The inaugural Digital Writers’ Festival aimed to present events which could reach as many people as possible and transcend the barriers which traditional writers’ festivals face. One of the events which smashed a language barrier was In Conversation: Write-ability and the Deaf Arts Network. Abigail Gorman and the Director of Writers Victoria, Kate Larsen, came together to discuss the amazing opportunities of the online world. They discussed the world of blogs and writing online and spoke about the exciting avenues to improve accessibility and to promote the work of all writers. The event was Auslan interpreted, and now we would like to present the full transcript here on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog.
In Conversation: Write-ability and the Deaf Arts Network with Kate Larsen and Abigail Gorman
Kate Larsen: Hello and welcome to the very last event of the Digital Writers’ Festival 2014, one that demonstrates what the festival is all about, which is breaking down barriers. I’m Kate Larson, I’m the director of Writers Victoria here in Melbourne, and I’m here to have a bilingual conversation with Abigail Gorman in Auslan, English and through the wonderful medium of technology so please feel free to tweet us questions throughout. We’re here at the ….with a live audience, which is also an unusual turn of events for the Digital Writers’ Festival. The world of blogs and writing online are exciting avenues to improve accessibility to promote the work of all writers. Abigail, maybe you could start by telling us a bit about your own writing.
Abigail Gorman: Sure well really I started writing, well basically I’m from England and so I’ve been traveling around Australia for a year and so it’s quite convenient for my friends and family to stay connected to me. And a blog really is the best way because, while I find the written form can be a bit boring in terms of print, I decided to create a blog just to share my adventures, because, of course I’d been traveling for one or two months and there’s so many stories to share. And it’s quite interesting because when I arrived in Melbourne, I started work instantly and so my writing’s sort of evolved since I’ve been here and so now I talk about world issues, not just my travels, and things I’ve observed through my time here and through my travelling. So yeah it’s been a few months now since I’ve had this blog. It’s been great.
KL: And do you write in text or do you tell stories in videos as well?
AG: Interesting, because I am deaf you would assume that I would create blogs, however I am a big fan of the written word and because I have traveled around the world, as I have mentioned earlier, I’m from England, I have spent a bit of time in Ireland and in Nepal, and of course now in Australia where I use Auslan, so I’ve also used other sign languages. I have a bit of a mix, however English has always been the constant for me and it’s the language I’m most comfortable with. My friend thinks I should start doing blogs, however, I think soon I might but for me and my purposes, I’m quite comfortable writing with the written form and I find, I feel that if I blog find I might be a bit more exposed, if you know what I mean. When I write, I have that time to think and edit myself and I can really do it in my own time and pace myself. Whereas if I blog, I’m going to have to think on the spot and try and keep up with my thoughts and time is the essence; however I do like to plan out what I’m going to say and edit myself whereas, I’d rather have that deep thought process behind it whereas I don’t think I could get that with a blog.
KL: What you say about how blogs would make you feel more exposed I find really interesting. In my other life I tweaked a tiny little poem every day as…I’m about to do a residency in Adelaide with Access to Arts which is the Arts and Disability organisation in South Australia where I’ll be talking a bit about the power of the pseudonym or the pen name. Blogs in social media can be a safe place where deaf and disabled writers can choose to identify or not, can choose to use a pseudonym or their real name, depending on how exposed they want to make themselves. Would you ever consider using a pseudonym or do you put yourself out there?
AG: It doesn’t bother me using my own name. I would put my name to whatever I write, everyone knows who I am, I have nothing to hide. However for other people, it may depend on what you write and I started writing about my adventures and even though now it’s evolved into sharing my views, I’m happy for people to know that it’s attached to my name. But it can really depend on how people react to your writing, whether you put your name to it. And it’s how you learn things, you know, it’s how you learn how to share things and also respect other people’s opinions; you should own what you say. Now when we spoke about blogs earlier, I think that when I write, as I mentioned, I can take my time to think about what I want to say, whereas if I’m going to sign it, you know, I feel like I would need to practice it, I feel like it would be fake because it would be rehearsed almost, because I will need the time to think about it. What about yourself?
