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Inside an isolated world -

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There are more than 300,000 Australians who are deafblind and an Access Economics report is
predicting that with an ageing population that figure will top one million by 2050. The 7.30
Report's Natasha Johnson spent a day with a woman who is deafblind to witness the many challenges
she faces.


TRACY BOWDEN, PRESENTER: American activist Helen Keller is known worldwide as an extraordinary
woman, who achieved much in spite of her profound disability of being both deaf and blind.

Most of us would probably assume this dual sensory disability is relatively rare, but there are
more than 300,000 Australians who are deaf-blind, and an Access Economics report predicts that with
an ageing population that figure will top 1 million by 2050.

Support groups say there's a drastic lack of specialised services that leaves many isolated and
depressed, but with more support they can lead fulfilling lives.

Natasha Johnson reports.

(Music, spruikers and screams from a fun fair)

NATASHA JOHNSON, REPORTER: City shows are a carnival of colour and noise.

But imagine if you couldn't hear...

(Noise goes silent)

..and couldn't see.

(Picture goes dark)

This is the dark and silent world of the deafblind, people like Heather Lawson, whose only way of
experiencing the world is through smell, taste and touch.

She also can't speak, and her only way of communicating is through a complex tactile version of
sign language, where she feels rather than sees the signs.

SUPPORT WORKER: Heather's just asking about the ride Freestyle, what their faces look like.

(Speaks what she is signing to Heather) Some are screaming, some are smiling, some people they look
sick, like they're about to vomit.

NATASHA JOHNSON: A simple outing like this is only possible with the help of a specially trained
support worker.

While Heather Lawson has a support worker by her side for about 20 hours a week, most of the time
she's on her own - living independently, travelling on public transport, and hoping passing
strangers will notice and assist when she needs help.

(Heather tries to attract the attention of passersby)

WOMAN (to Heather, touching her elbow): Oh! Deaf... yeah.

HEATHER LAWSON (translated by interpreter): When I can't communicate with hearing people, I feel
very, very lonely. I walk with my cane but I'm not aware of people around me but it's a very, very
sad feeling, to be alone.

(Heather in her flat, tags with Braille on tuna cans and fridge)

NATASHA JOHNSON: Fifty-two year old Heather Lawson manages to live by herself, thanks to a variety
of aides like a vibrating pager, which alerts her to the phone, door bell or smoke alarm.

But 25 years ago she could never have believed it was possible. She has a genetic disorder called
Usher syndrome and was born deaf, a disability she says she dealt with fairly easily.

But losing her sight in her 20s was terrifying.

HEATHER LAWSON (translated by interpreter): I wanted to kill myself, really. It was so frightening,
not knowing about the environment when I was out there - frightened of the world, really,
frightened of everything.

CELESTINE HARE, ABLE AUSTRALIA: They sit at home in absolute isolation with no support from

NATASHA JOHNSON: Celestine Hare heads the charity Able Australia, which provides specialised
services to the deafblind.

She says it's wrongly assumed to be a rare disability, yet a report it commissioned by Access
Economics found that more than 332,000 Australian Australians are affected at cost to the community
of $10 billion a year.

CELESTINE HARE: Deafblindness is a unique disability.

It's been a forgotten disability and the simple reason it's been forgotten is that the numbers are
considered not significant.

NATASHA JOHNSON: With an ageing population, the number of sufferers is tipped to top a million by

CELESTINE HARE: It is a problem that is going to get worse.

NATASHA JOHNSON: Heather Lawson has a sister, Jeanette, and a brother, Alan, who also have Usher
syndrome. Their parents had to cope with three of their six children being born deaf, then going
blind in adulthood.

WENDY PRUIN, SISTER: It was devastating to the whole family, you know? It, um... but it was just
again another hurdle we had to get over with and sometimes I think 'Could they have had a little
bit more of my sight or my hearing?'

I think we all take too much for granted.

NATASHA JOHNSON: They're unable to work but Jeanette Lawson married and has raised three children.

Alan Lawson has competed in duathalons and with the help of an art therapist, he loves to paint,
even though he can't see his finished product.

ART THERAPIST: So what ideas have you got for a new painting today? What would you like to do?

ALAN LAWSON (translated by support worker): Maybe a beach with waves, and then I want some sand as
the next layer and then in the background we're going to have some bush and mountains and trees.

NATASHA JOHNSON: After overcoming her fear of just walking out the front door, Heather Lawson has
pursued parachuting, rock climbing and snow skiing.

From the adventurous to the ordinary, like shopping and banking and doctors' appointments, every
activity requires an interpreter proficient in tactile sign language. But there's a national
shortage of them and Heather Lawson says until she found Able Australia she spent 20 frustrating
years bouncing between services for the deaf or services for blind.

HEATHER LAWSON (translated by interpreter): Well we're stuck in the middle. We're deaf and blind.

So if I found the appropriate service within the blind community, no one would sign. If I found it
within the deaf community, nobody knew how to adjust that language into a tactile mode.

It's extremely frustrating.

NATASHA JOHNSON: Able Australia operates in Victoria and Tasmania, but says there's a drastic
shortage of specialised services in most other States and country areas and it's lobbying all
levels of Government to provide more.

CELESTINE HARE: Time for government to now act because if we keep ignoring it, it's going to
be-create an absolute crisis.

NATASHA JOHNSON: While many lead limited lives, Able Australia says Heather Lawson and her siblings
show how proper support can rescue the deafblind from being shut out of a world they can't see or

HEATHER LAWSON (translated by interpreter): I am happy, look at me. You know, I go through sad

But, you know, I just kind of get that out of my head, ignore that and get involved more. Being
involved in the world makes me happy.

(Heather stroking a camel and laughing)

TRACEY BOWDEN: That report from Natasha Johnson.