A sign of the times for Auslan

Auslan provides language, communication and learning opportunities for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Kristi Pritchard-Owens reports.

Port Macquarie Public School's signing choir are benefiting from exposure to Auslan.

When Department of Education staff were required to wear face masks during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, students at one mid north coast school struggled to follow their instructions.

Hearing Support Teacher Rodney Adams could see that the students were not being disobedient, but teacher requests were just not getting through.

"There was a large percentage of children who had trouble with their communication anyway, so the decision was made to introduce some basic Auslan,” Mr Adams said.

With lived experience as a deaf person, Mr Adams knew the isolation of not being able to communicate and how liberating it was to have the tools to be understood.

“The students were able to overcome the barriers of a spoken language and its limitations, and as a result this led to better communication and improvement in wellbeing,” he said.

“And that was generally happening because Auslan enables greater ease of communication.”

It has been a long road to develop the first Auslan (Australian Sign Language) syllabus, which will be available in NSW classrooms from 2026.

For the first time NSW students will be able to learn Auslan as their first language or as an additional language through the new syllabus.

Two people sitting against a wall and talking to another person with their back to the camera. Two people sitting against a wall and talking to another person with their back to the camera.
Image: Hearing Support Teacher Rodney Adams, Assistant Principal Hearing Support Kerry Kranitis and Terri Anne Richardson.

Increased visibility for language

Kerry Kranitis is Assistant Principal Hearing Support based at Port Macquarie Public School on Birpai land.

She oversees eight teachers who support students who are Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing across the Mid North Coast.

An advocate of accessibility, Ms Kranitis has the school’s weekly assembly translated into Auslan for the benefit of all students.

She has also started a signing choir, and most participants are not deaf or hard of hearing.

The students’ enthusiasm for Auslan is just one reason Ms Kranitis is excited that sign language will be taught in mainstream classrooms.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to get Auslan visible in the schools so that Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing kids have access to language being taught formally in school, but also for their hearing peers, teachers and other school staff,” she said.

“You find all the hearing kids soak it up, they love it; and the teachers love it because it’s so quiet.”

Mr Adams is based at Macksville Public School on Gumbaynggirr Country and works with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students who are Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing throughout the Nambucca and Macleay valleys.

He is also a Research Affiliate at the Centre for Disability Research and Policy at the University of Sydney, where he lectures on the intersectionality of Aboriginal studies and disability studies.

With so many layers of expertise, from his lived experience to the classroom and academia, Mr Adams advised the NSW Education Standards Authority on the development of the Auslan syllabus.

“It’s quite amazing to be honest, it’s been many, many years that we’ve been trying to do this specifically,” Mr Adams said.

“Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing children really need to have that challenge and that access to a language model, and to have different options to be able to make choices and decisions that improve their sense of identity and wellbeing.”

While the pandemic and natural disasters provided numerous challenges for the deaf community, Mr Adams said there was a silver lining with the increased visibility of the language as Auslan interpreters worked next to premiers and prime ministers to communicate important messages.

“Hopefully in the future we will have greater access to languages such as Auslan with the rollout of the Auslan syllabus, and even wider use of Aboriginal signs that is set to be part of the syllabus, too,” he said.

“That would be a revitalisation process that has overcome all odds.”

  • With thanks to Auslan translator Terri Anne Richardson for her assistance with this article.

  • More information on supporting Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing students is available on the department’s website.

Students signing Auslan on a stage. Students signing Auslan on a stage.
Image: Port Macquarie Public School students signing Auslan on stage.
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