KL: Well, I started using a pseudonym for what’s now kind of a strange and embarrassing reason – I was living in London and I was reviewing live, doing live music reviews for music magazines, including writing reviews of my brother’s band. And although it was nepotism, I didn’t want it to appear like nepotism, so I started doing the reviews under my married name instead of my real name. And over time I started using that name for my poetry and then I started developing an audience under that name. And for most of the last five years that I’ve been tweeting a poem a day, my poetry life and my professional life have been quite far apart. But now that I’m here running Writers Victoria, my writing life and my professional life are right on top of each other. And when I google myself now, not that I google myself terribly regularly (laugh), but if I was to google myself now, my pseudonym now gets more correct hits than my actual name. And people now turn up to my office asking for me on either name, which is starting to get confusing. So now I don’t really write live music review about my brother’s band any more, which is still really good not just because I’m his sister, so I don’t really need the pseudonym any more but now I’ve grown an audience under that name, that’s how people know me. I feel like even though I don’t need it now it’s become a thing with a life of its own.
AG: Yeah I kind of understand what you mean. I think that if you wanted to write about controversial topics, that sometimes you know will attract a very strong response from people, that sometimes it may, for example from trolls, sometimes it is best to perhaps use a pseudonym just to protect yourself and your identity.
KL: Some of the participants in my workshop coming up in Adelaide have asked me about using pseudonyms to protect themselves and in some cases where people who find it difficult to physically access events they’re keen to develop their profile on Twitter so that they can participate in the literary world in a different way some of them would like to do so anonymously, which can protect people I think, but it can also make people appear like trolls because so many internet trolls don’t identify themselves and they just come in and spam the internet. So it’s that dual-edged sword with pseudonyms, I think, it can protect you but it can also mean that people don’t take you seriously.
AG: True, true.
KL: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, had a chance to notice much since you’ve been in Australia, but obviously the disability equality movements are very different in Australia than they are in the UK and other developed countries and as a result the number of opportunities here have been fewer. We are making big leagues forward this year with the introduction of the NDIS and in our own small way here at Writers’ Victoria we run a Write-ability program, which is for deaf and disabled writers. I was thinking about you earlier today when I was reading something from one of our tutors Carly Findlay, who’s a Melbourne-based advocate and writer, and she recommends starting a blog is a great idea for writers with a disability and not just because of their own writing. She writes that you never know who’s going to be reading it, who will be publishing it and who your words will help. Do you agree with that?
AG: Oh most definitely. To be honest with you, blogs I feel are, I think they’re quite superficial, well, sorry my blogs have been quite superficial and rambling throughout my travels because I remember one woman who contacted me through Facebook. Actually that’s another good reason why pseudonyms are a good idea, because sometimes people, because you are exposed. I remember one woman contacting me through Face book and she just felt, she had mental health problems and she’d spent a bit of time in hospital and she said that she’d given up on life. But she then went on to say she’d been offered an artist’s residency in Canada but she was frightened because it was such a new way of life. And then she went on to say that she’d read my blog and that I’d inspired her and given her the motivation based on my experience traveling around the world. So she’s now since moved to Canada and doing her residency, and I feel, in part, it was because of what she got from my blog and that was a really nice feeling. So you are right, Carly’s right, it’s quite a powerful medium and if you think back to twenty or thirty years ago, who was reading? Who was reading your writing? Now with the power of technology and social media, so many people have access to what you have to say and it’s important to really think about what you’re saying. I agree, I agree with Carly.
KL: I love that story about the Canadian, fantastic. I have a question from Twitter: Dan writes that the most popular scandal to reach the mainstream from the deaf community was the signer at Mandela’s funeral last year. Did you feel the effects in your …community response?
