Many years ago, as a fledging Deaf community member, I attended a workshop on Deaf culture, run by the wonderful Breda Carty. This was the early 1990s and Breda would visit different Deaf Societies around Australia talking about Deaf culture and Deaf history. I was fascinated to learn about the rich history of the Deaf community, much of it associated with its institutions. The institutions were not necessarily bricks and mortar, but things like the Australian Deaf Games, Deaf Clubs, Deaf Theatre and so on. What became clear to me is that these institutions, along with bricks and mortar institutions like Deaf Societies and Deaf Schools, were crucial to the identity and existence of the Deaf community.
The 1990s were a wonderful time. The Deaf community were led by highly driven and determined people that wanted the Deaf community to thrive. I was in awe of people like Colin Allen, John Lovett, David Peters, Brian Bernal, Anne Bremner, Bobbie Blackson, Robert Adam, Don Cresdee, Katrina Parker, Paul Bartlett et al who gave up so much of their time to advocate for the needs of the Deaf community. Much was achieved from their advocacy. We, in the Deaf community, need to be very thankful for having these people fight for us.
Despite the best efforts of these wonderful people, the institutions of the Deaf community have been constantly under threat. I have been lucky to have been able too attend Deaf clubs all over Australia. Being South Australian, I have a particular affinity for the grand old 262. I met my first Deaf girlfriend there and it was the start of my professional career in the Deaf sector. I sat on their Board for a time too.
I loved Stanmore in NSW. I was gob-smacked when I first visited it in 1988. Marlee Matlin was touring at the time. Blimey, it had lawn bowls out the back. There was a squash court too. The Deaf club, with its little bar, was sensational. I worked there as well, for just under a year. Every Tuesday, I played squash downstairs with my mates and then headed to the pub in the main street. Sadly, by the time I started worked there, the lawn bowls was no more. The cost of maintaining the rink proved too prohibitive.
I first visited Jolimont in Victoria in 1985. I was studying in Brisbane at the time to be a Teacher of the Deaf. Malcolm Peters was studying with me and he invited me down to Melbourne to stay with him. Like with Stanmore, I was totally awestruck. The full size snooker tables were a thing to behold. I sat for hours at the bar drinking cocktails made by David Peters. I was a bit worse for wear the next day. I was lucky enough to work at Jolimont too. Every morning starting the day having coffee upstairs with John Lovett, David Peters, Bill Hynes and Greg Culpitt was a great way to start the day. Jolimont was an absolute hub of activity. I shouldn’t forget that I got married there at the quaint old church on the grounds.
And you know what? I even worked at Townsend House. I set up a brilliant program called Successful Adults in Life (SAIL). Current Deaf Australia President, Debra Swann, began her career in the Deaf sector working for the program. In the background was the grand old Townsend House building. I ran workshops in the building for deaf youth. I used to love walking the grounds and breathing in the vast history of the place.
But my favourite, my all time favourite, was working at VSDC. VSDC is now known as Deaf Children Australia. I was a case manager there working with Deaf kids and their families. The old Bluestone building is steeped in history from top to bottom. Next door is the wonderful Victorian College for the Deaf. (VCD)
One day my boss, Dorothy O’Brien, asked me to assist clean up the archives that were in the basement. The basement is a bit like a rabbit’s warren. I remember being fascinated by the communal bath. The bath is a relic of the times when Deaf kids boarded at the school. The archives themselves were absolutely fascinating. Down there were records of past students. Many of them were to become staunch advocates for the Deaf community. Confidentiality forbids me from stating the names of these people. Suffice to say, I feel privileged to have been able to see and experience such a wonderful and valuable record of the Deaf community and its history.
What I liked about working at VSDC was seeing the Victorian College for the Deaf in action. It was a vibrant school. In 1997, all the rooms at the college had a home class. Many of the students were proficient users of Auslan. The school was a hub of interaction. No one missed out. From primary to Yr 12, the kids all interacted. I used to go over and play soccer with the kids. I could go into the lunch room and chat with the teachers. From time to time, I’d pop my head into Joe Corbett’s office for a chat. Joe was the principal at the time. How the VCD kids were so fully included was a stark contrast to the many isolated and lonely deaf kids I supported in mainstream schools. Many, if they were lucky, got the support of a visiting teacher once a month.
During my time at VSDC, there was a tragedy. A student was sadly killed when struck by a train. VSDC case managers were over at the school supporting the staff and kids in their grief. All of us banded together. It was almost as if VSDC and VCD were one.
My fondest memory is seeing the Deaf kids running through the old Bluestone building. I used to love chatting with them in the corridors. It was a truly wonderful and inspiring time in my career. I wish I could experience it again.
I have been so lucky to have experienced all of these wonderful Deaf community institutions, both socially and professionally. Where are these institutions now? All of them, sadly have been sold and closed. 262, gone. Stanmore, gone. Jolimont, gone. Townsend House, gone and turned into a retirement village. VSDC and VCD- still there, but just.
What happened? Well, the dollar spoke. Sometimes it was just a matter of surviving so these wonderful old institutions were sold off. What happened to the Deaf community? Well it survived, but all of its Deaf clubs were closed leading to the community becoming incredibly fragmented. Only now are efforts being made to restore Deaf clubs, and thank god for that.
What of the Victorian College of the Deaf? Will it survive? Last week my wife, Marnie Kerridge, gave the Colin Allen Lecture for Deaf Australia as part of the National Week of Deaf People. She implored the Deaf community to value the school before it is gone. That old model that I was fortunate to witness in the late 1990s is no more. Instead the college has become a school for those Deaf kids that the mainstream cannot deal with. Deaf kids with additional needs.
And that’s fine, because every community looks after all of its members. Like society, the Deaf community has members that need extra support. It is right that the school helps them. BUT – the value of the Victorian College of the Deaf is mostly the interaction it brings, the sense of belonging and the development of strong and expressive language skills through Auslan. The beauty of interacting with one’s peers, never being left out, all included; that’s the value of VCD. That’s the model we need to restore. It is much more than just a school for Deaf kids with additional needs.
BUT, VCD needs the community to get behind it. We need to get back to the days when VCD and Deaf Children Australia were almost as one. Where DCA had its doors open to the kids, where DCA staff were an extension of the school. We need to get back to the days when VCD valued DCA as much as DCA valued them. Partnerships and respect, just like my time there.
But mostly, the Deaf community needs to value the school and what it can offer. They need to realise the strong and important role the school can play in the human and language development of Deaf kids. Because if they do not, the school will be gone. And like those other beautiful institutions that I was fortunate enough to know and love, it will be gone and lost forever!
The Deaf community need to get behind VCD. Organisations like DCA, who exist because of the Deaf community, need to get behind VCD. It’s time to pull the collective finger out before it is too late. You have been warned.