Sunday, November 9, 2008

Multiculturalism and Deaf Issues in New South Wales

For Tuesday, November 4, my plan was to visit MDAA’s offices with Sharon, as well as the Deaf Society of New South Wales. As it turns out, both offices are within walking distance of one another, near the Parramatta Station.

Sharon dropped me off at the Deaf Society first, but unfortunately the Deaf woman I had stopped by to see, Kat Lancaster, was not in the office (and it turns out we had a missed e-mail situation). I left my information for Kat to catch up with me later at MDAA.

So then I headed over to MDAA, which is housed in two former homes (reminding me a bit of the Korean Sexual Violence Relief Center, which is also in an old house). MDAA is a group of folks who focus both on individual advocacy and also on research, and they have put out several excellent resources on disability and cultural competence. Australia in general, and the big cities in particular, are major hubs for non-English speaking immigrant communities. At MDAA, the staff speak about fifteen different languages, according to Malinka, who is the chair of the MDAA Commitee (like a board of directors). At this point in time, one of the Committee’s jobs is to get the aims and work of MDAA communicated to people with disabilities in plain language.

At this point in time, MDAA is undergoing some administrative changes, having been formerly directed by Barbel Winter and now under the direction of Diana Qian (Barbel is now in New Zealand working with CCS Disability Action). Despite the changes, I think MDAA is at its core an organization that would be radical in the US, given its commitment to serving anyone regardless of their cultural background and the true inclusion of employees who represent many cultures. This organization is WAY beyond tokenism, thank goodness.

MDAA is also significant because Australia has very harsh immigration rules which focus on one’s ability to do work. If you do not have any job skills or if you have a disability, Australia will reject your application for citizenship. I think this may have to do with a historical focus on skills as a requirement for citizenship, originating in the days when Australia served as a penal colony for England and later when waves of immigrants came in due to, for example, the Irish potato famine. In reality, the effect of the immgration laws can be extremely punitive.

Anyhow the folks at MDAA are doing culturally significant work and are really friendly to boot. Funnily enough, the day I visited was also the day of the Melbourne Cup, which is an Australian national event. The Cup is a horse race, which means the entire actual race happens in three minutes. But Australians across the nation are busy all day with laying bets, drinking and eating. In fact, there’s an entire week of festivities built around the running of the Melbourne Cup (especially in Melbourne). Needless to say, at MDAA the Melbourne Cup is sort of irrelevant as an outdated British activity, but since I, as a visiting American, had no idea what the whole Cup thing was, MDAA decided to put on a show.

First, in the morning staff collected bets---we ended up with $50 for first prize, $35 for second and $20 or $25 for third. Then, everyone put on hats and had a lunch together. Next, we drew the names of horses one by one---my horse ended up being Guyno (funny for a feminist, huh?). Then, we ate and whiled away the time until the running of the Cup at three, which we watched through fuzzy reception on the office tv...and Malinka swept the prizes, having drawn the names of the first, second AND third place horses!

And that was the Melbourne Cup. Presumably, everyone in Melbourne went out and got drunk after that (a good number of Sydneysiders as well). But at MDAA, everyone went back to work! Many thanks to MDAA for showing me how the Aussies do it! Sharon and I worked out a detail about some meetings for next week, and then Kat came to pick me up so I could visit the Deaf Society.

As it turns out, the Deaf Society provides services such as community information and education, interpretation and independent living skills. In that way, it functions like Anixter Center in Chicago, to give some context, which is an entirely different thing than the state and National Associations of the Deaf. Kat herself handles a lot of information referral, from what I understand. She took me around to visit her coworkers and served as my Auslan interpreter (she knows some ASL through a former roommate). Half the office was about to go to Perth the next day for a training conference and Kat was to give a workshop at the conference as well (Perth is on the western coast of Australia---takes between four and five hours to fly there).

Kat and I also went for coffee (well really, chocolate at Max Brenner’s), and it turns out she knows Kyle Miers through having represented Australia with him at international Deaf events. Kat’s parents are Deaf and she has been involved with the Deaf Society in different ways since she was fifteen. She also attended the youth camp of the last World Congress of the Deaf, outside Madrid. As a person, she is very strong willed and creative in seeking out ways to make change. As a youth leadership coordinator, it’s exciting for me to meet young women who make an immediate first impression of strength, and Kat is one of those people. I wish her much luck and success and I hope the Australian Deaf community continues to nurture younger leaders such as Kat through support for leadership development and opportunities to represent Australia internationally. Thank you Kat for having chocolate with me!

After Kat showed me to the train station, I managed my way back to Sharon’s house, where Barbel Winter had also just arrived from New Zealand. Barbel, Sharon, and I were scheduled to leave in just a couple of days for the coast area north of Sydney for a women with disabilities leadership retreat (held through the women with disabilities network of New South Wales and the first of its kind!). Sharon and Barbel were to co-facilitate and I would help with a few exercises, as well as just talk with women who were attending. So after Sharon did tai chi and Barbel and I ate dinner, we went through the planned agenda to bring me up to speed and help them fine tune their plans. This was really exciting because about 20 women would attend with different disabilities from all over New South Wales, all ages, all skill levels. What’s not to love about trying a new effort?

The next day, I was to go be a tourist about Sydney, and on Thursday, it was off to the retreat!

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Kat said...

Thank YOU! It was an absolute pleasure meeting you. :)

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