AG: Look it’s a shame, it’s a real shame that it happened. But there are positive and negative consequences. So of course it’s negative that it happened at Mandela’s funeral because he fought for equality for so long, starting from Apartheid; and so his funeral should have been, I mean the whole world was tuned in and it’s a shame it had to happen. However, on the other side, on a more positive note, it did bring attention to sign language because of course our needs aren’t as up there as others, I guess. And in England we fight, we advocate for BSL to be recognised as an actual language, and it finally was in March 2003. And so, it was said it would be but in fact it actually wasn’t, and there should have been a BSL Act which will in turn allow for more accessibility in interpreters, regardless of the situation, and for BSL to be taught in classrooms. So with this fake interpreter incident, it did make the world look, and it did bring people to, it did bring up the fact that deaf people don’t always have access to the right interpreters. And so it’s a constant fight. I feel like it’s falling on deaf ears sometimes, pardon the pun, but it had to happen and, you know, it’s had some impact.
KL: It’s a really great point and it’s obviously Auslan is not yet recognised as an official language in Australia, which is something we’d all love to see happen. I have another question from Twitter which asks is the Arts scene inaccessible, especially in regards to its events. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but for me the Arts sector tends to be pretty good these days. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good in terms of access for audiences. Where I think there needs to be a big change is in terms of access for deaf and disabled people as performers and writers and staff members and board members of our arts organisations; thinking about more than just ramps and hearing loops, thinking about access across all Arts organizations. Have you noticed anything about access, in terms of Arts, since you’ve been in Australia?
AG: Yeah there was actually, well I must say my absolute all time favourite film is Rent and there was a performance recently and I was asked by a friend if I wanted to go along to the performance. But I couldn’t because there was no access – there were no interpreters and there were no captions. I did email the organizers and they said, “Oh yes, we’ve got a loop system” which of course isn’t of any use to me, I would prefer interpreters, I need interpreters. So I contacted an organisation called Auslan Stage Left who regularly provide interpreters for productions but again the producers were unable to facilitate that due to other reasons. For myself, I prefer captioning because then I can get almost a summary of it and then watch what’s going on on the stage, whereas with the interpreters I feel I have to keep my eyes on them. That’s just my own preference; everybody in the community is different. Now there is an organisation called ACE, Australian Communication Exchange which arrange for captioning devices within museums and other venues like that. But again, it’s not quite enough; it’s not widespread like it should be. And I know Abbott of course has made a lot of cuts to funding in different areas and it’s just a disgrace really – there should be more done to support the Arts and Access.
KL: Yep. It goes back to what we were talking about before that one of the key differences between the two countries is that we haven’t had the same kind of disability rights push for access over the last thirty years. I think we’re starting very slowly to catch up now and there is good work going on in Australia, as you say there’s ACE, there’s an organisation based out of South Australia called The Captioning Studio which now do great work around the country; but we don’t yet have the same standards in Australia for the professionalisation of our audio description services, for example, and even, although there are some great services around for interpretation like Auslan Stage Left, some organisations are hiring non-qualified interpreters to do their events, which is where we get back to the Mandela situation, I guess. We were talking earlier about some of the other technologies that are making a difference in terms of access. You are doing some work now for the Digital Relay Service, can you tell me a little bit about that?
AG: I work for Vicdeaf, the Victorian Deaf Society, and I work within the Video Relaying Interpreting… Department. So for example in the regional areas, if a deaf person requires the services of an interpreter, unfortunately there are not that many that are based in the regional areas. For example if you lived in Ballarat, it’s a two or three hour drive from Melbourne and so if you wanted an interpreter, you know, to require an interpreter they will have to drive two or three hours, it’s just not… so they are denied an interpreter just because of the travel required. And so what we do with the VRI, which is what it is for short, is that interpreters will communicate with the deaf person and hearing person on their side through video, on-line video, and you can actually utilise this service using a computer or an iPad or even an iPhone and it’s a brilliant service because it allows for more accessibility, flexibility and independence as well. So it’s been funded by the Department of Human Services, it’s just on trial at the moment so hopefully it’s been a success so that we can watch it and allow for more access for the regional community – so if you’re, sorry I’m going to do a plug here, yes VRI, get onto it!
KL: I’ve got a question from the Internet: Can you point to any champions of disability rights for us to check out?
