A Queensland woman has made history by becoming the first deaf lawyer in Australia to appear for a client in court.
Kathryn O'Brien, of Brisbane's Porta Lawyers, recently appeared in the Pine Rivers Magistrates Court on behalf of two clients - one deaf and one hearing - in domestic violence order matters.
The court appointed a sign language interpreter and O'Brien's supervisor briefly attended court with her to explain to Magistrate Steven Guttridge the significance of her appearance as a "flying solo" lawyer who communicates only in sign language.
"After the introduction, I was on my own," says O'Brien.
"It was an interesting experience because the interpreters had to figure out how to interpret for two different deaf clients simultaneously during court."
While her appearance went smoothly, O'Brien says there was one thing for which she was unprepared: call-overs.
"I am grateful to the understanding court clerk who ensured that I knew when my matter was coming up to be heard," she says. "The opposing legal representative also assisted me, checking for herself when the matter would be heard and informing me."
Overcoming such difficulties is not something new to O'Brien, who became a lawyer so as to "break new ground" in providing the deaf community with legal advice in sign language and to ensure that their needs were being heard and met.
One of the biggest hurdles, she says, is not being able to have a spontaneous conversation with a colleague about a matter.
"Naturally, I don't expect every lawyer to know sign language, so it does pose some difficulties when I would like to sound out some concepts I may have regarding a matter," says O'Brien.
"I also find it difficult to go to mixers, networking meetings and seminars, and may appear aloof because of this inability to assert myself without the aid of a sign language interpreter."
O'Brien also finds herself battling a "lack of understanding" from certain sectors of the legal profession, and often finds that she can't attend continuing professional development sessions or workshops because of reluctance on the part of the supplier to appoint a sign language interpreter.
"I am fortunate in the sense that I have a colleague who could communicate in sign language in my workplace, but there is only so much he could do without neglecting his own workload," she says.
"When he is able to attend a seminar, I often try to attend along with him so the issue of interpreters is resolved."
All in all, O'Brien says the best weapons she has in her armory are "patience and humour".
"I think those attributes are the best tools in a diverse workplace," she says.
O'Brien adds that her firm, Porta Lawyers, has made a huge effort to make her job easier and to ensure she feels part of the team.
"Having a supportive staff in the workplace helps with self-esteem and confidence," she says.
"My work colleagues have taken on the task of learning some sign language to communicate with me and try to accommodate my needs from a deaf person's perspective, such as knowing that I need to face people directly to read their lips; being able to see people approaching me at my desk; and trying not to talk on top of each other so I can follow the conversation."
O'Brien also recently received Employment Assistance Funding (EAF) through JobAccess to overcome interpreting issues, and has used the funds to obtain a notebook which enables her to communicate via Skype, the National Relay Service or email.
"In the near future, I hope to enable a Video Relay Interpreter for continuing professional development seminars, which means that an interpreter via Skype could hear what is being spoken and translate for me in sign language onscreen from the notebook."
Now that O'Brien has made her courtroom debut, she is looking forward to appearing more in the future, especially now that certain communication strategies have been tried and tested.
"With all the teething problems with regard to interpreting costs, availability of qualified and experienced court interpreters, and everyday communication with clients [sorted out]... I don't see why I cannot participate in court advocacy," she says.
"This is something I would like to see more of in the near future, and not just for deaf clients but also for my hearing clients. I like the idea of thinking on my feet and doing the best for my client in such circumstances."
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