Stan Batson began at the Victorian Deaf and Dumb Institution in 1940. His experiences growing up deaf are very different to the experiences of our children now. In sharing his story, Stan offers us a unique perspective on where we have come from – and the significance of the opportunities that children are given today. Please click through the tabs below to see Stan’s perspectives as a Deaf boarder throughout the Second World War, and his thoughts on language, deafness and his achievements after school.
Vale Stan Batson
We were greatly saddened to learn of Stan Batson’s passing. Stan has made such an enormous contribution to the Deaf community and he has been a big part of Deaf Children Australia. Stan made our history come alive with his evocative stories. We send our condolences to Stan’s loving family.
Coming to School in 1940
At the age of eight in 1940, I was really scared when passing the big gates under the trees on the driveway to come to the school in St Kilda Road. A huge grey stone building was waiting to welcome me and reminded me of what I had seen at the pictures, there seemed to be a lot of ghosts there. In addition when I was with my parents, I came into the Boys yard just before teatime. I saw boys with disabled arms or legs and foot.
I was very lucky to have a good teacher (Miss Brooks now known as Mrs Spicer. She was the first Principal at Princess Elizabeth Kindergarten in 1950`s). I felt comfortable using the sign language which I learnt through old pupils who were the boarders.
Life as a Boarder
I remained as a boarder till 1949 coping with the large number of deaf boys waiting for the Princess Elizabeth Kindergarten building at Burwood to be ready collecting the small boys.
As a boarder for 9 years, I felt I didn’t miss anything. I had great friends and communication.
When I was 11 or 12, I played cricket and football. I was not so confident when I was first given a football. One father at the school was the Chairman and he thought it wasn’t right that we were such wusses – so he wanted all of us to play football. Soon we were pushing and shoving like other boys our age. We played matches against Wesley and South Yarra School.
When I went home during school holidays, I lived at Colac then Apollo Bay and Lorne.
I was born totally deaf, and felt my intelligence was limited in the general conversation in the hearing world. I was lucky to spend a lot of time in my Father`s big store with spare parts which I loved to check on a big sheet.
Our first car was a Buick and I remember my parents took me in that Buick to lots of doctors to check my hearing. They would use the tuning forks which were loud for my Mother and Father but I couldn’t hear a thing. Mum would look at me sadly.
As a young boy, I always looked at my Mum with finger spellings when we met people in the street or at shops. I asked Mum at home about the people we met for more details to find out where they come from. My English wasn’t fantastic.
My Mum was very good with fingerspelling with little signs and she would translate for me. Father had no time to learn but he was a good father. He was hardly seen as he was always on the road. When he was in town, he would go to Collins St in the city to find out the latest news about deafness. People from all around our town would come to our home to find out the latest news from my Dad. He always visited me at school almost every month when he went to transport meetings in Melbourne. I would get grumpy sometimes because he would always come at playtime.
He was very sorry for not learning the sign language but he always wrote messages to me down in the foyer with home news. The messages were always in his beautiful writing on his business diary book. I would nod obligingly but I couldn’t understand. I often asked for some pages to be torn out and he would put them in my front pocket. Then I would ask older pupils to explain what some words meant – so I could get the family news. I never asked the teachers for help reading the messages. I think it was common that children lacked confidence then.
I loved going out with my Dad in his transport business down the Great Ocean Road and the Colac run to Apollo Bay. This was my ‘firm’ dream to follow him up in the transport industry. I would sit in the truck and watch the road. I loved looking over the hills. It was almost like a holiday and better than sitting in the kitchen. I was a good boy and I tried to please my Dad. I watched him work and I loved the trucks.
My family was alright in the plain communication plus a lot of cousins, who were very good company but only during school holidays. I loathed hearing friends looking at my face. Hearing aids didn’t work for me at all. Trying to be oral just mixed things up for me.
I only have one brother and he is hearing. I called him ‘Bubba’ because I was the eldest. My brother learned a little Auslan. We made up some of our signs at home but communication was difficult. There were limitations in education. We were given short sentences to learn in writing. Mum would give me short sentences in finger spelling. Later, my finger spelling and my language improved.
I noticed a big difference between my brother’s schoolwork and mine. I had no homework but I would try to read the newspaper. When I left school at the age of sixteen, I felt my education level was really about the level of Grade 3. I received my first prize one year when we were breaking up for Christmas. The Superintendent presented me with a prize that said ‘Fantastic writing of sums and English’. I liked to copy everything but I couldn’t understand very much.
Marysville in World War II
During the war, we lost some our teachers. Some went to war and three older teachers retired when all the students had to escape to Marysville from 1942 – 1944. Daily students became the boarders at Marysville. It was really like a big family in the magnificent bush. It was wonderful learning so much about the environment. We would chat away about the bush and the flowers.
