Question Mark[1]

For some time, many of us in the deaf community have been saying we need a modern version of the deaf club. We loved our deaf clubs but the old format will no longer work. The world has changed. The community has changed.

Deaf Societies are still very important organisations but they are now only one of a number of organisations providing services for deaf and hard of hearing people.

There are still sections of the deaf community who are either dependent on Deaf Societies for welfare-type assistance or who have a long association with them and are unready or unwilling to consider other options.

However, many deaf people are now quite independent of the Deaf Societies. Many people rarely visit or contact their Deaf Society, even if they use their interpreting service – interpreting bookings are made by the person who pays, which is not usually the deaf person.

If the NDIS is rolled out according to the model set out by the Productivity Commission, deaf people’s choice in where they go for services should increase as new providers emerge.

Early intervention services that historically focussed only on speech and separated themselves from the deaf community are now being encouraged to be more inclusive and collaborative. (However, I recently heard some information that indicates this change is turning back towards excluding Auslan from early intervention – but that’s the subject of a separate blog post).

As the experiences of deaf communities in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane have shown, a deaf club in a mainstream setting, divorced from deaf community organisations, is a club that lacks a deaf soul.

The world is moving on from the old welfare and paternalistic one-organisation-does-everything-for-you models and it would be anachronistic for the deaf community to return to such a model, but there is still a case for a deaf community centre that provides a mixture of services, social activities, representative and advocacy support and so on in one easily identified location.

But now it needs to be owned and managed not by one all-powerful organisation but perhaps by many. They do it in Finland and they do it in Ireland. We could do it here in Australia.

In Helsinki, The Light House is jointly owned by the Finnish Association of the Deaf, the Finnish Federation of the Hard of Hearing, and Service Foundation for the Deaf. It provides accommodation to other organisations and services for deaf and hard of hearing people, meeting rooms and an auditorium. In the centre is a cafeteria where everyone mingles. At the front door is a general reception desk that directs you to the organisation that fits your need. (http://www.visithelsinki.fi/en/conference-banquet-facilities/light-house)

In Dublin, Deaf Village Ireland brings together 12 deaf organisations and provides a venue in which all of them can operate collaboratively. It is a company set up to manage the village through a central support structure and aims to provide a location where the deaf community can thrive and work together. Both Irish Sign Language and spoken English are used within Deaf Village Ireland.  (www.deafvillageireland.ie)

It would be wonderful to have something similar in Australia.

As an example, in each of our capital cities and major regional centres we could have a small community centre for deaf and hard of hearing people that houses at least some of these organisations:  Deaf Australia, Deaf Youth Australia, Better Hearing Australia, The Auslan Shop, deaf sports and recreation organisations, self-help groups such as Hear for You and Cicada, a deaf church (office/s if not the actual church/es), ASLIA and various service providers – Deaf Societies, interpreting service providers, Australian Communication Exchange,  Deaf Children Australia, assistive hearing technology providers, early intervention services, adult education services and so on. And a café/bar – managed by deaf people who are trained and paid to manage it.

We could perhaps have something like a strata title or leased building where organisations own or lease the portion of the building that they inhabit and contribute to the maintenance of common areas.

We could have small community centres where no one organisation is more important or powerful than any other, where no one organisation has its name in lights as ‘the’ organisation or ‘the’ building owner.

Is this possible?

I think it would be difficult because only service providers have money; community organisations like Deaf Australia (especially now that government has defunded it), sports and self-help groups, would struggle to contribute to ownership or lease costs. But I believe a modified version could be possible.

It would require some major shifts in thinking in our service providers, particularly Deaf Societies. And it would require deaf and hard of hearing people to take the lead in our own community and make it happen.

An alternative might be a version of what is happening in Adelaide. Perhaps several service providers could contribute to funding separate small community centres for community organisations to run as deaf clubs.

Another alternative might be for simple café/bars, with kid’s corners and Auslan-literate staff, which become deaf community meeting places.

Trade Block café, in the grounds of Deaf Children Australia in Melbourne and staffed by Victorian College for the Deaf students is very popular, but it is small and its hours are limited. An expanded version in various locations around Australia, accessible to everyone, deaf, hard of hearing and hearing, could be a hit. Personally I love this idea.

Whatever option we come up with, it’s important that any new meeting place is ‘owned’ by the deaf community, not by any all-powerful service organisation.

Deaf people are fond of saying that we can do anything. We like to demand our rights.  The community has the capability to run its own deaf clubs but few have stepped up and accepted the challenge. Can we continue to claim we can do anything and yet expect others to continue to do things for us?

We can do this. We can create new types of deaf community meeting places that are inclusive and bilingual places where Auslan and English are equally valued and where deaf, hard of hearing and hearing people, parents and service providers feel welcome, equal and at home.

And then let’s see what kind of modern Auslan sign the community develops for ‘deaf club’.

How important is it to have a deaf community meeting place?  How can we make it happen?