When Young Australian of the Year and deaf advocate Drisana Levitzke-Gray visited DCA recently, it was fantastic that she was able to talk to so many students and meet up with families. For those of you who couldn’t join us, we thought you may like to read Drisana’s inspiring and insightful presentation she gave on the Family Day:
‘Kids need to feel they can be proud’
“I am glad to be able to come to Melbourne to spend time with the community here. Obviously I am a Deaf person. I have grown up Deaf. My parents are both Deaf. My mother went to school here in Melbourne. I have a Deaf brother Joshua who has two children who are right here. I am very proud of them. Both Ashleigh and Zachary are hearing. As an aunty, I was holding them when they were twenty minutes old. We were very happy that they were twins – both happy, healthy babies.
They did the hearing test and gave us the thumbs up. ‘Their ears are good’ was the reaction from professionals. ‘They are hearing.’ Does that mean we are not good? We are the opposite? So that was a big impact on us. It is the perspective of hearing professionals that being hearing is good and being deaf is not good. I am not bad – I am good. I work, I study, I am happy, I am about to be married… I have beautiful healthy kids in the family. So what’s good or bad about that?
It was interesting to have hearing children born into the family. As we are all Deaf, we had our perfectly normal Deaf way of life. So Auslan is still always going to be the children’s first language. I am able to communicate with them in their first language. They are six now – almost seven.
I am the fifth generation of Deaf women in my family. Some of you might remember Dorothy Shaw – a major advocate. She is my great grandmother. She helped set up what was the Australian Association of the Deaf which is now called Deaf Australia. She helped get captions on TV, lobby for TTYs for phone calls, she made a lot of things available for the deaf people of Australia – along with her peers and colleagues who really helped petition for their rights.
My grandmother was world champion of ten pin bowling twice. She was involved in Boards and fundraising for sports. I am not heavily involved in sports. The first generation of my family was heavily involved. Australian Deaf Games weren’t in existence then. She would rally people together – particularly young people – to participate in the Deaf carnivals. She was very much about bringing community together.
I am very fortunate to come from a long line of Deaf people who are very strong, proud Deaf people who are also determined to get things done. But it’s not just about me or other people who come from Deaf families. We are all part of a Deaf community. All of us are a family together and this is our community. As a young Deaf person, I want to make sure I am connecting with all families to encourage them to pass on the culture and community’s strength – a language that exists for the Deaf community and all people, all community. Kids need to feel they can be proud of their heritage. People need to be proud of being Deaf.
Growing up part of two worlds
I have an older brother who is Deaf as well. Parents thought I would be Deaf. After I was born, they got home from hospital, threw the keys on the table and I reacted to the sound. So they thought, ‘Maybe she’s hearing, oh well’. A door slammed and I didn’t react. They thought, ‘Maybe she’s Deaf. Is she hearing? Is she Deaf?’ There was confusion until I was tested. They found I was half deaf in both ears. My parents were like, ‘What do we do now? There is the Deaf world and the hearing world and we have a daughter who belongs to both. What we will do is that we will give her everything.’
Auslan is my first language and was always going to be my first language. I started producing signs from the age of eight months old. I developed literacy skills as I was going along. They asked if I wanted to wear hearing aids. I said I didn’t. They asked me again later on. I said, ‘No’. In Prep, the other kids would be reading books and I wondered what they were doing. My visiting teacher said, ‘Why don’t you give hearing aids a go?’ I loved them.
My hearing loss is 55 decibels. Hearing people typically have a hearing loss of 10 to 20 decibels. I was able to wear hearing aids and that brought my hearing up to around a 30 decibel gain so that brought me to around 25 decibels hearing loss. I heard quite well with the hearing aids and I spoke quite well. Hearing aids would have no benefit for my parents and brother who are profoundly deaf. I was able to engage in conversations and on the phone. As I got older, I started to lose my hearing gradually. One on one conversations started to become harder and phone conversations became more challenging. I started converting to TTYs. I started to get more frustrated. At home and in my community, I could understand everyone and everything but in the hearing world, I was coming up against barriers. People were constantly coming back to me with frustration that I couldn’t hear any more.
