Drisana Levitzke-Gray: Empowering the Deaf in Australia

The fifth generation in her family to be born Deaf, Drisana Levitzke-Gray, is dedicated to helping other Deaf people and advocating for their human rights.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

In the year of 2015, for the first time in the history of the Australia Day awards, the ceremony was conducted with Australian sign language interpreters. It was the year Drisana Levitzke-Gray won the Young Australian of the Year Award for her passionate and dedicated work towards advocating for the human rights of Deaf people and for raising awareness about the Auslan (Australian Sign Language).

The fifth-generation in her family to be born Deaf, Drisana was fortunate to have been born to Deaf parents and thus raised bilingual (Auslan and English), and around people who understood what it meant to be Deaf. But sadly, that is not the case with every Deaf person out there, most of them are brought up without a foundation in Auslan and without being introduced to the Deaf community and culture. This is exactly what Drisana is fighting for, to make sure that every Deaf person that is born is given everything they need to succeed and become the person ‘they were always supposed to be’.

Today, she is married to her co-advocate Braam Jordaan and continues her fight for the rights of the Deaf people in Australia. Drisana talks to INKLINE about how her life has changed since receiving the award and her views on Deaf advocacy.

INKLINE: You belong to the fifth generation in your family to be born Deaf. Looking back, how much of a difference do you think it made to be born into a family who understood what it meant to be Deaf? 

© Drisana Levitzke-Gray

Drisana Levitzke-Gray: I am one of the 5% of Deaf people who are born to parents who are Deaf, I am definitely fortunate to have my native language, culture and history instilled in me since I was born. However, it does not mean that for the 95% of Deaf people born to hearing parents have to miss out on this.

This is why I push and advocate to ensure all Deaf children and their family learn Auslan (Australian Sign Language) from birth, to grow up bilingual (Auslan and English), for their parents and family to have Deaf role-models who can share their life story and experiences as a deaf individual, to reassure parents and family relatives that the Deaf child’s potential is unlimited when they are given the foundation that is sign language.

It is a huge plus to have immediate family members who are both Deaf and fluent in Auslan, I would always understand everything that is being said, I wouldn’t be left out of conversations which sadly happens to many Deaf children with hearing family members who do not sign.

I: Auslan is your first language. Could you tell us more about the language and how it is different from other sign languages? 

D: Auslan has been around for quite a long time, the mother language of Auslan is British sign language which was most likely brought over by deaf convicts and free settlers. Since those people did not have regular contact with Deaf British people, and as a natural and real language, it evolves over the years across generations.

There are some borrowed signs but not only from American sign language, we have signs from Irish sign language as we had Irish nuns who came out to Australia to teach Deaf children in schools too. Each and every language evolves, and with technology rapidly connecting Deaf people from all over the world, we might share the same sign for Instagram or twitter etc, yet the languages are still very unique to their own.

I: What is the situation like in Australia in relation to the Deaf community in terms of support from the government and the education system? Is it better or worse off in other nations? 

D: Every single country has their own pros and cons for Deaf people, some have a better education system ensuring Deaf people receive the best, whereas other countries have better disability rights and others have better cultural and community participation. In Australia, despite being a country that is well off, I strongly feel that Deaf people are still disadvantaged in many ways.

This changes throughout generations, back in my grandparents’ generation, many Deaf people had long-term jobs, people knew that they were human beings and they were great workers. But currently it is very difficult for Deaf people to gain meaningful employment due to the negative stigma and attitude associated with being Deaf, that we are a health and safety hazard, they are even trying to stop deaf people becoming truck drivers yet so many have obtained their licenses for many decades.

© Drisana Levitzke-Gray

In a positive light, I feel my generation of young people are very open-minded and accepting of Deaf people, they see us as human beings with our language and culture, not as inferior beings. With the rollout of the National Auslan Curriculum in Australia for LOTE, I can start to see positive changes being made in the educational system, however, it is quite disappointing to see that hearing people/non-signers get the best of everything (LOTE in their schools) yet so many Deaf children are denied interpreters and denied from learning Auslan from birth.

