Speaking my language: Indigenous deaf sign

Indigenous deaf sign languages are some of the oldest in the world, but they are vastly different to Auslan or Signed English - it’s a gap that can leave Deaf Aboriginal Australians isolated

Andrew Trounson, University of Melbourne

Published 27 October 2017

Jody Barney calls it the “switch.”

The daughter of an Aboriginal and South Sea Islander father and a white mother of Irish heritage, she’s describing switching from one culture to another and from one language to another. But not just spoken language, sign language too.

Like many Deaf or hard of hearing Aboriginal people, Ms Barney’s first language is her Queensland Indigenous community’s cultural sign language. These are the world’s oldest sign languages and there are over a dozen of them still in use.

And they are profoundly different from Australia’ mainstream sign language, Auslan.

Picture: PublicDomainPictures.net

I ask her to show me. She ‘talks’ through an Auslan interpreter. She tells me that in Auslan the sign for kangaroo is a visual one, and puts out her hand like two paws, bouncing them. But in many Aboriginal sign languages, a kangaroo is a fist turned sideways knocking back and forth.

“Our cultural sign languages are very different from Auslan because they are more culturally bound. The signs are less obvious and less iconic in that they aren’t based so much on what something looks like,” says Ms Barney.

The origin of Aboriginal signing is cultural and ceremonial, addressing for example taboos on speaking, facilitating hunting, or communicating women’s and men’s business.

“Aboriginal signs are perceived very differently by someone using Auslan, and Auslan can’t easily capture what is being said.”

But it means that Deaf and hard of hearing Aboriginal people face a double isolation, not just from the different spoken worlds of their Aboriginal community and mainstream Australia, but also from the mainstream Deaf community. And it cuts both ways. For Deaf Aboriginals brought up in Auslan, they are isolated from their own culture.

“Deaf and hard of hearing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are an especially vulnerable group. They face serious issues with mental health, community break down, trauma, and fair access to mainstream services,” says Ms Barney.

Ear diseases and hearing loss among Indigenous Australians has been estimated at as much as ten times the rate among non-Indigenous Australians. These higher rates of hearing loss have knock on effect in education, health and the legal system. In Australia’s Northern Territory is estimated that about 94 per cent of Aboriginal people held in the criminal justice system suffer some form of hearing loss.

“I have seen many Deaf and hard of hearing Aboriginal people who have been through crisis, are suffering from trauma, who have been incarcerated, and it is partly because they have had no one to assist them with communication.”

It is this isolation and disconnect that Ms Barney has spent most of her 30-year professional life working to overcome. Now, in a new project backed by The Atlantic Philanthropies and the University of Melbourne, she will bringing two very different groups of Deaf and hard of hearing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women together to empower them to live more wholly in their multiple worlds.

And as they learn from each other she hopes to create film resource to make it easier for Deaf and hard of hearing Aboriginal people to engage with key services like health, education and the justice system.

Jody Barney (right) meeting other Atlantic Fellows for the first time, at the University of Melbourne. Picture: James Henry

“In my lived experience with communities I often see women, whether Deaf or hard of hearing, becoming automatic care givers and close observers, but they have to live in different worlds,” says Barney.

“They know they are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and they know they are part of the Deaf community, but these two worlds don’t connect.

Starting small she plans to bring three Aboriginal women from Australia’s populous east coast, who have grown up less connected to their culture, together with Aboriginal women from remote communities who themselves have been isolated from the mainstream Deaf community. “It will be an exchange of many signs,” laughs Ms Barney.

“These women don’t have Auslan or any structured language like English. So, what I want is for an immersion to occur.”

And Jody Barney knows what it is like to live in multiple worlds. Born deaf she had an operation as an 8-year-old that allowed her to hear, after which it was another eight years of speech therapy to learn to speak. She remembers her Mum working with her at home, blowing up balloons so she could feel the vibrations in her Mum’s cheeks.

“My mum impressed on me that I had to learn to communicate in all the worlds I am in.”

Complicating the communication issues of her deafness is her Aboriginal and white heritage. Her father is an Aboriginal descended from south sea islanders who were brought to Queensland in the 19th Century to cut cane, and was part of the Stolen Generation - after he was taken from his family and sent to live in a boy’s home.

When her father accompanied her to speech therapy, ten-year-old Jody was so proud to have him there, but the speech therapist couldn’t believe this black man was the father of a fair girl in blonde ponytails.

“When she asked me who he was I saw his facial expression change. He became so mad and I thought for a moment I was in trouble. The speech therapist was so apologetic. She went on to be the best speech therapist to work with me, but it was my first experience of racism.”

But Ms Barney lost her hearing again at age 29 after a bout of meningitis. For the next 10 years she stopped speaking, relying only on sign language.

Finally, at the urging of her parents, she started back with speech and last year spoke again for the first time in public when she gave expert testimony at the Royal Commission into the Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems of the Northern Territory.

The cultural divides she says for Deaf and hard of hearing Aboriginal people also extend into how Indigenous and mainstream cultures treat them. Ms Barney says in Aboriginal communities the Deaf and hard of hearing are simply accepted and have roles to play, while in mainstream Australia the approach is focused on immediately fixing the problem.

There are pros on cons with either she says.

“There isn’t any judgement of Deaf and hard of hearing people within Aboriginal communities, they just move on with it, but in the mainstream there is always these barriers. To an Aboriginal person there are just too many professionals involved when they are more accustomed to an elder or family group helping them.”

“These are the oldest sign languages in the world. We don’t want to lose them. What we want is for these languages to grow so these signs can be shared and transferred to disseminate stories and knowledge, but at the same time provide support for the people using them to engage in the mainstream.

“It is maybe hard for a Deaf person to say this, but people just have to learn to listen more,” she says simply.

The Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity program was established at the University of Melbourne and funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies in 2016. Over the next 20 years the program will create a network of more than 400 change agents, innovators and social provocateurs. The program provides capacity and freedom for social change leaders to create positive social impact at scale.

Banner image: Getty Images

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