Learning to advocate
My brother and I were both in a mainstream primary school. My brother had an interpreter. I did not. I used FM systems to assist with communication. As I prepared for high school – and subjects like English, maths and science became more intense – I realised I wasn’t going to be able to hear on my own so I called for interpreters.
And it was a shame that my family and myself had to struggle to get interpreters – which should have just been my right and my choice. I had a wonderful visiting teacher. We were able to speak and sign together and she was one of the few visiting teachers who could sign. My parents advocated and said to my VT we would like an interpreter to try for a term. I had never had that experience before for a term. The VT was really reticent and said, ‘Drisana, you can hear fine, you don’t need an interpreter’.
Thankfully, my parents are very assertive. My parents said, ‘Drisana can speak one on one but we want her to have full access for her education’. My visiting teacher refused so we had to appeal and go higher and higher in the education system. We ended up getting rid of the VT. It’s really unfortunate as children need to have as many supports as they can – from parents, from teachers, from visiting teachers. I had to get rid of my support system so I could have interpreter access. I should have been able to have both.
That is really amazing with DCA’s new strategic plan looking at the needs of the child first. It’s not what the parents or the professionals prefer. It’s what the child prefers. If they want a VT, they want hearing aids, they want interpreters, if they want Deaf and hearing friends… They have the right to everything and that is important.
When I went to high school, I went to Shenton College which is a hearing school with a unit for Deaf education. It’s a Deaf education centre – and that was fantastic because they had qualified interpreters, note takers, and a captioning centre for resources and DVDs. We had teachers of the Deaf, Deaf teachers, and Deaf role models. There were 30 students who were signing there. So when we were in mainstream classes with hearing students, we could still go off to lunch with our Deaf friends, able to express ourselves in our native language.
There were many teachers that weren’t able to sign. I experienced a lot of barriers in high school. A lot of people experienced barriers with teachers – not understanding Deaf culture and Deaf experience. In Year 9 and 10, I was proceeding quite well with English. At that time, English was my second language. I am now learning a sixth language.
I am fluent in English but like any young person, I was still learning how to write essays. I was average to above average according to age appropriate skills. So I was doing quite well. I remember one day one of the teachers of the Deaf sat down with me. She couldn’t sign so I had to lip read as best I could. She said, ‘Your teacher has said your English is a bit of a problem. You’re not doing terribly well. I think you might need one on one tuition after school.’
Fortunately, my parents always spoke to me about my rights, my preferences or what they could be. I asked my parents what I should do. They said, ‘You can find a solution for yourself. If you are unable to resolve things Mum and Dad can come in and help you as your parents, as adults.’ I wasn’t an adult but they really tried to empower me to make those decisions for myself. I said to the teacher, ‘Thank you for letting me know. My English teachers in the mainstream have never told me anything, they have never written to my parents about this being a problem. I would like to know where you are getting this information from.’
She said ‘Well we look after you’. I said, ‘No, no. The teacher needs to let me know and inform my parents and then we can find some sort of active solution. Thank you for the offer but first, you can’t sign. Do you honestly think you can teach me better when the class teacher speaks, the interpreter is able to interpret the information, and I am able to put this together in terms of the work I am doing? I would like a Deaf tutor so I can get direct tuition in the same language without a mediator.’
The school said they weren’t going to pay. My parents paid for a young Deaf university student studying law and journalism to give me English tuition in my first language. It turned out I was fine but I certainly improved. Fortunately, my parents were strong enough to let me know I could make the decision about what to do. Not all Deaf kids have that. They don’t have the strength to say, ‘That might not be the best solution for me’. So I think high school started me on my journey of advocacy and strong will – to make sure that students are getting the right access and services.
Many Deaf students obviously come from hearing families who might not know what the rights of their child are. They may not know the best strategies. It’s not the parents’ fault but it means that children might become more passive, less able to stand up for themselves. I remember other students would come up to me and say, ‘They have put me in detention’. Sometimes it was their problem. Other times, they may have gone to class with a hearing teacher and had problems that weren’t their fault. At 15 or 16, I was standing up to professionals who were trying to abuse their power.
