How deaf people come across the Deaf community varies. In my case it was because at 14, after struggling in a mainstream educational setting, I found myself in a Centre for Hearing impaired kids. In this way I met some young deaf people who were later to introduce me to the Deaf community. In my case it was a young deaf fellow asking me to sign up for the Deaf Cricket Club. My wife found the Deaf community through netball. Others might find it through the theatre or whatever. For many it is just fate because a mainstream school doesn’t just one day say, “Hey have you heard of the Deaf community? Here’s the address, go forth and multiply.”
I was lucky enough to be reasonably good at cricket. Because of this the cricket club welcomed me with open arms and did everything to keep me there. It helped that I could already sign a bit when I became a part of the Deaf community. When I say a bit, I mean a BIT. The big eye opener for me was the Deaf club. I’ll never forget that first day.
A couple of weeks before that I had gone on a youth trip and hooked up with Cheryl. We had a snog in the back of the bus and made a date to meet at the Deaf club. I couldn’t get anywhere near her at the Deaf club because she was chaperoned by her sister who never left her side. The thing was that when I entered the Deaf club everyone wanted to know who I was. The questions were relentless,
“You Deaf how?
“Your School where?”
“Sister, brother Deaf have?”
“Oh you from hearing family?”
Never since have I ever been subject to so many personal questions upon meeting people for the first time. It was the start of a long association with the Deaf community. The Deaf club was my introduction to the Deaf community and it is a wonderful memory. It pains me that young people who are deaf today may never get the same sort of introduction to the Deaf community that I had.
In years gone by Deaf clubs were based at Deaf Societies around Australia. Weekly, Deaf people would meet at these clubs either for a beer, a game of pool, a date or more usually for a committee meeting of one of the many sporting groups. Indeed Deaf Societies were traditionally set up as community hubs for the Deaf communities. They were places of worship, places for social gatherings and of course they were places where people who were deaf received social services. Arguably their most important function was to be the central community hub for the Deaf community. It was at these hubs that the Deaf community came to life.
But in the nineties all of this came under threat. It started with the sale of the Deaf Society of NSW at Stanmore. It is interesting because I began writing this on Wednesday evening, 5th March 2014. Tired I went to bed having only half completed the article. I awoke in the morning and as fate would have it there was a wonderful documentary posted on Facebook. What was it about? It was about the the history and the demise of the Stanmore Deaf Centre. The documentary had been made in 2013 but it was the first time I had seen it. Given that Stanmore had been the last word I typed before I went to bed it sent shivers down my spine.
I have posted a link to this documentery at the end of this article. It is simply a must watch. It tells of the wonderful memories of stalwarts of the Deaf community. It tells of Club nights, cheese toasties, games of pool and wonderful social memories. It paints a picture of a vibrant and beautiful community. Stanmore was a great facility too. I remember being amazed at what it had to offer. Lawn bowls at the back. Squash down stairs. The bar that was always full of a Friday night. It was just a wonderful facility.
I first experienced the facility in 1988. By 1994 it was gone. A victim of ambition, perhaps a victim of the times or perhaps simply a victim of mismanagement. But for whatever reason this wonderful facility could not be maintained. The losses were simply too great. So Stanmore was sold. Its sale began a long decline of the Deaf community of NSW. Once it lost its community hub it became increasingly fragmented. In my view it took years for the NSW Deaf community to fully recover.
The focus of selling Stanmore was almost entirely to expand the Deaf Society of NSW services. The importance of the community hub was never fully acknowledged. Said Tony Clews in the documentary, ” Part of me questions whether those services are effective. Things are still the same.” Clews hits the nail on the head with this statement. Quite simply the NSW Deaf Society lost track of the fact that the primary and most important function of any Deaf Society is that it was the Community hub for the Deaf community. In my view welfare was always secondary to this. But in the quest of the funding dollar that had a services focus the priorities got screwed. And it was the Deaf community that suffered the most.
