Intersectionality in the Deaf Community

There is rich diversity and intersectionality within the Deaf Community in Australia. In this episode of Our Deaf Ways, First Nations Australian Sue Frank and wheelchair user Petra Svab discuss how their attitudes have been shaped by their experiences, and the layered barriers they have faced.

Sue Frank’s identity is made up of several cultural backgrounds. She has Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal, New Zealand Māori, Jamaican, Native American, African, and Egyptian heritage. She identifies firstly as an Indigenous person and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and then secondly as a Deaf woman. 

Sue grew up in the Torres Strait using gesture to communicate with her community. Spoken language differed between family clans, but gestures were the same.

She is now based in Cairns, on the traditional lands of the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji people. There is great diversity among Deaf First Nations communities in Australia, and various signs for Aboriginal and Indigenous are used depending on location.

We came up with the sign for 'Indigenous' because I think it represents the Indigenous communities around the world... We all sit around a fire, which is our soul. All Indigenous cultures gather and sit around that soul.

For Petra Svab, her primary identity is being a strong Deaf woman. Becoming a wheelchair user at 25 had a major impact on her sense of identity as well as her understanding of others' experiences.  

I broadened my perspective about other people's identities. Those in wheelchairs, blind people, First Nations' people, a broad diversity of people. I realised all this time, there was so much more to identity.

Initially, many friends in the Deaf community were unsure how to approach Petra's new disability. Over time, they learnt by having conversations and asking her questions. 

She remembers once being asked which is more difficult, being in a wheelchair or being Deaf? 

"I thought about that and I said, being Deaf is more difficult because being in a wheelchair, you ask for access via a ramp and they give it to me. It's no problem. But access to information as a Deaf person is always difficult to overcome," she said.

Watch their full conversation in the player above. You can also watch previous episodes on , the  channel,  and  

This episode of Our Deaf Ways was recorded on the lands of the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji people. 

Our Deaf Ways is a series by SBS and  about everyday life as a Deaf person. Throughout this six-part visual podcast series, Deaf people from all walks of life share stories and perspectives on Deaf Ways.  

Hosted by Deaf advocate Shirley Liu. Produced and directed by Paula Thornton. Edited by June Stathis.  

Deaf Australia and SBS acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and pay our respects to their Elders past and present. We extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are watching with us.  

Deaf Australia and SBS celebrate Auslan and recognise all Deaf leaders in Australia who have advocated for Deaf, Deafblind and hard of hearing communities. Deaf Australia is proud of everyone’s contribution, whether big or small, in preserving our language, community and culture. 


Shirley Liu: Hello. Welcome to Our Deaf Ways video podcast. My name is Shirley.

This episode, we will focus on the rich diversity and intersectionality that exists within the Deaf Community, including First Nations peoples, and those with physical disability, such as a wheelchair user. I would like to welcome Sue Frank, who is a Torres Strait Islander and Petra Svab, a wheelchair user.

They will share their life journey and wisdom with you all. Hope you enjoy this discussion showing next.

Sue Frank: Hi, I'd like to welcome you here to the traditional lands of the Aboriginal Elders, the Gimuy First Nations. I would like to pay my respects to our past leaders in the Deaf community, who are no longer with us, who have preserved Auslan to inspire future leaders in the Deaf community.

I have seven cultural backgrounds that make up who I am today. That includes the Torres Strait, the Aboriginal, New Zealand Maoris, Jamaican, Native American, Africa, and Egypt, that makes up who I am. I would consider myself a mixed race that is evolved over the generations where intergenerationally, they have married, they've connected with the grassroots, to build strength amongst the community. Amongst our native community.

If we're talking about where we are here on the mainland, it belongs to the Aboriginal community. Not me. It belongs to the traditional owners. The elders.

I have come. I seeked permission to be able to live here on this mainland. I'm from the Torres Strait. We work in and on the ocean, we look after the lands, we look after our Islands. I'm from the West

My clan, which is very important to us culturally, it connects our families. Koedal is the crocodile. So we're talking about animal totems. The stingray is another clan. There is a crocodile clan, they and crocodile clan cannot marry. Another clan for example might be shark. They can marry someone from the crocodile clan.

Petra Svab: When you were growing up with your family at home. How did you communicate?

Sue: My family and I on the Islands, we gestured to each other. So if we're referring to family clans, the cultures were very different. Their sign languages were a little bit different. The spoken languages were a little bit different. But to be able to converse with each other, it was helpful because our gestures were the same. The only difference was our spoken language.

