Why deaf people need allies


Auslan translation: https://youtu.be/QeylHr3xRME

You’ve noticed members of the Deaf community around Australia express their outrage at Andy Dexterity appearing on The Voice this week. They have respectfully asked their loved ones not to tag them in any social media content relating to Dexterity.

However, this is not new to us. This has been happening for many years. Since the introduction of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, hearing people have been creating videos to teach Auslan and/or perform songs in Auslan when they have not demonstrated their fluency.

Over the last decade, the Deaf community have been trying to provide feedback and creating dialogues with numerous hearing people online. Yet they keep being ignored and blocked by hearing people.

Andy Dexterity is a public figure with a large following. He’s created many music videos where Auslan is used. He also did a Ted Talk where he used some Auslan.

Dexterity’s public profile has brought up numerous underlying issues the Deaf community has been experiencing for hundreds of years.

So…what has Dexterity and these hearing people been doing for so many years?

Cultural and linguistic appropriation of Auslan.

As my friend eloquently explains:

How do you culturally appropriate a language?

I think any language that belongs to a minority group, especially one that has been oppressed, disrespected etc becomes more cherished and valued. Think indigenous languages, Yiddish/Judaism and Auslan for example. Much of our language is tied up in history, culture and identity.

It is a small and proud community that uses Auslan. Many have fought hard for the right to access and use it. Many of us have come via the oral/aural route and to have a language we can use and access is a huge relief for us.

This is not the same for most other languages. Minority groups have more value and culture associated to their language. (MK, 2020)

This is not only happening in Australia; it’s happening all over the world. As I said before, it’s not new to us — it’s been happening for years.

Why is this problematic for us? Simply because they are not fluent in Auslan (or other sign languages) and have not made any attempts to engage with the Deaf community.

The Deaf community does not mind the sharing of the language. We value the growth and interest. It needs to be learnt, used and shown for the right purposes though. (MK, 2020).

The Deaf community in Australia is very protective of Auslan, just like many other Deaf communities around the world with their national sign language. Deaf people who are native or fluent signers are considered custodians of their national sign language. They have a responsibility to ensure their national sign language is shown accurately and in a way that we can all understand.

Dexterity’s use of Auslan in his public work is quite triggering for the majority of the Deaf community. My friend explains why:

Andy Dexterity knows some signs but is not a natural signer. He misses many of the cultural sign markers we use. He uses his voice and signs simultaneously. This means he is using two grammatically different languages at the same time. One language has to be modified. It is always Auslan. When I watch him, I and many others do not understand this signing because it makes no sense. It is random signs with no coherent meaning. It is not Auslan.

To an outsider, it looks pretty. To us, who access Auslan for communication and live and breathe the language, we are excluded. We already live a life of exclusion with many societal barriers ( e.g. lack of captioning, verbal announcements etc), and then a man comes along purporting to be an ambassador for the Deaf people and Auslan, and then systematically excludes us.

He uses the language to give himself a foot up in the hearing community, knowing their ignorance will help him.

Since 2017, we have asked him to meet with us, to talk with us and discuss why we don’t agree with his approach and how we can work together. He refuses to meet and blocks and deletes Deaf comments.

He never has a Deaf person in his performances or allows Deaf people to speak about Auslan and their lived experiences. He keeps speaking for us. Yet he has no experience. He does not have our consent.

He uses our language for his own professional gain. He makes a mockery of the long fight to have Auslan be accepted, to be allowed and used, to be recognised by members of the Deaf community. For many of us, we fought for the right to sign and have language access this way. It hurts to see this disrespected.

He excludes us in the language that includes and binds us deliberately and without respect. (MK, 2020).

Now, why is it a trigger for us? There’s a number of reasons dating back to 1880:

In September 1880, sign language was declared banned at the Second International Congress for the Education of the Deaf in Milan, Italy. This meant deaf schools around the world had to stop using sign language with deaf children and adopt the oralist method. Deaf teachers lost their jobs. Many other opportunities were taken away from Deaf people. This had a major impact on Deaf people around the world, and it is still felt today.

For the last 140 years, Deaf people around the world have been working hard to get their national sign language recognised and promoting it to be used in schools, the arts, healthcare, and many other aspects of life.

Language deprivation is rife among deaf children born to hearing parents. Research has shown that approximately 92% of deaf people are born to hearing parents. Most of them grow up in non-signing families, which means there is a high risk of language deprivation beginning at home. Most of them do not acquire language until they start school, which means they have missed out on the opportunity to acquire a full and rich language during the critical language acquisition period. Additionally, some deaf children born to deaf parents also experience language deprivation from the fact their parents were also language deprived which is a form of generational trauma.

While deaf children miss out on access to sign language such as Auslan, we see so many hearing people use sign language for their own benefit. Like Dexterity, for example. We also see people promoting baby signs classes for parents and their hearing babies to learn some basic signs, yet deaf children are not given opportunities to acquire sign language which means they also miss out on opportunities to be a part of the deaf community and most importantly, access to various Deaf role models.

Sign language is the core of Deaf identity, and deaf children should be encouraged to develop their Deaf identity from an early age. Having access to Deaf role models is also instrumental to the development of Deaf identity for many young Deaf people.

Deaf people are at higher risk of developing mental health issues for a number of reasons relating to their deafness, language acquisition and identity. There are four other contributing factors to a deaf person’s mental health issues which are: family, education, communication and isolation.

As mentioned, a high percent of deaf people grow up in families who do not sign. Without the ability to communicate with their immediate family members, they feel isolated. They are unable to express their thoughts and emotions. They are forced to meet the needs of their family whereas their own needs are not being met. This makes them become frustrated, bitter, resentful, and angry.

The education system is not accessible for deaf people, which is a major impact from Milan 1880. Oftentimes, deaf people go through education without access to a qualified sign language interpreter which means instead they get a teacher aide with subpar signing skills. Because of this, deaf people miss out on the opportunity to access the entire curriculum provided by the school. Again, this makes them frustrated, bitter, resentful, and angry.

While the Deaf community is experiencing a variety of emotions towards Dexterity and his cultural appropriation of Auslan on a public stage, there has been a number of positive outcomes from this. We are seeing Deaf people starting to take back their platform by showcasing their talents in different ways such as poetry in Auslan; story telling in many forms such as visual vernacular; and online community forums to promote discussion of topics and issues within the Deaf community. We are reframing and repurposing our anger and resentment into positive outcomes – mainly because we want hearing people to see us and work with us. We want hearing people to sign with us.

If you’re a hearing person reading this, we invite you to see us, work with us, and most importantly, sign with us. Be our ally.


  1. “Deaf Children should be encouraged to develop their Deaf Identity…”

    It is so true that every person should develop an identity of its own…but it is much more relevant for the budding talents of the deaf community!

    Keep up the good work!

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