The End! – What next for The SA Deaf Community?

Photo is of the old red brick building that was the Royal South Australian Deaf Society?

I was 24 years old. Still at University and I had been offered a job as a porter a the Royal Adelaide Hospital. I went for an interview for the position of Employment Project Officer at the Royal South Australian Deaf Society, at the old 262. Before that I had done some voluntary work for the Deaf Society. I volunteered for the Deaf high support needs group and also at the Hope Valley retirement village. I didn’t have a drivers licence at the time. The number of jobs that I had applied for was two, in my entire life! And I had recently been offered one of them!

Damian Lacey, the CEO, seemed unimpressed. “How do you expect to do this job without a licence?” He looked me in the eye, his scepticism was plain for all to see. I bumbled some sort of answer that I was close to getting my licence and that it wouldn’t be long. I thought that I had better not tell him I had failed my first driving test after going up the kerb doing a three point turn. I forgot to put it in reverse. So petrified was the poor tester that he refused to go on. “You get out of the car.” he ordered, ” And if you don’t, I’m bloody walking back.” I may have told him to fuck off at that point, it is all a bit of a blur.

Some how, they offered me the role. I had a choice of becoming the Deaf Society Employment Project Officer or a porter at the hospital. I chose the former, I often wonder what would have happened if I had chosen to be a porter. I mean working in a hospital, dealing with medical conditions and the drama of every day life in a hospital had its attractions. Giving people sponge baths, less so. So, I chose the Deaf Society.

I still look back and think I should have been a porter. The politics, the egos, the tragedy and the relentless struggle for people who are Deaf or have disabilities takes its toll. It never stops. I imagine clocking off at five pm. Job done, home to the family, game of golf and finishing with an ice cold beer. I sometimes think not having to deal with the daily struggle of access and inclusion for the Deaf community and disabled people would not necessarily be a bad thing.

But I didn’t choose to be a porter. I chose the Deaf community. It’s been a good life and a good career. I have travelled widely. I have met wonderful people. I have met politicians and stars. I remember being sat next to Todd McKenny at a function. He offered me his hand to shake and said, “Hi, I’m Todd”. I replied, “I know.” He rolled his eyes and said, “Of course you do” We both laughed. He is a really lovely guy.

At a Deafness Forum Summit I met John Howard in a washroom trying to dry his tie with an air dryer, cos he had splashed it washing his hands. He was moving his body backwards and forwards, trying to get his tie dry. There is a famous Mr Bean skit where Mr Bean does exactly the same. I just stared with my hand over my mouth, trying to stifle a giggle. I sometimes wish I had filmed it.

I had the pleasure of meeting Tony Abbott too. I met him in his posh Parliament House office with expensive art on the walls. ( I assume it was expensive anyway.) He was running a little late. He came in and bowed, Asked us to excuse him as he had some personal things to deal with. He came back, said hello and shook my hand. His hand was still wet.

We then sat down around a coffee table to chat. He puts his feet on the table and his hands behind his head. As he did so, his trousers bottoms rucked up revealing his hairy legs and sock tops – “What can I do for you?” he asked. I answered, Can I put my feet on the table too? “ He smiled and said, “Go for it.” I actually enjoyed chatting with him. He challenged me and didn’t patronise me in anyway. I found him really different from his public persona.

All of this started from those humble beginnings as the Deaf Society Employment Project Officer. It is for this reason I look back fondly at my time with the Royal South Australian Deaf Society. She gave me so much and so many great memories. She was my introduction to the Deaf community through Her youth group at the ripe old age of 18. I am very defensive of Her, and very angry at what she became.

There was a time when She was the hub of everything. Before we all got old and egotistical, we worked hard together to make positive change. As Employment Officer I had a licence to create. I once established a bar course for Deaf people at Regency Park TAFE. I argued that Deaf people could work behind a bar and overcome any communication obstacles.

The late and wonderful, Carmela Pavia, was a student and we had her working at the Green Dragon, on the corner of South Terrace and Pultney. It is now Fasta Pasta. One wag of a patron, who wanted a light beer, pointed to the light and then the beer tap. I got interviewed by Channel 10 news. They said that people that go to bars often need to debrief about their life to the bartender. They asked if I would miss doing that if I worked behind the bar. I answered,

“Mate, I’m a social work student, I count myself lucky that they cant talk to me about their life problems!”

