Victorian Deaf Youth of the Year Award for Sports and Mental Health Advocacy

Congratulations Caitlin Johnson who won the Victorian Deaf Youth of the Year Award! Deaf Children Australia (DCA) was thrilled to be able to support Deaf Victoria’s Community Awards Night and sponsor the Victorian Deaf Youth Award.

Twenty six year old Caitlin was nominated for demonstrating her passion for access. She has worked hard to improve captioning access in the sports arena, including lobbying for captions in all Basketball Victoria videos and lobbying for Basketball Victoria to provide interpreting support. She has formed a group with deaf peers who all want to grow as referees, coaches and players. Caitlin has also fought for access to interpreters and appropriate support in mental health services. She promotes the message of accessibility through her social media channels. As stated in the nomination, ‘Caitlin reaches out to ensure all deaf youth and their families are aware of the various pathways their journey can take with communication, sport and education.’

In accepting the award, Caitlin said, “I want to thank those who nominated me, those who believed in me and encouraged me to have a go. We all want to live in a world where we have access in all realms of life. It’s one step at a time. I am a big voice but I need your help in lobbying for change.” Later she told us, “I feel blessed to have won this award for my efforts to improve accessibility.”

Fighting for Change in the Mental Health System

“I have experienced depression since I was 12 years old, so I needed support through my school years. I attempted suicide many times and was not able to get the support I required. I needed professional mental health treatment by qualified psychologists and psychiatrists to help me prevent future attempts on my life.

“I was finally diagnosed 13 years later at the age of 25. I am now on track for recovery at last. The school system needs to change for the better to address the emotional wellbeing of those precious deaf and hard of hearing kids in the future. I want them to have the best support in school and at home, and ensure schools have qualified psychological support and can take action straight away. I do not want other kids in mainstream or Deaf schools to go through what I and many others went through now that we have more sophisticated support services available.

“Mental Health services in hospitals in Queensland and Melbourne – where I presented many times – failed me and many others. They let us deaf people wait for hours, forced us to communicate via paper and pen that breached our rights when we requested interpreters over and over. After work hours, it is impossible to book interpreters but the system needs to be fixed NOW. Many deaf, hard of hearing and CODA have suffered with lack of communication access in the hospital system. When we ask for Auslan interpreters, they should give it to us with no excuse.

“Some of us had experience admitted to psychiatric wards, some of us have awful experiences, and I don’t wish this on any future deaf generation. My experience was mixed with negatives and positives. I finally had the best help. But the worst thing is the loneliness, and waiting for the interpreter, and not being able to communicate to anyone without an interpreter. It was so frustrating and humiliating. So I am here now, alive and fighting especially hard to advocate to ensure it does not happen to our future deaf generations.

“My lived experience advice is manage it early, reach out, and ensure professionals step in. It will take a while to find the right therapist, but do not give up so you can enjoy the life you deserve. So please be kind to yourself, and be proud of your identify and speak up when something is not right. Love yourself today and tomorrow.”

Achieving So Many Goals

Caitlin has broken so many barriers as a basketball referee

“I have been a basketball referee for eight years and at times, access has been challenging.

Until the age of 14, I played netball and my mum was a netball umpire. My mum found out there was a deaf basketball team, and I wanted to get into it. I competed in the nationals in 2004. Then I volunteered as a floor sweeper at the Deaflympics 2005 and was able to absorb everything and start trying out for the Australian team.  I got to represent Australia in the 2007 World Deaf Basketball Championships in China and also competed in the 2009 Summer Deaflympics in Taipei.

“Mum encouraged me to become a basketball referee when I finished high school. I started refereeing the next year, and loved it ever since. I then moved to Queensland in 2009 and a friend of mine put me in the basketball association to referee. I moved around until I found the right home in 2012 that looked after me well – that was Logan Basketball Inc.”

As reported in the Gold Coast Bulletin on 10 December 2014, ‘Basketball Queensland CEO Graham Burns said Johnson was the first deaf person to referee at a state level in more than 30 years’. “Our referee development manager identified her as someone with a bit of potential,” Burns said.’Caitlin was mentored regularly by one of the state’s top referees, Toni Caldwell.

‘Caldwell said at the time, “I mentor her but she has helped me learn to communicate better with young referees off and on the floor. She has an amazing personality and that comes through in the way she referees games.”’

Caitlin explained, “I had another mentor, Kelly Haigh, who shaped me day by day since I walked on the floor under Logan Basketball from 2012 up to 2015. I learnt so much with her and she helped me try to understand more about basketball. Off the court, she helped me understand the meaning of life during my times of darkness.

“I refereed Basketball Queensland State Basketball Championships U16 boys in Rockhampton and got a bronze medal game, and a few more U16 -18 state competitions, and the Under 16 Girls in Ispwich. Thankfully, Basketball Queensland provided an interpreter during the U16 Girls State Championships and I managed to referee the Gold Medal U16 game. It was the highlight of my basketball career and I did the U16 Girls Queensland training matches. I refereed many tournaments as well. I loved refereeing the Asia Pacific Deaf Basketball Championships Club Men’s competition in 2012 and refereeing in Japan for the Asia Pacific Deaf Basketball Championships Club in November.

Confronting the Barriers in a Sports Career

Caitlin has competed at an international level as a basketball player.

“When I moved back home to Melbourne, I found out there are tons of opportunities down here, so I did the Victorian Junior Basketball League (VJBL) and Big V and was lucky enough to do VJBL Classics when I just moved back as well as a bronze game for U14 boys. I did the big v first season this year, and VJBL is my second season this year.

It was such a high standard and I was so absorbed with everything. But the barriers were huge and I felt a huge let down. Communicating and the access part was very difficult from time to time since Auslan is my first language. I cannot just bring my first language in the Basketball Victoria community. I cannot speak well with a deaf accent but they think I can lip-read because I can speak. This is why they are not making any effort to provide our needs when we request an interpreter. I am hungry to improve my referee skills and I want to be able to feel confident on the floor and off the floor, to understand what’s going on around me and in the basketball community. I am still struggling with this now. I never felt so lonely in a strong basketball community and I still try to fit in.

“Fortunately, I am lucky to have a few referee fellows, referee coaches and referee coordinators who are willing to try, keen to understand and help me whenever I need. Basketball is one of the strongest sports in Australia so I will keep fighting to install subtitles on every clip and provided qualified interpreters until things change for the Deaf basketball community – as in when one day we don’t need to fight anymore. They will just automatically be provided every single time instead of us asking them. This award makes me hungry to be able to achieve more in access rights.

“I want to say that whether children and young people are deaf or hard of hearing, they are welcome to participate in Deaf sports, and should be encouraged and supported to do so. Their parents should contact deaf sports associations because it can open up so many opportunities like the Deaflympics. Children should feel they can operate in both worlds – Deaf and hearing. To support children and young people to achieve this, we need to continue to lobby to make sports more accessible with more interpreters.”




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