AG: I do know some deaf bloggers from the UK. There is one website called Limping Chicken. Actually there’s a funny story behind this: there was a program which filmed a group of young deaf people, just their day-to-day lives and one of those people was a university student whose note-taker interrupted the lecture and said, ”I’m sorry, I’ve got to go, my chicken’s sick” and just left, all of a sudden, mid-way through the lecture and so the deaf woman couldn’t believe it, and the note-taker said “my chicken has a limp, I have to take him to the vet.” And the deaf person of course was just outraged and wrote an article about it and then Charlie Swinbourne, whose website it is, it’s a wonderful platform for deaf people, it’s not always about deafness, but it may be about wide issues but from a deaf person’s perspective. So it does cover things such as access; if you want to read a brilliant deaf blogger, I recommend Limping Chicken.
KL: Fantastic. Here in Australia, or just here in Victoria even, there’s a great emerging writer Ross… who hosted the launch of the Emerging Writer publication at the Emerging Writer’s Festival last year, we’re currently working with Carly Findlay who I mentioned before who’s and blogger at Radio Carly, we’re also working with Kate Richards who published Madness: a Memoir last year. And one of the things that I think has made a really big difference to the discourse in this country in the last couple of years has been the introduction of Ramp Up website, which is an ABC portal and that’s edited by Stella Young, who’s an amazing writer and comedian as well. So they’re my recommendations, Internet, for writers to check out. Do keep your questions coming but I think Twitter has slowed on me for a moment. Since you’ve come to Melbourne and to Australia, have you been engaged in … scene at all?
AG: Not yet. Because of course I’m very new to writing to blogging. Well, I actually used to work as a journalist some years ago in London, whereas in Australia I’m quite new to the scene, of course. I’m keen to get involved but it’s hard for me because if I want to get into the scene then, of course, I need to attend lectures and network, but how do I without an interpreter? And if I, you know, I could easily get an interpreter but who’s going to pay for it? And so it’s a lot of effort for me just to be able to get into the scene.
KL: I think one of the things that is happening in both Australia and the UK is that we both have a Disability Discrimination Act or the DDA, which are both fantastic, important, and fantastically vague pieces of legislation that operate in a very grey area around organisations and service providers having to make what is called a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to make their services and programs accessible for deaf and disabled people. What is a ‘reasonable adjustment’ isn’t specified other than in a court setting, so unless somebody sues there’s no way of finding out whether what they’re doing is reasonable or not. And I think the DVA scares a lot of people; it scares a lot of organisations who don’t understand that it is their responsibility to be providing access. I think a lot of people think still think they should be able to apply for a grant to have make programs more accessible, where the law says that it’s their responsibility. So hopefully, over time people start to realise what their responsibilities really are. There is some good work going on. For the last couple of years Writers Festival has done some fantastic work with the deaf community here in Melbourne bringing in people for consultation before they program the festival and I mentioned the Emerging Writers’ Festival – last year we did some fantastic work programming deaf writers into the program themselves as artists, which is really exciting to see. Someone has asked on Twitter “Is there something that writers or literary organisations could do to get Auslan recognised as a language?” I think it would be amazing if we ended up with a national campaign out of the end of this one-hour seminar. Yeah c’mon let’s do it!
AG: You say that organisations have to basically take it on themselves, which, fair enough, but it’s the government, they should be leading by example, this is their arena and everybody should be equal of course. Yes organisations should be able to do it themselves and take that initiative but how will they know, how are they going to come up with that initiative? I think governments should really make it legislation so that I guess everyone’s forced to do it. You really need to lead by example.
KL: And we’ve already got the legislation so it’s really just a matter of somehow starting to enforce it. Hopefully from this year, the launch of the NDIS website will start to make a difference to some Australians who have not been able to access services. But even if, I’m going got be positive, even when we get a fully rolled out national NDIS, that’s still going to help only 250,000 Australians. It’s not going to provide an equivalent to the UK’s Access To Work program, for example, which does provide significant access support in the workplace. It’s not going to be applied to the majority of Australians with a disability. So, you’re right, we do need a bigger more systematic approach from the top all the way through. Going back to what we’re saying about our National Campaign which we’re launching at the end of this session (laugh) there are lots of organisations as a national language and the more voices we can add to that call the stronger we will become. Organisations like Arts Vic has done some great lobbying work around that, sorry Vicdeaf has done some great lobbying work around that in the past. So do seek out those organisations and add your voices we would love it.
