Q&A: working with Deaf Indigenous people

By Jodie Barney

Hi all,

Below you'll find the answers to six of the most popular questions I get asked when I meet and work with Auslan interpreters.

Question 1: What sign is best for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or Indigenous?

There are different signs for Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Indigenous, First Peoples, First Nations, Native Australians, First Australians. However, in Auslan there are many variations that have been used over the years.

It is always best to ask the Deaf client which they prefer. Their choice may be determined by upbringing, their connection to country, their connection to the Deaf community or their exposure to Auslan during their lives. Their preference is what is important to ensure cultural safety during the assignment.

Question 2: What is the difference between the Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country?

Welcome to country can only be done by the traditional owners of the land on which people will be meeting/gathering. This means that other indigenous elders from different areas do not do a welcome to country. It is the cultural practice of the custodians of the lands who have looked after it for generations.

The welcome to country gives permission from traditional owners for you to be on their lands, to go about your business in helping the community and to do no harm. An acknowledgement of country is the respect people show to traditional owners and custodians of the lands, for allowing them to be on their lands, and to go about their business in a safe way.

Question 3: Where should I look if I can’t use eye contact with Deaf Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person?

If you have been asked not to engage in eye contact with a Deaf client, it is best to respect their choice. Some alternatives you could try include:

  1. Using Auslan for all participants and maintain eye contact with others in the room.
  2. Casting your own eyes to the ground during the interpreting job, to show your own respect to the client.
  3. Often women will look down to the left and men look down to the right, you may use these techniques if you observe others doing it.
  4. Many will maintain eye contact with you even if brief, if they have Auslan skills or have been within the wider Deaf community. They will wait till they trust you before engaging in eye contact.

Question 4: What do Deaf Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders do when they can’t sign?

As I mentioned earlier, the use of visual communication such as 'hand talk' are actually signs used in Aboriginal spoken languages. The ‘hand talk’ is often contextually bound signs that are used in that one community, but some are shared between communities. However, there are signs that are not permitted to be used in the wider community due to their significance to Lore, Women and Men’s business.

Everyone knows these signs; they are used frequently and often so that many are aware of the protocols in using the signs during times such as Sorry Business, Lore, Men’s and Women’s business. Access to these signs is by invitation only. Many interpreters will see signs used in different context, in doing so, be mindful to seek clarification of the signs from elders, family and importantly the client.

Question 5: How many Deaf Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people sign in Auslan?

To my knowledge, there are around 260 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander users of Auslan in Australia, this number is my own personal data of Deaf people in communities over the last 25 years working in this area. This number really is for those who have a variety of Auslan skills from basic Auslan to fluent Auslan.

The prevalence of hearing loss in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is the highest in the world, with up to 90% of the community having ear disease and hearing loss. The use of signs/hand talk is frequent and common place.

Other factors that impact communities are the disadvantages many have with accessing services or learning communication skills due to the high levels of racism, oppression and fear of being removed from their homes. Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people you must remember these factors as to support your client the best way you know how.

Question 6: How will I know if the Deaf Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person understands Auslan?

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Deaf people, living in urban communities, will understand gestures, iconic signs and may have had some experience with Auslan at schools or socialising in the Deaf community. Also they have their own home signs and continue to use cultural 'hand talk' or sign systems passed down from their families.

In remote and rural communities, Auslan isn’t used at home with various signing systems used in communities. Auslan usually isn’t seen by the many in remote or rural settings due to the difficulties in accessing interpreters, and mostly used in court, hospital (if placed in a city for care) or some educational settings for children.

Deadly regards,


Jodie Barney is a proud Birri-Gubba/Urangan (Badjala) and South Sea Islander woman from Queensland. She is the owner and lead consultant for Deaf Indigenous Community Consultancy Pty Ltd. Jodie is active across Australia raising the profile of working with Indigenous Deaf and Hard of Hearing peoples’.

This article was originally published in across separate issues of the ASLIA e-update and is reproduced with permission.

Published: 04/10/2016