Its happening again! The Deaf community are the last to know. Part of its history is under threat of being sold off. Of course the Deaf community are only told when negotiations are well progressed. In this case parts of the property at the historic Blue Stone building on St Kilda Road are being considered for sale. Apparently the car park at the back, the buildings where the popular Trade Block Cafe resides and the area where portable classrooms currently exist are being considered for sale. All of this is alleged, nothing is confirmed.
This year marks 150 years of Deaf Education at the location. 150 years ago FJ Rose, a Deaf man from England, established the then Victorian School for the Deaf. The school is now called the Victorian College for the Deaf and is located in modern buildings next to the historic Blue Stone building. The Blue Stone building is now host to Deaf Children Australia (DCA) who manage the whole property. DCA have instigated the possible sale of parts of the property, allegedly for $22 million.
Many of the Deaf community have been educated at the school. Many have life long friendships that started at the school. Some have made careers from the school while others have taken part in helping the school in either a voluntary capacity or members of the Board. The property is one of the last remaining icons of the Deaf community in Victoria. Not surprisingly more than a few people in the Victorian Deaf community were angry when they heard of the possible sale of assets connected to the property.
I am not sure why it is. But often when decisions are to be made about assets that are connected to the Deaf community, the Deaf community are the last to know. In the early 1990’s the NSW Deaf Society sold its property and community centre at Stanmore. It was purely a business decision. The Community centre was closed and no thought was given to what would happen to the Community centre. The Community centre was the spirit of the Deaf community. It is where Deaf people socialised, where sporting clubs had their meetings and where many of the events for the Deaf community originated. It provided the Deaf community with an identity and a central meeting place.
Once the NSW Deaf Society moved to its current property at Parramatta there was no Community centre. Sure, deaf people could meet at Parramatta but there was no bar, no comfortable meeting place and no sense of belonging. It is fair to say that as a result the Deaf community in NSW became increasingly dispersed and isolated. Pockets of the community met in different places. There was no central meeting place. It took many years for the Deaf community in NSW to recover its sense of identity. This all could have been avoided if the sale of the Stanmore property had actively involved the Deaf community from the very start and identified issues such as the future of the Community centre as early as possible.
A similar situation occurred in South Australia. A few years ago the Deaf Society of South Australia, (Deaf SA), were in such dire financial circumstances that they were in danger of closing. To rescue the Deaf Society Townsend House, who service Deaf, deafblind and vision impaired children in South Australia, were approached withe view of a merger. It all happened very quickly. Of course the Deaf community were the last to know. They were the last to know their spiritual home was under threat and they were the last to know a merger was being considered.
Naturally the SA Deaf community were very angry when they discovered the dire financial circumstances of its spiritual home. They wanted answers. They wanted to know how Deaf SA had got to a point where they were on the brink of closure. Why had they not been told earlier? Why, when all was nearly lost, were they informed, almost as an after thought.? It was a very emotional time and many in the South Australian Deaf community were perplexed and upset that they had not been informed earlier of the situation. Belated public meetings and consultation could only paper over their hurt and concern.
Now in all fairness in considering these issues one must realise that often there are sound business reasons for making such decisions. For example at the old Victorian Deaf Society that was sold, the buildings were so old and rundown, lacking in heating and air conditioning that they were actually an occupational health and safety hazard. Repairing the buildings would have cost many millions of dollars. Selling and moving was, in the end, the only option. Likewise the NSW Deaf Society buildings at Stanmore probably had overheads that were a drain 0n the Deaf Societies resources. There is no issue with making sound business decisions, the issue is involving the Deaf community in the process – and not just at the end!
The powers that be at these organisations may actually find that if they involve the Deaf community as early as possible in the process concerning these business decisions that the Deaf community may actually understand and support these decisions. The Deaf community, if consulted early in the process, may help to actually identify issues that need to be addressed. Issues such as where Community centres will be located or how Deaf community history can be conserved could be incorporated into the decision process. These are essential components of any decision, not just after-thoughts.
One forgets that in many instances that these Deaf institutions were actually established by Deaf people. Sure, how these institutions are operated has changed but still the Deaf community have a huge connection and stake in these institutions. They, too, want to see these institutions survive. They understand business reasons but want to see that Deaf community concerns are addressed also. The Deaf community should be involved and informed at the very BEGINNING of discussions and NOT when decisions are so far progressed that they can have virtually no influence on the process.
The sale of parts of the historic Blue Stone property that has hosted the Victorian School for the Deaf for the last 150 years is a prime example. There are solid business reasons behind the sale. Maintenance of the property is expensive. Sale of parts of the property will decrease overheads meaning more capital can be directed to services for deaf kids. The $22 million is a huge sum of money that can be used to sustain and ensure the survival of Deaf Children Australia and, one would hope, the Victorian College of the Deaf. Other reasons, such as heritage listings, prevents sale of the property. This means that there is only part of the property that can actually be used to grow assets. The sale is not necessarily a bad thing.
In fact Deaf Children Australia are holding a public forum to discuss the sale of parts of the property on July the 8th. The Rebuttal took time to email the president of Deaf Children Australia, Noel Henderson, to establish what is happening. Mr Henderson was kind enough to reply. He stated, in part, that no decisions had been made on the sale of any part of the property but a sale is being considered. He further informed us of the public forum on July 8th. The Rebuttal urges concerned members of the Victorian Deaf community to attend. Listen to the reasons and voice your concerns. It could well be your last opportunity to do so.
While we commend Deaf Children Australia for consulting with the Deaf community before any decisions have been finalised the question remains – Why so late in the process? Clearly discussions on a sale have been occurring for a long time – Why have the Deaf community only been involved now? Yes, we know confidentiality is an issue, that sensitive business discussions were happening but this is still no excuse. We are dealing with a valuable part of the spirit and history of the Deaf community – the Deaf community need to be having a bigger say in the decisions that impact on their assets. We say involve the Deaf community as early as possible! Not only is this respectful, but our decisions makers may actually find that by doing so it actually facilitates the decision making process rather than hinders it.