Telco firm Optus’ latest campaign to encourage people to learn Australian sign language – or Auslan, as it should be correctly referenced – has fallen foul of the very people it was aimed at helping – Australia’s deaf community.
The TikTok-inspired campaign (read B&T’s original reporting here) is called #SignYes and features prominent Australians including ex-Olympian Ian Thorpe, F1 racer Daniel Riccardo and Paralympians Ellie Cole and Nic Beveridge and encourages everyday Aussies to learn Auslan signs including “How are you?” and “It starts with Yes”, through the hashtag challenge #SignYes.
Optus was planning to use the initiative as part of its Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games campaigns.
But Optus’ good intentions appear to have caught the ire of the very folk it was campaigning for – deafness advocacy groups.
A letter seen by B&T and sent to Optus’ head of marketing, Melissa Hopkins, by peak body Deaf Victoria has labeled the campaign “disappointing” and unconsultative.
You can read the letter in full at the bottom of this article. The letter also includes a seven-minute long YouTube clip addressing the body’s concerns:
The letter was sent via email from Deaf Victoria’s general manager Philip Waters on behalf of the national peak organisation, Deaf Australia.
The main issue of concern appears to be that the campaign has not used the proper term Auslan, but instead uses the outdated term of sign language.
The letter reads: “Deaf Victoria has been made aware of your new #SignYes campaign launched on Thursday 22 July. We have had numerous Deaf community members and allies raise this issue and to date, one official complaint has been made to us which we are now escalating via this letter.
“While we are excited to see further promotion and increased awareness of ‘sign language‘ through this campaign (we assume your intent was Auslan, the language of deaf people in Australia – however this was not clear), we were disappointed to see how this campaign was designed and rolled out,” the letter read.
The TikTok campaign was reportedly the work of creative agency Big Red. B&T has contacted the agency and TikTok for comment, however, had not received a reply prior to publication.
In a statement to B&T, an Optus spokesperson said it has since paused the campaign and added the telco was “incredibly sorry to anyone who was offended” by it.
“The launch of this campaign was to inspire change,” the spokesperson said. “With one in six people in Australia either deaf or hard of hearing, this hashtag challenge was created to inspire Australians to learn Auslan.
“We have been collaborating and working with members of the Australian Deaf and hard of hearing community to ensure the campaign didn’t miss the mark, but it clearly did so we have paused our campaign with our respectful apology while we engage with the wider Deaf community to ensure we are achieving what we set out to do in a respectful way,” the spokesperson added.
B&T reader Sam Cartledge responded to the campaign via B&T‘s online comments section on Friday: “As a Deaf person, I am shocked by this campaign. Where is the Deaf consultancy? Where is the Deaf representation? You are using Auslan (and are incorrectly calling it broadly as sign language) the language of the Deaf community and have not highlighted them. It is their language.
“Auslan is the language of the Australian deaf community. Another way to think about it would be to think of a native indigenous language. If this campaign was using your ambassadors to encourage people to ‘say yes’ in a native indigenous language (that they don’t use or know how to), would it be suitable? No, it wouldn’t and imagine that backlash,” Cartledge said.
Read Deaf Victoria’s letter in full below:
Dear Melissa Hopkins,
I am writing to inform you that we have drafted an open letter regarding the #SignYes campaign as well as posted an update on our social media channels.
Deaf Victoria has been made aware of your new #SignYes campaign launched on Thursday 22 July. We have had numerous Deaf community members and allies raise this issue and to date, one official complaint has been made to us which we are now escalating via this letter. We believe our national peak organisation; Deaf Australia has also raised this issue with you.
While we are excited to see further promotion and increased awareness of “sign language” through this campaign (we assume your intent was Auslan, the language of deaf people in Australia- however this was not clear), we were disappointed to see how this campaign was designed and rolled out.
Deaf Victoria would like to make the following recommendations:
1. As a large corporate organisation with considerable reach, resources and influence, educate yourselves on how to engage better with the Deaf community.
Start with researching #DeafTalent #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs #Deaflympics
2. Engage reputable Deaf organisations such as Deaf Australia to ensure this and any other campaigns are culturally and linguistically appropriate and seek expert advice from same on how to achieve this.
3. Consult with deaf organisations to ensure your new and future videos are inclusive. This includes making your pay per view streaming services more accessible with increased captions!
4. Review the campaign considering your Accessibility and Inclusion Planincluding social media campaigns and posts.
5. Meet with Deaf Victoria for mediation with individuals who have made official complaints.
6. Produce, use and share only videos of Deaf native Auslan users to demonstrate how to replicate signs or learn Auslan.
We look forward to your response and to working with Optus to enable you to do better in the future and truly be inclusive to all Australians.
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