‘A Message to Humanity on Behalf of the Adult Deaf’: The Protest Writing of John Patrick Bourke



Our knowledge of the deafness of major figures in Australian literature, such as Henry Lawson, remains obscure. Other writers who have revealed deafness may not have considered themselves as part of the deaf community. An exception comes from the writings of John Patrick Bourke (circa 1888–1960).

His writings from the 1920s to the 1940s were never published independently and remain almost wholly unknown. However, he provided a unique insight into the experiences of deaf people in the early twentieth century and the political conflicts they faced when advocating for greater autonomy.

Bourke wrote six self-published books or short monographs, notably a memoir called The Story of a Deaf Drudge (1939). He began a short-lived magazine called The Australian Deaf Citizen in the early 1940s. He was also a prolific writer of letters to the Melbourne daily newspapers, to deaf-related periodicals, and to politicians and other public figures. He was writing at a time of major upheaval in Australia’s deaf community, when deaf dissidents struggled to establish an independent national organisation of the deaf.

Bourke’s writing style was impassioned, assured and sometimes strident. He used literary and social references and drew parallels between the injustices experienced by deaf people and those of others such as Indigenous Australians. Many of his writings became overly preoccupied with Ernest Abraham, the Superintendent of a welfare organisation whom he saw as the source of much institutionalised discrimination against deaf people. While this preoccupation would become a flaw, Bourke’s work represents one of the earliest known examples of deaf protest writing in Australia.

Writing by people with disability in Australia has received relatively little critical attention, with the exception of memoirs fitting the ‘overcoming adversity’ trope (White). The genre of protest writing is usually associated with movements for independent living and greater autonomy from the 1970s onwards (Cooper), however, there are some rich seams of protest writing earlier in the twentieth century. In the interwar years, the general climate of activism and campaigns of marginalised groups for citizenship rights and social equality were reflected in activities by some groups of people with disability. For example, a consumer group called the Association for the Advancement of the Blind (later Blind Citizens Australia) protested against the oppressive practices of the Industrial Blind Institution in Sydney during the 1920s and 1930s (Campbell) and deaf groups in New South Wales and Queensland, dissatisfied with their lack of representation, formed breakaway associations from the established Deaf Societies (Carty)…

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Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Disabled writers, d/Deafness, Deaf studies.

Cite as: Uniacke, Michael and Breda Carty. ‘‘A Message to Humanity on Behalf of the Adult Deaf’: The Protest Writing of John Patrick Bourke.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.ca792da2b8.