More than Words

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”- Mark Twain


It is mid-morning on a cool but sunny September day. Towards the Punt Road end of Prahran, traffic rumbles by. Metres away from the main road it is peaceful within the cavernous alcove of the John Piece Centre for the Deaf. It is chapel like. Stain glass windows gleam high above as the morning light beams through. A dainty young woman with flowers in her hair is busily preparing worksheets and little homemade gardening pots ahead of a Spring sensory activity. Signee Tots Playgroup meets here once a fortnight and has done for some 20 years. Some are Deaf, some are hearing, yet everyone signs or is learning to.

“My families, some of them travel quite significant distances to come here because the program runs in Auslan, this is a Deaf space, where they use their first language, and that is not something that they are finding out in the community,” said Melissa Thompson who runs the playgroup.

Today she is dressed as a gardener. She could very easily have jumped out of a picture story book with her denim dress, little boots and daisies in her hair.

She has an eye for detail and enjoys brightening the beige spaces.

Melissa toils away in her free time, preparing for her next playgroup session. Each week she borrows a new collection of toys from the Banyule Toy Library and picture books from the library. She noticed that many Deaf families do not participate in library storytime sessions. She makes it an important part of each playgroup session, noting it’s importance for bonding, for literacy development and enjoyment- and for communicating in the wider world.

There is great dedication, and this extends to the handmade map she has lovingly assembled with illustrations taken from the book she has chosen for this week’s session, Imagine.

“Start your adventure here”, it reads.

The first child to arrive admires it with intrigue.

Melissa is a hearing person but after first learning Auslan (AUStralian Sign LANguage) in a branching subject of her nursing degree, it had a profound impact on her life to come.

“Communication for Deaf people is their major challenge and lots of the people here would have experiences and stories about going into hospitals and finding no interpreter there. There is supposed to be an interpreter there, but if you come in an emergency obviously there is not one standing there waiting. I had hoped that I would be the nurse that could also sign and remove the need for waiting or organising an interpreter and I could just do it myself. There are very few that can do that, so I hoped I could fill that gap.”

As is often the case, Melissa’s intuition led her another way, still in the same vein, but more attune to a natural trajectory. When her own son was born, Melissa had a break from everything. She started coming to this playgroup because she did not want to lose the language of Auslan. 

“It is like any language, if you don’t practice it, you lose it, so I started coming here to Signee Tots with him and then it grew from there.”

Melissa co-ran the Mother Goose program at the Victorian College for the Deaf before taking over at Signee Tots Playgroup. She volunteers at the Royal Children’s Hospital.

It appears that the Deaf Community cherish one another here in this space and reach out to be part of one another’s lives, because beyond, there are many barriers for them to overcome.

Melissa explains that often in a family where the child is hearing and the parents are Deaf, the child may grow up having to interpret for their parent. There is a name for children in this situation – CODA – Child of Deaf Adult.

One young boy at Signee Tots is a CODA.

“He has grown up bilingual and many people in his situation end up interpreting for their parents. It’s just how life works, although, that’s not a professional role, and when you are seeing a doctor in a medical environment, you are emotionally invested as well, that’s not really appropriate.”

In the early stages of a child’s life, body language and facial expressions are their key guide, regardless if they are hearing or deaf, but this is especially so in the Deaf Community.

“Children typically sign before they speak, that’s larger muscles that they are using compared to fine muscles to control speech, but I think it is definitely true that children who have grown up with this visual communication, their read on facial expression is so much better.”

Often, as Melissa ponders, people are afraid of doing the wrong thing or acting the wrong way.

“It is okay to say ‘Deaf’,” she reassures.

“Some people say ‘hearing impaired’. Deaf people can sometimes find this offensive as they do not see themselves as being impaired, they do not think that they have an impairment. ‘Deaf’ is more of a cultural thing.”

As Melissa has learnt over time, the Deaf Community are very welcoming and inclusive.

“Even when I was starting my Auslan journey and I was slow and terrible (laughs) the fact that I was trying, all you have to do is try.”

Melissa’s main aim is to build up this playgroup program, to help fill the needs of parents as much as the children, otherwise, as Melissa said, “they are at home isolated”- and this is the case with lots of parents and carers.

“Deaf people have lots of language barriers as it is and then, as it is for all mothers, you are isolated even further at home, losing the connections you had before at work and that sort of thing. Signee Tots is definitely to fill a hole and connect people, and I think that is why it is growing.”

