A connected community without language barriers

Practitioner Spotlight: Peter Bonser

Born in Sydney, I am the eldest child of deaf parents who used Auslan (Australian Sign Language). I had normal hearing and lived with my parents together with hearing relatives in an extended family situation for the first 10 years of my life. Growing up in this environment meant that I acquired fluency in both Auslan and English. I have always been comfortable switching between languages depending if I was communicating with either hearing or deaf people. My parents were very social and I remember many of their deaf friends visiting our home and my parents taking me to visit deaf people at their houses or at larger gatherings such as picnics or church services. 

Growing up in the deaf community I learnt how adults used the language to communicate with each other. My parents had friends who lived in other states and from meeting them I also learnt about the dialect variants which exist in Auslan. According to Mum (Betty), I started fingerspelling words when I was two years old but was already using signs beforehand. 

I had no idea where this dual language proficiency would take me later in life and that it would eventually lead me to becoming an Auslan interpreter. The possibility of working professionally with the deaf community was something I never even thought of. 

In my teenage years I found myself socialising and developing friendships with both deaf and hearing people my own age and so I continued using both languages. I naturally fell into the role of ‘communicator’ when in the company of people who couldn’t sign and who wanted to communicate with deaf people. As a result of these friendships I was later asked to interpret at various events such as Christmas Church services, Engagement Parties, Weddings, 21st birthday parties and sporting fund raisers. I had only ever been the ‘interpreter’ for my parents when they were communicating with other non-signing family members or out in the general community. 

Doing this type of voluntary interpreting led to me being asked to assist with the Youth Group at the Deaf Society of NSW during 1978 – 1979. Later in February 1980 I was offered a full time position as a Welfare Worker there and so decided to study Social Welfare at university. 

During 1981, International Year of Disabled People, (IYDP) I found myself interpreting countless committee and advisory council meetings, attending high level government functions with various state and federal ministers, Premiers, the Prime Minister and the Governor General. At this time interpreting training programmes did not exist and there was a lack of suitably skilled Auslan interpreters who could undertake this level of work. Deaf organisations collaborated and selected a handful of staff from various states who were then flown around the country as needed to help handle the interpreting demands during IYDP. 

Peter and Judie in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy in 2018 while there interpreting at an International Conference

This is how I met my wife. Judie was one of these interpreters and was working at the Victorian School for Deaf Children at the time. Judie also came from a deaf family and we share many of the same passions and both have worked in similar roles. 

The role of a Welfare Worker naturally involved a lot of interpreting work. NAATI was just establishing itself and there was no accreditation available for ‘Deaf Sign’, the name given by the NSW Premier’s Department, and later adopted by NAATI when the first round of accreditation became available in 1983. I gained my interpreting credential then in Deaf Sign at Level 2 (now known as CPI). Judie gained her accreditation at the same time. At the time of gaining my accreditation I was studying Social Welfare. 

Working with the deaf community during my early days at the Deaf Society of NSW confirmed what I already knew that most deaf people were not in need of ‘help’ or ‘welfare’ but rather the services of people skilled at interpreting between Auslan and English. My parents along with my early life experiences and friendships, taught me that the main issue deaf people faced was the barrier to communication when accessing the wider community. 

The Director of Services at the Deaf Society, John Ferris, was very supportive and encouraged me to work on the separation of welfare work and interpreting roles. The roles became those of Community Worker or Interpreter. This change in roles was to spread throughout Deaf Societies in Australia over the next few years. 

I gained my accreditation at Level 3 (now known as CI) in the first round of testing in 1987. Because of the ever growing demand for interpreting services Deaf Societies looked to engage skilled people as casual / part time or freelance interpreters as a way of servicing the demand. Auslan interpreting associations were being established in various states and soon after a national body was formed with me being elected as the first president. The association now known as ASLIA (Australian Sign Language Interpreters’ Association) still exists today with hundreds of members. 

Over the last 41 years I have worked in various roles at the Deaf Societies of NSW, Victoria and Queensland and for several years also as a trainer of interpreters in TAFE courses in Sydney and Brisbane. I joined the NAATI Auslan Language Panel in 1988 and at the end of 2020 retired from the Panel after 32 years. 

NAATI recognition of service evening held in Brisbane at the University of Queensland. Pictured left to right are panel members; Dr Maree Madden, Peter Bonser, Merie Spring, Ken Donnell and NAATI office staff member / interpreter Judie Bonser

Community interpreting has taken me into every aspect of people’s lives, literally from birth to death and everything that happens in between, the good, the bad, the happy and the sad. I have been fortunate to work at many national and international events which have allowed me to see much of our country and the world. Travelling and meeting deaf people from other states and countries has also expanded my network of deaf and hearing friends as well as professionals and has allowed me to gain a reasonable fluency in some of the other sign languages from other countries around the world. 

I love the language and culture of the deaf community and am grateful that it is the community that both Judie and I were born into and continue to share. 

We certainly have had amazing careers with many rich and wonderful experiences that we continue to enjoy. Not only do we still get to enjoy doing the work we love but we get to do it while living in the Northern Rivers region of NSW and the Gold Coast.

Peter Bonser is a NAATI Certified Interpreter in Auslan and English with a background in Community Services and is recently retired from the Auslan Panel.

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