When I was growing up, I never said I was deaf, I said I was hard of hearing -“ I wanted to be closer to hearing, because I thought that was pretty normal.
My three brothers are all hearing, but my parents are both deaf. On my father’s side it’s genetic and my mother became deaf when she was three. My parents didn’t realise I was deaf as well until I was about two.
I was born in Detroit in the United States. It was hard growing up as the only deaf child in the family. I’m also the only gay child.
My brother had hearing friends, and when they talked I missed out. But sometimes we went to a deaf party, and it was my world. My brothers hated it.
So I did feel that I wanted to be like them. But I am sure at some point in their lives they wanted to be deaf as well. It works both ways.
At primary school I was in an integration program, meaning I went to hearing classes and I had something like an FM system -“ a very big hearing aid. I looked like a robot.
I could hear because the teacher had a microphone and she would talk. The challenge was when the teacher turned around and wrote on the board and kept talking. I would miss what she said.
But as a child I wasn’t assertive enough to say I don’t understand, because I felt embarrassed.
It was frustrating, and I said to my parents, I can’t take it any more. So when I was 11 they took me to a deaf school. It was fantastic: the teacher could sign and I had deaf classmates. Sign language is my first language. I also lip-read.
Then I went to a boarding school in Washington, DC, with an international deaf high school program. I was in the theatre program -“ it was fantastic.
In the evening and on weekends we had theatre showcases, and I travelled around the world with the school theatre group.
I then went to New York University to study theatre. I was in a class of hearing students -“ I had an interpreter for all of my activities and I was able to access everything.
It was one of the most remarkable, unforgettable experiences I have ever had: intensive theatre training with the same people six days a week for four years.
The director of Australian Theatre of the Deaf (ATD) came to the US for a conference and saw my work and said I want you. I became the ATD resident actor, travelling around Australia, performing at schools and facilitating workshops.
It was amazing, because I arrived in 1997 and then spent three months in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Learning the show was hard because I had to learn Australian sign language, which is very different.
It was even more difficult in the outback, because people drawl. It sounded like they were mumbling the whole time -“ it was very frustrating.
Also, my only friends were the other three actors, and I was a very American boy in the outback touring for three months.
But it was fun, and I learned so much. The reaction to our show was incredible. It was very rare for the outback community to see a show like ours.
I was in that job for about two years. I then did various work before getting a part on All Saints in 2001.
I was initially cast for one episode. Because it was so good and I had so much fun, they asked me to come back. I was on the show for about six months.
I played a deaf character with low literacy who was depressed. I was the first deaf person to be in a regular TV role. It was a great experience.
I still perform with my theatre company. For about two years we have had a show called Heads Up, which we perform at primary and high schools.
We perform in Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and English, mainly for hearing students. It’s a way to educate students about sign language and visual communication.
It’s a cabaret-style show. We do fun things like Little Red Riding Hood, Summer Nights from Grease, mime and storytelling.
At the end we teach them the chorus of I Am Australian in Auslan. They have already learned all the signs to the chorus through the show, because we talk in signs.
They say, Wow. I know that sign, and they can sign the chorus. They absolutely love it.
I also fell in love in Australia. Tony and I met on the dancefloor at an underwear party in Sydney about four years ago.
I am really fortunate because he picked up sign language so quickly -“ I taught him, and within a month of starting to learn, people thought he had been signing for years. Now he and I run a company that provides captioning services for pay TV.
Tony also encouraged me to become an ambassador for the International Day of People with a Disability, which is on 3 December this year. I was also an ambassador last year.
I was a bit resistant at first because I didn’t feel or want to call myself disabled. But after speaking with Tony, I realised being disabled is not a bad thing.
Disabled is just a word -“ it means a person who can’t do one thing in particular, not everything, like seeing or hearing.
That’s why the motto is Don’t DIS my ABILITY, because it’s not about what we can’t do, it’s about what we can do.
My dream is to bring better access for the deaf and hearing-impaired community and create access for all types of disabilities.
That’s what I’m going after in my life. I’m at this point where I’m really excited about growing and expanding the captioning company, and increasing opportunities for people to have access to information at all levels.
International Day of People With a Disability on 3 December will include more than 110 events across NSW. For more information phone 02 8270 2000 or go to the IDPWD website.
Interview by Ian Gould