Damian, the CEO, was often a great support. The South Australian Association of the Deaf wanted to protest about Debra Swann being discriminated against by the Surf Life Saving Association. He let us use the Deaf Society resources to make banners and posters. We spent hours designing posters and banners and headed off down to the Association’s head office at West Beach. When we got there it was closed! It was all a bit anti-climatic. We left all the banners and posters on the front step and door for the staff and CEO to see in the morning. (Lesson for any would be protesters – Check opening hours before you go,)

Barry Priori passed away this week. He is an icon of the SA Deaf community. Everyone knew Barry. We will all miss him very much. He was one of my first clients. He had been working in a factory and injured his shoulder. He could not work there anymore. I suggested to him that he would make a great Auslan trainer. I mentioned this to my boss, Dorothy O’Brien. She said to get him on board.

I gave him a little bit of training on how to teach. He wanted to be able to clearly explain why Auslan was a language and different from English. We decided to use ‘How are you?’ as an example. We used four examples:

wie geht es dir – German

Come Stai – Italian

How are you – English

Auslan sign for ‘How are you’

We went to our local travel agent and found posters of England, Germany and Italy. These were props. Barry had to teach without using his voice. He would point to ‘How are you?’ that was written on the board- then to the poster of the relevant country . He would then point to the phrase, ‘How are you?’ He would then count the words. He would point to the German poster, then the German translation and then count the words 1-2-3-4. He did the same for the Italian translation – 2 words. The English translation, three words, Finally he would sign Auslan – 1 word!

In this way he pointed out that all languages were different and had different ways to say things. At the end of the lesson he would have a list of all the signs he had used for the lesson. In this case it could be:

How are you?

Numbers 1 to 4

Italy, German, England

Same/different etc

He would show the signs again for each of those words that he had used during the lesson. He wasn’t a qualified teacher, nor was he a linguist. He was just a natural teacher with an enormous gift to engage his class. From that first lesson we worked on together, around 1990, he remained an Auslan teacher for over thirty years. He even had an enormously popular stage show called Naughty Hands, a sell out at the Fringe. Barry is irreplaceable and will be missed immensely.

That was the start of my career. Sadly, to progress in my career I had to leave Adelaide and the old Royal South Australian Deaf Society at 262. It was truly one of the most happy times of my life. In later years the Deaf Society struggled. Funding was cut as the SA Government opted for the Options Coordination program.

When I was there it was a vibrant hub. It had three community workers and a youth worker. It had me, the Employment Officer. It had a large fundraising team and the Auslan training team. There was an Early Childhood Group coordinator. There was the senior citizens group that I absolutely loved. Friday night was club night. It was just brilliant, a real community hub. Let’s not forget that it also had a CEO, a Services Manager, a Payroll Officer, an admin team and the interpreters coordinator.

Once the funding was cut it was the beginning of the end. Supports were gradually reduced, Assets were sold off to stay afloat. An Audiology business was established to make money. But it was a struggle. Indeed, many of the business decisions made were questionable. One cannot be too critical, it was an enormously difficult challenge.

In 2007, it seemed that the end was nigh. The Royal South Australian Deaf Society reached out to Townsend House for help to stay afloat. At the time someone sent me the partnership proposal. I urged caution. From what I could see they basically were signing over all control to Townsend House. I remember writing a Rebuttal and saying if they were not careful, the much loved 262 building could be sold from right under the Deaf communities noses.

Oh boy! That upset lots of people at the top. To keep a long story short, I copped a torrent of abuse from the President and Townsend House CEO. I was accused of making up stories for print space. I argued that the old 262 belonged to the Deaf community. The Deaf community had raised the funds for it. Indeed, many Deaf trades people had been involved in the building of 262. I argued that it was for the Deaf community to control and that the Deaf community should have the last say.

Promises were made that 262 would never be sold. The Deaf community in South Australia were led to believe that they would have the last say. We all know what happened. A few years later the building was sold. This was despite massive protests from the SA Deaf community. The heart and soul of the South Australian Deaf community was ripped out from asunder them.

