ABC 774 reference to use of interpreters in emergency announcements

3 February 2015

Dear Mr Red Symons

My name is Melissa Lowrie, and I am the manager of Deaf Victoria. Deaf Victoria is the peak representive body for the Deaf and hard of hearing community in Victoria.

I have been informed that in your radio segment on ABC 774 talk back radio on Thursday 29th January 2015, you touched on the issue of Auslan interpreters and if they are needed in major announcements.

As ABC 774 has not been able to give me a transcript of this, and of course, I am deaf myself and cannot hear the radio, some Auslan interpreters have told me the general gist of the piece. The only way I can get this transcript is to pay for an Auslan interpreter to transcribe it for me, to facilitate a right of reply. However, that will leave me significantly out of pocket. You need to be aware when you are speaking about Deaf people and issues about us on the radio, we will generally not be able to hear it or respond in a fair manner so I do hope that you will encourage that the segment is transcribed for all of us to read.

I was told that you said Auslan Interpreting on TV is superfluous window dressing or “theatre” used by politicians to enhance their inclusive image or by emergency announcers to provide drama. I was told that one caller provoked your amusement by referring to Auslan interpreting on TV as ‘looking like a Punch and Judy show’ saying it drove him crazy – so distracting! You suggested that the problem could be solved in Deaf people would simply locate the little button on the tale that says ‘subtitles’ and….press it.

Allow me to clarify.

Auslan is a first language for many Deaf people around Australia, and contrary to popular belief it is NOT a direct translation of the English language. Auslan has its own grammar and structure making written and spoken English a second language for many deaf people. Hence, English subtitles are not understood by some Deaf people the way it can be understood in Auslan. English is their second language. Captioning on live TV news update is often delayed fragmented and unreliable – I encourage you to turn on the captions for live TV announcements and see for yourself how hard it is to understand.

Whilst it seems your listeners and yourself find Auslan interpreters on screen “distracting” and “theatre”, the Deaf community in Australia is actually extremely concerned about the lack of Auslan Interpreters on TV news emergency announcements. We have had a number of national emergencies in the last decade and there have only been sporadic appearances of an Auslan interpreter on screen.

We are, as a sector, trying to make it compulsory for all emergency announcements to be Auslan interpreted. Deaf people have had little access to quick information. After the Black Saturday bushfires, a number of Deaf people were living in the affected areas and had no access to information this way. It was only because of neighbours that were aware they were deaf that they were able to evacuate safely. However if clearer and more accessible information was in place, Deaf people will be more independent in their decisions.

Thank you for reading, and we hope to hear some corrections on this issue in your show.

Melissa Lowrie.


Mr Red Symons replied on 11 February 2015:

Dear Ms. Lowrie,

I read almost the entire text of your letter on the radio this morning, the 10th of February, because I thought it was informative and an education to anyone, myself included, who has no real experience of true deafness.

One of the subtleties of spoken radio is that much of the tone of a discussion is in the nuances of voice and underlying intent. Might I guess that its equivalent for a deaf person could be the conjunction of an Auslan sign with a facial expression that gives shades of meaning to the communication. Sometimes just to reduce it to the text is to strip it of much of its meaning and intent.

My approach to talkback is to conduct it from the point of view of a child who has no answers and is simply asking “why is that so?”

Hence, when I ask the question “is signing useful on television? Are subtitles sufficient?” I am genuinely asking the question and not taking an advocacy position. Simply put, I was not impugning your community.

Yes, as you observe in your letter, a deaf person does not have access to radio. I made this point myself when I said that it was unfortunate that no deaf person would call to enlighten me about my questions. Further, as a child might, I wondered aloud as to whether the use by American politicians was “theatre” or actually useful.

What I did learn, from a caller more informed than I, was that it is mandatory in the US for emergency services broadcasts to be accompanied by a signer. As you say in your letter, this is something you would very much like to see made compulsory here.

Someone once said, the news media don’t tell you what to think, rather it tells you what to think about. For a brief period, our listeners’ attention has been drawn to the dilemmas that a deaf person might encounter. Whilst the listeners may once have had no view at all about signing and emergency broadcasting other than it being a bit of a pantomime on the edge of the screen, I would like to think that our public discussion of the issue has informed them of its utility and that your pursuit of compulsory signing in emergency circumstances is thereby advanced.

Thank you for your letter,

Kindest regards

Red Symons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *