Learn Auslan Level 1

Welcome to my online course, which aims to teach you some basic Auslan (Australian sign language). You’ll learn both vocab and concepts for how Auslan is used.

Auslan, like English, is a language that constantly evolves and changes.  There is a lot of debate about whether certain signs and phrases are correct or not.  Signs are updated to remove racist influences, and then changed back again to be visually appropriate. Signs vary between the states in Australia – for example, the sign for ‘hungry’ in Melbourne is the sign for ‘sexy’ in Sydney!  This course reflects how I used Auslan when I lived in Melbourne.  It’s not perfect – there are plenty of Deaf people out there who will tell you that some of these signs and ideas are wrong.  But if you learn these signs you should be able to communicate with any signing Deaf person in Australia.

To get the most out of this course, it would be great if you can do it with a friend, so you have someone to practise with.  Ask if someone else in your household or someone you see regularly can join you. Most lessons have around ten signs to learn – easy to pick up in a single session, and to practise during the week.

A note to Deaf people: Already, as I launch this course, I realise that I have missed many basic words that should be included.  I’ve missed entire topics, like sport, because I don’t talk about them much.  I would like to invite other Deaf signers to contribute lessons.  Film a short video of yourself signing slowly and clearly enough for a non-signer to copy, add a list of vocab, and if appropriate, include some notes as well.  Upload it to YouTube and paste a link to it in the comments.  Later, I’ll update this course to include any submissions.  Feel free to include alternate signs from the ones I’ve given.

A note to hearing people: If there are any signs you’d like to know, please leave your request in the comments.  Hopefully then someone will add a video to answer your request. There are also other online resources for learning Auslan, here and here and here. And if you’d like to go to a live class, you’ll find links to them for all states in Australia here.

Want to practise using flash cards? Lee Engelstad, a student of this course, has been making flashcards based on my videos which help you practise individual signs. You can download the flashcards here.  Lee will be adding more flashcards over time. If anyone else would like to team up with Lee to make them, just hit reply to my video and I’ll put you in touch with each other. Many thanks, Lee, for your great contribution to this course.

Videos too fast? If you watch them on YouTube[URL FOR OUR CHANNEL], you can change the speed to 0.25x for while you are learning, and then speed it up as you become more confident.

Which hand to use when signing: When you fingerspell and sign, your dominant hand (the one you write with) does most of the moving, and the subordinate hand forms the base positions. 
I’m afraid my signs are a bit messy because I fingerspell left-handed and sign right-handed. Therefore, if you are right handed, when you watch my videos, do the fingerspelling mirror-image to me, and transpose the rest of the signs. If you sign with the hand that feels most natural, that will probably work. This course is for beginners and my aim is to help you communicate with Deaf people. If you use the ‘wrong’ hand for a sign, Deaf people will still understand you, so don’t stress about it too much. If you are serious about becoming fluent, it’s good to get the usage of hands correct.

Make a donation: This course is free because I want Auslan to be easily accessible to everyone, and I want to improve the lives of Deaf people who will benefit as more hearing people learn Auslan. I also want to make Auslan accessible to deaf people who are interested in learning to sign. You are one of over 15,000 students, and there is a significant overhead involved in managing a course/site with so many hits. It costs me money as I pay people to help sort out all the issues that come up, and it costs me time as I troubleshoot problems. I have resisted the suggestion that I monetise the course through advertising, because I am philosophically opposed to living in a world full of ads. If you want to support my mission to make Auslan available to everyone for free, I would really appreciate a donation.

Other course levels: If you’ve already done Level 1, feel free to jump ahead to Level 2, or to study Level 3: Phrases for medical staff.

Alright, let’s dive in and get started…


If you can fingerspell you can communicate with any Deaf person – just spell out every word.

When you fingerspell, your dominant hand (the one you write with) does most of the moving, and the subordinate hand forms the base positions.  In the video I’m fingerspelling with my left hand, so if you are right handed, you should do the signs mirror-image to me.

Take care that you don’t bend your fingers back unnaturally while fingerspelling.  Make each letter smooth – for example, you don’t need to shrug your shoulders or take a deep breath for each letter – work on allowing them to flow naturally.

Practise fingerspelling the alphabet until you are confident with all the letters.  A good way to help make your fingerspelling smooth is to spell out the lyrics to a favourite song.  It can seem incredibly cumbersome at first, but if you practise it, it will become smooth.  Eventually, you may be able to spell fast enough that you can do it along with the song while it plays in real time.  If you drive, practising fingerspelling at the traffic lights is a great habit!

Also practise reading back fingerspelling from a friend.  Learning to read back words is actually harder than learning the letters in the first place.  It takes practise!  Use context and what you know about your conversation to help you work out what the word might be.


The signs in this video will help you learn to greet a deaf person.

This is the vocab I’ve shown you:

  • Hello
  • My
  • Name
  • How are you? (this is one sign)
  • Good
  • Bad
  • So’s so
  • Alright
  • Hot
  • Cold
  • Tired
  • Please/thank you (use this sign for both please and thank you)

You’ll notice my facial expression changes with each sign.  Facial expression is very important in Auslan – practise using appropriate expressions for your signs.

With a friend, practise greeting each other in Auslan.  Introduce yourself and fingerspell your name.  Through the next week, notice when you feel any of the above feelings, and do that sign to yourself.

How to remember vocab and concepts

The critical time for the human brain to forget what it’s learnt is during the first twenty-four hours after acquiring new knowledge.  Studies have shown that approximately one hour after learning something, most students can remember about eighty percent of the content.  Four hours after learning, they remember less than fifty percent.  The next day they remember as little as ten percent.  My study recommendations are based on this understanding.

Every time you learn a new piece of vocab, write down the English word.  This will remind you that you know this sign so you can practise it.  If you feel you need to, write down any information about how to execute the sign, but position this on the page so that it can be covered up for testing yourself.

Watch the video, then practise signing the lists of vocab beneath it.  One hour later, come back and try again, without watching the video.  After practising, watch the video again and correct your signs where needed.  Repeat this twice more if possible.  Do it just before you go to sleep when you are tired, and again when you first wake up and are still groggy – in this semi-conscious state, the brain seems to learn well. Do it a few more times that day, and then a couple of times a week for a while.

I use Studyblue, where you can program your own flashcards for testing.  Study blue is available as an iPhone app and in your browser, and is a great way to quickly prompt yourself to practise a sign. It even tracks which ones you need more practise with and gives you extra practise at those.

Learn frequently used little words in Auslan – Australian Sign Language

Here are some Auslan signs that are often used in conversation:


  • Same
  • Different
  • Again
  • Maybe/or
  • Lots/too much
  • But
  • For
  • Go
  • Come
  •  With

Learn Auslan signs when asking questions – Australian Sign Language

Use these Auslan signs when asking questions:


  •  Who
  •  What
  • Where
  • When
  • Why
  • How
  • How much
  •  How many
  • Which

In Auslan, the grammar is different from English. When asking a question, the W-word goes last.  For example, when asking ‘When did you eat?”, you would sign ‘YOU EAT WHEN?’ To ask “Where do you live?” you sign ‘YOU LIVE WHERE?’

You’ll notice in these examples that I have omitted ‘did’ and ‘do’. In Auslan, words such as “and”, “to”, “a”, “the”, “it”, “be”, “are” etc. are not used.  Simply delete them from the sentence.

Sometimes in Auslan, the W-word goes both first and last.  This is known as bracing.  E.g. WHO WASH-DISHES WHO?

There is no time when the W-word is first, but not last, the way it is in English.

For this week, practise asking questions.  If you don’t know the signs for the vocab you want to use, fingerspell the words.  By fingerspelling words you don’t know, you create a space in your brain for them, so when you learn the sign for that word you will remember it more easily.

Is sign language universal?

No, it’s not, for the same reason that spoken language is not universal. Just like spoken language, sign language evolves naturally in different geographic locations. For example, a Deaf British convict, Betty Steele, who used British Sign Language, spread the use of sign language when she arrived in Australia. With time and distance, Australian sign language (Auslan) has evolved to be different from British Sign Language (BSL), although you can still see the similarities, such as that we use two hands to fingerspell.

In France, a different system of sign language was used, which entailed fingerspelling with one hand. When Deaf people from France colonised America, the language evolved into American Sign Language (ASL). Hence, although hearing people in Australia and America speak English, the Deaf people in the two countries know vastly different languages.

However, sign language the world over tends to be very visual, and Deaf cultures bear remarkable similarities. A Deaf friend of mine who went to Japan said she found Japanese (hearing) culture so different from Australian culture, it was difficult for her to connect with Japanese people. But when she went to a Deaf event and met Japanese Deaf people, their communication style was remarkably similar to the way Australian Deaf people communicate and relate to one another. She felt right at home.

If you have two hearing people who speak different language, such as English and Mandarin, working out how to communicate with one another can be extremely challenging. However, two Deaf people who know very different types of sign language often establish communication swiftly. I had experience of this myself when I met a group of Deaf women at a train station in France. Although I knew no French sign language and they knew no Auslan, within half an hour we were chatting enthusiastically about abstract topics such as planned obsolescence.

How did we do this? First we would establish common signs by using mime. When they realised I didn’t know French sign language, they asked me where I was from. I drew the outline of Australia with my finger in the air, then I mimed being a kangaroo. They understood immediately and showed me their sign for Australia. I showed them mine. We each remembered the others’ signs and from that point onwards, we would use the sign in either of our languages to refer to Australia. We would use mime to tell little stories, showing each other the signs as we went, and the concepts became more and more abstract.

A side note to this story is that if you are Deaf and you meet another Deaf person, anywhere in the world, there is an instant understanding of kinship – that we are all part of one big ‘Deaf family’. At that same train station, I might have asked a hearing person the time, and that would have been the end of our conversation. But when I went up to the group of Deaf women and let them know I was also Deaf, they embraced me into their group as if I was an old friend, and we began the process of getting to know each other. This is a wonderful and heart-warming aspect of the Deaf community.

Learn frequently used little words 2 in Auslan – Australian Sign Language

Here are some more signs that are often used in conversation:


  • Look
  • See
  • Right
  • Wrong
  • Help
  • Some
  • Nothing/none/silence
  • Sorry
  • Most
  • Thing

In the video I signed ‘sorry’ with a few too many shakes. Just moving your hand twice will do the job.

Read Future Girl to learn more about Deafness and Deaf Culture

Auslan cannot be separated from the Deaf community. To understand Auslan properly, and to use it appropriately and effectively, you need to understand what it really means to be Deaf, and the issues d/Deaf people face in everyday life. My novel, Future Girl, provides detailed insight into Deaf culture and what it feels like to be d/Deaf.

As well as being an exploration into d/Deaf identity, Future Girl is a captivating own-voice coming-of-age novel set in near future Melbourne, that bursts with passion, resilience, optimism and joie-de-vivre. An instructional environmental call-to-arms, it is also an utterly gorgeous art journal – 384 pages, no less, of full-colour art.

Piper’s mum wants her to be ‘normal’, to pass as hearing and get a good job. But when peak oil hits and Melbourne lurches towards environmental catastrophe, Piper has more important things to worry about, such as how to get food. When she meets Marley, a CODA (child of Deaf adult), a door opens into a new world – where Deafness is something to celebrate rather than hide, and where resilience is created through growing your own food rather than it being delivered on a truck. As she dives into learning Auslan, sign language that is exquisitely beautiful and expressive, Piper finds herself falling hard for Marley. But Marley, who has grown up in the Deaf community yet is not Deaf, is struggling to find his place in the hearing world. How can they be together?

In Future Girl, I made Piper d/Deaf because I realised how little the average hearing person knows about d/Deafness. When I first tried to write about Piper’s experience, I found myself stuck, because for me, being Deaf is an ordinary part of my existence – something I take for granted and don’t think about a lot. I found I didn’t know how to articulate it. So I started jotting down my experiences with Deafness every day – the little annoyances, the benefits, confusing moments, the irritating things people say and do, and the subtle but complex feelings that arose when someone has tried to provide access but missed the mark. I began to articulate aspects of Deafness I had never seen described before. For example:

A Deaf dilemma: if you’re standing with a group of hearing people who are laughing, but you have no idea what they are laughing about, should you laugh along to be friendly (and if you do, are you somehow ‘lying’ about having understood?), or stand there with a stony face even though it could seem rude and unfriendly?

I had never realised I was making these difficult decisions on the fly, every day, without analysing how I wanted to approach them. My responses were automatic: I laughed along. But did I really want to do this? Perhaps it would be better to let people know that I felt left out. I have woven many dilemmas and insights such as this into Future Girl.

I began posting on Facebook and my blog about my discoveries. Every single post I made went viral, such is the public hunger for this information. Hearing people thanked me for the insight and told me they had never realised we had such difficult decisions to make. Deaf people told me they felt validated, to see their experiences laid out so clearly, and in a form that they could easily share with others. This is how I became a Deaf activist.

‘Future Girl is a must-read for Deaf people, who will identify with Piper, and for those who are hearing, offering an understanding of what it’s like to be Deaf. It takes me back to my own struggle to fit in and my transformation into loving myself as I am: a signing Deaf woman with a place in both the Deaf and hearing worlds.’

DRISANA LEVITZKE-GRAY, Young Australian of the Year, 2015

You might wonder why I write ‘d/D’ when I refer to d/Deafness. A lower case ‘d’ refers to deafness as a medical condition – the simple fact of being unable to hear fully. A capital ‘D’ refers to Deaf people who are members of the Deaf community – a cultural group, similar to ‘Italians’ and ‘Greeks’. In Future Girl, Piper starts out oral (which means she lipreads and communicates verbally) and considers herself to be ‘deaf’. By the end of the book, she has discovered Deafness and is working out to what extent she wants to embrace Deaf culture and identity, and to what extent she wishes to retain her oral deaf upbringing.

I hope that Future Girl will inspire d/Deaf people on all parts of the spectrum from ‘deaf’ to ‘Deaf’ to make conscious choices about how they respond to life as a d/Deaf person in a hearing world. I hope that hearing people will become more aware of the complex challenges we face and become more supportive and understanding about the multitude of ways we might respond and not expect us to handle our d/Deafness in ways they might formerly have felt most appropriate.

A note to hearing parents of deaf children

It may be your goal for your child to grow up to be as normal as possible. You might not realise that this can put a huge pressure on us. While some people who are d/Deaf or have a disability do put a high value on ‘passing as normal’, many of us would rather take a different approach: that of accepting that we are different and asking for our needs to be met. Piper’s experience of growing up oral and then discovering and choosing to embrace aspects of Deaf experience is very common. She feels guilt for breaking away from what her mother believes is best for her, resulting in a complex and tumultuous relationship with her mother. Your child may eventually undertake a similar journey. I urge you to read Future Girl so that you can understand and support this journey as early as possible, sidestepping the conflict.

Learn Auslan – Some words to indicate purpose

Here are some common signs that indicate purpose:


  • Will
  • Won’t
  • Can
  • Can’t
  • Want
  • Don’t want
  • Have
  • Don’t have (here I demonstrate the handshape I’m using)
  • Need
  • Must
  • Should
  • Prefer
  • Because
  • Can’t be bothered (you’ll see that sometimes a whole English phrase is captured with a single sign)

In the video I signed ‘prefer’ with several flicks. But really, it should be just two flicks.

Tip to include Deaf people…

Tips to include Deaf

Let me tell you a little story about my own experiences…

Back when I was in a community circus troupe, we would do warm up exercises before every show. They were designed to help us connect as a group, as well as help us prepare physically for the show.

However, many of the games were difficult for me. Such as when we had to walk around the space, and the director would call out a number. We’d have to form groups of that number of people. Anyone who didn’t make it to a group was out. No prizes for guessing I was out first time, every time. Eventually I asked the director if we could change the game a little: maybe instead of yelling out a number, she could stamp her foot on the floor, and then hold up the appropriate number of fingers on her hand. That way, I figured, no-one would be at a disadvantage. It surely wouldn’t be a problem for the hearing people to play by these rules.

But she wasn’t up for that. Instead she arranged another student to walk beside me, and tell me the number when she called it out. In practise, that meant the other student quickly hauled me into a group of an appropriate number, because there wasn’t time for her to communicate it and still get into a group herself. I ended up feeling ‘special’, having to walk with my ‘aid’, and I was a bit embarrassed that it meant she couldn’t play properly either.

In the end, the warm up games became so awkward that I extricated myself and did my own private warm up. It meant that I missed out on the connection with others in the group. But I was more comfortable with that than with the solutions the director came up with. I felt lucky that a couple of other students joined me in my private warm up, as a protest against my lack of inclusion.

I think the reason the director was unable to change her game was because she had established her way of working and she knew it worked, and didn’t want to mess with it. I get that.

But my challenge to you, when you are in a position that involves thinking about including others, is to be prepared to shake things up, in order to accommodate everyone. Surely there’s some way you can set up a group culture, game, experience, outting, in such a way that everyone can participate and no-one needs to feel weird or left out. If you have people with conflicting needs, that’s going to take some creativity. Maybe you split the group into two and have two slightly different activities running at the same time. This doesn’t just apply to teachers and directors. It applies to everyone – to kids playing games with other kids, to organising a celebration dinner..

Whatever, I ask you, be creative, try something new, think outside the box, and make sure EVERYONE can join in.

Learn Auslan – Signs for babies (and adults too)

It’s quite popular for parents who don’t sign themselves to teach their babies some signs. This means babies can communicate before they are able to speak. This lesson and the next two have signs that are helpful when communicating with young children, though they are also good signs for anyone to know. When I taught in a kindergarten, these were the most helpful words that allowed us to communicate with very young children.


  • Food
  •  Drink
  • Milk
  • More
  • Finish
  • Sleep (I show you two signs for this)
  • Awake/Wake up
  • Yes
  • No

Finish and more are the most useful signs – as these are abstract concepts that children often want to communicate but cannot. At a meal time, always ask if your child has finished, using the sign. If they haven’t, sign ‘more’. When they do finish, confirm it by signing ‘finish’ yourself. By doing this every time, your child will quickly learn the meaning of the words.

I should have included the sign for ‘toilet’. Luckily you don’t need a video for that. It’s just the letter T, fingerspelled twice: ‘TT’.

Enjoying this course? Make a donation

This course started as a few quick videos to help a friend learn Auslan. is course is free because I want Auslan to be easily accessible to everyone, and I want to improve the lives of Deaf people who will benefit as more hearing people learn Auslan. I also want to make Auslan accessible to deaf people who are interested in learning to sign, as learning Auslan was life-changing for me.

However, the course takes up a lot of my time. Students email with questions, technical problems happen constantly, and there is a significant overhead involved in managing a course/site with so many students. It costs me money as I pay people to help sort out all the issues that come up. I have resisted the suggestion that I monetise it through advertising, because I am philosophically opposed to living in a world full of ads.

So… if you are benefitting from this course, if you want to help this endeavour to create a world that is more accessible for Deaf people, and support my mission to make Auslan available to everyone for free, I would really appreciate a donation.

Think about what you’d pay to attend a live course of a similar quality and content. VicDeaf charges $235 for their six week live course. I’m not saying you should pay that to me. Pay what you can afford and what you feel it’s worth. Your dollars will be well spent, I promise.

If you’re happy to make a contribution, you can do so right here:

Thank you so very much,


Learn Auslan – Animals

A great way to get children interested in signing is to teach them the signs for animals.


  • Cat
  • Dog (pat your thigh twice)
  • Rabbit
  • Bird/chicken
  • Horse
  • Sheep
  • Cow
  • Giraffe
  • Elephant
  • Lion
  • Monkey
  • Gorilla
  • Dinosaur

Learn Auslan – Transport

Kids love learning and using transport signs:


  • Walk
  • Run
  • Ride a bike
  • Car
  • Drive
  • Train
  • Tram
  • Bus
  • Taxi
  • Plane/fly
  • Airport (sorry, the subtitle says ‘landing’. This sign is used for both ‘landing’ and ‘airport’)
  • Station

Other signs that kids often embrace are colours and foods – they are covered in other lessons. For our next lesson, though, we’ll get back to signs commonly used by adults.

I was a bit over-enthusiastic when signing some of these. While signing like this is not really ‘wrong’ and Deaf people will still understand you, it would be correct to sign ‘run’ with just two rotations of my arm, and ‘ride a bike’ should also be two cycles of pedaling with my fingers, and ‘car’ should be two rotations of my fists. ‘Bus’ should be two twists of the steering wheel. My apologies that these videos aren’t perfect – I hope they’ll still help you learn.

Learn Auslan – Deafness and sign language

Here are some signs about being deaf and using Auslan (Australian sign language):


  • Deaf
  • Hearing
  • Sign
  • Language
  • Auslan (Australian sign language)
  • Fingerspell/spell
  • Alphabet (A-Z)
  • Voice
  • Lock your voice/voice off
  • Oral (this is also the sign for lipread)

There are some words and phrases here that aren’t commonly used in mainstream English.

People who aren’t deaf are referred to as ‘hearing’. Deaf people who don’t use sign language, communicating with speech and lipreading, are described as ‘oral’. I grew up oral and learnt to sign when I was eighteen – this is a common situation for Deaf people in Australia.

Fingerspelling refers to manually spelling out the letters of words. If you don’t know the sign for a word, fingerspell it. In Auslan, fingerspelling is commonly used for names and places. Some words, such as ‘cream’ are always fingerspelled, and the fingerspelled version becomes a sort of ‘sign’ for that word. There are some English words for which there is no equivalent Auslan sign. In this case, you could fingerspell the word, though more fluent signers will usually find a way to visually convey the meaning of the word using Auslan signs.

Lock your voice: since Auslan has its own grammar, trying to speak English while signing can be challenging, and also make your signs difficult to understand. It’s common in Auslan to refer to ‘turning off your voice’ or ‘locking your voice’ which means that you don’t speak – just sign. However, if you are speaking English with a group of hearing people, and there is a Deaf person present, it is polite to sign whatever words you can, even if it’s not using correct Auslan grammar, so that the Deaf person can get an idea of what you are talking about.

Deaf dilemma – to laugh or not?

Deaf dilemma

When I was a kid, I always laughed along. I didn’t even know I did it. I survived by copying faces. Someone was upset, I’d make sympathetic faces while they spoke to me. Someone was excited, I’d let out a little excited yelp too.

I didn’t even realise I did this until I was in my late teens. And when I did, it occurred to myself that I was doing myself a disservice. By copying faces, it gave people the impression that I understood what was being said. If instead, I gave them a quizzical expression, I’d be more likely to get an actual explanation.

I set about trying to break my habit. It’s deeply ingrained. I still do it sometimes, but mostly I try to be more honest about when I have and haven’t understood.

