Karli Dettman, a deaf yoga teacher and therapist in her late 40s, could have a cochlear implant but doesn’t want one. At home, she uses Auslan - Australian sign language - to communicate with her deaf husband Simon and her three young hearing children.
"We are happy with our language and don’t feel disabled," she told Fairfax Media by email from her home in Melbourne. If her children had been deaf, she wouldn’t have chosen a cochlear implant for them, either. "If I have an operation it will make me feel I’m not normal and I need to be fixed. I wouldn’t want my ’deaf’ children to feel this way. A cochlear implant is not perfect. People don’t become hearing, they’re still deaf."
She’s in a minority - the number of implants is soaring. In 2002, the Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre fitted 39 implants in children and 53 in adults. Last year, that had risen to 86 children and 271 adults. SCIC chief executive Robert McLeod estimates "possibly in excess of 90 per cent" of Australian children are implanted, with about 1100 operations on all Australians.
There is a vaccine for rubella, a disease which caused a significant rise in the number of deaf people in the epidemics of 1944-48 and 1965-70. About 98 per cent of Australian newborns are tested for hearing difficulties. IVF technology means foetuses can be screened for "deaf genes".
Professor Trevor Johnston helped compile the Auslan dictionary, of which about 20 per cent has been transcribed since 2005. The Associate Professor of Signed Language Linguistics at Sydney’s Macquarie University believes Auslan could be facing a demographic crisis.
He says the number of children born deaf has long been lower than reported or claimed, has fallen due to medical advances, and that improved hearing aid technology and cochlear implants mean more people who would have once used Auslan are able to function effectively using speech and hearing alone.
Tablets and apps, which can help with vocabulary, sentence building and social interaction, are becoming more popular. Johnston thinks the better they are at helping people learn English "those people are not likely to need or want to use a sign language".
Di Peacock-Smith, the general manager at Sydney’s Learning Links agency, says iPads are complementary with other approaches, such as Key Word Signing (a variation of Auslan in which only the key words in the sentence are used), tailored to the individual’s needs and abilities.
"Predictions are very difficult ... but it looks as if the population of deaf people who use sign language will continue to decrease, so there will be a time in the next 50 years where I feel comfortable to say the deaf community won’t exist," Johnston says. "The individuals who are profoundly deaf at that time will be so few and far between that sign language we use today may not be a viable community language."
He has called the possibility of Auslan’s disappearance "an unambiguous and linguistic tragedy". "Just as we don’t want to lose species of any sort, we don’t want the whole world to be one kind of language culture if at all possible." MRI research indicates similar areas of the brain light up when people talk or sign.
Auslan can offer an identity, says Cathy Clark, the service manager at Melbourne’s deafConnectED agency. "It’s about being proud of being different and contributing to a diverse society." Johnston calls it "a kind of glue" that binds people together in shared experiences - and has been doing so in Australia for 200 years from its British Sign Language origins.
The size of the Australian signing deaf community is unknown, and depends on its definition. Johnston estimated 7000 deaf signers in 2004. More use Auslan with family - 90 per cent of deaf babies are born to hearing parents - friends, colleagues or professionally. The 2011 census listed 8406 users of Auslan at home, up from 2006.
The Auslan Company teaches the language to 200 to 500 hearing people a year in community courses in Victoria and at least 200 to 400 nationwide, a mix of professionals, students and relatives of deaf people. "The teaching of Auslan is widespread and on the rise," co-owner Darren Roberts says.
Johnston says any language is a social phenomenon which needs a "critical language mass" to survive. Spoken languages can exist in small communities, such as threatened Indigenous Australian tongues. Deaf schools teach Auslan and deaf children in regular schools can pick it up at social events.
But a purely visual language such as Auslan needs face-to-face contact, and deaf people live all over the country. However, apps such as Skype and Facetime are offering a path for Auslan to continue in a way that looked unlikely even a decade ago.
"Things like that change the nature of face-to-face contact," Johnston says. "Maybe very small numbers of deaf people into the immediate future might not be as threatening as it might have been last century.
"Younger deaf people or their parents and friends have told me they’re using YouTube and Skype a lot."
One result on YouTube for Auslan is Brisbane-based Dan Jarvis’ expressive Auslan rendition of TV show Glee’s version of Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, which had 50,000 hits in its first four days, mostly from the US and Russia. The 32-year-old human resources professional is 98.5 per cent deaf, having contracted meningitis at 18 months.
"Deaf people missed out on a lot of communication among the hearing community due to the lip-reading they rely on," he says. "YouTube replaces these barriers and is a way for deaf people to gain communication in their own language - Auslan." He uses Apple’s Facetime app to sign with friends and Facebook for English.
Dettman uses Skype a few times a week for deaf counselling sessions in Auslan, and the Video Relay Interpreting service, an online tool enabling Auslan speakers to communicate via a third party with a hearing person. "Skype and YouTube are opening up channels we never thought would happen," she says.
How implants are affecting the size of the deaf community is debatable. Jarvis says, "Some deaf people who received the cochlear implant continue their contact with the deaf signers, but many would move into the hearing community as the implant has enabled them to fit in."
Roberts says kids with implants use Auslan to talk to their deaf friends. Clark says more deaf adults are getting cochlear implants but their Auslan use is not falling, adding whether people immerse themselves in the deaf community or remain in the hearing community, both choices are valid.
The difference could be in the variable effectiveness of implants - they are no magic bullet for deafness and aren’t suitable for everyone. Clark calls it a "glorified hearing aid that takes a long time to learn ... I can tell if it’s a male or female talking but I can’t tell if it’s Jan or John."
Johnston also says some children experience "language failure" - they haven’t made good progress in the intense oral training that follows an implant. "If you don’t learn a language within the first two years it has serious intellectual and cognitive consequences for the rest of your life, and it means it’s harder for them to learn a sign language because their brain hasn’t been doing language properly." Auslan can be a "safety net".
For Auslan to stay viable it needs to face its demographic challenges, no matter how many hearing people learn it. "I would certainly say if the language ceases to be transmitted as a first language either by deaf parents to hearing children or deaf parents to deaf children then eventually it will die out," Johnston says.
But signing could continue in a global virtual community. "You may have very few people in Australia but in the rest of the world there’s going to be tens or hundreds of thousands of people using another sign language which deaf people will slot into."
That’s already happening with American Sign Language, which Johnston says is becoming a second language for some Australian signers, just as English is a worldwide lingua franca. "They may not be fluent in it but they can understand, maybe learn stuff and start responding. A lot of people are engaging in this global community. That’s a very interesting development."