In January 2015 Drisana Levitzke-Gray, of Balga in Western Australia, was awarded the ultimate accolade when she was named the Young Australian of the Year. The prestigious award recognises those aged 16 to 30 who are “outstanding and exceptional young Australians.”
The Awards honour “an exceptional group of highly-respected Australians who ignite discussion and change on issues of national importance”.
Drisana won in recognition of her passion and dedication in advocating for the human rights of deaf people, raising awareness about Auslan (Australian Sign Language), and the right of deaf children in Australia to access Auslan from birth.
On receiving her award in Canberra in January 2015, Drisana said: “We need the support of the Australian government to ensure that deaf children and their families have access to Auslan. It’s a human right that they have that access. Auslan is my language, but it’s an Australian language and that makes it yours.”
She called for emphasis to be on treating deaf people as individuals with their own skills and capabilities.
“You’re Australian. I’m Australian. And we’re exactly the same,” she said. “Don’t avoid me just because I’m deaf. Ask me anything. I don’t bite.”
Drisana Levitzke-Gray is the fifth generation in her family to be born deaf. She was born into a family with deaf parents, a deaf brother and a deaf extended family. She cherishes her first language, Auslan and promotes the deaf community as one without borders and one of rich language, culture, history and traditions.
She was the only Australian selected to attend the Frontrunners international deaf youth leadership course in 2012 and 2013, working with communities in Europe and Samoa to expand leadership capacity and human rights understanding of deaf youth.
In 2014 she became the first deaf Australian to participate in jury service. Although she was discharged from her duties after the summons and selection phase, she still sees the experience as a big step toward promoting a positive image of deaf people and ending discrimination.
Drisana is the embodiment of the concept of ‘deaf gain’, not ‘hearing loss’, inspiring the deaf community, encouraging others to accept diversity and promoting a positive image of deafness which says loudly and proudly: “it is OK to be deaf”.
Tell us about your recent award?
The Young Australian of the Year Award is one of the 4 prestigious awards given to Australians every year on the eve of Australia Day to celebrate amazing Australians who do even more amazing things in our country. It is a one in ten million-ish achievement, Australia’s highest civic honour for people under the age of 30.
So how did you feel? Winning the Young Australian of the Year must be massive?
To even be a finalist for my state was extremely humbling, I was amazed to be a part of the journey in becoming the WA Young Australian of the Year which meant I was a finalist for the Young Australian of the Year award and then seeing my name being signed out at the Australians of the Year Award in Canberra was just unbelievable. I am extremely proud to be able to accept this on behalf of the Deaf community in Australia and worldwide because I wouldn’t be here without you all.
How was your year as YAOTY? Media attention must have been overwhelming?
The year that followed being the Young Australian of the Year was extremely intense but incredibly fantastic in having that national platform and the interest of the Australian society in the Deaf community, Deaf people and our beautiful language, Auslan. The media attention sure was something very new for me and it has proven invaluable in raising awareness especially as I’ve received emails from hearing parents of Deaf children saying ‘Thank you, because I have seen you on TV/Media, I have started signing with my child’. That is the biggest achievement for me.
Drisana Levitzke-Gray’s Awards and Achievements
• Special Recognition Award from Deaf Australia for being the Young Australian of the Year and Outstanding Ambassador 2015
• Young Australian of the Year 2015 Award
• Western Australia Young Australian of the Year 2015 Award
• Community Ambassador Award in City of Stirling Youth Awards 2014
• Deaf Youth Australian of the Year 2013
• Australian Human Rights Commission’s Young People’s Human Rights Medal 2015
• Deaf Australian of the Year 2015
• Active Participation Award in Western Australia Youth Awards 2014
• Emerging Leaders Award in Disability for National Disability Awards 2013
• Ambassador for Deaf Australia (2015)
• First Deaf Auslan user to get through Jury Duty proceedings (2014)
Drisana’s top three issues affecting the deaf and hard of hearing community in Australia today:
1. The right of Deaf children to have access to Auslan from birth (in the home, in school etc).
2. Appropriate and recurrent funding required for Deaf service providers and organisations.
3. Access to emergency broadcasts on TV via Auslan and Auslan translations on relevant websites.