IIt’s a hot Wednesday afternoon in the city of Cairns in Far North Queensland. In a car park on Pease Street in the suburb of Manoora, the sound of clapping and clapping can be heard from inside a building.
It has not yet been a week since members of the Deaf Indigenous Dance Group returned from the 2021 Laura Quinkan Dance Festival in Cape York, which they attended for the first time. Now they are back in their rehearsal room, practicing routines for the Cairns Naidoc Week march and performances at Fogarty Park.
Formed in 1997, Didg celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The mission of the Cairns-based group is to showcase and promote their abilities and talents. As much a social club as a dance group, Didg provides a safe space for its members to dance, express their culture, and hang out with others they can freely communicate with.
Sue Frank, 43, has been involved with Didg since its inception. Today, in addition to dancing in the group, she is the manager. Although she was born in Tully (two hours south of Cairns by car), her family originated from Badu in the Torres Strait, where she switched from lip-reading to sign language at the age of seven or eight years old. But it wasn’t until much older that she met other deaf Aboriginal people.
“I was around 18 when I started getting involved with the deaf crowd and the community,” Frank says. “I started to take it all in and learn. I started signing [with them] and I started to develop my social skills. I became confident of being included.
First Nations people have a strong cultural connection to language, she says, which means people who are hard of hearing often experience high rates of loneliness, especially when they don’t have other people around them who can understand and support them.
Frank has worked with deaf children in the Lockhart River Aboriginal community on the east side of Cape York. “I saw [Indigenous kids] who were depressed and lonely, they had no one,” she says.
“The children were frustrated, they weren’t going to school. We tried to convince parents to bring them; it was very difficult. There were many obstacles for them. There was no language education. They needed their language, and there was a delay.
Leslie Footscray, 47, is from Bamaga, at the northern tip of Cape York, and also has family in New Mapoon and Lockhart River. He moved to Cairns to attend school when he was 10, returning to Bamaga after completing his education.
“I was born hearing, but when I was young I got little pebbles in my ears when I was swimming which made me deaf,” he says. “My father is also deaf.
“I returned to Bamaga and showed my father and my family all the dances I knew. I tried to get him to dance with me but he wouldn’t. I asked all my family to come dance but nobody came, I was the only one.
“There was nothing for me there so I told them I was going back to Cairns.”
He adds: “Didg is part of my family. I love dance and community. When we went to Laura I was happy, it was just fantastic, lots of laughs, it was a great weekend. I feel happy that there are more aboriginal people.
“There is no support [for deaf kids] where I come from. I would like to see more support up there. Mum helped me a lot when I was young, but after I finished school I didn’t have a job – I just hunted pigs, kangaroos and echidnas. I lived on land, we ate fish and turtles.
Frank says it’s important that Indigenous people with hearing loss have the space in which to express themselves as well as their connection to the culture.
“Indigenous peoples suffer more [when they are hard of hearing],” she says. “They lose their culture, they lose their identity, they lose their language.
“We are not a handicap, we have an ability. We are on par with the hearing world.