And that the government still hasn’t committed to ensuring every single Deaf child learn Auslan with their family despite funding hearing augmentative services which clearly shows the bias of the government, wanting Deaf children to somehow magically immerse and disappear in the wider society – this doesn’t solve problems, it actually increases mental health issues, social issues and isolation.

I: You are now a source of inspiration to your community and a true embodiment of the concept of ‘Deaf Gain’. But, how difficult has the journey been and how difficult is the daily struggle?

D: It is difficult but I’ve been raised to be a resilient and confident human being, there is nothing wrong with being Deaf – I wouldn’t want to be anything else – the biggest and daily struggle is with the ignorance of the world we live in. The key is to have a great support system and make the most of the opportunities. There is so much good that comes with being Deaf to dwell on the struggles.

I: The deaf community has a rich tradition and history that the hearing world is very much unaware of, could you maybe educate us a little? 

D: Just like any other cultural and ethnic groups, we have our own culture and norms within our sign language and community. Some examples could be how we get each other’s attention, mainly by stomping on the floor or flicking the lights on and off if the person is some distance away. You can walk right through two Deaf people conversing, it is not considered rude at all, however, if you decide to make yourself small and try to duck and walk through the conversation, it is very distracting and we end up looking at the person – that interrupts the flow of the conversation. We have so much history in areas such as sports and politics. We have our own Deaflympics, we have the World Federation of the Deaf. Deaf people have made pioneering changes and inventions such as ‘deaf space‘.

I: The major problem that can be identified is that unlike other cultures, a Deaf person may join the community later in life, rather than being born into it. What according to you holds the key to this problem? 

D: A Deaf person belongs to the community no matter what, some just happens to ‘find’ it later in life. I recommend the “Found” Series created by BSLZone about Deaf people finding the Deaf community, sign language and most importantly, their identity.

Australian of the Year Awards. © Belinda Pratten and Sean Davey

The biggest barrier is the medical field who pushes a parent to only use English with their child, to assimilate their child into society, that having the skill to hear and speak is the only way they will succeed in life. They are at times told not to let their child meet any Deaf people, that sign language will impair their growth and learning skills. Deaf children have the right to be able to have a Deaf role-model, to have Deaf peers their age that they can associate with.

The saddest thing I’ve seen a Deaf child say is “Will I die when I turn 18?” – this is because they haven’t seen another Deaf person. Quite often you will find many Deaf people go through a phase of bitterness that they were not introduced to the deaf community earlier in life. This is what drives me in my advocacy work to ensure that every Deaf person gets the best of everything, best of both worlds from birth. They should never be given one or the other, give them everything to succeed and be the person they were always supposed to be.

I: How has your life changed after receiving the Young Australian award? How much progress have you seen in the Deaf community since 2015?

D: It has been such a whirlwind and full of amazing opportunities to bring the spotlight and attention to the Deaf community and serious issues that need to be resolved. I’m still the same person I’ve always been and continue to be a very active community member of my local deaf community in Perth. I love attending Deaf community events locally, nationally and internationally.

In many ways, I see improvements for the Deaf community such as the National Auslan Curriculum for LOTE which brings positive spotlight and attention to our language, culture and community. Deaf people out there continue to succeed, to further their education, to gain momentous roles in our society such as Alastair McEwin who is the Disability Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission.

I: For the people out there going through similar struggles, what would your one piece of advice be? 

You are not alone, we are always going to be here. The Deaf community will always be there for you to connect, make new friends, create a support system of people who get you and have been through what you are going through. Overcome, educate and radiate.

*In the same way that the J in Jewish is capitalized, the B in Black, and the L in Latina, the Deaf community choose to capitalize the D in Deaf to reflect their pride in their community and culture.

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