But it’s really difficult when I’m standing in a group, say, of people I don’t know that well, but whom I hope to get to know and want to make a good impression on. They’re all laughing. If I stand there, blank-faced, it feels incredibly rude. But it’s also often not right to interrupt them and demand that they explain, especially if we’ve only just met. And yet, if I laugh along, that gives them the impression I understand, and it doesn’t let them know that if this relationship is going to work, I’m going to need a bit more information.

It’s tricky. I don’t have an answer for how us Deaf people should handle this situation. I just wanted to raise some awareness about it.

But, if you’re with a Deaf person and the group starts laughing, maybe you’ll consider leaning over to explain.

Learn Auslan – Communication

Here are some signs about communication:


  • Communicate/Conversation
  • Talk
  • Ask
  • Answer
  • Question
  • Say/tell
  • Agree

Learn Auslan – Pronouns

Learn Auslan pronouns. In Auslan, pronouns are not gender-specific. Mostly, they involve pointing at a person or object.


  • Me (use this for ‘I’ as well)
  • My
  • Mine
  • You
  • Your
  • Yours
  • You’re
  • Here
  • There
  • That/he/she/it (I show three examples of pointing.)

When using these words in conversation, point to the person or thing. If the person or thing is not there, invent a location for them them in space and make sure you continue to point to the same spot for the rest of the conversation.

You might notice that it can be pretty hard to understand sign language if you come in on a conversation in the middle. That’s because often a speaker will set up spaces and words at the beginning of a conversation, and then just do a lot of pointing to convey meaning after that.

Learn Auslan – More frequently used words

Here are some more signs that are often used in conversation:


  • Interesting
  •  Clever (I show the handshape – thumb up)
  •  Stupid
  • Dangerous
  • Little
  • Big
  • Give
  • Take
  • Fast
  • Slow/long
  • Enough
  • Wait

In the video, I’m a bit over-enthusiastic in signing ‘dangerous’. Really, doing two shakes of my hand is more correct. Note, this is similar to the sign for ‘sorry’, but with ‘sorry’, your fingers are more spread out. Also, when I do the sign for ‘enough’ I should have just done two rotations.

International travel as a Deaf person

I thought I’d write a post about my experiences with international travel as a Deaf person. I find it surprising, how very different it feels to be Deaf in different places. Culture changes everything.

My favourite Deaf travel story

Let me start with my favourite Deaf travel story… I was travelling with my partner Paula, and as we checked in they figured out I was Deaf. There was some kerfuffle but we were released into the wilds of the airport. As we waited at the gate, Paula nudged me and told me. “There’s an announcement over the loudspeaker. Can all Deaf people and parents with children please come to the gate now to board first.” As you’d expect, there was a flurry of parents and kids heading to the gate. But strangely enough… no Deaf people.

This announcement highlights something I encounter over and over again. Well-meaning people who attempt to cater for my needs, but who haven’t actually thought about what it means to be Deaf.

A first encounter with Deafness

Let me tell you about Joe, who I met in a shop in France. He said something to me, which I didn’t understand, and my friend Jenine explained to him that I’m Deaf. No worries. Conversation with Jenine goes on. He asked her how we were enjoying the music festival.

She explained that actually we weren’t attending the music festival. “But why not? It’s free. You should go to the concert tonight.”

“Well Asphyxia can’t hear it.”

This hit Joe hard. Hand to his heart, sorrow on his face. He turned to me. “You can’t hear MUSIC?! But what is life without music?” (Or something.. the facial expression said it all – I didn’t catch his words.)

I shrugged. “It’s ok. I’m happy as it is.”

Then Joe has a deep idea. “You know, you could get a bionic ear. Have you thought about that? Then you could hear music.”

Let’s just pause here for a moment. Does Joe really believe I’ve gone my entire life, without it occurring to me until now, that the bionic ear (or a cochlear implant) is a possibility? Does he really think that now he’s suggested it, I’m going to go home and look into the idea? And, for that matter, does he think he’s the first to come up with such wisdom?

In fact, this is something I find intensely irritating, the need to discuss, regularly, with perfect strangers, the intimate details of what operations I might choose to have. I have, in the past, explained to people like Joe, that actually, a cochlear implant or bionic ear would do nothing for me since my ears work fine. It’s the nerves connecting my ears to my brain that don’t work. Which means I’d need a nerve implant in my brain. Forget it – I ain’t letting any surgeon poke around in there. But I’m sick and tired of explaining my medical situation to strangers.

My friend Anna came up with a marvellous response:

“Have you thought about having botox? I feel it would really help your situation.”

But sadly I can’t bring myself to use it. Joe meant well. He just hadn’t thought about Deafness before and I had the great joy of participating while he had his first, elementary encounter with the concept.

Yeah, so that’s Joe, in France. There’s Joes all over Australia too – I meet them all the time. It may well have been a Joe who made that announcement over the loudspeaker at the boarding gate.

Being Deaf in Norway and Denmark

Contrast that with my experience in Norway and Denmark. For the first time ever in my life, I was actually treated like a normal person. I found out recently that in Norway they teach the finer points of knitting and yarn management in schools. I reckon they must also do a unit or two on Deafness, because they seem to know that:

a) being Deaf does not mean you are stupid

b) rather than expecting Deaf people to lipread you so you can carry on as normal, you should attempt to communicate in a more visual way, such as through mime or writing

c) you don’t need to apologise to anyone for their Deafness, nor discuss their medical needs, nor even make a big deal about it at all.

The response, when I told a person in Denmark or Norway that I was Deaf was “Oh, right.” They’d then grab a piece of paper and write to me, or else point and mime to clarify whatever we were attempting to communicate about. And nothing was a big deal. I didn’t need to witness anyone’s heartbreak that I can’t hear the birds twittering or the free piano concert.

The finer points of Deafness seem to be common knowledge

In fact, even the finer points of Deafness seemed to be common knowledge. When I arrived to stay with my AirBnB host, she was already aware that Deaf people don’t tend to know how much noise they make. (Paula is always complaining about how loud I am in the kitchen, or how I inadvertently slam doors – because I can’t hear myself to self-monitor.) Daisy’s tour of her apartment, as she showed me how to use the shower and how to jiggle the key just so, included a recommendation that I not rustle the cutlery in the drawer as it’s particularly loud, and there’s a certain door that is very noisy so I should make the effort to close it quietly.

Wow. I’ve never met a person in Australia with that much awareness, other than those within the Deaf community. What was even more astounding is that Daisy did not proceed to tell me how she acquired her knowledge of Deafness. She didn’t say that she’d once had a Deaf guest who was incredibly noisy, nor that her mum’s second cousin can’t hear. The Deaf thing was just something to be dealt with along with everything else. Unremarkable. What a bloody relief.

Don’t expect me to lipread

In fact, I didn’t realise how much of a relief it was, until I landed in France, which is much more like Australia when it comes to responding to Deaf people. Whenever I told someone I was Deaf they’d point to their lips and expect me to lipread. When I made it clear I hadn’t a hope in hell of lipreading French, that was the end of the conversation. Well, from my end it was. From their end it was far from over. They proceeded to speak to me in French, at full speed, often turning away without making eye contact, and somehow presumed I’d understand.

The eye contact was appalling. I often communicate with a mix of mime and body language, but getting the French people to look at me so I could do so was quite a headache.

Talk to ME! (Not my companion)

At one point, Jenine was talking to our AirBnB host in France, and I had a question. Rather than put Jenine in the position where she had to ask the question on my behalf, I wrote it down on a piece of paper. I waited for what I hoped was an appropriate pause in the conversation, hoping I could catch the host before she turned away. Eventually I handed her the piece of paper with my question.

Her response? Even though I had a pen handy so she could write back, she didn’t even look at me. She simply made her reply to Jenine. They talked for a bit and then the host left.
What the fuck? Jenine did her best to explain. I find this so rude. What if I had had a follow up question? Why couldn’t the woman have communicated directly with me? It was around this time I gave up trying to communicate effectively in France, and started to assume I would just be ignored, which was mostly the case.

