It was a confusing and disturbing time last week for the deaf community of Victoria, for Auslan students at TAFE, and for those of us who work for and with deaf community organisations.

Last Monday, Kangan Institute of TAFE announced that, following cutbacks to the TAFE sector, it planned to close down the only full-time diploma in Auslan in the state (in fact, one of only two such courses in the entire country). Unlike other part-time TAFE or undergraduate university Auslan classes, the Auslan diploma is a two-year full-time course that provides the closest approximation to an immersion program currently available: it takes beginner level students and turns many of them into signers competent enough to gain entry into the one-year diploma in Auslan/English interpreting at RMIT University.

Without this course, a community already short of adequate interpreter provision would be further disadvantaged.

Following questions by Greens MP Colleen Hartland about this issue — rightly framed as a human rights issue — the Victorian minister for higher education and skills, Peter Hall, issued a press release claiming that the state government was hoping to work with the Deaf Society of New South Wales, a registered training organisation, to provide Auslan training in Victoria. Clearly the government is quite unaware that the dialect of Auslan used in NSW is quite distinct from the Victorian dialect, including significant lexical differences. The Deaf Society of NSW issued a response on its Facebook page denying any involvement that the government had implied:

“The Department [of Higher Education] did not contact the Deaf Society of NSW before making this statement and the Department did not contact the Deaf Society of NSW to offer any subsidies.

“The only role the Deaf Society of NSW wants to play in the Kangan crisis is to support Kangan to continue to provide its Auslan courses.”

Deaf community organisations in the state are critical of the cuts. VicDeaf issued a video statement (in Auslan, appropriately) calling for the government and Kangan to reconsider cutting this important course, and Deaf Victoria issued a statement shortly thereafter, condemning the cuts and warning of “a worsening situation of shortage of interpreters”. Disappointed Auslan students quickly formed a Facebook group Save Auslan @Kangan on the day of the announcement and soon accrued more than 4000 supporters and an online petition is coming close to collecting 6000 signatures.

On Thursday, significant numbers of Auslan students staged a protest rally at Parliament House, and more questions followed in state parliament. Peter Hall has apologised about the misunderstanding created by the suggestion that the Deaf Society of NSW would deliver training in Victoria, and has promised to work with Kangan TAFE and other providers to ensure the continuation of these programs.

Despite this, the TAFE students are planning another protest on Wednesday (May 30), a Save Auslan courses website is under construction, T-shirts are being printed and a @SaveAuslanVIC Twitter account is active. Radio and television interviews have followed, and a heartfelt article appeared in The Age. In it, Karen McQuigg wonders how the Victorian government can axe the course when it has a clear commitment to the National Disability Plan and its own State Disability Plan, as well as an objective to “take new measures to protect the most vulnerable Victorians” and to “drive economic activity, productivity and jobs”.

It has always seemed to me that the complex reality of Australia’s deaf community as representing both a group of people living with a “disability” and as a uniquely Australian linguistic minority has simply proven too difficult for government to fully understand. Auslan is a sign language that has developed into a distinct variety from the British Sign Language brought to this country by deaf immigrants in the early 19th century, and thus represents a linguistic tradition that is almost as old as Australian English itself. While it was the language of instruction used in the first schools for deaf children established in 1860 in Sydney and Melbourne, it was later sidelined in deaf education for a significant part of the 20th century, and even at one point became a language that was only learnt in secret in the dormitories and playgrounds of residential deaf schools.

Auslan made a return to deaf education in the last two decades of the past century and at the same time, teaching Auslan as a second language began in earnest in TAFE colleges and at a small number of universities around the country. A printed and on-line dictionary of the language has been produced but much more work needs to be done. Curricula for teaching have become available, and an introductory textbook on Auslan linguistics has been published but no reference grammar has as yet been written, and much about Auslan structure and use remains undescribed. As a result, teaching Auslan and training Auslan/English interpreters remains a considerably under-resourced area, despite its importance for assisting to integrate and empower deaf people in the education system and in the workplace.