15 November 2023

There's a new kind of Santa coming to Canberra's Westfield shopping malls this Sunday

| James Coleman
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Auslan Santa

Auslan Santa started as a pilot program for Westfield last year. Photo: Westfield.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing children will have the opportunity to share their Christmas wish lists with Santa in their own language this weekend when ‘Auslan Santa’ comes to town.

And advocates are keen that this progress doesn’t stop with him.

‘Auslan Santa’ is an initiative by Westfield to include more families with deaf and hard-of-hearing children in the end-of-year tradition of having your photo taken with Father Christmas.

It was launched in NSW, Victoria and Queensland last year as a pilot program in collaboration with advocacy body Deaf Australia but is being expanded for 2023 to include South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT.

An Auslan-fluent Santa will take his place in Westfield Woden and Westfield Belconnen for several hours on Sunday, 19 November.

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Scentre Group national community manager Pam Wilson said the program has been lapped up the community.

“The joy and excitement Santa brings should be something all children have the chance to experience, and we’re proud to continue our commitment to inclusivity by offering an experience that is more widely accessible.”

Auslan Santa followed the success of ‘Sensitive Santa’, a tailored experience for those with sensory challenges, anxiety, disabilities, or families who require more time.

Sensitive Santa started as a trial concept in one centre in 2017 before being rolled out to all 42 Westfield centres in 2019 across Australia and New Zealand. It remains a national offering.

Auslan Santa

There were 244 Auslan users in the ACT, according to the 2021 Census. Photo: Westfield.

All Westfield Santas are trained by event service providers Scene to Believe, who will also educate them on the specifics of interacting with deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Deaf Australia CEO Jen Blyth said the deaf community was “thrilled to be able to communicate with Santa” last year.

“We are so excited this experience will be available to even more deaf and hard-of-hearing children throughout Australia, and we hope they have their wish lists ready.”

In Australia, one out of every 1000 children is diagnosed at birth with a hearing loss. By the time they reach school age, two in every 1,000 children are diagnosed with hearing loss. This can impact their ability to talk and performance in school.

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Australia is one of 41 countries to have recognised sign language as an official language, with ‘Auslan’ in 1991.

According to data from the 2021 Census, there were 16,242 Auslan users in Australia, 244 of whom are in the ACT.

The ACT Government called an ‘Inquiry into Access to Services and Information in Auslan’ in 2022 “to consider disadvantage and discrimination faced by members of the ACT deaf community due to lack of access to services and information in Auslan”.

In its submission, DeafACT provided 25 recommendations, including incentivising local cinemas to ensure accessibility for deaf audiences, establishing a dedicated facility for deaf and hard-of-hearing school students, and increasing the teaching of Auslan in schools.

The government disagreed with some and agreed in principle with others.

Man taking a selfie

Joe Symons from the ACT Deafness Resource Centre (DRC). Photo: Joe Symons.

So far, Hoyts in Woden provides closed-caption sessions for the hard-of-hearing, but Joe Symons from the ACT Deafness Resource Centre (DRC) says the expansion of Westfield’s Auslan Santa program is an encouraging sign more is being done locally.

“It’s taken long enough,” he says.

“A lot of it is about accessibility – and not just for people with a hearing loss. Auslan can be used to communicate with other children and people who have another disability or autism and are non-verbal, so we make it more accessible for others as well.”

Auslan Santa will be at Westfield Woden on Sunday, 19 November, from 10 am to 2 pm, and Westfield Belconnen from 2 pm to 4 pm. Westfield says the individual sessions are longer and there are helpers and interpreters on hand to help. Book online.

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Gregg Heldon4:54 pm 15 Nov 23

Great initiative

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