Being Deaf can be ‘special’

When I travelled to Morocco, it was different again. At that time I was with my partner, Paula. I’ve been told that there’s a Muslim belief that if you are born with a disability, then you are closer to God. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know. But a lot of people liked to touch me, for good luck. Rather than being ignored, I was special. Red carpet and VIP treatment. Everyone assumed that Paula was my carer, travelling with me simply to serve me. And apparently it was natural that, as my ‘carer’ she would have to sleep in the same bed as me. Presumably to minister to my needs 24/7. Wow. If I haggled at the markets, I got the best price. Even if I didn’t, I’d be given something for free.

The freebies are nice, I’ll grant that. So are the low prices (I get both of these to an extent in Australia too). But what I liked best of all, by a long, long shot, was that little taste of just being an ordinary person in Norway and Denmark. That was good, SO GOOD, I could almost cry thinking about it.

How to improve the situation

And that leads me to think, how good it would be, here in Australia, if we were to have a unit on Deafnes, and on other disabilities too, as part of our school curriculum. Or even better, if we had teachers out there who modelled all sorts of diversity, so that students could see and experience for themselves that actually, we ARE just ordinary people, and in many cases, our Deafness or disability is not even the most remarkable thing about us.

I do teach a lecture on this at Melbourne Uni, and I love it because I know that those students, who will shortly be teachers, will go out into the world ready to respond more appropriately if they meet a Deaf person, or a Deaf student walks into their classroom. But we need more than this. We need this stuff to be taught to everyone. It doesn’t take long. One lesson is enough to get the Joes of the world thinking so that they are ready when a Deaf person enters their shop.

Learn Auslan – People

Here are some signs you can use to refer to the people in your life:


• Woman
• Man
• Boy
• Girl
• Mother (MM)
• Father (FF)
• Mum/mummy
• Brother
• Sister
• Friend
• Son (same as the sign for ‘boy’)
• Daughter (DD)
• Children (sign little, then pat the top of each child. For child, just one pat. For three children, do three pats.)
• Adult (literally translates as ‘head high’)

Typical stupid conversations about Deafness

This video is hilarious. Unfortunately, it’s so true. It’s not just interpreters who have these kinds of stupid, STUPID conversations with people who have never thought about what it means to be Deaf. Deaf people have them too… all the time. I can really relate to this. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had to respond to people like this lecturer, while trying to remain polite and gracious. I wish we had some basic education about Deafness for all school children, so that by the time they are grown up, they have sorted out how to deal with Deaf people and interpreters without being complete #!@%wits.

Lipreading is not about ‘reading’ the shape of the lips


There’s a misconception that lipreading is just like reading a book. You look at the mouth and read, right?

But no, it’s far, far more complicated than that. I have to queue up words in my mind, invent possibilities that fit the facial expression, body language, approximate number of syllables etc etc. Sometimes there are a couple of possibilities, and I hold both in my mind simultaneously, waiting for it to become clear. While I’m doing this, collecting possibilities and sifting through them all, I need to keep the conversation going. So I smile and nod and say ‘mmm,’ and ‘yep…’ as appropriate. If I don’t do that, the speaker stops, and we haven’t gotten anywhere.

Sometimes though, I get right to the end, and I realise that none of the possibilities work. The whole thing just doesn’t make sense. And then I have to say, ‘Sorry, can you go right back to the start?’

And you might wonder, well why were you nodding and smiling and saying yes all along when I didn’t understand. But that’s because it’s how lipreading works. It’s not a lie. It’s the only practical way to do it.

It can take a whole minute or two after the speaker finishes, that it suddenly comes to me what was said.

As you can imagine, this is incredibly hard work. I have an hour of lipreading in me a day, tops. After that, fatigue sets in. And if I go too far, pushing myself for maybe 3 hours, I am WIPED afterwards, and my head pounds. It can literally take me days to recover.

This is why, even though I’m a pretty competent lipreader, I prefer other modes of conversation.

Learn Auslan – Feelings

Here are some signs that describe emotions:


• Feel / feelings
• Like
• Don’t like (this is the sign for like but with your facial expression you show the opposite)
• Happy
• Sad
• Cranky/bad mood
• Cry
• Confused
• Angry
• Enjoy
• Smile
• Love
• Hate
• Fun/funny
• Laugh
• Bored (for the handshape, touch forefinger and thumb together to make a ring)
• Pissed off (same handshape as ‘bored’)

In Auslan, facial expression is very important. A conversation cannot be understood by watching the hands alone. You will see in the video my face changes with every sign. When you are using these signs in conversation, your face needs to show the emotion for the signs to make sense.

In fact, the facial expression can inform the meaning of the sign. The sign LIKE is used for both LIKE and DON’T-LIKE, depending on your facial expression.

It can be difficult for English-speakers to loosen up and learn to use appropriate facial expressions in Auslan – it can feel very over-the-top. However, for Auslan signers, it can seem bizarre that an English-speaking newsreader on television will describe terrible events using a perfectly bland face.

Practise signing the above vocab, using appropriate facial expressions.

Interview with Asphyxia by Ange and Kate

A little while ago, some Auslan students asked if they could make a video about me and my life, for a school assignment. Here it is – a lil guided tour of my home, my art studio, my journals, and my life as both a Deaf person and an artist. Have a look if you fancy. I think Angelique and Kate did a great job. And thanks to Paula who did a voice-over for those of you who can’t sign.

I’ve posted a lot about Deafness, and the need for there to be better education about what it means to be Deaf. Over 11,000 people have signed up for my free online Auslan course. Clearly, people are interested in learning this. Over and over again, people have said to me: ‘If only Auslan was taught in schools.’

Here’s a way you can help to make it happen… Telstra and an organisation called Junkee have teamed up together and are offering big buckets of money to realise the visions of young and bright Australians such as Drisana Levitzke-Gray, the young Australian of the year who is also Deaf.

Drisana’s pitch to Telstra and Junkee is to make Auslan a mainstream language. If she wins, she’ll get heaps of money and resources to make it happen.

So, let’s do it. Vote for Drisana and get Auslan out there. Can you please share this post, so that all those of you who were interested in learning Auslan have the chance to vote. Then hopefully one day it won’t just be me offering free courses, but they’ll come from the government and be included in our school curriculum.

And in the meantime, if you want to learn Auslan, you can sign up here.

Learn Auslan – Food

Here are some more signs about food:


• Bread
• Milk
• Cheese
• Fruit
• Vegetables (fingerspell VEG)
• Meat
• Fish
• Egg
• Butter

‘Vegetables’ is one of those signs that is routinely fingerspelled, albeit in a shortened version: VEG.

The sign I showed you for ‘egg’ refers to cracking the top off a boiled egg with a spoon. It’s also often used for raw egg, though technically that’s incorrect (people don’t use a spoon to take the top off a raw egg!) – for that reason, many people will fingerspell ‘egg’ if they are talking about a raw egg. There are different signs for scrambled egg and fried egg, which mime the cooking process.

Learn Auslan – Making sense, visually

Auslan is a language that needs to make sense, visually. In the last lesson, ‘egg’ is an example of a sign that is altered depending on context, in order to make sense, visually.

Auslan signs tend to be based on what things look like, rather than how they sound. In English, some words have multiple meanings, such as the word “cross”. It can refer to the shape of a cross, to feeling cross, to crossing the road. Each of these contexts is signed differently in Auslan.