This playgroup is run in Auslan. It is not a prerequisite, yet more of a willingness to try.

“Deaf people don’t expect the everyday person to snap their fingers and fix this access barrier but if people are aware a little bit and try, that can be of great value. They don’t expect everyone in the community to be fluent Auslan users, but if you do little things like face a Deaf person when you are speaking to them, make sure you speak clearly so that they can see your lips and make sure that they are following. If the person is not following, try different things like writing or gesture, it’s just about trying, having the willingness and braveness to try.”

“It is alright to be outside of your comfort zone because that is how Deaf people live their lives. They have to work out ways to communicate most of the time with people who do not understand them. It’s how they live, so it is how we can reciprocate.”

The John Pierce Centre runs a range of programs: a seniors group, a ladies group, an arts group. These programs aim to span the different phases in people’s lives. They also provide signed masses, have a chaplain who can sign, and provide pastoral care and support to families and individuals in times of need.

“We have a lot of community groups that are for Deaf people to attend and be able to socialise together. There is a long history in the Deaf community of clubs existing so that Deaf people could come and socialise. We are one of a few that have continued,” said Melissa.

The John Pierce Centre itself was formerly established in 1980, and from the very beginning has offered a range of different activities and services to the Deaf Community. The Signee Tots playgroup was started by three mothers in 1999. It has been registered with Playgroup Victoria since the beginning, and will next year celebrate its 20th anniversary. It is understood to be one of the first and the longest running playgroup in the country for Auslan-using families.

In many ways, Melissa has been fortunate to learn Auslan. While students are offered a range of different languages throughout schooling, Auslan is not common. It recent years Auslan has been included as a language option under the national curriculum, but it is not yet available in many schools. In Victoria there is currently only one Tafe Institution where students can study the language at a tertiary level. It is a sophisticated language that continues to evolve. Auslan was only recognised as an official language by the Australian Government in 1987, despite having origins in the first two Australian schools for the Deaf, opening within a few weeks of each other in 1860, first in Sydney and then in Melbourne.

“There were a few things that I did not realise about Auslan when I first started. I don’t think I really appreciated that it is a language distinct in itself and it has its own structure and its own grammar. It’s not like you take the English word, and you have a corresponding sign, and you just substitute that in the same order. It’s about learning the structure and it’s also an evolving language so there are always new signs popping up or new ideas that you have to think ‘Oh how do I say that?’ It is like any language, that evolves.”

“If I compare myself from now to when I started, I have had to learnt so many things. I think if we could just impart a little bit of that to the broader community, it would make life easier for Deaf people.”

It is to be conscious of visuals, visual alarm systems, captions – thinking about a way to communicate information and content that does not rely on sound. These sorts of things make an enormous difference in the daily life of a Deaf person.

There are people in this world who have inbuilt compassion. Melissa has this. She did not seek out this route for career progression or to receive accolades. It has challenged her in many ways- but it has also rewarded her in more ways than she expected. The busy, noisy, complicated world outside sometimes made her ill at ease. She felt comfortable in the Deaf community. She found belonging. She explains:

“I feel like I found my home in the Deaf Community, which is odd because I am a hearing person but there is something very special about it.”

“In broader society there is not so much connection between people anymore, whereas in the Deaf Community there is a strong sense of connection and a strong sense of wanting to support each other and I think I am really drawn to that. I feel like I have found my home here.”

“When I came with my baby all those years ago I instantly felt at home and I joke with my boss that I am never leaving. We have staff who have been here for 15 years, so people stick around.”

That is how a lot of people feel about playgroup. There is great deal of trust and vulnerability within a playgroup. Children are precious, complex, hard-work and again, rewarding.

The bond shared between parent/carer and child is profound and that time together is like no other. Some parents are eager to race back to work, while others want this time to never end. The affection. The curiosity. Nothing changes that. No deafness, no blindness, no disability. 

“Before my son and before learning all of the things in-between, I think I lost touch with my inner child,” said Melissa.

“I think having a child and then working with children, it has helped me to reconnect with that little sparkle. My husband is forever complaining about the craft materials around our house and the piles of books from the library, but I really like it- I think there is value in that, even for adults.”

Article by Sinead Halliday

Learn more about Signee Tots at John Pierce Centre here

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