The Deaf community is forever under threat. Our society wants to fix everything. Deaf people must be HEARING. First it was the cochlear implant. Through cochlear implants deaf people were going to be able to HEAR and assimilate. Then it was genetics. The Deaf gene has been identified. If identified parents who do not wish to have deaf babies can just abort. Then of course there is stem cell therapy. Through stem cell growth the thousands of tiny nerves and hair cells that can transmit sound to the brain can be restored and deaf people can become hearing. Diseases that caused deafness in the past such as Scarlet Fever or Rubella are well and truly under control leading to the incidence of deafness reducing dramatically. With all these threats it is a wonder that there is any Deaf community left at all.
But the biggest threat to the Deaf community is, arguably, not the medical fraternity but our iconic Deaf organisations themselves. Indeed Padden, in her paper, The Decline of Deaf Clubs in the United States, claims that there are very few places left that deaf people can call their own. More importantly Padden alludes that the health of a community is often measured by its “bricks and mortar.” Deaf clubs in the past were places where Deaf people met and conducted their business. They raised money through sales of alcohol and foods as well as other fund-raising initiatives. They provided Deaf people with control, pride and motivation. All of these things Padden describes in her paper. It is a truism to state that she could well be describing the situation in Australia and not the United States.
It is interesting, if one researches the establishment of Deaf Societies in Australia, they will discover that they were often started by Deaf people themselves. They were established as safe havens, a place where Deaf people could meet and socialise. Although I have not read it, John Flynn’s book, No Longer by Gaslight, apparently describes how Deaf people used to meet under a gaslight to converse, light being essential for their communication. The establishment of the Victorian Deaf Society meant that they could meet in comfort and “No Longer by Gaslight.” Deaf Societies were places that were the hive of activity of the Deaf community. Even the iconic Victorian College of the Deaf and its Bluestone buildings were established by a Deaf man, FJ Rose. In those early days everything seems to have been driven by Deaf people themselves. Of course it was not that simple, many other benefactors were involved including the church who had the aim of “saving souls”, but still Deaf people were there and at the forefront.
It is at these Deaf Societies that Deaf clubs were based. I first entered a Deaf club at 262 South Terrace in the early 80’s. I was an excited teenage boy chasing skirt. The Deaf club, at that time, was a mass of activity. Every Friday night it was packed. At the 262 I met people who have become friends for life. In the 90’s attendance at the Deaf club slowed to a trickle. Society had changed. Technology and choice meant that Deaf people were becoming more sophisticated. Where in the past the only way of meeting people was at an agreed time at the Deaf club suddenly the telephone became accessible. Deaf people could now communicate at will. The TTY, SMS and email all meant that Deaf people had another means to keep in touch that did not require meeting at the Deaf club. A quick call on the TTY and an alternate meeting place could be found. Consequently it could be argued that the value and need for the Deaf club declined.
Technology probably played a part in the decline of the Deaf club around Australia but it was not the only reason. Deaf Societies that were in the past a community based place became more “business” like. Everything became about dollars and cents and maximising assets. The rot started in NSW when the old Stanmore Deaf Society was sold. Stanmore at one stage had a bowling Green out the back, a squash court and a thriving Deaf Club. Cost to maintain the green saw it abandoned and the opportunity to make a buck on the property, in the end, became too much to ignore. Stanmore was sold and with it went the Deaf club. The Deaf Society moved to Parramatta and became a place where “welfare” happened. There was no longer a meeting place for the Deaf community. Increasingly Deaf people became marginalised with nowhere to go. Having lost its “bricks and mortar” at Stanmore it could be argued that the NSW Deaf community lost its soul. Something that, even today, it is struggling to recover.
A similar occurrence happened in Victoria. The Victorian Deaf Society, that hosted the Jolimont Deaf Sports and Social Club, was also sold. In this case the reasons for the sale were not just to make money but also reduce overheads and risks. The old Deaf Society was falling down. Maintenance was swallowing funds. The buildings were not air-conditioned and in many cases were apparently an OHS risk. After a period of consulting with the Deaf community it was agreed to sell up and move to the current premises. The old and iconic Jolimont Deaf Club was no more. It was replaced by the John Lovett Community Centre.
But, in my view, something went amiss in the planning. The Deaf community now had no control over the use of the Community centre. They had to compete with the Victorian Deaf Society staff and programs for its usage. Where as in the past they had a club that was “their own” with a bar, meeting places and even snooker tables they suddenly now only had a very small and soulless meeting room with a kitchen. A room that, even now, is not fully accessible. The Deaf community lost many revenue sources including bar takings, and car parking revenue from sporting events at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Perhaps more tellingly and valuable, it lost its autonomy. I mean now after 6pm one must carry a mobile phone. If you arrive after 6 pm you have to text someone upstairs to let you in. That someone must have a swipe card to operate the lift. There is no soul, no ownership and no “bricks and mortar”.
