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Disability no barrier to long career

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Competitive tennis, long-distance running, yoga and Pilates are tools to good health for Kalamunda father of four and grandfather of ten, Dr John Byrne.

John also enjoys his career as a Corporate Services Director at the Department of Parks and Wildlife, which he developed after gaining a doctorate from the University of Western Australia and appointment as a postdoctoral fellow with London’s Imperial College.

However, John’s life could have been different.

When he became profoundly deaf as a child in the 1950s, children with disability were treated differently than they are today.

“I narrowly avoided being placed in a residential institution, which was a common outcome for deaf children,” John said.

“My parents refused to allow me to be removed from my home. Many other deaf people of my age were less fortunate.”

Instead, he went to a special school for deaf children  and had to commute alone from one side of Adelaide to the other.

Later, when he tried to enrol in university, the admission officer initially refused to enrol him, because of his disability.

“My grades were sufficient to enter the professional schools (medicine or law) but I was never allowed to enrol,” John said.

“I suspect deaf people still meet this problem [when enrolling] for medicine but probably not for law, engineering and other profession schools.

“No note takers were provided by the university then, although that service is generally available nowadays to university students.”

John was eventually able to enrol and said that although some lecturers were helpful, others refused to have any contact with him. They objected to him attending their lectures and said there were other students who were more worthy of their attention.

“University access has improved but it can still be problematic for deaf students,” John said.

When he graduated from university, John said the discrimination continued.

“I once applied for a job and disclosed I was deaf, and was invited to an interview,” John said.

“The Director General of the agency was the chair of the interview panel. He had not read my application, only my resume, which was why I was short-listed.

“When he became aware that I was deaf he terminated the interview. That would no longer happen.

“However, what still does happen is that the selection process goes through the motions but does not fairly consider people with disabilities. Women and other minorities have similar experiences.”

John said difficulty communicating was the main impact of hearing impairment and deafness although there had been advances during the past 30 years.

“Within another 10 years, I anticipate that mobile phones will allow a user to pick out one conversation stream in a noisy room and provide an instantaneous transcript,” he said.

The improvements in technology and social acceptance have made life easier for people who are deaf, he said, but life could still be challenging.

“Much progress has occurred, but there are still some cases of discrimination in access to recreation and social facilities,” John said.

“The other aspect is the willingness of others to engage with a person with disability in social situations.

“For example, I am well accepted and people engage with me at my tennis club but I feel an outsider at parties due to the communication difficulty. People with different disabilities may feel more welcome at parties but less so at a tennis club.”

John said that people who are deaf were the first and most enthusiastic users of mobile phones, due to SMS. And in meetings John is often supported by a real-time steno-captioner, who users computer assisted captioning.

“At home my wife no longer uses sign language or writes out what she wants to say. She talks into her mobile phone and I get a real-time transcript,” John said.

Increasing numbers of John’s close friends are now using real-time transcripts on their phone or a laptop, he said, further improving their ability to communicate.

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