DEAF AND DISABILITY ADVOCATE
CATHERINE DUNN, 20, describes her role of advocating for inclusion as something that she, for better or worse, was born into. Catherine is proving that the common perception of disability is a reflection of mental limitations, not someone's ability. After attending the Global Young Leaders Conference in Washington D.C and also passing legislation through the Parliment of Victoria, Catherine and her message is being heard.
TOM DUNN: Who is Catherine Dunn?
CATHERINE DUNN: Catherine Dunn (she/her) is a twenty year old who like most twenty year olds has no clue who they are. But it is somewhere between being an advocate, driven, pun loving individual who loves to read and spend time with mates.
TD: Over the past few years you’ve been working on advocating for the rights of those with disabilities, namely the Deaf community. Where does that passion come from?
CD: Whilst I’ve really stepped into advocacy in a more professional nature in recent years, advocacy was something I was born into. Like many people with disabilities, we are often forced into the role as advocates whether we choose to or not; seen as a representative of all disabilities by the wider community. This is exemplified in my experiences growing up Deaf with no other young Deaf peers in my rural town. In the recent years I have used my lived experiences as a platform to further advocate for inclusion in society and to challenge misconceptions.
TD: What made you decide to act on that passion and to make a change?
CD: I was a stubborn and determined little kid, so I am often told. That, combined with an upbringing where my parents raised me with expectations no different to those of my brother, instilled a belief a) I have no excuses because b) I can do whatever the next person can but just might have to go about it a different way. That’s not to say I didn’t struggle, at times but I realised that the biggest barrier I had wasn’t actually my Deafness but the perception of it. I learnt that the perception of my Deafness merely reflects the limitations of the mind, not my ability. This distinction provided me clarity in my identity as well as my passion to continue fighting systematic and social oppression; people’s perceptions of us are often more disabling than our disabilities.
TD: In 2017, you were part of the ‘Deafhood’ Youth Parliament team that put forward a Public Transport Accessibility Bill. Your team advocated for the [visual captioning of all audio information on trains, trains, trams, and platforms/stations]. Why was this your focus?
CD: Being the first ever Deaf/hard of hearing team in Youth Parliament Program’s 31 years of history was an incredible opportunity to access an influential platform of discourse. As a team we brought a variety of passions and backgrounds to the table, but we all agreed that as the first ever Deafhood team we wanted to take advantage of such a unique position and represent our community. Deafhood decided to focus on a topic to empower all people through inclusion because inclusion benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities-for example information displayed visually on public transport provides access to Deaf and hard of hearing people but also those with their headphones in listening to music on their daily commutes.
TD: The bill went on to be passed through Government and since that success you’ve recently been working with the Parliament of Victoria putting the bill into action. In your mind do you now consider your teams work a success?
CD: Deafhood’s ethos is all about inclusion so in my eyes the continued inclusion of Deaf/hard of hearing people in the Victorian Youth Parliament Program since 2017 is a success in itself. Deafhood’s first bill saw a strengthened relationship between the Deaf community and Victoria’s transport sector in collaborations with Public Transport Victoria and the Public Transport Access Committee. Deafhood’s continued successes through the years paved the way for a collaboration with Parliament of Victoria in our ongoing projects, particularly the monthly Auslan Parliament Bulletin (https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/education/auslan). Social causes, like any advocate knows, never have the job completely done and there is always more room to improve. However the biggest indicator of Deafhood’s success I believe, would be that the Deaf community are being increasingly recognised in their own right not as an afterthought.
TD: What would be the next bill you would try to pass through Parliament if you had the opportunity?
CD: If given the opportunity, I would love to put forward a bill either addressing the climate change crisis or a reform in our approach to mental health. Whilst bills are an incredibly powerful legislation for change, the biggest lesson I’ve learnt through my advocacy work is that change doesn’t just happen because a piece of paper says it should. My work in the 2019 Victorian Youth Congress found that young people use an extensive range of channels to advocate rather than sticking to limited traditional channels of political expression. Change is about utilising our multifaceted democracy as there’s so many avenues and agents for change that we can all utilise. Therefore while we wait for a bill to be put forward that addresses the climate change crisis and mental health we can continue to advocate by creating awareness through social media platforms, writing letters to your local Member of Parliament, getting involved in your local community or even simply using a keep cup instead of a single use coffee cup.
TD: You were invited to the 2018 Global Young Leaders Conference in Washington D.C. which was an opportunity for just ‘young emerging leaders’ youth worldwide. How did it feel to be surrounded by some of the great young minds of this generation?