Consider the following words in different contexts:

  • Train (can mean to practise, or to catch a train)
  • Seesaw (you need to show this visually – don’t sign the word for ‘see’ followed by ‘saw’/’see in-the-past’)
  • Park (this can be a playground or a place to park your car)
  • Can of drink (don’t sign the word ‘can’ (the opposite of ‘can’t’) – instead use the specific sign for soft drink)
  • Wake up (with this, you show your eyes opening – there is no need to add the sign for ‘up’)

When you are signing, stop regularly and ask yourself if your signs make sense, visually. A lot of English words and phrases don’t make sense visually, and they need to be altered when you are signing.

Jokes in English that are funny because of a play on words often don’t make sense in Auslan. Jokes in Auslan often rely on visual ideas and facial expression to convey humour.

Please don’t define us

Don't define us

I’m Deaf. But being Deaf is not the most remarkable thing about me. People who know me will tell you that far more interesting is my creative drive, the fact that for holiday reading I’ll read a business text book and write my own precis, or that I built my own house when I was 22 and it has a huge food garden, including animals that I raise and kill myself for meat. In fact, there are lots of things more interesting about me than my Deafness.

But it can be really hard for people who meet me to get a handle on this. The Deaf thing leaps out at them. I’ve been knocked back from courses, where I would probably be the hardest working and most devoted student, because the idea of catering for a Deaf student is just too overwhelming for the teacher, and all they can see is my Deafness (along with, I suspect, a bit of the old assumption that to be Deaf is to be stupid, and therefore it’s probably not even worth teaching me anyway).

My friend Anna recently studied her grad dip to become a teacher, and while all the other students in her course were granted their teaching licenses, she was required to present herself to the board. “Since you’re Deaf,” they said, “We think we should give you a restricted licence – so that you can only teach in schools with Deaf students.”
Knowing Anna as I do, this OUTRAGED me. To think that she was seen as only having value to Deaf students, but not to hearing students. Aside from being a terrific model for diversity, Anna is funny, smart, compassionate and highly entertaining. If I was a hearing student, I would learn bucketloads from having her for a teacher. And one of the main things I’d learn is that Anna’s Deafness is not her main talent. No – it’s her incredible wit and ability to hit the nail on the head, which would make learning fun and easy. But I’d also learn that Deaf people can be more than their label.

So, I’m asking you, next time you meet a person who is Deaf, or a person who uses a wheelchair, or has some other physical condition that seems remarkable, remind yourself that it’s probably not the most remarkable thing about them. And you won’t even know what IS remarkable, until you get to know them.

Learn Auslan – Food

Here are some more signs about food:


• Sandwich
• Pasta
• Apple
• Banana
• Onion
• Garlic
• Tomato
• Potato
• Carrot

Learn Auslan – Colours

Learn how to sign the colours:


• Red
• Blue (sorry, I hesitated after this sign, I was going to sign ‘green’ – my hand movements there are not a proper sign!)
• Yellow
• Green
• Orange (this is also the sign for the fruit, ‘orange’)
• Purple
• Pink
• Black
• White
• Grey
• Gold
• Silver

Learn Auslan – Creative life

Here are some signs about living creatively:


• Art
• Design
• Idea
• Make
• Paper
• Pen
• Pencil
• Draw/paint
• Papier mache
• Sew (by hand)
• Sew (with a machine)
• Knit (this is the letter ‘F’, rubbed together. I should have actually rubbed only twice, not several times.)
• Story
• Book (I should have signed this with just two openings of the book, not three)

Learn Auslan – Shopping

Here are some signs that will be helpful when you go shopping:


• Shop
• Money
• Dollar
• Cent
• Buy
• Sell
• Spend
• Cost/price (this is also the sign for ‘how much’)
• Cheap
• Expensive (sign for money, then the sign for pain!)

Learn Auslan – Times

Here are some signs about time:


• Time (this is the formal sign for time, like hands moving on a clock face)
• Time (sometimes Time is signed like this – think of pointing to a watch)
• Today/now (use the same sign for both words)
• Tomorrow
• Yesterday
• Day (like the sun coming up)
• Night (like the sun going down)
• Morning
• Tonight (today night – the sign used for ‘night’ here (fingers around the nose) is another common sign for ‘night’ and is often used for that word, especially in a context where you want to sign small, rather than doing big hand movements. For example, if you are tucked up in bed at night, saying good night to your partner, that’s the night to use.)
• Noon
• Afternoon (noon after)
• Later
• Soon
• Sometimes (in the video I did a few too many lifts of my hand – two movements would have been more correct – i.e. my right hand should go up and then down)

Since I’m heading offline for the rest of December and January, I’ll set up the next few Auslan lessons to be posted automatically. So you can check back here for your lessons as usual. For those of you who subscribe to my course, I won’t be sending any notifications via email while I’m gone. Just check back here each Monday and you’ll find your lesson.

Learn Auslan – Time – more signs

Here are some more signs about time:


• Week (W down)
• Month (M forward)
• Year (Y down)
• Next week
• In two weeks
• In three weeks (you see the pattern here – this can go on up to 9 weeks!)
• Last week
• Two weeks ago
• Three weeks ago (you see the pattern here too.)
• Before
• After
• Early (the same sign as after)
• Late
• Too late
• Half hour
• Still

It’s time for Open Captions – real access to movies for Deaf people

Westgarth Cinema Campaign.jpg

Last week I went to see the movie Carol at Westgarth Cinema. My partner and I checked beforehand, three times, that closed captions would be available for this movie. But when we arrived, we were told they weren’t. This mightn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s the story of my life. I’ve been trying to see a captioned movie at Westgarth Cinema for over a year now. I’ve made multiple attempts to see closed captioned movies at the Nova in Carlton too. And at the Jam Factory in South Yarra. Over and over I have been sent home without seeing my movie, despite ringing ahead to confirm that captions would be available.

It’s hard to describe the despair that comes over me when I’ve gone to the trouble of looking up movie times, calling the cinema through the relay service (usually more than once), invited others to attend with me, set aside the evening, arranged babysitting for my son, said no to other things I’ve been invited to, gotten dressed nicely, and travelled to the theatre. Only to be told I can’t see the movie. Then the people who have come with me have the really awkward decision to make of whether to abandon the movie out of solidarity with me, or whether to fulfil their night and watch it without me. Usually they choose to stick with me, and then I feel bad that they have been let down by this as well as me. Next we have to decide what to do. Do we just go home again? It’s horrible, just horrible, and leaves me in tears every time.

It’s not just me. When I posted about this on Facebook, there was an outpouring of frustration from other Deaf and hard of hearing people who have had similar experiences.  Alice Ewing, who is also Deaf, told me she has been working on this issue with Westgarth Cinema for more than two years now, but has had no progress.

You might like to watch this video of a CaptiView experience. My experiences have all been like this.

So, what’s the problem? Why can’t Deaf people access movies?

Six years ago, the then big four cinema chains in Australia applied for an exemption from the Disability Discrimination Act. Charming, huh? Luckily, they were not successful, thanks to a group called Action On Cinema Access, which partnered with Arts Access Victoria. The court ruled that the federal government would have to make a Cinema Access Implementation Plan. Unfortunately, the community consultation process for this was largely missed, with just one tokenistic demonstration in May 2010, and no consultation with targeted audiences or real trial of the ‘new technology’ before it was rolled out. The outcome was that to provide deaf access, the big four cinema chains installed new digital technology – CaptiView, a device that would provide captions only to the people using them, but not to everyone else in the cinema.

The CaptiView system has been an abject failure. A 2013 survey of the deaf community who had used it did not reveal a single satisfied customer.

