Deaf children are denied basic human right, says Young Australian of the Year Drisana Levitzke-Gray

Drisana Levitzke-Gray: Believes all deaf children should learn sign language from birth.
Drisana Levitzke-Gray: Believes all deaf children should learn sign language from birth. Photo: Supplied

Imagine you were deprived of learning your first language for most of your childhood and isolated from those who use it.

For many of the estimated 12,000 children in Australia with significant hearing loss, this has been the case.

The 2015 Young Australian of the Year, Drisana Levitzke-Gray, is from a deaf family, learned Australian sign language (Auslan) as her first language, and is a proud advocate for change.

Change what, you ask? The treatment of deaf children in our country.

More than 90 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and often these parents are strongly recommended against the use of sign language with their children.

Ms Levitzke-Gray believes this is a result of one dominant ideology in the medical profession and society, that "speech and listening equals language", with no understanding that Auslan is a language just like any other.

Doctors advise against it because it "isn't natural", but Ms Levitzke-Gray explains it has its own structure, grammar and syntax, as well as being visual, 3D and incredibly expressive.

She passionately believes it should be recognised as a "basic human right".

"Each and every human on earth has a right to be able to fully communicate and express themselves, for deaf people in Australia, Auslan is exactly that".

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Doctors perceive sign language as a last resort, instead urging parents to try to "fix" the "problem" of deafness with expensive therapies and hearing aids to help their children hear and speak – the only way to "succeed in society," according to Ms Livitzke-Gray.

David Brady, CEO of Hear For You, which mentors and supports young deaf people and their families, thinks the old assumption of "deaf and dumb" is still prevalent in today's society.

"That assumption is still going because the state government and the federal government do not have our overall national priority on the hearing and deafness issue."

Mr Brady admitted the government has stepped up by altering the national school curriculum to include Auslan as a Language Other Than English (LOTE).

He said this is vital because deaf children "need a family or community where they can practice and be able to develop and create their own style and language, and the challenge that they face here is if they come from a hearing family – which is 90% of families – that's just really hard".

However, Ms Levitzke-Gray explained that some benefits of learning Auslan early would be missed by the time children start school.

She said the "brain is a sponge" which retains information and language most effectively before the age of six, and it is therefore "critical for deaf children to have full language acquisition during this period, to be bilingual and bicultural, which will ensure they grow up with good language and cognitive skills".

While most deaf babies are not learning Auslan in this crucial developmental period, there is a movement called Baby Sign Language promoted for hearing babies because of its health benefits.

By preventing young deaf children from learning Auslan, they are separated from others in the deaf community, and as adults they often have low self-esteem and have difficulty communicating and socialising, Ms Levitzke-Gray said.

There is a higher rate of mental health issues amongst deaf young adults than their hearing peers, and they have significantly less employment opportunities.

Kyle Miers, CEO of Deaf Australia, a national organisation for deaf Australians, thinks this largely comes back to how the medical society views their community.

"Rather than looking at how they can accommodate the holistic needs of a person, they perceive deaf people as a substandard level, not being able to achieve a lot in education and in the work place," Mr Miers explained.

Similarly, Mr Brady emphasised that deafness is a "challenge" in need of support, not a "problem" that requires fixing.

"This community does not see themselves as medical issues, they see themselves as a social issue, where language plays a big part in their everyday lives".

While introducing Auslan into the school curriculum is a gigantic step in the right direction, Ms Levitzke-Gray, Mr Brady and Mr Miers all have inspiring visions for further change.

Mr Miers urges the government to provide more funding to the deaf community, and establish a National Deaf Centre that would "provide holistic support for families with deaf children… staffed by both deaf and hearing professionals which will show that it is possible for a deaf child to grow with confidence".

Mr Brady wants more power given to deaf children and their families to decide if and when they want to utilise Auslan.

Ms Levitzke-Gray hopes the government will someday understand her view that discouraging children to learn Auslan – and have them grow up with limited skills and more mental health issues – is a heavier burden than investing in the facilities and resources to have them learn the language from birth.

She hopes that being deaf will be seen as deaf gain, not hearing loss, because "ultimately we should be celebrating the deaf community, the variety and exciting sign languages all over the world".

"What we have is beautiful, it is enriching, and we would love to share this with you all".