Tender for AusLan language is hopeful sign for deaf-blind

HEATHER Lawson sits with her hands outstretched as Dennis Witcombe, an interpreter, brushes his hands beneath her palms, communicating via an adapted version of sign language.

Lawson is both deaf and blind, but has no shortage of things to say; and this form of signing - called tactile - is the way she communicates.

In her own words, tactile is her ''ears''.

''Everywhere I go, I get looked at,'' she says. ''People are shocked at how this can be a full communication.''

Unfortunately for Lawson, 54, and more than 110 other deaf-blind Victorians, much of their lives is spent without a voice. More often that not, that voice is Witcombe's, the only person in the state who interprets for the deaf-blind full time.

As legislation for the National Disability Insurance Scheme was introduced in Federal Parliament on Thursday, hopes of additional support for interpreting services are high.

Lawson has been an outspoken advocate for the NDIS and says the need for more interpreters is a separate issue from improving day-to-day support, but both need to be addressed. ''The NDIS needs to support the interpreting provision for the deaf-blind community,'' she says. ''I receive money and want to do activities A, B and C, but if I have to spend half that money on an interpreter, my money is going to run out quickly.''

In Victoria, there are about five proficient tactile signers but they're not available on a regular basis. For the deaf-blind, this means services are extremely limited - not just in terms of how much they get, but in how many people have the expertise.

''You can contact the council and say, 'can we have a support worker to go for a walk two hours a week?' That's fine, but they can't sign, so there's no communication. If anything happens, there's no way of relaying the message. It's not good enough,'' Witcombe says.

Witcombe has been the resident tactile interpreter for Able Australia, the main body that supports deaf-blind Victorians, since 2006.

He met Lawson in 1999, when she gave a speech at RMIT to his interpreting course, introducing the students to deaf-blindness.

Lawson, who was born with Usher's syndrome - a condition that causes deafness and visual impairment - at that time still had a small amount of eyesight. She lost all sight abound a decade ago, and has been even more reliant on support services since.

Watching a person interpret for Lawson did more than impress Witcombe. ''That night I had chills. I was like, that's what I want to do,'' he says.

Witcombe was already fluent in AusLan and he completed his diploma in deaf interpreting. But because there wasn't - and still isn't - any formal training in deaf-blind communication, he taught himself tactile until he had mastered it.

Witcombe's services at Able Australia are offered free of charge two days a week, and the other days he works as a freelance interpreter. So, interpreting time with him is highly sought after.

For Lawson, all this means is more limits. ''When you're constantly coming up against barriers, not being able to access classes or the community, due to the lack of [interpreting] support, that's frustrating,'' she says.

Earlier this year it was announced that Victoria's only TAFE AusLan course, at Kangan Institute, would close once its current students had finished. The Victorian government now has a new AusLan training program, which has been put out to tender with prospective providers and is expected to take students by mid-next year.

An Education Department spokeswoman said the AusLan course includes three elective modules in deaf-blind communication. But there is still no formal qualification available in tactile communication in Australia.

For Lawson, the right to choose how she lives her life is what she values most.

But with a double disability, this greatly depends on the government's support.

''I enjoy learning new things and I never stop,'' she says. ''I put the effort in; they should too.''

See here for a captioned version of the video: http://youtu.be/ZRUu-8FRSH4

See here for an accessible copy of the print story:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/6i44bdtxwzqgesu/print-deafblind.htm

See here for an accessible transcript of the video:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/ksajfkachpx7lrq/videotranscript-blinddeaf.htm

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