As a young person, they didn’t want to listen to me. They would say, ‘You can’t talk to us like that’. But it’s about the issue, the resolution we need to make. Age shouldn’t be a barrier to that and gender shouldn’t be a barrier.
High school was a hard time and I’m glad it’s over but I think, ‘Thanks for the experiences’. I wouldn’t have the strength of character and the assertiveness if I didn’t go through that. It was part of my journey and it leads me to where I am today to encourage parents and Deaf children and everyone to be involved in Deaf children’s lives so they have opportunities to grow, to develop their potential. They have the right to be respected. Obviously, I’m passionate about this.
‘I know as a Deaf person, I am capable to do anything I want to do’
I had some negative experiences but I still had a very happy childhood. I had hearing friends, Deaf friends… I was involved in Deaf community theatre groups and youth groups. I travelled not only in Australia but to Spain when I was 14, and Europe again when I was 16. I travelled around the world when I was 19. I have lived in Denmark and New York City. I became Young Australian of the Year in 2015. So as a bilingual, bicultural Deaf person, I am a living example of what is possible for any other deaf person around the country to achieve.
What I have, what I have enjoyed, I want other young people to enjoy that. That means we have to work with families and the systems in place in communities and I will do what I can to provide support. It is only with others that we can get the best for our children so they succeed in life. I’m not saying there aren’t amazing supports around the country. I have met so many people who have inspired and emboldened me to believe in myself and know that the dreams I hold have no limits, no ceilings. I know as a Deaf person, I am capable to do anything I want to do.
The current generation of deaf children are looking very bright and their futures even brighter.
I advocate particularly around barriers and advocacy. My main target is for Deaf children to have access to sign language from birth. I am working with Woolworths as a workplace advocate. They have sponsored me to go to Canberra to meet ministers about the rights of deaf children. I have met with five ministers including an advisor to the Prime Minister. I will meet with more ministers soon.
Help Drisana advocate
I am asking the government to fund an Auslan for families program. In WA, our program helps families develop the language to have discussions with the deaf child/ren. A qualified Deaf Auslan teacher and role model comes in to teach families language around going to the shops or it can be around any particular activity like bath time, going out to dinner… so there is genuine authentic communication with the child and the family. They are all learning together. I want to ask the government, ‘You seem to have a great bias for all this funding for augmented hearing technology. I am not suggesting that you fund that any less but I would like to see an equal access to Auslan for families so children have access to everything.’
The third point I am making to the ministers is the person in the hospital – the doctor – tells parents, ‘You need to do this and that’. But they should also have someone who can provide insights. I would like to ensure hospitals also provide a Deaf role model. Then parents could have an opportunity to question the doctor and the Deaf person. What’s your life been like? What was your schooling like? What is your employment situation? Do you have a family? Parents need reassurance. I would personally be happy to go and visit every family if I could.
They need to meet people who can put their mind at ease. Their Deaf child’s life will be fine but they need that information. If that information is not given to parents, it increases their anxiety about their child’s future. Yes, I come from a Deaf family and we’re the lucky ones but that doesn’t mean that we should be the only lucky or privileged ones. Every family should get the same kind of support. My parents had that information. The hearing stats are not the important thing about your child. They will have a good life. They will have opportunities for great relationships, to study, to go to university to work, et cetera, et cetera.
I need everyone to get involved to get the momentum moving. Send in stories of your experiences to the government to prove there are people out there who have been suffering through lack of education and lack of access, and believe in the idea that their children should have access to everything.
I am only one person. I will do everything within my power but I am only one person. If we all work together, we can all share the power and really make change.”
Deaf Children Australia’s Executive General Manager Strategy and Projects Rebecca Adam also urged everyone to become advocates: “Drisana is one voice and using her platform as Young Australian of the Year to promote her agenda and her advocacy. As Drisana said, each one of you is vital and each deaf child is vital. So find your voice and make it heard by all service providers including DCA, educational providers, the wider Australian community and the Australian government. We want other voices to be raised so they are equally assertive. You can contact DCA through our helpline at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 1800 645 916.”