KL: One of the great things about Auslan, or British Sign Language or all of the international variations of that which I think English speakers are particularly interested in learning about is the fact that it has its own syntax and sentence structure. That although deaf people can choose to write, as you do, in either English or sign language, there’s a whole different language and art-form really in people who do write in the sign language as a form, so in Sign Language Poetry, for example, which is done through the act of signing.
And that’s why, do you remember I said earlier someone I should sign my blog, so in essence create a blog because then it will be more accessible to the deaf people, but I feel like writing will improve my own writing skills and I really think that if I continue to write, maybe in turn deaf people will be inspired to write themselves. Because since I’ve started writing my blog, two or three deaf people have actually approached me and said, ”I think I’d like to try that” and, of course it’s possible. Now for deaf people, you know, they have amazing skills in translating English to Auslan, or in Auslan itself. Now for a deaf person to write something in English, which is not their first language, it is more of a challenge, and it’s a good challenge, it’s a great challenge for a deaf people to take on writing English.
KL: That leads us nicely into a question from … “How do you think your writing will evolve over the next few years, and what’s in your literary future?”
AG: Interesting question. And I assume the process of writing a book (now when I say ‘process’, I’ve only got the title) but you know I think it’s so hard. I’ve tried to write a book, I think I’ve written thirty or forty pages and then I go ‘no that won’t do’ and then I start again. I find it very hard, but I’m hoping in a year or so that I will have something, something tangible. Now I’m working also for a clothing company which is called…, again there you go shameless plug. And at the moment we just developed a new website, it’s going to be launched on the first of March and so I’m going to be doing blogging on behalf of that company – a bit of future blogging and just a bit of general blogging as well. And so I guess that’s what my literary plans are for this year – so the book and the blogging, and the future blogging, and, yes well, that book, fingers crossed. What about you?
KL: Well I am having a very exciting experience at the moment which is starting to be able to use the words ‘paid’ and poetry’ in the same sentence, which are not things that go together very often. So I have somehow become a professional poet-in-residence. I now travel around the country to different festivals and conferences and events who book me to write poetry about what is going on during their activities, so that’s a very exciting development for me. I have a question for you from the Melbourne Literary Salon, which is a monthly free event for industry professionals to gather, and talk and have a drink while they chat about books and such. How could free events like that which aren’t funded, how do you think they could facilitate Auslan at those sorts of networking events?
AG: Well contact Vicdeaf, the Victorian Deaf Society, and also, because they have Sign Language Communications Victoria which is an interpreting service and they book interpreters, so you know, really, if you want to know all the information is online, the beautiful World Wide Web.
KL: Yeah. I’d add something to that which is there are lots of people learning Auslan in the city so it’s an informal networking event. You could invite students groups of Auslan learners to come along and practice at those events, which can be a way for people to network at those events. It’s not ideal because obviously in professional events you want a professional interpreter?
AG: That’s right, yes, that can be quite a controversial issue because back in England at work I had used Communication Support Workers who are not yet qualified interpreters. I think it can depend on what job you do. I used to work as an Assistant Manager so my job was quite demanding and I had to communicate with a lot of different people and so it was very important to me to have professional interpreters. Now these CSWs (Communication Support Workers – sorry I sign very fast, my interpreter’s trying to keep up with me) so I simply fingerspelt my name and they said, “sorry can you repeat that”, so I again repeated it, very slowly and purposefully. And they got it, and then I started to engage with the hearing customer and the CSW was lost and it really ended the communication process and in the end I decided to communicate with this hearing person using my own means and methods. I mean the other side of that though is these people have to start somewhere. And specific areas, importantly, require qualified interpreters. Now for this literacy Salon, I would insist that they are qualified because there is a lot of jargon and the interpreter needs to be comfortable, because if not, they’re going to struggle with all of the demands that come up in that room. So I would suggest that in this particular area you would need an Auslan interpreter.
KL: Fiona has asked what is the difference between BSL and Auslan, and have you found it an easy transition?