Petra: At home. You use gesture and different languages. When you started school, how were you taught?

Sue: I started learning Auslan. When I was 15 at high school. I didn't know what it was until someone explained it to me. It helped with communication.

Petra: That's interesting. When I was growing up, I went to a Deaf school, but my mom being German and my dad Italian, we were using gesture at home. Going to Deaf school every day was exciting because we used sign language and fingerspelling. When I was at home, I used gesture and some signs. Throughout my schooling I used several different methods of communication; Auslan, speech, cued speech… until I went to high school, where I only used Auslan for the rest of my education. Auslan is such a part of me. I love it. Was that your experience too?

Sue: Yes, I had the same experience. I was so immersed into the Deaf Community, we could all communicate with each other and there was a great connection. And we were able to acknowledge how important it was to have that for communication.

Petra: I remember the time I was growing up at school in Adelaide. We had a very well-established Deaf club, called 262. There were lots of Deaf people there. So we had good Deaf role models. Did you have Deaf role models too?

Sue: Growing up in Cairns, once I left school it was about, I was 17 years old. I was looking for the Deaf club or the Deaf Society at the time.  I made some connections. Around about 18 I wanted to start learning, I wanted to connect in with the Deaf adults and I did. I learnt so much about my language through them. I remember when I was younger, I think it was important for me to learn about my culture, respect my family and respect my culture. Then I left High School. I learnt about sign language. I learnt about Deafness. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to be immersed more in the Deaf Community. How I could help and support and also identify as a Deaf person. I am an Indigenous woman. I wanted to be involved.

Petra: Talking about identity. What's your identity? Is it primarily Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander and then Deaf identity? Or the other way around?

Sue: I identify as an Indigenous person, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Petra: That's interesting. It's different for everyone. For me, since my birth, it's being a woman primarily. Then as a Deaf person, and my name Petra. And of course, after the accident, I'm a person who uses a wheelchair. So I have all these identities.

Sue: I feel the same. I identify first as an Indigenous person. The First Nations of Australia. My family is from the Torres Strait. Secondly I'm a Deaf woman, and thirdly family. And fourth I would say the Deaf community.

Petra: It's interesting. The different perspectives. For myself. I'm a strong Deaf woman. Deaf power. I know my rights. It's always been like that for me. Then when I had my accident, 25 no 26 years ago, that really changed my way of thinking. I broaden my perspective about other people's identity. Those in wheelchairs, blind people, First Nations people, a broad diversity of people. I learnt a lot. I realised all this time, there was so much more to identity. Not just Deaf identity. I learnt a lot.

Sue: I lobby for the Indigenous Deaf community in Northern Australia. My goal is to understand the community and encourage them to get involved. Whether it be in community, sports, dance… to help them be immersed, to build their individual skills. Also, I want them to be able to find their passion, through sitting around together having a yarn. That's so important. It's important that that happens every month. That we get the opportunity to have a good yarn and to build on that experience and that knowledge. I think it's also important that they get immersed in our cultural activities. Hunting. Fishing. Women's group. Men's group. This is so important for our healing and our connection with spirit. That's how we connect with culture.

Petra: Wow, your cultural journey is incredible. For me, my cultural identity is mixed. Both my parents are European, so they passed on their strong cultural beliefs and values to me. Like punctuality, being on time, and having good manners and respect. If you're invited to dinner, respect that by bringing some wine or cake. They're taking time and effort preparing dinner for you. Be respectful of that. I learnt good manners from my family on one hand but Deaf culture is so broad.  

Sue: Yes it was the same in my family

Petra: The culture of being in a wheelchair. Well, that's different. It's interesting when you have a culture, and you can compare that culture to others. When a person talks about wheelchair culture, it must be a lived experience. They can't talk on behalf of others because they haven't had that experience. I mean, I can't talk about Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander culture because it's not my experience. I would ask you to talk about that. Do you agree? Am I right? Is that how you feel too?

Sue: Yes. Yes. It's the same, an Aboriginal person or a Traditional Owner, a First Nations person welcomes you to Country, they need to do that. I can't do that. It's the Traditional Owners of the land, whether they're Deaf or hearing, they have the right to welcome you to Country. I don't. I'm from the remote Islands. The reason I moved here was because I needed access as a Deaf person and communication was so important and it's so healthy.

