultural touchstones for their native speakers.

It is not unlike the way our First Nations people have explained they feel about the concept of “Country”. That it is more a sense of belonging than a sense of entitlement. After two centuries of sometimes wilful misunderstanding, we have learned to respect that relationship between First Nations people and their “Country”. At almost all public events now we go to great pains to give an acknowledgement of country, to pay our respects to the specific local First Nations people on whose traditional country the activity is to be enjoyed. Wherever possible at major events a representative of those first Nations people is invited to give a “Welcome to Country” – to demonstrate that the show of respect is genuine and inclusive. To do otherwise, to ignore First Nations relationship with the land altogether, or for a white person to attempt to substitute with a token “Welcome”, would rightly be perceived as offensive. So it is with Deaf people and Auslan. When it is used without acknowledgement of us who belong to it, and for a purpose to which we do not consent, we are offended. That’s cultural insensitivity.

Does this sense of custodianship make us feel somewhat proprietary towards Auslan? Absolutely! And that means when we teach it to you, we impart to you a sacred trust – that you will use it properly and faithfully, to the best of your ability, and that you will use it for the purpose of engaging with us more fully, or becoming a bridge to help us make sense of the hearing world, or engage with the hearing world on our own terms. Even when we seek to commercialise our knowledge of Auslan so that we might make a living from it, and you then invest financially in learning it from us, we see that transaction as a lease not a sale. And it comes with conditions – that you use it for the purpose intended and respect the sacred trust.

When the famous Maori haka is performed before a game by the NZ rugby team it is done with the express consent of New Zealand Maori community and this consent is conditional on it being performed faithfully in accordance with cultural conventions and traditions, and with conviction. It is usually led not by the captain, but by the senior Maori in the team (who may sometimes also be the captain). At the same time all the All Blacks players, including the non-Maori, are included in the performances and all are expected to learn to do it proficiently, respectfully and in a manner faithful to its cultural traditions. When some American football teams, with no Maori players or heritage, started adapting the haka to their own ends, and not doing it well or faithfully, it was seen as disrespectful and was a source of great consternation to Maori people. So it is for Deaf native Auslan signers when we see Auslan used without our consent, or distorted, or mocked, or infantilised, or shown as in any way lesser in sophistication or status as any other language. That’s cultural appropriation.

When a hearing artist or performer or social influencer or other assorted celebrity co-opts our language, incorporates it into (of all things) a musical performance, takes it out of its cultural context, and then does so without acknowledgement of our community, of our cultural ownership of this language, and even more when they do so for their own commercial or other purpose and for no particular benefit to our community – that’s also cultural appropriation.

Similarly, we have learned at the cost of much regret for past pain inflicted, that it is disempowering, patronising and wrong for the white descendants and beneficiaries of colonial dispossession, however well-intentioned they may be, to seek to lead or represent First Nations people, to be their “voice” or their “saviour”. To do so is to crowd out the space for their own indigenous leaders and role models who are so necessary to inspire new generations towards progress, and to further perpetuate discrimination and exclusion. So it is when hearing people, regardless of qualifications or positive intent, are publicly cast in the role of spokesperson for Auslan or for the Deaf Community (the two are indivisible), or is appointed to a leadership position in an organisation which purports to represent the Deaf Community, or is employed or acts as an Auslan teacher or Auslan consultant when there are undoubtedly Deaf people who could perform such a role. That is cultural disempowerment.

Now, let me be clear, I am not for a moment saying that the Deaf Community doesn’t need or value hearing allies. We very much appreciate them, and not least our much needed Auslan interpreters, some of whom you will have seen recently on TV doing great work as emergency services interpreters for public officials. They have given us much richer access to the news and information we’ve needed at very anxious times and they have, while in the public spotlight, used our beloved Auslan faithfully, and respectfully, with our consent and to our benefit. They have “done justice to our haka” and we thank and applaud them for that. We have always valued and supported their status as professionals and their right to be properly remunerated as such.

We appreciate even more those hearing parents and siblings and friends of Deaf children who love them enough to want to learn Auslan, often against the misguided and self-serving advice of medical “experts”, so as to adapt their communication to meet the needs of the Deaf child rather than forcing the Deaf child to attempt (and usually fail) to adapt to theirs. It is you who will enable our community to have a future and we will always be willing to teach you Auslan with patience, and make allowances while you learn.

For others that would be allies in promoting Auslan, especially those with platforms in the mainstream media or large followings on social media, we just want you to ask yourselves a few questions:

  1. When using Auslan in a public forum, are you using it correctly and have you consulted a suitable Deaf Auslan expert to ensure that is so?
  2. Have you taken every opportunity to acknowledge the Deaf Community and people from whom you sourced the language, and to ensure Deaf people are visible in your show or platform so that the people whom you seek to expose to Auslan see it in the context of the people who belong to it, and not just a language in isolation? Have you done your “acknowledgment of country”?
  3. Is your use of Auslan, in the context you’re using it, for the benefit of the Deaf community, and not, consciously or otherwise, to benefit yourself? If the former, have you taken guidance from Deaf community leaders or organisations on how you might best do this? Are you facilitating Deaf agency, and not inhibiting it? And are you sure you are not performing a role, or worse, a paying job, that might best be done by a Deaf person?

To those that can answer these questions in the affirmative, we value and appreciate you too.

To those that can’t, we say, politely but firmly: “HANDS OFF”!

Darlene Thornton (13 May 2020)

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Darlene Thornton

As a third-generation Deaf Australian, Darlene has been involved with teaching, training, researching and writing on Auslan, Auslan linguistics, Sign Language interpreting, and Australian Deaf History for over 20 years.

Being a voluntary Deaf Interpreter/Translator on and off for many years, Darlene has seen how this “industry” has evolved over time in Australia and has been involved with much dialogue on the development of the profession.

Her passions lie in both Auslan linguistics and Australian Deaf History – she enjoys the hunt and likes to explain how languages work.