AG: Great question. Okay, in England, I worked as an Invision Translator, which means I was actually on television but I was down in the corner; you know that person you always want to get off the screen, maybe three o’clock in the morning? So that’s what I did in England. Now one interpreter I worked with, their partner was from Melbourne and so I asked them for lots of tips in Auslan and they said “you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine. BSL and Auslan are very similar you don’t need any training” and so I got here, and I was just gob smacked, I couldn’t keep up. I would say 60 per cent of the signs were similar but about 40 per cent was a struggle. I mean I’ve been here four or five months, and I’m still learning, and it’s a learning process.
KL: When I lived in London, I learnt a little bit of BSL and the thing that gob smacked me was the most was the number of dialects, just within the UK which is a very small country. I once got in trouble talking to somebody from Newcastle I think and I thought I was saying “I’m really interested in what you’re saying, I’m really interested” And to him I was saying, “I’m really annoyed, really irritated by what you’re saying”. And so I upset this poor guy by using the wrong sign.
AG: It’s common and there are a lot of funny stories related to signing. I remember when I was thirteen, I was playing, I was going to say football, sorry but in Australia it’s soccer, it was an international tournament where a lot of people flew in and it’s a perfect example of those miscommunications with signing. But really I find it quite easy to adapt to other sign languages, for example, give me someone from Africa, give me five or ten minutes with them and we can communicate with them quite easily. And I remember one person, very tall person, very big, from Holland approached me, and did this (signing) they did this sign, and I was terrified because in England that sign means ‘sex’, and I was only thirteen remember so I was terrified, and I was shaking, upset. So I ran up to the captain of the team and I said “that person wants sex with me”. So they marched over and told them off, but he actually meant ‘friend’, of course in Holland that’s the sign for ‘friend’. He wanted to make friends with me, which was such a relief in the end. But so yeah I understand what happened to you because yes it does happen.
KL: I understand what you’re saying about doing interpreting work yourself on TV. I’ve had several friends in the UK who did that for music videos and that type of thing.
AG: Oh yes, fab.
KL: It’s always interesting to me the role of the interpreter when they interpret somebody else’s artwork like music video because sign language is such a visual form, which for a news broadcast probably doesn’t change the nature of the information that much, but when you’re interpreting an artwork like a piece of music, do you think that has an influence on how your body language, how you use body language or sign language?
AG: Oh definitely, definitely. Because I did work in vision, I did a variety of programs, children’s, documentaries and even films, and so of course I had to adapt to whatever that was – that genre – and, of course, take on characters. So for example when I did documentaries, of course, it’s quite a neutral approach whereas when it came to children programs, I had to go all out there. Now you try jumping around 8 o’clock in the morning, it’s not easy. But it’s a big influence. My friend was involved in Paralympics, and that’s Deepa. Now she did it for the Paralympics and she’s brilliant; it was just brilliant because you know two or three million people watching it and she was on fire. And then the camera panned to someone in the audience singing. So in theory it’s like you’re listening to the music, for a hearing person it’s like you’ve been listening to music and then it’s cut off; so when you’re filming when the vision is of someone signing and then you move away, you’re denying that access. Now Deepa, she was brilliant, I would freeze in that situation, now she’s and arts interpreter, she’s very skilled, and it’s a lot different normal everyday interpreting to interpreting the arts, it is really a skill.
KL: And there’s a big difference in that context between a deaf person doing interpreting and a hearing person doing the interpreting. Because in that situation, Deepa couldn’t hear the music it was a combined rehearsal(?) process.
AG: It depends on the skill of the hearing interpreter because sometimes interpreters they don’t have it; they don’t have it in them. However, some do. For example, interpreters who come from deaf families, we called them children of deaf adults CODA is the acronym and so, sorry that’s in BSL, Auslan is their first language in most instances and so they do have more of that skill, so for an arts interpreter, more likely, more often than not they will be someone who comes from a deaf family. I’m not criticising the others but it just so happens that way most of the time, more often than not. But if you can employ a deaf interpreter, please do because it’s a really good opportunity to enhance their skills.