Petra: Hmm, I remember someone asked me, which is more difficult, being in a wheelchair or being Deaf? It was a tough question. I thought about that and I said, being Deaf is more difficult because being in a wheelchair, you ask for access via a ramp and they give it to me. It's no problem. But access to information as a Deaf person is always difficult to overcome. For example, having an interpreter on TV. So many times, they don’t frame the interpreter properly, or they cut off the interpreter before they finish signing. There have been countless requests and a lot of effort to get that right. But wheelchair access, its instant, it's easy. That's been my experience between the two, of being Deaf and being in a wheelchair.

Sue: I remember a time, at the time it was called the Deaf Interpreting Services. I was on the board. I was young, I was only 18 years old at the time, but I was Vice President. We were having a discussion around future plans for Auslan interpreting and what was really important was the emergency announcements because weather, it's so seasonal up here in Cairns and it happens every year and as Indigenous people weather is very important to us. We wanted to try and work out a way around working with the Deaf community and finding out what's very important. Getting access to the information on TV via an interpreter. Promoting the services, creating resources. And I think also, what's important here, it’s such a small community, we are able to disseminate information and share that information through our connections and through our network. Because the community is so small, we're able to make that contact quite quickly and that happens through school, through work, within the community. It makes it easy for us. I also think that, our community doesn't think, ‘why do we need an Auslan interpreter?’ I think they're very supportive of it. They’re very supportive of the Cairns Deaf community and the access that we require.

Petra: Yes, I know what you mean. The educating and the lobbying to get an interpreter on screen and then informing the Deaf Community about that. Over the years, I've been taught by others and that will always stay with me. I'm grateful for that.

Sue: I think what's important is to remember our histories and I would love to be able to see a museum created. I think we'll be able to preserve our valuable history for our younger generations. So our children can learn about our history for their own futures. If there's no preservation of our histories, such like a museum, how can we share our stories and our histories with our children? I think that shows our younger generation that they, to believe and appreciate our history throughout our generations.

Petra: Yes, yes. Yes, museums are great places for remembering our past.

Sue: Yes, it's important. We came up with the sign for Indigenous because I think it represents the Indigenous communities around the world. The Native Americans, the Maori communities, Aboriginal, Torres Strait. Most culturally, we all sit around a fire, which is our soul. All Indigenous cultures gather and sit around that soul, and that soul is our meeting place.

Petra: As a Deaf woman and then becoming a wheelchair user at 25, it had a big impact on me. I remember when I was told I would never walk again, I laughed because I was in complete shock. I didn’t know what to do. The social worker gave me lots of resources. But I said I'm Deaf. I said I'm all right. I only need information about using a wheelchair. Oh, so then they looked for that information. It was interesting. It wasn't easy to adapt to life in a wheelchair. It's a lot of work. I had to learn to take extra care of my body, not to be careless for my long-term health. I was very grateful that I could still use my upper body to sign. Oh, that was so important to me. Without that ability to communicate, what would my life have been? It would have been a very different story, a different journey for me.

Sue: Sign language is so intelligent, when a child is born, I think they acquire language through their eyes. It's so powerful. That is such a skill. Sign language, I believe is alive. It's just like the spoken language. It's very equal. Just because a Deaf person can't write that doesn't matter. I think our sign language is so rich just like the spoken language. Signing, gesture. It's all beautiful. Deaf people are beautiful.

Petra:There's a beautiful rich diversity in Deaf people’s sign language. Some skills you have, that others don't have. Deaf people have their own beautiful diverse way of signing and fingerspelling.

My attitude being Deaf and then later using a wheelchair, is an interesting comparison. Hmm. Prior to my accident, I was a forthright strong powerful woman. I was solely focused on fighting for the rights of Deaf people. I never really thought much about those in wheelchairs or people with disability. I was focused on Deaf rights. I was one of those people, I just got on with it. I hadn't had their experience. So, after the accident, when I knew I'd never walk again, those who I was close to in the Deaf Community were in shock. They didn't know what to do, like me, they hadn't had that experience either. During that time where I had to learn how to sit, what foods to eat, the length of time I could go out… and then I started to tell others around me about the changes to my life in a wheelchair. Other people with disability connected with me, because they could relate to my experience, we had a connection.

