The old 262 South Terrace, Adelaide Deaf club

The old 262 South Terrace, Adelaide Deaf club

Since deaf clubs started closing in the 1990s, the need for them has often been discussed. Recently Vicdeaf and Deaf Children Australia established a committee to investigate the issue for Victoria.

This is the first of 3 posts about deaf clubs.

With the progressive closure of deaf clubs, the deaf community has lost much more than historic buildings. The buildings have been important. But even more, our sense of community and belonging to a place and our easy connection with each other have all been diminished.

Since first becoming involved in advocacy organisations some 25 years ago, I have seen many life improvements for deaf people. Twenty-five years ago deaf people were seldom seen or heard outside the deaf community. Today we are more visible, more included in the mainstream community, with more options.

Most of us, I’m sure, would agree that an inclusive society is a good thing. Inclusion and equitable access benefit everyone, society and, long term, the economy.

But inclusion can come at a cost, and for deaf people it already has; we and our community are poorer in new ways.

Twenty five years ago advocacy was a tough gig. Everyone wanted to patronise you, no one wanted to listen and the idea of government paying for an interpreter so you could meet and discuss an issue was unheard of.

Today our advocacy organisations have strong consultative relationships with governments and industry and, usually, a seat at the table when issues affecting deaf people are discussed, with interpreters paid by government or industry. And yet in some ways it is harder now to be an advocate for deaf people than it was 25 years ago.

At least this is the case until end-February 2015 when Deaf Australia’s government funding will end.  The future for advocacy is now uncertain.

The deaf community used to be more insular, tight-knit and cohesive. “A ghetto”, to people who knew nothing about it. An accepting and nurturing place, to those who belonged.

We met regularly at frequent community events and the deaf club on Friday nights where we mingled across age bands and interests, talked politics and news and nonsense, fell in and out of love, gossiped, told jokes – deaf jokes and jokes about hearing people – and generally enjoyed ourselves among our numerous friends. We played sports, volunteered and socialised together within well supported, well organised clubs, interest groups and advocacy organisations. It was an active, vibrant community, and at its centre was the deaf community centre – the ‘deaf club’.

The deaf club provided us with a powerful sense of belonging.

Deaf clubs were originally established in each state in the 19th Century by Deaf Societies at a time when they were paternalistic benevolent charities providing something for everyone – employment, church services, welfare services, sporting facilities, social facilities.

Most Deaf people worked in the mainstream as tradesmen, in factories, in clerical positions and often the Deaf Society helped them find employment. A few worked for the Deaf Societies in low level jobs.

The Deaf Society was essentially the community’s sole support organisation and many Deaf people were heavily dependent upon it.

The, mostly hearing, people who worked there looked after Deaf people, made decisions for them, knew everything about them and their personal lives, kept files on them.

The Auslan signs for ‘deaf club’ and ‘Deaf Society’ were identical.

When I lived in Sydney in the 1980s and early 1990s, the centre of the deaf community was the deaf club at the Deaf Society in Cambridge Street, Stanmore.

The building housed offices, meeting rooms, a community hall with a stage and commercial kitchen, table tennis and snooker tables, a crèche, a squash court and club rooms with a bowling green behind it. It was a lumbering three story building, white with red trim, which loomed over a predominantly residential street a scant ten minute train ride from the city centre. Next door, across a small grassy park was the dark brick Gordon Davis House hostel, and behind that a nursing home. All for deaf people who used Auslan.

For several years in the early 1990s I lived in Cavendish Street, one street from and parallel to Cambridge Street. Many an evening found me at the deaf club volunteering on one or another committee. There I acquired skills that, because of communication barriers, I was unable to learn in the mainstream community. These skills then helped me in my career as a librarian and later an advocate.

On Friday nights I walked up the street and around the corner to deaf club night in the community hall. Deaf club was for everyone, from babies to seniors and I met many wonderful people and enduring friends there.

Deaf pub was held once a month in the bar on the lower ground floor. Deaf pub, managed by a volunteer committee of deaf people, was crowded and raucous and regularly resulted in neighbours making Monday morning complaints to the Deaf Society.

Deaf pub night was also Auslan club night in the community hall. When Auslan club finished many of the hearing people came downstairs to the deaf pub to practice their emerging Auslan.

Privately how we groaned! Daily we endured the trials of communicating with Auslan-illiterate hearing people. Deaf pub was our time to have fun and enjoy relaxed communication. Why couldn’t we just have something that was ours and easy for a change!

But we understood it was to our benefit to encourage and help them learn Auslan, so we smiled and modified our signing to suit their abilities and returned to our conversations when they moved on to practice on someone else.

It was wise to arrive early on pub nights.  The room was small, quickly filling to capacity and as the night progressed a queue would form outside. One memorable night a friend got stuck out there for quite some time, outraged that she and other deaf people could not get into their own club because it was full of hearing people.

Much community business occurred on deaf club and pub nights.

At the time I was secretary of Australian Association of the Deaf (now known as Deaf Australia). The president was Colin Allen, now President of the World Federation of the Deaf. These nights were an opportunity to talk informally with deaf people about the issues of the day, helped us to keep on the pulse of deaf community views and keep deaf people informed about our activities.

And then everything changed.

Did deaf club mean as much to you as it did to me? Tell us what it meant to you.