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Obituary: Emeritus Professor Desmond J. Power AM

Deafness is a part of the natural human condition …
Des Power, ‘Signs of Life’ (1989)

[divider style=”hr-dotted”] Photograph of Professor Demond J. Power AMEmeritus Professor Des Power AM, who was known to many Deaf people in Australia and around the world, died on the 3rd of April, 2013 after respiratory complications following heart surgery. He was born in Cobden, Victoria on 23 March 1936, and trained as a teacher at the Geelong Teacher’s College and the Training Centre for Teachers of the Deaf in Melbourne.  He later completed a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and a Master of Education at the University of Melbourne. After winning a Harkness Fellowship he completed a PhD at the University of Illinois in the USA. He began work in Deaf education in the late 1950s at the Victorian School for Deaf Children and Glendonald School for Deaf Children, and he is remembered fondly by many Deaf adults who were students at these schools, such as Robert’s father. Des lectured at the Training Centre for Teachers of the Deaf in Victoria, until moving to the Mt Gravatt Teacher’s College (later part of Brisbane College of Advanced Education and then the Education Faculty of Griffith University) in Brisbane in 1979.
[notification style=”neutral” font_size=”12px” closeable=”false”] Des Power was not only an educator and academic in the field of Deaf Education, he was also a long-time supporter of Deaf people and their aspirations for more access and opportunity. The areas where this was most evident to the Deaf community were his support for the recognition of signed languages and his belief that Deaf people should be able to access higher education. He did much practical advocacy for this at a time when very few other people thought it was important. [/notification] Breda recalls that when she decided she wanted to be a teacher of the deaf in the mid-1970s, she visited teacher training programs and Deaf Societies in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. She met with people who told her it was not possible ‘at this time’, that there had never been any deaf teachers of the deaf before, that she should be satisfied with a job in the Public Service, that she was silly to aspire to something like teaching. One ‘expert’ laughed at the idea. Her final visit was to the State College of Victoria in Burwood, where she met Des Power. He said that he thought it was an excellent idea, that he had long wanted to see deaf teachers in Australia and hoped to make teacher training courses accessible to them. He gave her practical advice and wished her well.  In the mid-late 1970s, encouraging deaf people to become teachers was not a fashionable position to take, and most of Des’ colleagues would have been sceptical if not downright dismissive. But Des Power was always ahead of his time.
Des followed through on his wish to see deaf teachers in Australia. In 1985 the Mt Gravatt campus of Brisbane CAE began an innovative program to support five deaf students through its Bachelor of Teaching. Few people remember how precarious this program was – there was not yet a Disability Discrimination Act, and most schools for deaf students at that time only provided education up to Year 10. It was a challenge to recruit and retain the deaf students, a battle to persuade local schools to accept them for practice teaching, and for several years the money for interpreters, note-takers and tutors was scrabbled together from small one-off grants from Quota Clubs and other similar sources. But it was a success, and after the merger with Griffith University the program was able to expand into the Deaf Student Support Program, enabling deaf students to study across all faculties. Scores of today’s professional deaf people in Australia are alumni of Griffith University. The DSSP has since been regarded as a model for other Australian universities, especially after the Disability Discrimination Act came into force in 1992.
Through the Centre for Deafness Studies and Research which he established at Griffith, Des supported the production of educational video projects such as Signs of Life (1989), the development of teaching materials for Deaf Studies in schools, and many other innovative programs. He worked with Deaf researchers and supported many Deaf people in their studies. Breda is one such grateful colleague who was able to work with Des on a range of projects and to complete her PhD at Griffith with his support.
Des Power was a consistent ally of Deaf Australia (until 2007 the Australian Association of the Deaf – AAD) and always showed great interest in the lobbying activities of Deaf people. Robert recalls several examples from his time on the AAD Board. Des helped AAD with the writing of position papers and articles, and advised the project officers who worked on the first study design for Auslan in the Victorian Certificate of Education. He and Merv Hyde completed a demographic study of Auslan use, ‘The Use of Australian Sign Language by Deaf People’, in 1990, a study that has been very important to Deaf Australia’s work.  Des was also instrumental in the drive for official recognition of Auslan and its inclusion in the National Policy on Languages (1992).
For many Deaf people, he was a bastion of support for the use of signing in education; he was a very important counterbalance for the strong oralism that pervaded Deaf education in some quarters from the 1960s. This view can even be seen as recently as in his submission with Merv Hyde (2010) to the Australian Government’s Hearing Health Inquiry, where they write that signing has a role in early language and cognitive development.
Des Power was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 1993 and on retirement, was made an Emeritus Professor in Special Education by Griffith University. He continued to consult, research, publish and present around the world during his retirement. A quick glance at his list of publications shows how varied his interests were: from Deaf people and text communication, and Irish Deaf people in the newspapers, to how Deaf children learn English in the classroom. His last paper was on ‘Australian Aboriginal Deaf people and Aboriginal Sign Language’, published in Sign Language Studies in early 2013.
Des was active on many levels. Robert recalls sitting as an advisor to the Kosovar Association of the Deaf (for their sign language dictionary project) in a government office in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, high in the Balkan mountains talking with government officials, and the disability advisor to the Prime Minister of Kosovo leant over and asked him, ‘Do you know Des Power?’ This was characteristic of Des – he managed to be of assistance to a wide range of people although most of us were not aware of how wide his influence was. Deaf people and educators in Kosovo remember Des Power for helping them put their Deaf education system back together after the bombing of Kosovo and they talk of him and his colleagues with great respect.
Des was a mentor to many people. His advice tended to be brief and succinct rather than expansive. He was often blunt, even gruff. Breda recalls an occasion when she was working as a research associate for Des, enjoying the beginning of a stimulating academic career thanks to his support. She received an invitation from a small training college a couple of hours drive away, with a little group of deaf students who had just completed a short vocational qualification. Would she come and present their certificates, so they could see a successful Deaf person who could motivate them to continue their studies? It was a long way to go and would necessitate a day off work. She discussed the invitation with Des, suggesting she should decline it as she was so busy and it was so far away. Fingerspelling emphatically, Des’ response was simple and unmistakable: “Noblesse oblige!” he said. When you have been fortunate enough to reach a position of some privilege, you have a responsibility to help others achieve their potential. You never know when you may be able to make a difference in someone’s life. And that is how he lived too.
Des leaves his wife, Professor Mary Power (Bond University), children Lucy, Ben, Linus and Peter, and grandchildren Jack, Caitlin, Lucy and Ella. Our condolences are extended to his family and his many friends and colleagues around the world. Not only will he be missed by them all, he is also a great loss to the Deaf world.
Carty, B., Davie, C., & Power, D. J. (Writers). (1989). Signs of Life: Australia’s Deaf Community. Australia: Deafness Resource Project, Division of Education, Griffith University.
Dawkins, J. (1992). Australia’s Language: The Australian Language and Literacy Policy: Australian Government Publishing Office.
Hyde, M., & Power, D. (1991). The Use of Australian Sign Language by Deaf people: Australian Federation of Deaf Societies and Griffith University Centre for Deafness Studies and Research.
Hyde, M., & Power, D. (2010). Hearing Health inquiry submission: Community Affairs References Committee. Research Contexts of Cochlear Implantation of Young Deaf Children.
An edited version of this obituary will appear in the next edition of Sign Language Studies, Vol. 14, no. 1, Fall 2013.
[content_box style=”green” title=”Written by:”] Robert Adam, Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre, University College London/Department of Linguistics, Gallaudet University;
Breda Carty, RIDBC Renwick Centre [/content_box]
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