I found it more strange when we came back to St Kilda Road School in 1944 from Marysville. I felt lost and imprisoned. The daily pupils came and went. There was no more discussion. All finished. I was a lot older than most of the students because the other older ones had left by then. It wasn’t the same community.
At school, I copied and wrote in italics from the blackboard. The teacher gave me a big tick and good marks for nice writing but I was too scared to ask him what the story was about. I didn’t have the confidence. I did not understand the whole story – I didn’t understand most of what I had written.
We weren’t supposed to sign at school. Teaching was completely oral at the time. But language makes us. Facial expression and body language is really important too. Sometimes, we were slapped when we signed. Oralism ricocheted across to other schools and it was forbidden to sign in other schools set up in the country. The teachers thought that if we signed, we were a bit stupid.
Now at present, looking at the Victorian College of the Deaf, there is a big difference compared with my school in 1940. I was shocked to see present students signing to any teacher with a lot of confidence. I would never have had that confidence in my wildest dreams. Now, every wall in the classroom is covered with posters etc. Our walls only had the Latin alphabet and numbers. We would try to copy them out but I wouldn’t understand.
There were no resources for my Mum to learn sign language. She only learned what I could teach her. What I taught my mum pales into insignificance compared to what parents can learn now. To be able to communicate with their children in so many ways – both oral and signing – is wonderful.
I think cochlear implants are like glasses. They can help if you’re deaf like glasses can help if you can’t see well. But if your child is born totally deaf, it’s important to provide options for the hearing culture and the Deaf culture. Perhaps parents are wary of sign language but see what your child is comfortable with.
The babies now are lucky. They have resources to help their parents learn how to sign with them. I was so nervous and missed out on so much as a boy.
It’s great to give parents the responsibility for teaching their child to communicate well. Simple signs like aunty, grandma etc. To be able to learn to sign at an early age is very good. They can learn oralism and sign language. It is every child’s right to decide.
When I was growing up, Sign Languages were not widely recognised as proper languages with their own grammar and syntax. Deaf culture and deaf history were not talked about.
Later, I thought ‘Where are my rights to use my language? I want to instil pride in Deaf culture.” Now, I have four children and grandchildren. The next generations are all hearing but they all sign too. They can’t understand me when I use oralism but they can understand sign.
In 1987, The Federal Government finally recognised AUSLAN (Australian Sign Language) as the true language for born-deaf people.
I did not even know that AUSLAN is Deaf`s first language till when I was 56 years old.
“Language we make also makes us”is a well known motto in the Deaf world.
I must admit that Auslan plus a huge number of technical gadgets are already there and notice a big diversity in the Deaf world is about “famous” attitude which we can feel comfortable to share with my favourite motto:
“To your own self you must be true… Be who you are and be proud of it.”
– Stan Batson
I was really lucky when I left school because I could go into my Dad’s transport business. Most of the time, I worked on inventories in parts. I would copy the names of things and later, I became a driver. I did office work and would take money to the bank. A woman would come with me to write the cheques. I felt quite fortunate and I picked up a lot of education at work. The other bosses could finger spell and sign a little bit. I signed more with my Dad’s loyal friends than I did with Dad.
When I was 60 and Dad was very old, he told me that he was very regretful that he never learned to sign. He wanted to learn my language. When I was a boy, he thought I was really disabled but then he saw how much I could do. He thought there was segregation for the deaf and he didn’t understand.
When I had young children and my wife and I had moved to England where she had been born, my Dad wanted me to come home. He had a bad heart but rather than writing to me, he travelled four weeks on a boat to England to speak with me. His company, TransOtway, was in a big mess and he said he needed me. I was very focussed at work and wouldn’t get distracted talking on the phone.
My Dad really relied on me and loved me. He had a lot of confidence in me by then and he always made sure I was comfortable. He wasn’t really like a boss. There was always a generational difference but we got closer when I was older.
My Dad sold the business later and I retired at 52. I started volunteering in the Deaf community – at the John Pierce Centre and at Vicdeaf. I visit those in prison and the elderly. I have improved my English, writing and typing. My wife could hear until she was three when she lost it through meningitis. She is very good at writing and helps me a lot with my English. She loves reading and history like me.
Due to my experiences growing up during the Second World War, I love the history of the War, Australia and families in UK and Ireland plus interesting details from the Deaf world through old pupils.
Now, I am writing a book which is both a family history and a deaf history. Not enough deaf people have written books. I am the Director of the Australian Communication Exchange and I help deaf people through this work as well.