Power to The People


Have you ever stopped to think where the real power in life lies. Recently MYER copped some of the worst publicity they could imagine. They did so because their CEO, Bernie we disparagingly call him, remarked that the NDIS Levy was going to stop people spending money at MYER and it was therefore a bad thing. The outrage and ensuing publicity saw the MYER Facebook page swamped with angry protesters. The basic message was that Bernie and MYER were out of touch and mean.

Very soon after Bernie made his statement MYER apologised. It wasn’t much of an apology because it simply said, “Sorry we hurt your feelings but WE are still standing by what we said.” This just made people angrier. As a result MYER issued a better apology and did not try to qualify Bernie’s ill thought out statement.

Disability Commissioner, Graham Innes, called on MYER to say sorry through action. The Commissioner urged MYER to set a target to increase employment of people with a disability within MYER. At first MYER didn’t respond but then realising just how angry they had made millions of  potential customers and realising how bad it was for business they agreed to meet the Commissioner to talk about improving their disability employment outcomes. The power clearly lies with the people! Without the people MYER are screwed.

I have always known this. In my work in the disability sector I have always been aware that I owe the food on my table, the TV on my wall and the car that I drive to people with a disability. Without them I would have no work and no income. I am acutely aware that the service I provide for them is of great value but it is a two way street. I support them and through them I support myself and my family. That said the power is entirely with people who have a disability. If they chose or decide that I am not good at what I do or don’t like what I do, they can simply choose not to use my service. Without them I am up the creek without the proverbial paddle. There is no job for me.

And so it is with any service. But over in Adelaide the honchos at Townsend House have forgotten why they exist. Townsend House is quite a wealthy organisation. Hundreds of years ago services like Townsend House were established to support people who are deaf often through the efforts of deaf people themselves. The efforts of these deaf pioneers and some visionary hearing people saw the establishment of community services and centres. Townsend House was originally established way back in 1874 for the Blind and the Deaf and Dumb. Interestingly current Townsend House service, Deaf Can DO, was the old Royal South Australian Deaf Society. It was established in 1891 and is apparently Australia’s oldest registered charity.

Of course the services have changed and evolved over the years but essentially they were established to meet a need. This need has been either support, social, educational or religious and has been provided for over 100 years. Over the course of that time it has provided employment to hundreds, probably thousands of people, including myself. These people worked and were paid all because of Deaf people. (In the Townsend House case, the blind as well.)

Today Townsend House is known as the Can Do Group. It includes Can Do 4 Kids and Deaf Can Do. It also includes the Audiology, hearing aids and equipment business Can Do Hearing. It has an Internet company Can Do NET and a very profitable retirement village business in Brighton and Strathalblyn. It provides employment for a wide range of people including a CEO who is earning a handsome salary, car and I suspect some other lovely perks. It provides employment for numerous managers, audiologist, therapist, social workers, youth workers, receptionist and interpreters; largely because of deaf people. (and blind people in some instances.)

According to their last annual report The Can Do Group of Townsend House has total assets of $77,844,893.  Of course some of these assets are tied up in buildings and investments and are not all in cash. Some of the buildings probably have loans that need to be serviced and the like but even so after they have worked out what they owe  they have total equity of $33 200 161. They are not a poor organisation by any means. All of this is because of deaf and blind people.

It is well known that the old The Royal South Australian Deaf Society nearly went bust in 2007. Townsend House, asset rich if not cash rich, rode to the rescue and saved them from oblivion. Then CEO, Paul Flynn, promised that the Deaf community hub at 262 South Terrace would not be sold. In fact any suggestions that Townsend House would sell 262 from under the Deaf community were met with vehement denials. People that suggested as much were labelled as shit stirring trouble makers.

Now I hate to say I told you so, but I did. I said that once Townsend House was allowed to get their claws in they would have all the power. I suggested that they had quietly and bloodlessly just taken over the building. If they decided that the building needed to be sold there was not a lot anyone could do about it.

And so as it happens today, 2013, this is exactly what is happening. Townsend House, with their Can Do Group, have bloodlessly taken all the funding that went with The Royal South Australian Deaf Society, they have taken all the staff and the infrastructure, the audiology business and the interpreting business and relocated them to Welland. Essentially they now control all of this funding. The old 262 building is seen as a drain on assets and they want to be rid of it.

An asset drain it may well be but for the Deaf community it is their last asset. It is an asset that goes beyond just money. For many 262 has been their home. It is where they met their partners. It is where they met and continue to meet for a beer. It is where they were married or where their children were christened. It has a value beyond money. It is also a place that lots of us owe our careers, including me.

Now Townsend House has told the Deaf community that unless they can find a way to make 262 viable it will be sold. What this means is that the Deaf community are in danger of losing their spiritual home. Of course the Deaf community do not have the financial clout to maintain the building. They need help.

