Perth-born Drisana Levitzke-Gray is this year’s Young Australian of the Year and, like the generations of women in her family who preceded her, she couldn’t be happier to represent our nation’s vibrant deaf community.
We’re sitting in the uber-cool urban beach club Matisse and, just like the sea breeze that’s gently blowing through the venue, Drisana Levitzke-Gray, 21, is a breath of fresh air.
It’s my first experience in over 15 years of being a journalist of interviewing a deaf person, I’m ashamed to say, but after a little adjustment I get used to addressing Drisana rather than the Auslan interpreter next to me.
It’s certainly not however the first time Drisana has been interviewed in what has become a landmark year for the young West Australian.
Since she was named WA Young Australian of the Year and then invited to Canberra on Australia Day to be crowned Young Australian of the Year, there’s been a steady stream of interested journos keen to get to know the passionate Auslan (Australian sign language) advocate.
“I was really surprised but really proud at the same time when I won the award,” says Drisana. “It was a dream come true, and to be sitting with the eight other finalists, watching their film packages and then be announced as the winner and presented with the award by the Prime Minister, it was just incredible.”
It was also the first time that an Auslan interpeter was on stage during the awards in Canberra.
The award has catapulted Drisana into the sometimes controversial role of Auslan spokesperson on behalf of the nation’s deaf community, often thanks to the immediacy of social media interaction.
Unafraid to speak her mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that Drisana is feisty. She comes from a long line of impressively vociferous campaigners on behalf of the deaf community.
“Dorothy Shaw, my great grandma, was a big advocate in the deaf community. She was so lovely and spurred me on to be somebody who could do something for deaf people. There are four generations of strong women behind me, all campaigning for the deaf, so the award is really in respect to them. We share this award.”
Her parents, also both deaf, couldn’t be prouder of their daughter’s achievements, and were key players in Drisana’s rise to national prominence.
“My mum, Patti, has always been a huge support to me my whole life. She’s always tried to help me do the right thing and to have her around to support me with my achievements has been lovely.”
Other family members too were determined to share in Drisana’s big moment in the ACT.
“My great aunty, Sandra Sweeney, also deaf, drove from Sydney to Canberra to see me win the award. She was allowed into the VIP section - she was so excited.”
Drisana’s childhood was, she says, a time ‘full of access’.
“All four of us - my mum, dad and brother are deaf. We all understood each other and were very comfortable together. We didn’t experience isolation or barriers that perhaps deaf kids in hearing families face. It was very easy for me.”
With Auslan as her first language, she says she actually had no need to speak until she was four or five - she learned the English language herself later.
“My deaf identity is really as a sign language user. I really like to use Auslan - it’s such a full, rich language and deaf people shouldn’t feel impoverished making use of it.”
Drisana’s just getting into her stride and as she signs her replies to the interpreter I’m seduced by the richness of her expression and vocalness. It’s like watching a ballet of the hands.
“Auslan is the same as a legitimate language and syntax. Each country has their own sign language they have their own grammar. It’s rich because it’s visual and 3D," she says.
“We see ourselves as an ethnic minority who are able to communicate beautifully in 3D. You can say more in Auslan at the same time than you can in English.”
Drisana’s boyfriend Braam Jordaan, who graduated from the University of South Africa, is a world-renowned 3D animator, film-maker and director.
“He's won 12 international awards for his animation clip Rubbish Monster,” she says proudly.
It’s possible for hearing people to learn Auslan - something Drisana heartily recommends we all do - but it’s not the sort of course she would recommend you pursue online.
“You really get benefit from learning from a teacher, face-to-face.”
Perhaps one of the most surprising facts about Drisana is that since her meteoric rise to becoming one of Australia’s most important young people, she still stacks shelves during the night shift at Woolworths.
Winning the Young Australian of the Year award, it’s clear, is no road to riches, and in fact she has to pay her own way back and forth across the country in many cases.
“I also work with the National Relay Service three days a week enabling people who are deaf or with speech difficulties to help make phone calls.”
Woolworths were so impressed with their young employee’s achievement that they invited Drisana over to their HQ in the eastern states to address the company there - a potentially intimidating occasion for one so young but an event which Drisana looks back on with pride.
“It was wonderful addressing so many people and sharing my story with such a big company,” she says.
The promotion of Auslan is at the heart of everything Drisana does.
“It’s part of my personality,” she says. “When I was little I used to interrupt grown ups and my mother always says I was very assertive, spunky. I used to try to encourage my friends to use Auslan but it was hard for them all to embrace that, so I’d have to use hearing aids too.”
This left the young Drisana, who was a top student in three subjects at Perth’s Shenton College, ‘frustrated socially’, feeling left out of conversations.
“I realised I was trying to fit into their hearing world and that was an important moment. In a way I started to shut out the hearing world and went away for a year.”
Now, however, she believes that she can work with the hearing community, that her attitude has changed and she has learned important lessons about herself.
“I’m sure of who I am now and when I went back to Shenton College recently to give a presentation, I was much happier than when I left.”
In 2014, Drisana was selected for jury duty, the first deaf person in WA to do so.
“I wasn’t empannelled to attend the trial but I was the first to get through to the point of at least being considered. The form gives you the chance to be exempted but I knew it was my civic right to be part of the jury system.
“Now they’re saying that they don’t have the money for an Auslan interpreter. We can’t accept that financial hardship is an excuse to not allow deaf people the chance to participate - that’s where I see my role being important, to give deaf people the chance to try, to have the same opportunities as the hearing community.
"Not all hearing people should be jurors just as not all deaf people should be, but where you’re fit to serve, you should have the chance.”
It’s already been a year of firsts for Drisana, not least her first column running in the pages of this magazine, Drisana’s Diary, where we’ll follow the adventures she enjoys until next January. She’s loved an Auslan-interpreted performance of Les Mis during its recent Perth run and bumped into The Veronicas in Sydney’s airport lounge, which led to an invite to their show.
“I saw them in the airport in Sydney and said, oh, I have to grab the opportunity, I’ll sit near where they are, texted them and Lisa and Jess introduced themselves to me. It was so exciting but they seemed more excited than me! I took along a friend to their show who interpreted the concert for me, it was wonderful and I texted them afterwards."
Drisana is clear about what she hopes she will achieve as Young Australian of the Year by the close of 2015.
“I’d like to raise awareness of the deaf community and achieve greater support from the government for deaf children. My great grandma Dorothy would be disappointed that some things haven’t changed, so maybe my great grandkids will enjoy better opportunities if I just change the world, one day at a time.”