BUT! It seems that the Deaf community is striking back. After years of being stagnant it has rediscovered its mojo. Deaf Sports Recreation Victoria (DSRV) are one of those organisations that are striking back. Not too long ago DSRV were in a mess. Post Deaflympics 2005 should have seen DSRV thriving. Instead, despite being based in Melbourne, it somehow missed the boat. It was an organisation on its knees. DSRV is what was created when the Jolimont Deaf club ceased to be. For a time DSRV struggled to find its purpose. It had no home and seemingly no role. Its funding from Vicdeaf had been cut. While Vicdeaf provide it with free office space and a paltry $5000 a year DSRV were pretty much left in the lurch. Funding from the Government had remained static with no increase in over a decade. Not too long ago, despite the hard work of volunteer Board members it was very close to being broke. It required a serious reinvention of the organisation re-branding and refocusing.
DSRV had been heavily into sport. It branched out to seek further funding in recreation. It reestablished its reputation with the State Government as the peak body for sport and recreation in Victoria. It managed to secure funding for projects and found its place in the community. This year it has organised a series of innovative and exciting events for the Deaf community. Trips to the snow, bike rides, ice skating, doggy day outs and more. Its alive and vibrant. It has resurrected itself with the dedication, drive, commitment and TALENT of DEAF people. Its new president, Grant Roberts, has given it spark and leadership and its young and motivated Board has given it energy and purpose.
In NSW the Deaf community refuses to lie down. Despite having no community centre to speak of a dedicated band of volunteers ensures the DEAF CLUB lives at the Burwood RSL. Every week on Facebook there is something happening. Poker nights, monthly Deaf club nights, Fancy dress nights a small and dedicated band of volunteers brings the Deaf community together. And thank god they do because without them NSW may well have nothing. They are still struggling to set up a peak body for sport and recreation but they are slowly coming back to life.
Over in South Australia I recently gave an information session to the SA Deaf Community about the Australian Deaf Games. The 262 club rooms were packed. Not for me but for club night, I was an unfortunate distraction to the fun and games. In the 90’s and early 2000’s the SA Deaf community was asleep. It came alive only because of the efforts of its members to see it thrive. Witness Kats Parker galvinising the community through whatever means she can. She is everywhere. Kats is ably supported by Tim Morgan and Tanya Morgan (Not related). Together with old stalwarts like Donovan Cresdee they have reminded Deaf Can Do that the Deaf community EXISTS and is going nowhere. This year they celebrated 50 years of Deaf Basketball, they are celebrating 120 years of the Deaf Society. Events are being organised left right and centre and being LED by Deaf people. The talent and drive on display is outstanding.
Back in Victoria the old Victorian Council of Deaf People and now known as Deaf Victoria has sparked into life. Its restructured itself, re-branded itself and is out there consulting and encouraging the Deaf community to sit up and care. Recently, despite limited budget, they made a brilliant video to let the Deaf community know how important it is for them to record Auslan on the Census. Sure they took dramatic license, and in doing so put a few noses out of joint, but they showed courage, creativity and innovation. BUT mostly THEY made it happen! And on a shoestring budget at that.
Up in Queensland a young Deaf Athlete has been discriminated against. Deaf Sport Queensland have gone into battle for him. The Schools Athletics body is refusing to make their events accessible for the young deaf guy. Through working closely with DSA and the legendary Dean Barton-Smith they have managed to create a national campaign to bring awareness to the situation. Recently they received coverage through the news. It has been a skillful and cleverly orchestrated campaign and one that has been put in place by DEAF people, nearly all of them volunteers.
The talent and drive that exists in the Deaf community is outstanding. Most of the people keeping the Deaf community alive are dedicated volunteers. They do work, that if carried out by our Deaf Societies, that were ironically set up by Deaf people for Deaf people, would cost hundreds and thousands of dollars. Deaf Societies just do not give the Deaf community the recognition it deserves financially or otherwise. A free office and $5 000 just does not hack it. At this moment I am proud to watch the Deaf community strike back. It has been on its knees and attacked from all quarters whether it be medical sectors or Deaf societies that fail to recognise the real importance of COMMUNITY. What it needs now is “Bricks and Mortar”. The challenge for Deaf Societies is to help rebuild the foundations that they unwittingly knocked over.