Apparently out of the blue this help arrived. It arrived in the guise of a Not For Profit Organisation that offered to take on the upkeep of 262 and allow the Deaf community to stay and use the building as they always have. Quite rightly the Deaf community were excited about this development and announced it publicly on Facebook through an Auslan video.

The Deaf community pleaded with Townsend House to accept the offer. From what I can ascertain the Not for Profit Organisation offered to renovate and maintain the building at their expense. This would mean that the Deaf community can stay ..YAY … But Nay.

You see over the years Townsend House have lent money to the old Royal South Australian Deaf Society so that it could survive. The Deaf community pleaded with Townsend House to be given time to pay that money back. They pleaded with Townsend House to accept the offer of the Not for Profit Organisation that made the offer to save 262. But Townsend House apparently have rejected the proposal of the Not for Profit Organisation.

At this stage no one knows why. An announcement is forthcoming and soon all will become clear. But this NO from Townsend House must be seen as an almighty slap in the face by the Deaf community. Perhaps Townsend House has a good reason and we should reserve judgement. All will be clear soon.

BUT – If Townsend House has turned down the offer because they want the money back that they are owed sooner rather than later – let us be clear on some things. The reality is that Townsend House is owed NOTHING. They are owed nothing because they owe their very existence in a large part to the Deaf community. The jobs and the assets are there because of DEAF PEOPLE! The reason they have such a profitable retirement village business that generates income was started all those hundreds of years ago is largely because of DEAF PEOPLE.

Let’s be clear – the services that were once based at the old Royal South Australian Deaf Society and are now based at Welland have come under the control of Townsend House. Townsend House have essentially stripped these services and now control the funding for these services and the management fees that go with them. Because of this, in my view, the Deaf community owe them NOTHING.

At this stage we do not know why Townsend House has said no. But it had better be a good reason. It had better not be about the money that Townsend House say they are owed  because the reality is, in my view, that they are OWED NOTHING! What is more if they insist on getting that money back they clearly have the assets to be able to allow the Deaf community to pay it back over time. If it’s not paid back soon with equity of over $33 000 000 Townsend House are hardly going to fall over are they?

Perhaps the decent thing for them to do is to heed Midnight Oil’s advice who famously sang:

The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back!

Think about it. In the mean time let’s all wait and hear their reasons. But as I said these reasons had better be good!

2 thoughts on “Power to The People

  1. Well written, Gary! The Deaf Community of SA should not be discriminated and penalised for the bad business decisions of Deaf:CanDo and Townsend House.
    What riles me the most is the Special General Meeting/AGM of 2007, a real farce! On that shameful night, the Deaf Community was pressurised and duped by the President of SA Royal Deaf Society and the former CEO of DCD into handing over ‘262’ to Townsend House. The way they did it was unethical and culturally inappropriate. We were given no options and no time to think about the enormity of this decision. It was only much later, when we saw the rapid changes happening at ‘262’ often against our expressed wishes, that we realised we lost our beloved ‘Deaf Home’ and our Deaf autonomy. To me, 2007 is marked as a “Day of Shame” when we, the Deaf Community of SA were cheated and robbed of our beloved ‘262’ land and space. There needs to be a serious investigation into this particular event.
    We were told to ‘forget the past and move on.’ We were told that ‘262’ is “only a building”. It is not that simple for us. ‘262’ was built and owned by our Deaf ancestors and their families who raised their own funds – “a penny a brick.” It IS the Deaf Home of our Deaf Community, a home that is built FOR Deaf people to enjoy our own space in “being Deaf.” It is our spiritual connection to a Deaf place and space that is equivalent to the Indigenous Australian’s connection to his/her land. Take away the land, you take away the soul. When a business organisation such as DCD and Townsend House takes away our land, they take away our soul. We will not let that happen!
    After several meetings between DCD/TH and the Deaf Community, we realised the glaring disparities between business and culture. In an ideal world, business and culture can collaborate when both parties are on an equal status. In this case, the Deaf Community is treated unequally, We have been called an ‘unintelligent people’ and not treated with the respect we deserve.
    The current CEO explained that the Deaf Community’s proposal with a non-for-profit organisation, was turned down because it will not generate money for DCD/Townsend House. Their main business interest is in CanDo4Kids, the bigger organisation run by Townsend House. DCD is also concerned that if they accept the Deaf Community’s proposal, they would not have enough money to carry on their services for Deaf people. Already, they are running on a skeleton staff for Deaf services. The CEO is under the auspices of Townsend House and is managing the large staff for both Townsend House and DCD, an enormous task. However, DCD comprises only approximately 3% of the whole organisation. So, the Deaf Community feels DCD and Townsend House is discriminating against us by selling our ‘262’ heritage Deaf Home to help finance their plummeting business costs. This is very unfair! Midnight Oil’s words are appropriate for us: the Deaf Community of SA demands back our rightful heritage and Deaf space and place!

  2. I AGREE 100% Sandra, too many UN-explained annonamalies , ANSWERS ARE NEEDED DESPERATELY……

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