Dr Naomi Malone is uncovering a silent history of deafness in NSW

Dr Naomi Malone is uncovering a silent history of deafness in NSW

Naomi Malone
Dr Naomi Malone has a deep love of history and lived experience with a disability. She’s putting the two together to uncover a silent history about deafness that has long been ignored by Australia’s history books.

This history is one that is relatively unknown by most and distinctly under explored.

Malone herself is profoundly deaf and uses speaking and lipreading on a daily basis to communicate with others.

“I hope to offer an unique contribution to the written history about Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing and hearing impaired people, due to being an ‘inside researcher’, about their experiences of life, education and work,” she told Women’s Agenda recently.

She has a passion for disability inclusion and has worked for years helping to shape education practices and organisations’ disability inclusion policies.

“I care about disability inclusion – people with disability actually exist and in Australia, one in five Australians have a disability.”

Below, Malone tells Women’s Agenda about her new book, A Constant Struggle: Deaf Education in New South Wales Since World War II and why her personal experiences being profoundly deaf have shaped her passion for disability inclusion in Australia.

Your new book will focus on uncovering the history around deafness in NSW, can you tell us a little about why you decided to trace this specific history?

With the NSW History Fellowship awarded by Create NSW, I wish to uncover a silent history about people with deafness in NSW; this history is generally unknown and needs to be explored. Further, I have lived experience of being profoundly deaf – by the way, I speak and lipread – and I hope to offer an unique contribution to the written history about Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing and hearing impaired people, due to being an ‘inside researcher’, about their experiences of life, education and work.

Can you explain some of the challenges people who are Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing or hearing impaired (DdHHHI) face daily, from the home, work and education front?

The challenges that DdHHHI people face daily are many and varied. The main challenge is the general community’s lack of understanding about the communication needs or access requirements of DdHHHI people. A great source of information about the terminology of deafness can be found in my book based on my PhD.

To communicate with Deaf people, it is best to use Auslan – Australian Sign Language. For communication with deaf, hard of hearing and hearing impaired people, it is generally through English, aided by lipreading, listening and hearing devices like baha, cochlear implants and/or hearing aids.

As for other challenges; at the home front, it is the access to the smoke or fire alarm – that can be resolved by having a flashing light alarm. Watching television can be a great experience by turning on the captions to follow the dialogue.

With education, it is generally access to sound being communicated that is at issue. This is addressed by using Auslan or English to follow the communication in the classroom or in lectures and tutorials within the university environment. Having captions provided remotely or through a stenographer helps tremendously!

What personal challenges have you experienced?

My main personal challenge is following banter and chitchat within group social situations – like at the dinner table or at party gatherings where the background noise is quite loud. This happens at cafes, restaurants and bars but I am coming across people who hear actually finding background noise hard to manage too!

Another challenge is that people tend not to be aware that I lipread…it really helps when people articulate well when speaking so that I can lipread them.

Catching trains can be tricky at times due to not being able to hear the announcements at the platforms or within the trains. The cinema and theatre are not accessible at all times – these are only available at selected times with captions.

Have your own experiences played a role in developing your passion for disability inclusion and raising awareness for issues surrounding DdHHHI people?

Definitely. I care about disability inclusion – people with disability actually exist and in Australia, one in five Australians have a disability. It is always great to hear successful inclusion stories particularly those stories about genuine inclusion at places of education and in the work environment. As for raising awareness of issues surrounding deaf people, I do that through my participation on advisory panels and committees.

In relation to captions, I have spoken on radio about importance of them and the need for captions to be universal.

What does your position on several panels and committees bring to the table in terms of shaping organisations’ disability inclusion policies?

What really helps my expertise in providing access and inclusion advice is having a lived experience of disability. Through that and as assisted by my legal knowledge and work experience at the ABC, Westpac, Accessible Arts NSW and Macquarie University Accessibility Services, I have been able to effectively give sound advice on how to make services – like, exhibitions – and programs accessible to people with disabilities.

For example, on the Inclusion Advisory (Disability) Panel (from 2013 to 2017), I advised about the need for captions at the Sydney Writers Festival which the City of Sydney was sponsoring. At the State Library of NSW, by being on the Inclusion Advisory Committee, I was able to advise about the need for captions on footage or videos as well as advocate for audio descriptions to enable people who are blind or with low vision to access the marvellous exhibitions in the Mitchell Galleries.

At the end of the day, what would really help disability inclusion to gain further momentum is increased employment of people with disability at all workplaces and increased participation by people with disability at community events; it is only through the presence of and interaction with people with disability that cultural and attitudinal change towards people with disability for the better can be created.

What sparked your interest in history and why did you decide to pursue a career in the field?

I love history as sparked my learning about the past at high school. I remember towards the end of Year 12, we had some time left over so we studied the Warren Commission Report about the assassination of J F Kennedy and I still remember my fascination with it! Anyway, I think learning our history is really important because it provides a foundation from which to resolve current societal challenges. We can learn from past evidence about societal changes in order to find out how the global and Australian communities came to be what they are today and that could help us determine how to best live in the future.

Your thesis A Constant Struggle: A History of Deaf Education in NSW since WWII examines the educational experiences of DdHHHI people. Can you tell us a little about the continued marginalisation of DdHHHI children in the NSW education system and what needs to be done to address these issues?

Through my PhD, I explored the educational experiences of DdHHHI people, learning about how some were marginalised within the NSW education system due to issues that they were experiencing; this is during the period from WWII until mid 2010s.

In the 1960s, at a school for deaf students only, sign language was not used, making it very difficult for deaf students to acquire a language. Later in the 1990s, for one student at a mainstream high school, his issue was the teacher’s lack of understanding about how to best communicate with him in the classroom using English. Other issues are discrimination in the enrolment process, acceptance of students with hearing loss by their fellow peers and social isolation.

To resolve these issues, there needs to be understanding of what comprises a language and then once a language is chosen, to stay with that language as constant learning of that language continues, especially during the early years of one’s life. Also, future deaf education policy needs to be guided by deaf past and current students along with acceptance by others of the language chosen through which to learn – Auslan, English or through bilingualism.

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