You might be one of those people who has the privilege of speaking more than one language. But what about sign language?
Paula Thornton is third generation deaf. Hers is a full life; lived and experienced and expressed through Auslan – the sign language of the Australian deaf community.
She spoke with Sunday presenter Jess Ong through interpreter Sarah Kennewell, about Australia’s National Week of Deaf People, and the richness that exists in a world without sound. See transcript below:
Jess Ong – Jess with you this morning, and you might be one of those people who has the privilege of speaking more than one language. At school, a whole bookcase full of languages are taught. You can learn Indonesian, Italian, German, Mandarin. But what about sign language? Auslan, Australia’s sign language, is of course a language in its own right, but it’s not really thought of in that sense. It can sometimes be seen by the hearing community more as a means to an end rather than a language like, Greek, Spanish and English that people can be bilingual in. Well, today is the start of the National Week of Deaf people and a few days ago I had the privilege of chatting to Paula Thornton. Paula is Deaf which meant that there was some real logistics that came with interviewing Paula for radio including working out a way for Paula’s interpreter, Sarah Kennewel who was interstate, to see Paula and hear me. You’ll be pleased to know that we managed successfully to do the interview and I am really really proud of the fact that we made it happen. And just a note that you’ll notice some silence in my interview with Paula but the silence doesn’t mean that there’s no communication. This was when Paula and her interpreter Sarah were signing in response to my questions. Before we start I just want to describe the setup.
Basically, Paula, you and I are in the studio but Sarah, you’re Paula’s interpreter and you’re interstate, communicating thanks to technology via an online application. So we’re kind of using both voice, video and sign language which I think is just such a reflection of the modern world and where we are today. It’s quite quite unique.
You’ve just had a break in your career and travelled the world solo for 14 months. Where did you go?
Paula Thornton – Yeah I did. I went to 20 countries in the 14 months I was away. I kept my time traveling between places I. I was really deciding last minute. You know, if I was tired of this country…. So I was travelling around. I went to South America South Africa, Europe the Philippines. All over the place really.
Jess – Sign language of course differs from country to country. You went to over 20 countries. So how did you navigate the different sign languages that are used in those places?
Paula – Being a Deaf person I’m a very visual person so when I was meeting different people from all over the world we were just really using mime and gesture. I guess asking for the toilet, we just you know cross our legs and then kind of put our hands around our pelvis area so you would know that I’m busting go the toilet or if I would wanted to have a drink I would kind of put my hands in my mouth as if I was drinking from the cup. So it was quite easy to communicate with other people. Countries such as Spain and Italy, they’re very good with using gestures. So that was quite easy for me. But other countries that spoke English, I would just use my phone to communicate with other people.
Jess – And what did you notice about these countries and their response to you being Deaf?
Paul – Ah, I think a lot of the time I didn’t realise when I went to a restaurant I would just gesture and they would assume that I’m the hearing person that couldn’t speak their language. For example, I would say “chicken”, so I would be, you know, putting my arms up like I was using my wings and then I would sign a circle around my hands where they would know that I wanted a chicken pizza. That’s just an example. But some people did realise that I was Deaf and they would say, “oh, okay”. I think a lot of people are more open minded and accepting of the Deaf community these days compared to 20 years ago. These days it’s much more comfortable travelling. I think a lot more people are aware and just think, ‘oh that’s just another language that I’m being exposed to’. I haven’t really had anybody walk away from me when I said that I was Deaf, instead they were often determined to communicate with me, but also I think it’s based off my attitude as well, being that I’m very laid back. I think that that makes them more comfortable conversing with me as well.
Jess – It is interesting actually when you think about travelling overseas because there is that language barrier anyway and sign language is a language in its own right, so it is probably is easier in some ways to get around and to communicate, because even when people of the hearing world travel, they do rely on visuals as well. So I wonder is it actually more challenging in your everyday life in Australia where people have that expectation that you speak, that you can understand, can hear and can communicate in English.
Paula – Yeah absolutely. I would find more barriers being home than travelling abroad. I would often bump into Deaf people and I might also search for Deaf people that live in these different countries with very different sign language. There’s also the international sign language that we all use. It’s kind of based on gestures. So that makes it easier for me to converse with a Deaf person overseas. So yeah, definitely it makes it easier for me to travel overseas than being at home.
Jess – I just have to say, this is such an interesting set up for me today to interview someone and have an interpreter involved. But Paula, just watching you and your gestures and talking about describing you ordering a chicken pizza and just how in your body you are, it’s actually really amazing and quite goose bump inducing to watch because you communicate with such joy that I don’t think a lot of people perhaps in the hearing world always do. Paula, you’re from a third generation Deaf family. So what was it like growing up?