CD: The Global Young Leaders Conference was an absolute whirlwind of an experience which I am still unable to fully enscapulate. Being surrounded by young leaders from over 145 countries while attending conferences and workshops facilitated by a variety of global leaders from the United Nations, World Bank, International Embassies, Holocaust Musuem representitives was an incredible space of learning and personal development. We are facing some incredible issues on scales we’ve never seen before which affect everyone worldwide like climate change or even the current COVID-19 pandemic, however that experience I felt beautifully surrounded not just by humans but humanity.
TD: What was your key take-away from that experience?
CD: The conference took me halfway across the world to meet young leaders from 145+ countries and leading global leaders from a variety of industries and international organisations.My takeaway from the GYLC is the common denominator of all the experiences which were the people- regardless of whether it was a world class admired lawyer or another GYLC delegate at United Nations headquarters or even in the backseat of the bus travelling, No matter who you speak to or where you are, there’s always something we can learn from one another. It’s so important to share your own stories but more important to listen to the stories of others’- those past, present and those emerging all across the world.
TD: You’ve had the opportunity to be a keynote speaker, most notably at the YIPPA (Young professionals network of the Institute of Public Administration Australia-Victoria) Annual Address. What was the takeaway message you hoped people would get from your presentation?
CD: My message that (I hoped!) tried to convey was the importance in collaborating across sectors and experiences to a) avoid reinventing the wheel and b) ensure that the end result/desired outcome is truly applicable and beneficial to the target audience. I drew upon this concept by demonstrating how easy it was through my involvement on the panel at the YIPPA event as a young professional with three other key professionals in their respective fields. This meant that intersectional discussions occurred in the best interests of young professionals with young professionals. Whether it be about young professionals, gender equality or any other target audience, the mantra of disability advocates applies, "Nothing About Us Without Us."
TD: Have you ever been made to feel ashamed of your disability? If so, why do you think that was?
CD: I have definitely been made to feel ashamed and humiliated because of my Deafness through audism (discrimination or prejudice against individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing). But every time that I took the time to explain my Deafness, I received an apology or saw changes to
ensure my inclusion. In my experience people are generally just unaware how to interact with Deafness whether it’s communication methods with the Deaf person or how to talk about Deafness. But there’s no point talking if no one is listening, and it goes both ways. Deaf people need to feel free and respected to share their voice, like hearing people do when they have questions. In my experiences, I have learnt that access and inclusion like many social causes needs to be an open discourse. Together people can work together to dismantle the stigma and segregation
TD: You mentioned early in the interview that perceptions are disabling, not disabilities. What’s the best way for stereotypes to be broken down?
CD: Encountering stereotypes whether it be because I am Deaf, a young person, a woman or whatever it may be, I have learnt that all it takes is to have a conversation and listen, to challenge stereotypes. We all have a voice but it only works when people listen. Whilst stereotypes can hurt they are usually used not with the intent to hurt others but simply because people don't know any better. Therefore I believe that to break down stereotypes it is a collective responsibility to simply to talk to one another, a discourse where people share their experiences and are heard is the only way to break the stereotypes.
TD: What achievement are you most proud of so far?
CD: I don't think there's any one thing that I am most proud of, but I'm proud of the small differences I can make in people's lives whether it be giving them a smile, connecting and empathizing with their experiences or empowering them to make a change for the better for themselves.
TD: If you could sit down for a conversation with two people, alive or dead, who would they be and why?
CD: I would love to sit down with Bridgetta Bourne-Firl, M.S and Michelle Obama. Bridgetta was one of the four founding leaders of the ‘Deaf President Now’ movement which led to the first ever Deaf president of Galludet- the only University for the Deaf community. This resulted in an incredible shift in perception of the Deaf community that “Deaf people can do anything except hear.” Michelle is incredible as well in her own right but I particularly admire her journey in the public sphere through her insights in advocacy as well as overcoming misconceptions.
TD: Who is Mum and Dad’s favourite?
CD: : If you were the favourite child, they wouldn’t have had me….. But don't worry atleast you're their favourite son!
TD: What advice would you offer a young Australian who was looking to make an impact with something they were passionate about?
CD: Lead by example and not only will you be an act of change, but you will inspire change.
TD: What can we expect to see from you in the next 5 years?
CD: Whether it is in my university studies, conversations over the dinner table with friends, working, volunteering or even sharing on my social media, my time is all centered on working towards a world where differences are respected and embraced. but like most twenty year olds, I have no real clue what exactly that will look like, so stay tuned ha.
Enjoying the interviews? Want to read more?
Keep the interview series alive by making a small contribution.