It is true that the old 262 was a financial burden in the end. It was a massive expense to keep. It was probably the right decision to sell it. BUT, the Deaf community were ignored. The asset was sold against their wishes. The community has never really recovered from its broken heart,

Townsend House, who took over the Deaf Society, shunted the community centre off to Modbury, to an old Indoor Cricket Centre that they had inherited, It was a soul-less building. Not central and not near public transport. Despite the best efforts of many Deaf community members, Modbury never took off.

Last year Townsend House wrote a series of letters to the Deaf community apologising for what they had done in selling 262. They wanted to consult with the Deaf community to find a way forward. I am told they consulted with over 70 members of the community. I was one of them. At my talk with them they revealed to me that the money they had gotten from the 262 sale was held in a trust fund. They asked me what I would do.

I said to give it back ton the Deaf community. I said to allow the Deaf community to develop a consortium of Deaf business people and services experts. I suggested that the Deaf community might like to develop a Deaf Hub. A centre for Deaf business and community support, staffed by and run by Deaf people.

I have no idea what happened from these consultations. What I do know is that the Deaf Society, by this time a services branch of the Can Do Group called Deaf Can Do, has this week handed over its services to Deaf Connect. Whether this is what the Deaf community asked for in their message through the consultations, I don’t know. But this is what is happening.

Deaf Connect are a huge group. They started from a merger with the Queensland Deaf Society and NSW Deaf Society. They have recently expanded to the Northern Territory and now they have taken over Deaf services in South Australia. Their CEO is a Deaf man, Brett Casey. They aggressively seek and employ Deaf talent into management roles. They are definitely PRO DEAF!

Last night (4/3/22) they held an information session with the South Australian Deaf community. I understand that around 80 people attended. Details are sketchy, but I understand that in taking over the services, equity and funding from the old Royal South Australian Deaf Society was not transferred to them. I understand that the audiology business, set up with Deaf Society funding and quite profitable, remains with the Can Do Group.

What of that trust fund? Is it gone forever? Have the Can Do Group hoodwinked the Deaf community? Have they washed their hands of the Deaf community and said to Deaf Connect – “Here, you have the services, we don’t want them”?

Deaf Connect are a huge franchise. I have no doubt that CEO, Brett Casey, will engage and involve the South Australian Deaf community properly. But, what of that trust fund that was generated from the sale of 262? Will it be handed back to the rightful owners, the South Australian Deaf community? Those funds came from the blood, sweat and tears of that community. Are those funds lost forever, swallowed up into the massive coffers of the Can Do Group?

I wish Deaf Connect well as they service the wonderful South Australian Deaf community. But for me it seems that it really is THE END! And those questions I have asked, hopefully there are some answers!

Photo is head shot of Barry Priori, he has a cheeky smile and is wearing spectacles, He is sporting an immaculately groomed, white and long goatee beard.



One thought on “The End! – What next for The SA Deaf Community?

  1. Two of my grandfather’s brothers were fluent signers and advocates for the Deaf community. They weren’t deaf and there is no one around now who could tell me how that came to be. Their family owned Geo J Leahy & Sons, a building and stonemasonry business. The spires of St Peter’s Cathedral (built many years after the main part of the building) is one of the more well-known of my great grandfather’s jobs. Even though my great uncles owned pubs by then, the oldies tell me that Uncle Peter in particular helped in the construction or 262, though I don’t know in what capacity. So I felt a bit of my family heritage was lost too when 262 was sold. If the funds from its sale are not released to the Deaf community it would border on criminal.

    I also have fond memories of Barry. I took a bunch of Tafe & uni disability advisers there when I was an NDCO & he asked us if we knew any Auslan. I told him that my best friend is fluent and uses it when she teaches and that we use it to communicate across a noisy and crowded bar – the most common being “I’m going for a piss” and “do you want another beer?”. He laughed and said we were smart, but only as long as we didn’t get so drunk that we accidentally signed that we were going to piss in the beer. Roaring laughter all round. He did so much to remove the sense of ‘other’ from Deaf people and gave so many people confidence to include Deaf people. I knew he was ill, but still felt a gut punch when I realised he had passed away. Too soon…

    Monica Leahy


    DLM Solutions

    Ph 0416 022 377

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