Jeanette was born deaf as a result of her mother contracting rubella during pregnancy. Services for deaf children were limited in the 1960s and at the specialist schools she attended, Jeanette wasn’t taught Auslan or given any aids to assist communication. As a consequence, she wasn’t able to tell anybody about the physical and sexual abuse inflicted on her by one of the school teachers.
This abuse started when she was five years old. In the afternoons children were meant to have a sleep but Jeanette never could, and was continually being chastised. When she remained awake, the teacher took her into another room and abused her.
‘She would drag me into this room and take my pants down and push my feet apart and hold my feet down with her feet, and if I try to look away she grabbed my face and turned it back. She’d turn my face back around. She had some kind of metal object, a type of statue or something and she’d hit my private parts with it, and I’d be crying and screaming.
‘That kept going on and on right till I was five then when I was six, so I was there for two years and this went on and on. Then I went to the next school at six and abuse occurred again at this school ... She was quite thin and wore glasses. I don’t know her name. I was deaf and had no language.’
With no means of communicating with her parents or six siblings, Jeanette couldn’t tell them about the abuse. They didn’t understand why she would often be upset and refuse to go to school. As Jeanette progressed in years at school, she continued to encounter the teacher who also moved between the adjoining primary and high schools.
‘She’d put her put her foot into my back and I got a back injury … She’d pull my hair and shove my face in the dirt. There was a lot of times she’d grab my arm and twist it behind my back. I felt like she nearly broke my arm.
‘Many times she’d drag me down to my knees on the concrete and smash my knees into the concrete so I wouldn’t be able to walk properly. Mum and Dad would see me hurt and see me limping and still make me go to school. They didn’t understand what was going on. They thought I was accident prone. I couldn’t communicate what was going on.’
At the age of 10, Jeanette was sexually abused by a 15-year-old boy at the school. She couldn’t understand why older children were put with younger ones and the abuse stopped only when the boy left the school the following year. At the same age she was also being sexually abused by her 19-year-old brother.
When Jeanette left school, she had little knowledge of written English and found it increasingly difficult to negotiate both with those who could hear and people who were deaf. She was hospitalised many times due to panic attacks.
Around ten years ago she started to see a mental health worker who told her that the childhood abuse ‘was wrong’. As her vocabulary developed she was able to disclose more fully to the worker what had happened to her. ‘I didn’t have enough signing to explain it plus when I’d try and talk about it, I’d have panic attacks. I didn’t really know the word “abuse”.’
People would often ‘get aggressive’ when they couldn’t understand her but she had difficulty explaining herself to them. Once when she was unwell she couldn’t communicate what was wrong, but she ended up staying in hospital for two weeks.
‘I couldn’t communicate and the doctor tried to explain that I was quite ill but I couldn’t even sign really and I couldn’t tell the doctor how I felt. I felt quite trapped … I tried to overdose and things like that and I couldn’t understand why my family didn’t want to help me and I tried to overdose because I thought, why be here? I was very stressed.’
Jeanette also had difficulty explaining to friends who were deaf that she had panic attacks. ‘Things like mental health can be a little bit difficult for deaf people to understand. … I’ve spoken to a few people and they’ve been really shocked about what panic attacks really mean. And I’m trying to help other people understand.’ Working with the mental health counsellor has been very helpful.
‘They explained to me that what happened to me was wrong and gave me a whole new vocab so I understood what had happened. All the new words that I’ve learnt and even just finding out that it was wrong …
‘I feel like it’s only been such a short amount of time and I’ve been trying to play catch up on all these years I’ve missed out on. It’s been a hard slog to get through that. And I feel so much better now being able to come and express myself, because I know that not that many years ago I wouldn’t have been able to sit here and tell my story.
‘I think I’ll always have flashbacks. I don’t think those thoughts or memories will ever go away. I’ve forgiven my brother, my family but I still feel that no language when I was little had the biggest impact on me in some ways because I know that my family if they didn’t understand or believe me, they just maybe didn’t understand.
‘And I feel sometimes a bit of regret because I can see that friends had their family support which I didn’t have. And there were other deaf schools in the country that did encourage sign language and maybe it was easier for those kids. But I know I’ll never forget what happened to me at school.’
‘I think to the school I want to say, “Why did you not give us any language?” and “Why were those young kids mixing with those older kids?”’