Going, going, but not gone: the impact of social and technological influences on the Australian Deaf community

  • Ingrid Van Steenwyk

Abstract

Australia's Deaf community, whose members consider themselves part of a distinct socio-cultural minority group identified by their use of Australian Sign Language (Auslan), is experiencing significant and rapid change. Recent social and technological influences such as cochlear implants, telecommunications technology, mainstreaming and the closure of Deaf Clubs are changing the way Deaf people communicate, socialise and identify. Some research suggests that these influences combined with advances in medical care and genetics have the potential to wipe out deafness altogether, taking with it the entire community, its unique culture and one of the world's few native signed languages (Johnston 2004). Through some aspects of ethnographic field work such as focus groups and participant observation, this article presents an exploration of the Australian Deaf community. Specifically, it examines how and why the community has changed over recent years, and where it may be headed within a social context that favours dominant hearing ideologies associated with medical and scientific perspectives on deafness. In drawing on the collective memory and collective identity of Deaf people, this study reveals the complexity of the Australian Deaf community, illustrating how it re-affirms itself through its agency and how recurring themes of power, control and dominance play out in the lives of Australian Deaf people today. While demonstrating the strength and resilience of a community galvanised by a shared history, language, identity and world view, this study also draws out the Australian Deaf community's unease about the future, signified by feelings of loss, disconnection and a weakening sense of Deaf identity. This study further uncovers the importance of "place" for the Deaf community and feelings of displacement as the community changes, and as Deaf Clubs, which represented feelings of home, identity and control, disappear from the Deaf landscape. Conclusions drawn from this study infer the need for consideration of the role of the Deaf community, as well as issues of Deaf leadership and place in the development of public policy on education, medical intervention and other policy areas affecting the wellbeing and future of Deaf people.

Author Biography

Ingrid Van Steenwyk
Ingrid van Steenwyk completed a Masters Degree in Applied Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, in 2007. Her thesis "Tradition, technology and transformation: The changing shape of Australia's Deaf community" examined the impact of social and technological influences on a minority community that has been diminishing in size over recent years. The project was based on ethnographic field work, including participant observation and focus groups held with members of Sydney's Deaf community. Ingrid currently works for the NSW Department of Community Services in Sydney. She can be contacted at ingridvan(AT)hotmail.com
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