KL: We often talk here in Australia, going back to writing for a minute, that obviously deaf and disabled writers should have equal access to all of Australia’s literary …Unfortunately we know that’s still not the case so we try and address that through a couple of ways. One by slowly over time increasing the accessibility of everything that we do as Arts organizations, and the other by offering specific programs which try to target deaf and disabled writers in order to redress that balance, that imbalance that’s been in place for such a long time. How do you feel about that idea of offering specific programs in order to raise awareness of deaf people’s writing for example?
AG: Well, let me think about this. I don’t see myself as a deaf writer – when I write something and you write something and we put them side by side, how can you differentiate the two, how can we pick the disabled writer, how would you know? It really depends on what type of workshops you’re offering. Can you give an example?
KL: Well we do a variety of different things and, you’re right, what we try and do is focus on the writing, so it shouldn’t matter, except of course for those people who are writing about their experience of deafness or disability, which is in many cases a group of stories that haven’t been told in our popular culture. One of the things that drives me crazy is you’re still more likely to see a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character on our TV shows and on our stages. I think you’re still more likely to see, read about disabled characters in books written by non-disabled authors and one of the things I’d love to see more of is disabled and deaf people writing about their own experiences and being presented on those same kind of stages.
AG: Mm yes, I understand perfectly, you’re right; disability is I think still a taboo issue in Australia and people are resistant because they just don’t understand. I’ve not read a book with a deaf and disabled character in it; if there is, I don’t know about it but I think there should be more. So you’re right, workshops that could encourage people to write with those characters in mind would be great.
KL: I’ve had a question, Sam asks “Do you think publishers have enough awareness of challenges of access barriers, and have you had any experience with publishers?”
AG: Well, of course I’m quite green. I’m new to this writing thing so I would say no; there haven’t been any barriers yet, perhaps in the future. Yeah, I mean, I would say ‘no’ and hopefully it will still be a ‘no’ in the future.
KL: I sat next to Ross…who’s the writer I mentioned earlier at an event at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year on publishers… And at the end he was asked a question about his book, and at the end all four publishers on the panel said “Oh, can I talk to you afterwards?” which is great for him so there’s a market, probably a market for his book. But one of the things that some other deaf writers have spoken to me about in the past is their concern about translation and they were people who write Auslan as their first language so that they had some nervousness about the translation from Auslan into text, and feeling that their text was not as strong as their signed language. Would you say that’s one the challenges for publishers is understanding that translation.
AG: Yeah most definitely and that’s a big part of the problem because, look I would say some. Now, Auslan is the first language for many deaf people and if you break down, if you translate literally what is being signed it doesn’t make sense in English; it would be like French, if you were to translate directly into English it doesn’t make sense, But to us, of course, Auslan makes sense. I know a lot of deaf people who are very skilled at their signing, it’s just beautiful, but if they attempt to write in English, it’s not as so. Yes I think the problem can be expressing themselves in English and I think if a deaf person wants to perhaps write a book in English, they could do it with a co-author, for example.
KL: Before you were mentioning, writing in French is the perfect example, I guess, because publishers cope perfectly well with works in translation so it just needs to be thought of as another work in translation, perhaps.
KL: Internet, we have ten minutes left if anyone would like to ask any more questions. I’ve got a shameless plug for the Emerging Writers Festival that they will be hosting an Auslan interpreted networking event for deaf writers and leading publishers at the 2014 festival, which is pretty exciting – appropriate… This Digital Writers Festival, I think, has been a really exciting initiative in making things more accessible. Here at the Write-ability program we work with lots of people who physically find it difficult to leave their homes so having a Digital Writers Festival that can arrive on their computer screens is a pretty exciting initiative and lots of new boundaries are being extended every day. Who knows where we’ll be in terms of access in two or five or ten years time. Do you have a vision for an accessible literary future? What you’d like to see happen?
AG: Well for me personally, if you, well blogging – there are a lot of blogs out there. And sometimes, look I know people find them funny. Unfortunately, sorry it’s quite funny because they’re not accessible to the general population because there’s no subtitles, so it can work both ways can’t it? And look for writing; it’s been the same for years, the written word. The only difference is with technology it’s able to go widespread and the blog’s definitely the future. What do you think?
