Saturday, November 1, 2008

Melbourne Day 2, Part One: Deaf Children Australia

First, here is a nice shot of Melbourne, as seen from the Yarra River with all its diverse architectural glory:

Old and new Melbourne as seen from the Yarra River

Somehow, I managed to fill Thursday October 30 with so many activities that I'm splitting up posts, this one being dedicated to my visit to Deaf Children Australia (DCA) and the Victorian College for the Deaf (VCD), founded in 1860 as the Victorian Deaf and Dumb Institution. To see a photo of the original school building at VCD, go here because Dean-Melbourne got a way better shot of the Gothic Revival bluestone building than I was able to get at the time (drat).

My contact at DCA was Kyle Miers, whom I had found through Keran Howe's connections (Keran is my contact at Victorian Women with Disabilities Network (VWDN)). The plan was to meet with Kyle for a while, then go check out VCD with the assistant principal, Julie Rees. DCA is housed in the original school building at VCD, so it's just a short walk down the campus path to the current school building.

I showed up at VCD at just about ten am, where I got my first hit of sign language in Australia when the receptionist asked if I was Amber using the Auslan alphabet (thank goodness for lipreading skills, sometimes). I determined right then and there to get the Auslan alphabet nailed in my head as it wasn't all there yet. A few minutes later Kyle arrived. Kyle is a Deaf man who was born in Illinois (of all places!) and so he knows ASL, which would help us a lot as we'd end up discussing a bunch of advocacy issues. He has lived, however, in Australia since 1995.

Kyle is currently the Policy & Strategy Adviser for DCA and currently president of Deaf Australia (see his bio here). According to Kyle (if I recall all of this correctly), about 83% of all deaf and hard of hearing children in Australia are mainstreamed. This means that a large number of children and families are isolated in a mainstream context without supports. DCA triesto fill that gap through several programs, such as a family and parent mentoring program, Auslan practicing opportunities, recreational activities, an independent living skills program, advocacy and information/referral. Some of these programs are limited to the state of Victoria only, but it seems to me that many of these programs are model programs that should be available to every single deaf or hard of hearing student and their families.

One thing I particularly liked about DCA's mission is that it aims to serve every child who is deaf or hard of hearing, including those with disabilities. That DCA explicitly mentions disabilities wherever it mentions its constituency stands in contrast to most Deaf/hard of hearing services, which do not add any language that is disability-specific. Kyle pointed out that reportedly 40% of Deaf people have mental health disabilities (which, I know some call psychiatric disabilities or psychosocial disabilities). Incidentally, Kyle is helping to work on the Fourth World Congress on Mental Health and Deafness, to be held in Brisbane in October 2009 (see http://www.mhd2009.org/).

Kyle and I also discussed systemic advocacy issues in Australia. He is well familiar with the US Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and of course with Australia's Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). Kyle pointed out that under the DDA, individuals file complaints, but under the ADA, groups can file class action lawsuits (I hope I got that right). The ADA was written as a preventative law, whereas the DDA is reactive, which is possibly why the structure is geared towards resolving individual complaints. On my end, I think it is well worth pondering how government systems are set up so as to force the individual to act alone, rather than in solidarity with similar folks who have similar issues.

We also took a tour around the old school building to see the dorms and the basement, where much of the school's kitchen, bathing and eating activity used to take place. Here is a film trailer for "Beyond the Bluestone," a film about the history of the school as recounted by students who used to live there. The Auslan has voiceover but no captions, and no audio description (just a warning). But it is well worth checking out. The film's full DVD is available through Deaf Children Australia as described at this website.



Here is Kyle by the old boys' bathroom:

Kyle in the basement standing by the old boys' bathroom

And here is the old stained glass window in the main stairway with messages about teaching the deaf to speak and understand the Bible:

Historic stained glass window depicting Jesus and scrolls about teaching the deaf to speak and understand the Bible

Kyle then took me over to meet with Ms. Rees, who filled me in about VCD. Currently, there are about seven elementary aged students and about fifty of what we Americans would term high school students. Just a few live in a group residence; the rest live at home and come to school for class. The school does have a computer lab and is introducing electronic whiteboards in the classrooms. Recently, the entire school put on a production of the musical Grease, which was a community success. They spent about four months preparing and doing lesson plans related to the musical; Ms. Rees said that the school play usually happens every two years or so due to the intensive nature of the preparation. All students but one took part in the play. The remaining student worked the light system!

I visited the science lab and then with a class of three (what Americans would call) juniors, who were studying for exams. I also met a class of four elementary age students, with whom I had a lively exchange about where America is and what countries they had learned about, and where the countries were on the globe. Hello to all the VCD students that I met on my visit!

At this point Kyle was kind enough to drive me to my next appointment, at VWDN for lunch with Keran. Many thanks to Kyle, Ms. Rees and the students and staff at VCD for allowing me to visit! Please come to Chicago if ever you are in America soon.

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