At age 5, Nola Henderson was sent to the NSW Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and the Blind in Darlington, where she boarded until she was 16. Although she remembers the cruelty of the Institution’s culture, it was there that Nola had her first contact with sign language, learning signs from the older girls at the school, although covertly as sign language was discouraged both in the classroom and in her own home.
When Nola left school in 1937, it was to be two years before she entered the Deaf community, as Nola’s mother had been advised by the Institution’s superintendent that the Deaf Society at 5 Elizabeth St. was a bad influence. Once there however, Nola took a very active part in the affairs of the Deaf Society, at once becoming Hon. Secretary of the Younger Set and Hon. Treasurer of the Tennis Club as well as organising fundraising events for the construction of the Deaf Society’s youth hostel in Stanmore.
In 1945 Nola married Harold ‘Hal’ Colefax, a Murwillumbah lad who had also been schooled at the Institution and they had two children together, Douglas and Lynette. Nola Colefax continued to be a powerful presence in the Deaf community, from winning deaf sports Carnival Queen in 1946 to serving as a committee member of the Deaf Women’s Guild.
Most notable perhaps, was Nola’s work with the Theatre of the Deaf. In 1973, at the instigation of Kenneth Tribe, a welfare officer at the Deaf Society attempted to establish a drama group, posting a notice at Gordon-Davis Hostel. When few people showed interest, he asked Nola to round up a group of 20 who were to become the future NSW Theatre of the Deaf. Whilst working full time on a factory assembly line, Nola dedicated most of her spare time to the theatre company. In 1978, six months before she was due to retire from factory work, Nola – forsaking her gold watch - accepted a full time position in the theatre. She had a full life in the theatre - participating in the American National Theatre of the Deaf’s summer programme, performing Brecht and Shakespeare, working in gaols and theatre-in-education, and representing Australia at international seminars such as UNESCO’s visual theatre event in Paris.
It was in Paris that Nola met with the budding linguist Trevor Johnston, an encounter that served as the catalyst for the 1989 publication of the Auslan Dictionary of which he was the editor.
In 1981 Nola Colefax was awarded an Order of Australia for her services to the Theatre of the Deaf. She continued trail blazing her way towards the formation of the Concerned Deaf Group, the publication of an autobiography Signs of Change, ongoing involvement in Deaf Society Committees, the Deaf Senior Citizens group and Deaf Christian Fellowship. In 2010, she was appointed Vice Patron of the Deaf Society, the first deaf person to be given this honour. In 2011 Nola celebrated her 90th birthday at the Burwood RSL Club, where hundreds of people celebrated and admired her ‘graciousness, adventurous spirit and zest for life’.
Nola died peacefully on 15 December 2016, a few months after celebrating her 95th birthday. Her funeral paid tribute to her astonishing determination, deep generosity and the lasting impression she made on the Deaf Community.