KL: I guess I have a dual vision for a more accessible future. I would like all of our literary festivals to be more accessible. I’d like to see more deaf and disabled writers up on stages as well as in the audiences. I’d like to see more deaf and disabled people running the arts organisations that are working for them. But I’d also like to see in Australia, and obviously not every disabled or deaf writer writes about the experience of disability or deaf culture. But in Australia one of the things that I think is missing is that celebration of those cultures, that visible celebration of those cultures. We have a biennial Other film festival which does a celebration of that in film form but that‘s one of the only national festivals that celebrates disability and deaf culture I’d like to see more of that…Someone can sort that out for me (laugh) I’d also like to see Auslan recognised as an Australian language… anything else to add to this?
AG: You say that deaf people should write about their own experiences whereas I’m not so sure because if I write about my deafness, I feel like I’m just playing a broken record: yes I’m deaf this is what I do and this is how I communicate, but it doesn’t define who I am, my deafness. Yes we do need more writers to write, deaf writers to raise awareness so it’s sort a catch 22 isn’t it?
KL: Yeah caught between a rock and a hard place, it’s really tricky. And I think those advocates that are particularly vocal, do feel a responsibility, they have an opportunity to be a mouthpiece, to progress the rights movement which as you know, we still need in Australia, that those who do have a platform do feel that quite heavy responsibility of having to speak on behalf of a sector that is as yet still not speaking in multiple voices. So I do think it’s really tricky because obviously, you know, writers should write about what they want to write about – horror stories or poetry or whatever – but I also do think that published accounts, first-person accounts of the lived experience of disability, especially in our mainstream and our literature are few and far between, and until that’s normalised, until that’s out there all the time, we’re still going to be fighting the battles. I do think it’s changing, Gurrumul was on the cover of Rolling Stone two years ago, we’ve got people with disability in the mainstream media I talked about the ABC Ramp Up platform earlier today which I do think is making a big difference to disability stories. So hopefully, hopefully it’s changing slowly.
AG:I think the best way to achieve that is through media really. I do know in America there is a program called Switched at Birth, which has a deaf family in it and it compares the deaf family with a hearing family. And that’s on ABC, or FOX I’m not sure, it’s American, and so a lot of people do watch that and especially the younger generation because, of course, the main character is a hot young deaf boy and they use American Sign Language ASL in the program, and so media has that power to influence and to make people aware, and so, of course, writing does as well and so it’d be nice if that could happen more often.
KL: One final question to end this stuff, the Emerging Writers’ Festival asks is it time for a dedicated national festival for writers with a disability? What do you think?
AG: Hmm, now let’s go back to why should we focus on the disability and not them as a writer, however, you know disability is a taboo issue or topic here and, really, there’s nothing to be afraid of and so perhaps we need to have this festival and, to show people how proud we are, be defiant and put ourselves out there and show them we have skills they should be judging us by and not judging us by disability. So it would be good just to raise that awareness, so perhaps yes.
KL: I think I agree, I think I’d like to see a national festival celebrating arts and disability culture and deaf culture, especially those who are working in a disability arts context or writing about or making art, any kind of art about the deaf cultural experience – I’m not sure that we need a separate one for each art form. And I’d certainly like to call on all of our own mainstream festivals to, you know, think beyond hearing loops, think beyond Auslan interpretations, think beyond ramps, and start thinking about programming writers, or diverse writers from all walks of life in their program.
AG: Mm, I agree, and regardless of the disability, you know, one or two people, just say you have two people in the room and they have a disability, they’re going to have different perspectives on life, purely based on their upbringing. Even if you have two deaf writers in the room, they’re going to have very different writing styles, based on upbringings and culture and attitudes, so yeah, something worth thinking about.
KL: Well I think that’s all we have time for this afternoon; it was great to meet you.
AG: Thank you, as it was you.
KL: And thanks for everyone who is here in the room with us and thank you for playing along online.
AG: Thank you everyone.
This event was supported by the McLeod Family Foundation.
With thanks to Write-abililty, Writers Victoria, Arts Access Victoria and the Deaf Arts Network.