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Winning language program advances Auslan in Australian schools

When the pandemic hit, Paula Grimmer took a leap of faith and quit her day job to spread the joy of Auslan with students across Australia. 

Three and a half years later, she’s Director of Auslan Education Services (AES), employs nine full-time staff, 20 Deaf and Hard of Hearing presenters, and her Auslan program is taught in 150 schools to 20,000 Australian students each year.

These achievements have just won her and the AES team the City of Melbourne’s highest accolade – a Melbourne Award for Knowledge and Innovation.

“It’s hard to believe it all started with low-budget Auslan videos I made at home during lockdowns,” Paula said.

“We’ve come a long way in a short time.”

Paula Grimmer (third from left) with some of the AES team

Paula had been working as an Auslan interpreter in schools for more than 14 years and had seen firsthand how Auslan – a non-verbal language – could improve numeracy and literacy skills, not only in Deaf and Hard of Hearing children, but also in hearing children with learning difficulties.

“It’s a language that benefits everyone, that everyone loves,” Paula said.

Our most common feedback from principals is Auslan is the most popular language they’ve ever seen taught in schools.

It’s not surprising given the rise of Auslan interpreters on our screens during emergency and pandemic press conferences and, more recently, at popular music concerts like Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour.

“It has been wonderful to see Auslan take centre stage – especially during those daily COVID-19 press conferences.”

“In the first year of lockdowns we witnessed an 80 per cent increase in people wanting to take up Auslan studies.”

Elvin Lam on a school visit with an AES school

It’s a trend that’s playing out across the board, with Auslan now one of the top ten languages taught at Victorian government primary and secondary schools.

“It’s certainly encouraging for us in the industry,” Paula said.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm out there, meaning we’ve been able to grow and expand.”

“We’ve just launched a new YouTube series, Auslan Time with Geo, featuring Elvin Lam who also performs as Elvin Melvin alongside fellow Auslan advocate and Moomba monarch Emma Memma.”

The AES school program supplies an online lesson, taught by local Deaf or Hard of Hearing people, for every week of term, with 10 minutes of teaching time and all the resources – including lesson plans, overviews and posters – that students and their teachers need to succeed.

“Each school is required to offer an additional language to students, but with current teacher shortages, specialist language teachers are either hard to come by, or have returned to traditional classrooms,” Paula said.

Our model enables any teacher with an internet connection to facilitate the Auslan class and learn alongside their students.”

The AES team also visits participating schools so students can meet the presenters and interpreters and practice their Auslan in person.

“It’s wonderful to see the students interacting with the team, and to hear feedback about how the program enables Deaf and Hard of Hearing children in those schools, not just in the classroom, but also socially.”

AES celebrating their Melbourne Awards victory at the gala ceremony in 2023

“I heard about the Melbourne Awards a year into starting the business and thought I’d apply,” Paula said.

“We were shortlisted that year and missed out, but everyone was so encouraging. They told us people rarely win on their first rodeo and encouraged us to come back again.”

“So we did, and this time we went home with the prize.

The Lord Mayor even asked us to teach her some Auslan for her gala speech, and when we got up there to accept the trophy we were touched to look out and find the crowd clapping in Auslan.

“It was an amazing night, I was so proud of the business and our team, but also for Auslan to be recognised like that.”

Australia is currently experiencing a shortage of qualified Auslan interpreters, and Paula hopes AES will encourage a new generation to keep up with the demand.

“We’re thrilled to deliver classes at North Melbourne and Carlton primary schools, and look forward to expanding into more local communities.”

Learn more about Auslan Education Services, and the Melbourne Awards, which open for applications 20 May 2024.