Paula – Well I found it normal. So, I’m the last of three girls. When I was about six years old I realised there were people out there that don’t use their hands to communicate. And I thought that sign language is for everybody. Because I had hearing family members that could sign. So I thought that hearing community members could could sign as well. I thought that people who were born with hands could use their hands to communicate.
Jess – And what was it like for you realising that actually not everyone can sign?
Paula – Well, it felt like a huge barrier was built. We couldn’t communicate properly. They wanted me to speak but I couldn’t hear my voice. I wasn’t comfortable using my voice. And it’s easier for that person to learn how to sign because they have hands that they can use. So I realised that I was a minority. With Auslan, we can converse with hearing community members. Is it just another language we use here in Australia. Also, I wanted to add, we use the capital D when we’re discussing Deafness because I am culturally Deaf. We have our community, we have a culture within our community, and we have our own language. I guess it’s the same with a Greek community. They come over here. They have, you know, the capital G in Greek, they have their Greek school here. They they speak Greek at home. They have their community who get together regularly. So that’s the similarity I guess, because I am third generation Deaf, I’m really proud of being Deaf.
Jess – I’m having an interesting three way conversation at the moment with Paula Thornton who’s third generation Deaf and her interpreter Sarah who is helping Paula and I communicate courtesy of some online software.
It’s a beautiful intersection actually, a voice, sign language and vide. Amazing what you can do now in the modern world. Paula you mentioned that you choose to capitalize the D in Deaf. Do you think a lot of society is aware of what difference that means and the enourmity of that distinction between small d and Big D.
Paula – No I think there’s definitely more awareness that needs to be raised because we are such a small minority. I think they’re quite often surprised when I say I’m capital D Deaf. I’m culturally Deaf, not medically Deaf. I think they’re quite surprised when I explain that to them often medically viewed people who view us as being medically Deaf they want to fix us up, but I’m not interested in having my ears fixed. I’m comfortable using the visual language and I’m happy to be Deaf.
Jess – I was also interested that you mentioned how using capital D is similar to the Greek community for example being a capital G for their language, because sign language is a language in its own right. Do you think the stigma and the misunderstanding can be overcome by actually teaching sign language in schools as you would Indonesian or Greek or Italian? Is that a way forward?
Paula – Yes, definitely. I think there needs to be more awareness about Auslan. It’s an Australian language. Most of the schools teach different languages that are not involving Australian languages. In the Northern Territory, that hasn’t been brought up yet which is a shame. So we do need to raise more awareness.
Jess – You said to me Paula earlier that you had a positive upbringing compared to others. What did you mean by that?
Paula – Well positive meaning I had a language from birth. I was born learning sign language and then eventually learned English in the house. Everybody used Auslan. So I missed out on nothing. I had access to language I had access to communication, to the Deaf community, as well as my family members also using technology within the house. We would have subtitles We would have a flashing doorbell light so I was never on the back foot with anything in my house. Most Deaf people come from hearing families. I’m one of the minority in that aspect. They would be exposed to everybody learning a speaking in English, their family members may not learn how to sign, to communicate with the Deaf member, they may give them a hearing aid. When they’re in a group discussion they would miss out on this information. If there’s background noise they would miss out again. When they wake in the morning, if they don’t get a hearing aid often straight away they don’t know when somebody that comes to the doorbell or those kinds of things. So they’re constantly on the back foot.
A lot of hearing people would often say they would rather become blind because they couldn’t lose their music, their sense of hearing. But when they meet me or they meet other Deaf community members they often change their answer because they know they would still feel that connection if they did lose their hearing. They’re not disconnected from the world, I guess. Being here on the radio, obviously music is an important part of radio, and I don’t access radio, I don’t access music. But I’m not interested at all. I haven’t heard these things before so I don’t understand it. But in saying that, I have visual music that I enjoy like going to the beach. I watch the water and waves crashing on the sand. That’s my visual music, watching the trees, the leaves blowing in the wind. That’s my visual music.
Jess – And so you also attended a mainstream school as well. Was there a moment where you realised you were straddling two worlds?
Paula – Yeah I did. Being in a mainstream school we had 30 Deaf community members and then we had eight hundred other hearing students in this school, so I could kind of switch between the two. Well, they could chat with my friends, who could translate using Auslan. That was during lunch time and in their classroom we’d interpret it when the interpreter was away. We had some classmates that would learn how to sign or we would write to each other. I was always more comfortable going back to the Deaf community, obviously. But I would always make an effort to communicate with the hearing as well. So I definitely am a part of both worlds.
Jess – Paula Thornton who’s third generation Deaf chatting to me via her interpreter Sara Kennewell. As I said, this was such a fascinating and unique interview for me and made me realise just how much we default to the assumption people can hear, because organising that interview was a huge undertaking.