Making the invisible visible
I am Jody Barney. I am a Birri-Gubba/Urangan woman from South East Queensland. I am Aboriginal, I am Deaf, I am gay, and currently I am living in rural Victoria Australia. I’m not yet 50, but I have been doing my work for exactly 30 years. As a Deaf kid amongst a lot of brothers and sisters, I struggled with understanding the written language. English is my fourth language; I first had a visual language, then various sign languages, gestures and spoken language – mostly with elders and family and people I trust.
But I was invisible then, like many young people I have worked with over the years. Invisible to others and also to myself.
Let me share my story.
I was born on a mission, a triplet and deaf, and I am the second youngest of 12 children. I have a family that moved around a lot due to my folk’s work, and commitments with our kin. To be honest, I had a shitty childhood. I was removed along with my siblings and had far too many terrible experiences. These experiences are ingrained in my DNA. They make up who I am today, but at the same time, I had to overcome the barrier of being deaf and Aboriginal in those experiences. But you know what? I have fantastic memories too; days that I was able to use my newly learned sign language to share my needs with my twin brother and he could understand me. I was 4. I remember sharing the branch of the big mangrove tree in our backyard, sitting up there swinging out feet and signing till the streetlights came on to let us know we had to go inside.
I remember the times as a teenager, signing between a Deaf Elder and his wife with Cerebral Palsy, that their son was being cheeky. Then teaching the boy to sign so he could communicate with his folks, and how it gave me that sense of social equity. Of making the world a better place in the life that I lived. ‘I helped therefore I was’. That’s Aboriginal culture, it’s not about me and what I can do, it’s about us and how we can help each other.
Fast forward 30 years and I am now an Atlantic Fellow for Social Equity at Melbourne University and heading overseas to various places to meet with other like-minded social equalisers.
Making the Invisible Visible.
Often, many of us struggle to find our place and space in the world. Many don’t know their passion or dreams. That’s ok I know, but what I found is that I knew mine wasn’t a job. It was and continues to be, a life of service. Of service to community people of all ages to become more visible.
My world and that of nearly 80% of Indigenous young people, is being invisible. How we are visible to others creates a distorted picture of us in the eyes of others. We are overrepresented in the justice system, among the unemployed, and often have very low literacy and numeracy skills. Many of us don’t even know what type of hearing loss we have. That picture of us is like the twisted mirrors at fairs. It’s not who I recognise my mob to be.
We create a shared identity when we have the opportunity to come together and recognise in others that which we know in ourselves. This process of being an Atlantic fellow does that. It helps me discover new parts of myself, of ourselves and share that sense of greater self, to share and pass on that knowledge. To embrace the leadership involved to raise mentors and passionate deaf, indigenous, young people. To see that there is excellence in their life; to become visible to themselves and for their uniqueness to be recognised by others.
My recent social equity project is to bring the women together, the deaf indigenous women who are the givers of knowledge, the carers of language – they are the lifelines to their community. I am here to share knowledge to strengthen their abilities to do what they are passionate about and what allows them to give service their families and community.
Becoming visible takes a strength in the face of negativity and vulnerability. In the distorted caricatures others have of us we are so often viewed as useless and worthless. We watch others’ reactions to us more than hearing people, so we can see those kinds of perspectives of us clearly. If we come to believe them we can become lost. That kind of blind prejudice stops people seeing our many strengths. The savviness, the loyalty, the ability to prepare ourselves to deal with what is coming into our lives.
Wow, sounds intense I guess! It sounds like my work and my life are busy and filled with hope and optimism that is difficult to deliver. Yeah, I get that. It’s a hard gig and there will be an ongoing commitment and I am here for that. I signed up for that when I was 13 years of age, when I had an ability that helped another person make their own world better, easier, safer and visible.
It’s rare that I do this with words as I am doing today. My preferred medium is visual communication. But to operate in a mainstream world I use words as tools. I am lucky to have had an education. I continue to learn. I participate, and I communicate in many ways. I listen to the specialists, the researchers, the lecturers, the teachers; they give me insight into the systems that are housing our deaf indigenous youth. But I know the pictures they paint, mostly of our disadvantages compared to the hearing, are only part of the picture. I hear from deaf indigenous people from around Australia and have done so for 30 years. That ongoing engagement with them and their cultural knowledge makes me visible to myself.
Much of my academic work can be sourced from the internet. My official work in community can be read in reports. My sharing of knowledge is in many blogs. But what makes me visible and brings joy to my life is helping to bring those young deaf people out of their invisibility and giving them the platform to be heard and seen.
You can help too by being open to seeing us as more than caricatures of disadvantage and more than the victims of oppressive stereotypes. You can help by maybe even seeing in us and helping us discover what more we can become.
Magic is often about misdirection to seems to make the visible seem to disappear. We have lots of experience of social processes in our lives that do that. Of others who misdirect us to not believe in ourselves. But true magic is the transformational potential that occurs when people have a discerning belief in others that helps make them more visible to themselves and others.
Share that magic.