Guidelines for the Media

Deaf Arts Network welcomes opportunities for media representation of Deaf people, acknowledging it as one of the most effective ways of enhancing community awareness and acceptance of Deaf people and their lives.

Deaf Arts Network also appreciates the importance of providing journalists and other media professionals with up-to-date information and guidelines to assist them in making sure that the language they use and the images they convey are accurate and responsible.

Deaf people are officially recognised as one of Australia’s linguistic and cultural minority groups.

Most studies find that approximately one in ten people in Australia have varying degrees of deafness. A recent study estimated the number of those who use Australian Sign Language as their primary language to be almost 16,000 (Hyde and Power, 1991).

Section 1: Terminology

There is now a proliferation of terms for describing people with varying degrees or kinds of deafness, each of which has a clearly defined meaning. The most important of these terms are defined below, and it is advisable to check with the subjects of media pieces to determine which term they feel is appropriate for describing them.

  1. Deaf (with a capitalised D) is used to describe those who use Australian Sign Language (Auslan) to communicate, and who identify as members of the signing Deaf community. These people may also identify themselves as ‘culturally Deaf’. They are more likely to have been born deaf or become deaf early in life.
  2. deaf (with a small d) is a more general term used to describe the physical condition of not hearing, and also to describe people who are physically deaf but do not identify as members of the signing Deaf community.
  3. hearing-impaired is the term usually preferred by those who have acquired a hearing loss in late childhood or adulthood, or who have a mild or moderate hearing loss. These people usually communicate using speech, lip-reading and residual hearing (often amplified by hearing aids).
  4. hard of hearing is sometimes used as an alternative term for ‘hearing -impaired’.

Using the wrong word can easily offend. Culturally Deaf people do not like the term ‘hearing-impaired’, perceiving it as negative and clinical. Hearing-impaired people do not like being identified by the terms ‘Deaf’ or ‘deaf’, so it is essential to check terminology with your subjects. Where a large mixed group of people is being referred to, it is appropriate to use more than one term. Eg.”Television subtitles are enjoyed by Deaf and hearing-impaired people throughout Australia.”

Negative, inappropriate and outmoded terms should be avoided, such as:

“deaf and dumb” or “deaf mute” (see correct terms above)

“a victim of deafness”, “suffers from hearing-impairment”, “is afflicted with deafness” (it’s quite sufficient to say a person “is deaf” , or “is hearing -impaired”.)

“abnormal” (The meaning of “normality” tends to shift dangerously, and the word is better avoided. Conversely, hearing people should be referred to as “hearing”, not as “normal”.)

Section 2: Correcting Assumptions

Assumptions should be monitored carefully. Much media coverage is rendered ineffectual by the journalists inaccurate assumptions being evident throughout. Following are some of the more common assumptions about Deaf and hearing-impaired people:

Assumption

Deaf / hearing-impaired people are always unhappy about their deafness.

Correction

Deaf people are rarely unhappy about being deaf, though they may feel frustrated by discrimination and obstruction. Hearing-impaired people, especially those who have recently lost their hearing, may be unhappy about their condition, but this should never be assumed.

Assumption

They would welcome any opportunity to become hearing.

Correction

Most Deaf people have no desire to become hearing and are not interested in “miracle” surgery or medical interventions. Those whose deafness or hearing-impairment was acquired later in life may often wish to regain their hearing, but again this should not be assumed.

Assumption

Sign languages are mere “compensatory” systems which should be discarded in favour of speech wherever possible.

Correction

Australian Sign Language (Auslan) is an officially recognised community language which meets the full range of needs of its community of users (Dawkins, 1991). Those who use it are proud of heir language, and usually wish to promote its use and acceptance, not to discard it.

Assumption

Sign language is universal.

Correction

Most countries have a distinct sign language, though there are recognised ‘families’ of related sign languages. Auslan is very similar to British Sign Language for example, but quite different from American Sign Language. International gatherings of deaf people will often use a system called ‘International Sign’ or ‘Gestuno’, though this does not function the same way as a full sign language.

Assumption

School programs which focus on teaching deaf children to speak are superior to those which teach using sign language.

Correction

Educational programs for deaf and hearing-impaired children use a variety of communication strategies, ranging from bilingual programs using Auslan and English, through to programs using only speech and amplified hearing. It should never be assumed that there is agreement that any one of these methods is superior or more effective for deaf/hearing impaired children.

Assumption

Deaf/hearing-impaired people are necessarily dependent on others, and need assistance with every day tasks.

Correction

The vast majority of Deaf and hearing-impaired people go about their daily lives with minimal assistance from others. They hold down jobs, bring up families and participate in the community – and yes, they can drive!

Assumption

Those working with Deaf/hearing-impaired people in capacities such as teachers, welfare workers or interpreters, do so from charitable motives.

Correction

Such people are (usually) professionals, whose career choices are affected by the same mixture of motivations and experiences as everyone else’s.

Assumption

Devices such as hearing aids and cochlear implants make a deaf / hearing impaired person hear ‘normally’.

Correction

These devices do not correct hearing loss in the way glasses can correct vision impairment. They amplify sound to varying degrees, but never approach anything like the clarity of full hearing. The wearer is still a deaf or hearing impaired person.

Assumption

Deaf/hearing Impaired people cannot hear or speak at all.

Correction

There is an enormous amount of variation in what Deaf and hearing-impaired people can hear, with or without assistive devices.

Deaf People’s vocal cords are the same as those of hearing people. While most can vocalise and many can speak, many others find that speech is not a possible or effective method of communication.

Assumption

All Deaf and hearing impaired people can lip read.

Correction

Lip-reading is an in exact process which depends heavily on knowledge of the language being lip-read. Only about a third of English sounds are visible on the lips, and not everyone speaks in a way which lends itself to lip reading. It is not an easy or reliable method of communicating, and Deaf/hearing-impaired people vary in their use of it.

Section 3: Other Issues

  1. Every effort should be made to interview and / or seek information from those who are Deaf or hearing impaired themselves. This may often mean using Auslan interpreters to communicate with Deaf people. In such situations professional interpreters accredited by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) should be used.
  2. Family members, co-workers, friends or other unqualified or inappropriate persons should not provide information about Deaf persons, or “speak” or interpret for them.
  3. The prior approval of all Deaf / hearing impaired individuals used in media pieces should be obtained. The privacy of individuals should be respected.
  4. When opinions on issues relating to deafness are being sought, every attempt should be made to contact Deaf or hearing impaired people with special knowledge of the issue concerned. Journalists are strongly encouraged to approach Deaf Australia for assistance in this regard.
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