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Deaf Face Same Discrimination As Migrants

Guest Opinion:

Deaf Face Same Discrimination As Migrants

The recent debate about discrimination against migrants ignores the larger picture, writes Peter Fogarty.

Imagine with me. It is a hot day. You want to go to the beach, but you do not own a car because you are poor. You want to get in touch with your friends, who do have transport.

How do you do this? Put your hand up if you use a telephone. OK. That's most of New Zealand with their hands up, there.

But, there were approximately 204,700 people at the last census in 1996 who may not be able to use a phone to call their friends. That's how many people declared some hearing loss.

To be Deaf is to have a degree of hearing loss from the mild deafness that comes in old age to the profoundly deaf, congenitally deaf, and all kinds in between. Some may sign, others may speak; the spectrum ranges from the stone deaf to the 'turn up the TV' deaf.

Some of us can use a telephone with varying degrees of skill, most cannot. These who cannot are told by social services to use email, fax machines, text and instant messaging as substitutes.

One thing these social services forget is that such technology costs money and our society, through its reluctance to provide employment to these who are different, systematically denies us the full ability to earn money to purchase the recommended means of communication.

Nobody denies that the Deaf are disadvantaged by their ability to hear. Yet many people in positions of power are in denial of the ways their actions minimise the quality of life for so many people. If these people do acknowledge their actions, it is with a statement of powerlessness.

They cannot help us, no matter how much they want to; the matter is in the hands of the more powerful than they. That is, if these people respond at all.

Such people include the Minister of Disabilities' office, which has rarely responded to my emails, certainly not to my first, nor my most recent. Not a bit of acknowledgement, no 'your email has been received and will be read in due course,' just a big silence.

I despair. If I cannot speak to the Minister of Disabilities, how else am I to contact her? I certainly cannot use a telephone. I could write a letter, but that is not the point. We can access one another much more rapidly in today's fast-paced society.

New Zealand is unique in the world for being a place where many different people from various cultural backgrounds have forged an uneasy existence; the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori and Europeans being the most obvious example. New Zealand is home to more people than these two genetic strains of humanity, we are also home to peoples from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the many islands of the Pacific.

Despite our multicultural heritage, New Zealand is no different from any other capitalist country; its systems of business, education, industry and media are skewed in favour of the the descendants of white Europeans.

This bias imposes a normative upon all social interactions. The popular media assumes a desirable norm of healthy, white, and beautiful. This is because in general the popular media is historically run by white people who have superimposed these desirable qualities, this norm, upon the rest of the world.

These actions by the minority have systematically worked to eliminate the diversity of culture upon our planet; to homogenise difference into a single system of existence: a glamour where everyone speaks English, wears Nike, drinks coffee at Starbucks and eats at McDonalds.

This standardisation of behavior excludes the possibility of being different; of not being white, of not speaking English, or of not having trained in certain institutions. Before anyone can live and work in New Zealand they must have recognised qualifications, a reasonable ability to speak English, and preferably be white.

When New Zealand government officials such as Mr Prebble comment in public about preferring white Zimbabwe farmers to black Somalians as refugee migrants, what else are we to think?

This comment sparked a debate in the popular media. Susan Hall, an agent at an employment agency says "the problem is that when I approach an employer with a good worker who has good qualifications, but when the client sees the person's name, which usually gives it away that he or she is a migrant, I get a definite 'no, thank you' . . . it's the employers who need re-educating." That these migrants are largely not white is an indictment of the discrimination by the system.

There are other groups of people, whose difference is not recognised in this country, and whose abilities are also invalidated by this very difference; they are just as invisible to the 'mainstream' of society.

Deafness is an invisible affliction. Deaf live in silence every day. It is unusual for the Deaf to have a voice, because their voice is in their fingers. Deaf are effectively silenced in New Zealand society by their own silence.

Deaf have to deal with the same issues for the same reasons as refugees and immigrants to this country. Deaf also have language difficulties, qualification difficulties, and integration difficulties.

It is one thing to overcome a personal disability, but quite another to overcome New Zealand society's perception of your disability, your identity. This perception disenfranchises a wide group of people; Deaf are but a small slice of this pie.

My argument is about the limits New Zealand society places on our ability to integrate into the wider world. These limits exist for everybody outside the 'norm' of New Zealand.

No amount of skill that Deaf may have in speaking English or in their industry can overcome New Zealand's apparent indifference to their plight. No amount of perseverance and industry on the part of a Deaf person to integrate by excelling at all levels of education can climb that pinnacle if they are silenced.

These reports are the tip of the iceberg of discrimination in this country. Deaf are systematically deprived of the primary tool of New Zealand society; access to media, access to services, and access to community.

They are deprived of these things through the reluctance of New Zealand government to provide the free teletype relay service that is ubiquitous in western civilisation, notably in America, Britain, Europe, and Australia.

The number one tool of society is communication. It makes no sense to limit communications to a certain sector of people because they are silenced by their refusal to provide services.

It is hypocritical for telecommunications companies to say that the teletype relay services are not cost-effective when they post annual profits many times over and above the projected cost of this service. I pay a regular sum to Telecom every month for no service except a phone connection for my modem. The Deaf telephone is our mode of transport. My telephone is my bicycle. If I wish to communicate with someone across town, I cycle there. Telecom advertises their yellow pages with the copy, "let your fingers do the walking." I have no choice but to let my fingers do the talking.

Deaf are not handicapped by their disability, they are handicapped by New Zealand society's reluctance to work with the different, despite most Deaf people's extreme alertness, visual acuity and ability to 'read' body language.

A simple provision of access to telephones as a business, social and integrative tool is needed as a first step on the path to fully enable Deaf in New Zealand society. The next step is to educate the community on the variety of the diaspora of humanity that we contain upon our shores, to erase the assumptions we make about one another.

None of this would be possible without the ability to communicate, for other cultures to bridge their differences, their difficulties, and meet each other half way, while retaining their cultural identity.

It is ridiculous for Deaf to expect the hearing community to all learn to sign, just as it is ridiculous for the hearing community to expect Deaf to become fully integrated 'hearing aided' people. It is just as ridiculous for New Zealand to deny the humanity of migrants, simply because of slight differences in education, culture and language.

A bridge between all of our communities must be built. Our ignorance of one another must be destroyed and our individual identities and cultures celebrated.

Peter Fogarty is a freelance writer. He is profoundly deaf, and graduated from his third degree, a MA first class in English, last year. He is currently looking for work.

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