Now I know that there will be those that argue that servicing those most in need should surely be the priority. Sure, but I say arguably the factor that impacts mostly on the welfare of a person who is deaf is the fact that they are socially isolated. Living in a hearing world 24/7 is hard work. The Deaf community and the Deaf community hub provides Deaf people with the social interaction, the happiness and the sense of belonging that is simply not always available in the hearing community. It facilitates positive mental health and well being. This is not well understood.
But it is not just the Deaf Society of NSW that made this mistake. The Victorian Deaf Society also made the same mistake. In Victoria they had the wonderful Jolimont Deaf Club. This was another fantastic facility. The Victorian Deaf Society had reasons to sell that went beyond simple finances. They had old run down buildings that in some cases might actually have been occupational health and safety hazards. The issue was that when they sold what should have been the biggest priority, the Jolimont community hub, did not get the focus that it deserved.
And so Jolimont was closed and the Victorian Deaf Society moved to its current premises. Where were the Deaf community to go. Where were they to meet and socialise. Certainly the new buildings were inadequate for that. Indeed the Deaf community were forever competing with other groups to get access to rooms. After hours they had to rush down the lift to let people in because security features of the lift would not let people onto certain floors after 6pm. Like Lidcomb Bowls Club that became the hub of the NSW Deaf community after the sale of Stanmore, the new facilities had no spirit and were doomed to fail.
In South Australia Deaf Can Do are making all the same mistakes again. They have sold of the Deaf community home. They did this against the Deaf communities wishes. The sale had to happen to save services. But services for what? The Deaf community made it clear they wanted their Community hub and not the outdated and largely ineffective welfare system of Deaf Can Do. They were ignored. Sure the SA Deaf community got a new home – But will it have the spirit of the old 262 that it replaced that is such an important factor to maintain it? Consistently it seems that the Deaf Societies fail to learn from the mistakes of the past. In particular they too often pay lip-service to the views of the Deaf community.
When the respective Deaf Society premises were sold and the profits were banked, how much actually went back to the Deaf community. It just seems that the Deaf community are often provided with a new hub but inadequate resources to maintain it. They are given no real capital to invest and grow that could enable them to become independent. It is almost as if the Deaf community is being set up to fail. While the management of the Deaf Societies make multi-million dollar profits on buildings that were established for the Deaf community and often on the back of enormous efforts from Deaf community pioneers; how much of those profits actually go directly back to the Deaf communities?
And when the new Deaf clubs fail and when the Deaf communities struggle, what do the patronising hearing management say? Well they say, “Its unrealistic for deaf people to have management of large assets because they simply don’t have the skill-set.” But if the bulk of the profit of the sale of assets is taken largely by hearing Boards of Management and the Deaf community are given an absolute minuscule amount of that profit; how are they expected to expand and grow to become independent?
If you want the Deaf community to become independent and grow you must give them a fair share of the profit from the sale of assets. Don’t tell me that the Deaf community don’t have the skill-set to be able to grow the assets because they do. The skill-set argument is just an excuse to keep the imbalance of power. By not sharing the profits fairly with the Deaf community, hearing management are arguably setting up the Deaf community to fail!
Just last week Vicdeaf, the name for the old Victorian Deaf Society, announced they were selling their office space in East Melbourne. I think they have been there for less than a decade.They engaged consultant, Ernst and Young, to basically tell them what they and we already knew. That the current premises were inadequate. Vicdeaf have, therefore, decided to sell and seek new premises. Let us hope that when they do sell that they learn from the mistakes of the past. Let us hope that they finally realise that the most important asset and service to the Deaf community is the community hub.
Perhaps Deaf Societies no longer need to be these community hubs. But we can be in no doubt the the Deaf community need a vibrant hub that they can call home and be proud of. The age of patronising Deaf people with minuscle hand outs and welfare is over. The Deaf community must receive a fair share of any profits from sales of assets. A proportionate slice of these profits need to be provided to the Deaf community to establish a functioning and independent community hub. A hub that will make them even prouder of their community and sustain them for the long term.