Here are some of the problems associated with the CaptiView system:

  • Staff often do not know how to use the device.
  • The device is sometimes not charged up and ready for use.
  • Staff are often confused about which movies the device can be used with and give erroneous advice.
  • The device often misses captions.
  • The device often doesn’t work, or is off-site being repaired, and staff often don’t realise this.
  • Children are unable to use the device.
  • The device goes in the drink-holder of the user’s seat, which means there’s nowhere for the user to put their drink.
  • The device extends on a flexible arm from the drink holder, and often sags – it is difficult to position it ‘just so’, allowing the viewer to see the captions and the movie.
  • One the device has been positioned, the users quickly learn not to bump it. As a result they have to sit rigidly in a single position for the entire movie, resulting in a stiff neck, sore back and headaches.
  • The user needs to focus their eyes back and forwards between the device (close) and the screen (far) resulting in sore, tired eyes and headaches.
  • It is difficult for the user to snuggle with their partner while watching the movie.
  • Some people feel embarrassed about revealing their hearing loss and refuse to use the device.
  • At times the device squeaks and creaks, embarrassing the user and annoying other movie-goers.
  • When the device doesn’t work (which is often), the user needs to fetch a member of staff, who then comes into the cinema and attempts to whisper to them in the dark, which is not an environment that facilitates good communication with people who have a hearing loss. It’s awkward and embarrassing and causes the user to miss parts of the movie.
  • The number of people who can view closed captions in a single movie session is limited by the number of devices the cinema can access.

Another problem with the system is that most cinemas do not advertise which movies/sessions have closed captions available, so someone who wishes to see a movie with closed captions generally needs to contact the cinema directly to ask, and then the information they receive is dependent on staff knowledge. Most staff don’t seem to be aware of access strategies and requirements, so give erroneous answers regarding the availability of closed captions for particular sessions.

In Hawaii this month, legislation was passed requiring all cinemas to screen at least three open captioned sessions per week, as they have recognised that the CaptiView system does not provide adequate access to movies.

Is there any alternative solution that would allow access to movies?

Yes. Open captions. Unlike CaptiView, which provides closed captions that are only visible to the person with the device, open captions are displayed on the screen, where everyone in the cinema can see them. You can think of open captions as being like the subtitles on a foreign film, but they have an additional component: descriptive information is included too. For example: ‘door slams’ or ‘suspenseful music’.

Deaf people and those with hearing loss seem to unanimously want open captions. Here’s why:

  • When a movie is advertised with open captions, the viewer can simply buy a ticket and attend the session. No special calls need to be made, no extra time allowed for staff to figure out the device, no counting of devices available and checking that everyone who needs one will have one. No-one needs to explain to the staff what the device is.
  • Screening a movie with open captions is a simple process that movie technicians are familiar with. They simply need to switch on the file. It’s a bit like watching a DVD and turning on the subtitles. As a result, when a movie is advertised as having open captions, the captions usually appear. Access does not depend on staff members knowing how to use a device.
  • Open captions are a comfortable experience for people who cannot hear the movie. They can snuggle with their partners and adjust their position as they wish throughout the movie. They can use their drink holders and don’t need to liaise with cinema staff during the movie. There is no eye-strain involved.
  • People can attend open captioned screenings without having to advertise their personal issues with hearing or understanding spoken language.

Open captions are also often appreciated by people from non-English speaking backgrounds, people with Ushers (which causes vision issues as well as deafness), and those with autism and other cognitive dissonance disorders. They have said that captions make it easier for them to follow a movie.

What are the issues with providing open captions?

From a technical perspective, open captions are pretty straightforward. When a cinema screens a movie, they purchase what is known as a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) for that movie. The package comes with separate files for various components of the movie, such as the visual track, the auditory track (sometimes more than one, if the movie is offered dubbed in multiple languages), the trailer, and, often, open or closed caption files. At the time of screening the movie, the technician selects the appropriate files and plays them.

Some movies are provided with closed caption files but not open caption files. Some come with neither. Closed captions can be switched on and used as open captions, though sometimes the formatting is not optimal for a widescreen – for instance, the lines may be a bit shorter than ideal.  In most cases, if the cinema requests open or closed caption files, the distributor can make them available. They don’t cost extra – they are simply a part of the package. For the movieCarol, which I attempted to see last week, caption files are available in the USA, but it seems the package was distributed in Australia without them. Had the cinema requested the file, likely it could have been provided.

The biggest impediment seems to be a lack of understanding by cinemas about the importance of screening open captioned movies. Perhaps they have invested in the strategies outlined by the Cinema Access Implementation Plan, and feel that the job is done and that they can tick off ‘providing access’.

There is also a social stigma associated with open captions – there is a belief that hearing people do not like them and won’t go to see a movie if it is screened with open captions. It may be that cinemas are afraid to attempt open captioned screenings of movies in case it reduces attendance and impacts their bottom line.

While it is true that open captions can be annoying for some people, there are many hearing people who have no issues at all with open captions. With practise, most people can learn to ignore them if they wish. Providing access can be inconvenient to those who don’t need it – for example, it costs more to build a wheelchair accessible bathroom than one that doesn’t accommodate wheelchairs. But we still have legislation that requires new buildings to accommodate those who use wheelchairs, because everyone deserves access, regardless of their level of mobility. It is the same for Deaf and hard of hearing people. We, too, have the right to access, even if it is inconvenient to some. Perhaps special screenings could be arranged for those who object to open captioned movies?

Is it really a big deal? Can’t deaf people just wait until the movie comes out on DVD?

Actually, it is a big deal. First, let’s look at the numbers. 1 in 6 Australians experiences hearing loss. With an ageing population, this figure is set to increase to 1 in 4 by 2050, and we also have the advent of the ‘iPod’ generation. Now is an excellent time to work on access for this large proportion of our society. These figures do not include the other groups mentioned above who also benefit from open captions. Because deafness is not a visible condition, and many people with a hearing loss do not advertise their difficulty in hearing, there is a general under-awareness about the level of deafness in Australia. So, we’re not talking about access for a small minority of people. We are talking about access for a sizeable chunk of our population.

Going to the movies is a popular, important leisure experience for Australians. While it is inexpensive to hire a DVD or watched a movie streamed on the internet, people enjoy going to the cinema and are prepared to pay extra and go to the trouble of leaving their homes because the experience is so enticing. It can be social to share a movie with friends. It can be romantic to invite someone to a movie on a date. Box office movies are often the topic of conversation, much discussed.

Deaf and hard of hearing people want to participate in all of this. We are hard-working citizens who pay our taxes and like to unwind at the end of the week, just like everyone else. We want to chat with our friends about the current movies, not watch them later when no-one is talking about them any more.

It is not just the Deaf and hard of hearing people who miss out, but their friends and family too. It is a great source of frustration to my partner and son that they cannot go to the movies with me. Both of them love going to the movies, and it breaks their hearts to leave me at home knowing they’re off to see a movie I’m itching to see. Then when it comes out on DVD, they’ve already seen it, and I have to watch it alone.

Because of the extent to which deafness is ignored in our society, systems are not designed with us in mind. Train stations have aural information about the timing of the next train, but often skip the visual that would allow us access. Courses are designed without access in mind, and when we want to attend, it’s a struggle for us to convince educators to accommodate us. Conferences and festivals are routinely held without a thought to our access. When you consider the vast number of systems in our society that force deaf and hard of hearing people to miss out, movies are the last straw. We are tired of missing out.

The very articulate Karen McQuigg wrote an article about whether or not we should, as a society, be attempting to include deaf people. It was published in The Age here.Our government does claim that we should, but the attitudes of even liberal-minded people often get in the way.

It would be so straightforward, so simple and easy, so inexpensive, to switch on those open caption files, and include us. We deserve access, just like everyone else.

Surely if you ask nicely, the cinemas will provide open captions?

We’ve been trying for some years now, but action has been slow.  Here’s a conversation Alice Ewing had with Rennie from Westgarth Cinema, back in 2013. The conversation was conducted through the relay service, so Alice has a word-for-word record of it. I’m including it here because it highlights the typical confusion and bias surrounding the issue of providing access for deaf people.

