Erica Dawson has always been a battler. Especially when it comes to fighting for a more inclusive and accessible world for the deaf community.
“There’s still a lot of barriers for deaf people in this country,” says Erica, who lost her hearing when she was six months old. “We face all sorts of challenges that hearing people take for granted, such as finding interpreters to help us with schoolwork or meetings at work.”
The 33-year-old’s fighting spirit started early. Born hearing, meningitis robbed Erica of one of the five basic senses when she was just a baby.
“My parents didn’t find out I was deaf until I was almost four years old,” says the Wellingtonian. “Mum had her suspicions, but doctors didn’t believe her.”
As soon as they received the diagnosis, Erica’s mother, an anthropologist, and her late father, a Māori rights lawyer, swung into action to ensure their daughter had the same rights and opportunities as other children.
“I was introduced to the deaf world when my parents started taking night classes to learn New Zealand Sign Language [NZSL]. As an anthropologist, Mum saw NZSL as just another culture and language to learn. My father was heavily involved in working for justice for Māori, so they turned that energy into advocating for me to ensure I was able to have teacher aides, so I could keep up with my hearing peers.”
Having that unflagging parental support meant Erica did well at school and eventually completed a degree in anthrolopology at Victoria University.
“It was challenging to study,” she admits. “I had to put in extra time to keep up with my hearing peers. It’s hard work trying to lip-read all day every day. I was tired all the time.”
Erica later spent five years in Melbourne, moving up the ranks of the Victorian Deaf Society. Melbourne is also where she met husband Anton Sammons, who is deaf too.
“We met through our parents’ mutual friends and started following each other on Facebook. I later ran into Anton at a train station in Melbourne and, a year later, we happened to run into each other at the exact same station, so he invited me to a friend’s party and the rest, as they say, is history!”
It turns out Erica and her husband had more in common than they first thought – Anton, a data officer, was also born hearing, but in a cruel twist of fate, he lost his hearing at around six months of age after contracting meningitis.
“People are surprised that we both lost our hearing that way and at roughly the same age,” shares Erica.
“But around 95% of deaf kids come from hearing families, so maybe it’s not so remarkable.”
The couple moved back to Wellington in 2014 and their daughter Clara was born three years later.
Clara, now five, is hearing but is also bilingual, says her doting mum proudly.
“Clara is confident in both English and NZSL. However, her first real communication as a baby was in NZSL, when she pointed upwards, meaning she wanted us to pick her up.”
Erica juggles raising Clara with full-time work at Deaf Aoteara, where she’s spent the past eight years working in advocacy and administration roles, including promoting NZSL Week.
“I’m really passionate about increasing awareness of the deaf community and showing that we’re nothing to be afraid of! And that learning even a few signs is a way to build a friendly bridge with the deaf community. Learning any language is cool, but learning NZSL is especially cool!”
When Erica isn’t doing that, she and Anton are turning their 10.5ha lifestyle block in the hills high above Upper Hutt into a food forest.
“We always wanted a small farm and when I got pregnant with Clara, I was ready for a new adventure outside the city,” explains Erica.
The family has spent the past five years turning bare paddocks into an orchard, which now boasts more than 100 fruit trees. “At our wedding in 2018, we asked guests for the gift of a fruit tree. We also keep bees, chickens and ducks.”
Ask Erica how much her tireless work for the deaf community is influenced by her parents’ support and she’ll break into a big smile.
“Their fighting spirit definitely rubbed off on me, and positioned me to fight for access and inclusion for all deaf people in a society where there’s still a lot of barriers. What I do feels like a way of continuing their work and helps keeps me connected to my parents.”
Because, adds Erica, at the end of the day, deaf people just want the same thing as everyone else. “‘Deafies’ are just like ‘hearies’ in that we want to live, work, laugh and play like anyone else – the only difference is we can’t hear!”
This week is New Zealand Sign Language Week and Deaf Aotearoa is asking all Kiwis to give signing a go. Find out more at nzslweek.org.nz.