The attitude of the wider Deaf community was that they had no idea at the start what to do. Over time, they learnt from me by having conversations and asking questions. It wasn't like an education. They just had to ask me, not to ask each other, but to ask me directly. I was more than happy to tell them everything. Some were a little unsure, but as for myself, I mean, I would never have known until I was in a wheelchair myself, then I got it. It's like a hearing person losing their hearing and becoming Deaf. It's only then they get it. It's the same for me in a wheelchair. It was then I understood.

I remember the time in hospital, six months. Wow, six months. It was a very long time. I had regular physio to strengthen my upper body with my physiotherapist Craig. I had so many healthcare professionals come in to teach me various life skills. Ooh, depending on a person's level of spinal cord injury. For example, what to do if I fell into a swimming pool? I asked Craig if it was like this for everyone. Those outside of the hospital don't know what it's really like in here? He said yes, that's right. You don't know what it's like until you have a spinal cord injury. It was a huge realisation for me. Wow, I thought. Alright. What will I do?

I remember one person said to me, you have a choice, just one choice. You can accept what happened to your life, or you can be angry and let it take you in a downward spiral. They said it's up to me to choose. They said have a look around at the other men and women in your ward with spinal cord injury. This conversation was two months after the accident. I thought a lot about the others in the ward with various levels of spinal cord injury. So they came back to me, and they asked what things I needed now to consider that I was in a wheelchair,I thought about the barriers of being Deaf and compared them. Of course there are some barriers and challenges using a wheelchair and being Deaf. Depending on your level of spinal cord injury, there are different challenges, some people have the function of their upper body and arms and others don't, but there are similar challenges and that's how I was able to accept this change in my life only two months after the accident.

You know, everyone has their own unique experience. I remember the first time I went out into the city for the day. Before I went out, the psychologist prepared me, telling me it's common for people in wheelchairs to become emotional and cry when they see people walking around and so on. I thought, okay, maybe the psychologist is right. When I finally went out, I mean, I could not wait to get out of hospital. When I was out in the city, I wasn't at all emotional or teary. I was excited and I enjoyed the time of being outside.

When I went back to the hospital I had an appointment with the psychologist again. They asked me how did it go? I said it was fine. The psychologist said no, you must have been a bit emotional and cried. I said no not at all. The psychologist couldn't work it out. I said being Deaf gave me an advantage It saved me. I was used to the barriers of having disability, of being Deaf.

Sue: Hm yes it’s because you’re used to having a disability.

Petra: The spinal cord injury and using the wheelchair was secondary. If I hadn't had those experiences all my life, maybe I would have been emotional and upset.The psychologist never thought about it in that way. Being Deaf absolutely saved me. It's really interesting. Being Deaf and a wheelchair user, now I'm able to accept anyone's difference. I think before I was a bit selective but not now. My journey has taught me about diversity. There's no right or wrong way. We learn from each other.

Sue: I know education gives empowerment to our community. It allows them to build connections, bridge relationships. But I think it's really difficult for hearing parents because they don't get that information. Whereas connecting a Deaf person and a Deaf person. It's great because there's a trusting relationship, and we're able to communicate with the same language. We're able to work out options, to be able to make decisions for themselves. Whether they decide to go one way or another, we can't force them to do what they want to do. It comes from their heart. What feels right within their gut. So, I think they can go and make that decision and have those private conversations, whether it is, people have learnt, people have not learnt, people have broken commitments, broken rules, don't have knowledge, don't have information.

What's important is that we have a meeting place to have these discussions with each otherand have general understanding to be able to move into the future. I think it's important to acknowledge what's happened in our past, to be able to move into the future.And what's really important is to be present in the today

Petra: Yes, I mean really as the world is changing, we're all changing too. With support, education and leadership. At any age from birth, to older age, we can change, that's my belief.

Shirley: That was an amazing microcosm of life and wisdom. Identity is not straightforward. There are many different layers to a person's identity. This is called intersectionality. They faced and continue to face many overlapping layers of barriers that is not just Deaf-related. And they have shown that they have to work even harder than white Deaf people without disabilities to achieve the best for their futures.

Sue Frank mentioned that she is based in Cairns, North of Australia. We know and appreciate that diversity exists within Australia with Deaf First Nations communities, who identify as First Nations peoples all over Australia. And that there are various signs used to sign Aboriginal and Indigenous, depending on where the First Nations person lives.

We know too that there are those with disabilities and other intersecting identities within the Deaf Community. We appreciate and celebrate the richness of diversity that is brought to our community.

See you next episode.

22 min read
Published 21 July 2022 at 8:33am