Alice: Hello Renni, my name is Alice Ewing, and I am wondering how the Westgarth Cinema is able to provide access for people who are deaf?

Rennie: We do have a hearing loop and we do have some braille on the toilet doors. That’s about it really.

Alice: I’m talking about people who are deaf, not blind!

Rennie: Oh yeah, sorry, I just got confused. Interesting question… we don’t do the hearing impaired subtitles at all. And none of us that work here can sign.

Alice: Why not show captions, if you don’t mind me asking, please?

Rennie: We’re a smaller cinema. We only have three screens, so we just really can’t afford to show the captioned films.

Alice: Maybe you don’t know, but it does not cost a cent more to show captions on screen, as it is part of the movie rental. I would be more than happy to talk to you about this, as it has become apparent that the closed caption files, which some of the larger cinemas use through CaptiView units, can also be projected onscreen, by switching it on through the software.

Rennie: I’m well aware of being able to play open captioned films. I’m also an AV tech. It’s more [that] the English subtitles display at the bottom of the screen puts off a lot of customers. I’ve worked here for six years and this is the second time I’ve had a conversation about captions, and to me that reflects the demand on open captions and the [level of] interest. I can put that forward to my boss and the programmers, but I’m not the person who’s in charge of what content we show.

Alice: I was thinking it would be ideal to have a system where (and when) a deaf person wants to see a film, that the captions could be shown on request for that particular screening, or by arrangement, rather than having to schedule open-captioned screenings regularly with the risk that no deaf people may actually be present. I would certainly like to follow this up, as there is a demand, rather a big demand, for open captions, as the CaptiView units are not doing the job effectively, nor do they provide an enjoyable experience for the majority of deaf patrons. I would also like to highlight here that open captions not only benefit those who are deaf, but those learning English as an additional language, or those with other disabilities such as autism or learning disabilities. Certainly, it has been shown that children cannot access the captions through CaptiView, and it has effectively made cinemas inaccessible for deaf children since the open caption screenings were phased out three years ago.

Rennie: As I said before, I’m not the one to be talking to about this. I’m interested to hear what you say but I have no power to act on it myself.

(They go on to exchange email addresses and Rennie promises to refer this to someone who has the relevant power.) It is interesting to note that Rennie assumes customers will reject open captions, despite having had only two conversations on that topic in six years. His comment also highlights the need for people who care to make their desire for open captions known to cinemas.

Fast forward to February 2015, and Alice was still at it with Westgarth. From Westgarth Palace Manager, Alex Castro, she received an email that said, ‘As I mentioned on the phone, I have put forward the concept of regular OC screenings here at Westgarth. I will contact you once I have more information.’ However, despite repeated requests from Alice, Alex never got back to her.

Fast forward another year, to January 2016, and I received an email from Palace Cinemas in response to my request for open captions at Westgarth that said, ‘we have passed on your feedback to senior management regarding requests for open caption sessions.’

Really? What will it take? Do we expect a reply from ‘senior management’ this time?

What can you do about it?

Thanks to a swell of interest and outrage on Facebook, this issue is now capturing the attention of the media. Perhaps now we can go with the momentum and make 2016 the year that deaf people get to go to the movies regularly at last. Maybe this is the year that ’senior management’ will respond to our request. I personally believe that by asking one independent local cinema to trial screening open captions could result in others cinemas following their lead. The top down approach hasn’t worked. Let’s try going from the bottom up instead.

If you care, here are some things you can do to help make it happen:

Write an email.

The kinds of things you could say in your email include:

  • that 1 in 6 Australians experiences hearing loss and deserve to watch movies too
  • people from multicultural backgrounds also enjoy captions
  • your personal experiences with being denied access to movies
  • your wish to be able to attend movies with people who currently can’t access them
  • your personal experiences with the CaptiView closed caption system
  • a request for open captioned movies, for example, a regular night a week where all movie sessions are captioned, or two sessions per week of open captioned movies as is now the legislation in Hawaii
  • if you are hearing and don’t require open captions, you could mention this and that you would be perfectly happy watching movies with open captions, knowing that the deaf people in our community could access them too. (If you only do one thing, send a one-liner saying this!)
  • include a link to this blog post, which explains the issues involved

Send your email to:

Post your email on Facebook, including a link to this blog post and a suggestion that others might like to write emails too.

If writing an email is too much for you, you could simply share this post on Facebook. That would help to spread the word.

If we don’t get action this way, I’m thinking about a sit-in at the cinema. If you’re interested in joining us, I can send you an email. Sign up for my email list here:


(This newsletter is about Deaf activism, art and creative stuff – if it’s not your cup of tea you can unsubscribe after the sit-in. I promise not to do anything untoward with your email address.)

Thanks folks,



Should cinemas offer open captions?

Look! Our push for open captions is in the Herald Sun newspaper! Let’s hope it raises some awareness about deaf access to movies. Palace Cinema claims they ran open captioned sessions in the past, but we didn’t know about them. How were they promoted? When were they? Did they really happen? Hmmm… Good news is we have meeting with MP Jenny Macklin on Thursday to discuss this issue. Let’s hope we see some action soon. And if you want to help, contact Palace and tell them you’d be happy to go to movies with open captions, even if you are hearing.

You can read this article here

Learn Auslan – Numbers

Here I show you how to count in Auslan and some ways to use numbers effectively:


• 1-10
• 11-20
• 21 (most double digit numbers are structured like this)
• 22, 33, 44 (except where both digits are the same, in which case they are signed like this)
• 100
• 1 thousand
• 1 million (1 M)
• how old
• 6 years old, 7 years old (all ages are signed from the nose)
• 6 o’clock, 7 o’clock (all hours of the clock are signed from the pointer finger of the opposite hand)

Learn Auslan – Learning

These signs relate to study:


• School
• Teacher (my thumb and pointer finger make an L shape here.)
• Teach
• Study (in the video, two circular movements of my hand would have been enough.)
• Class
• Student
• Read
• Write (in the video I should have just written two lines on my hand, not three)
• Learn (again, two rubs of my fingers would be the correct sign for learn)
• Remember
• Forget
• Practise
• Think
• Know
• Don’t know
• Understand
• Work

Learn Auslan – Hygiene

Here are some signs relating to hygiene:


• Water
• Clean
• Dirty
• Do the dishes
• Shower
• Bath
• Sweep
• Stink
• Wash

Learn Auslan – Around the house

Some signs you might use around the house:


• House
• Home
• Door
• Window
• Bed
• Floor
• Table
• Chair
• Kitchen (KK)
• Room
• Light (this is for an electric light)
• Phone
• Mobile phone

Learn Auslan – Fingerspelling patterns

For this lesson, read the text before you watch the video!

People learning to fingerspell usually read one letter at a time, and at the end of each word they try to mentally put the letters together to understand the word. However, when reading they will be able to glance at a word on the page and know it from the shape – there is no need to read it letter by letter.

Reading fingerspelling can be the same. Rather than concentrating on each individual letter, concentrate on the handshape the word makes. Notice the first letter, the last letter, one or two key letters in the middle of the word, the approximate length of the word, then use this information to work out what the word is. Context is very important, so factor in what you are talking about. A long word that is fingerspelled will often be spelled slowly the first time in conversation, and then for the remainder of the conversation, signed very fast. Think about what you are talking about and what the word could possibly be.

Try fingerspelling your name, looking for patterns and handshapes. Try finding patterns for these words:

• Cream
• Program
• Out
• How
• Rice
• Bus

Now watch the video – I sign these words, showing you the rhythm I use that adds flow to the word. Many words that are routinely fingerspelled have a particular flow and shape that makes them easy to identify, even if you can’t distinguish each letter. You learn those flow-shapes, just as you learn specific signs.