It looks like an old university campus that has been massively upgraded, but walk towards the entrance of the main building and there’s no mistaking where you are.
For a start, there’s a huge sign above the entrance that reads: ‘Deaf Village Ireland’.
The next clue is the groups of people sitting at tables by the huge café window next to the entrance of the huge new main building, engaging in animated conversations using their hands, faces and bodies.
It’s a huge contrast to the place where I last saw loads of deaf people together conversing in Irish Sign Language (ISL): the very drab, run-down old Deaf club located closer to Dublin city centre, a few miles away.
The club’s owner, the Catholic Institute for Deaf People (CIDP), was forced to sell the old building in 2008 to the Irish government so that could be re-developed as a new metro railway station. But it received the impressive sum of €15 million (this was just before the property market collapse), allowing it to be much more ambitious about a replacement facility.
So Deaf Village Ireland is not so much a new Deaf club as an ambitious urban village-style development.
After five years of planning and a huge amount of consultation with the Dublin Deaf community, the first and most important phase is now open for business.
Located on the same campus as the deaf schools in Cabra, Dublin, it features a state-of-the-art sports centre and swimming pool, conference facilities, meeting rooms, several offices, classrooms, a chapel, a social lounge and a café.
Soon to be opened is a major new Deaf museum, while the second and third phases will involve new residential accommodation for older deaf adults as well as for boarders at a new deaf school, which will merge the existing boys’ and girls’ schools.
And although it is based in Dublin, it is likely to attract Deaf people to it from all over the country, and from further afield, too.
The village project took its inspiration from a number of projects overseas, but particularly the Lighthouse in Finland, a large building with a similar range of centralised services and facilities that was built just over 20 years ago.
The project team also consulted widely on the design of the new development, including with a US-based architect with experience in creating ‘Deaf-friendly’ spaces.
Indeed, it’s a stunning place, very bright, spacious, well-lit and highly accessible.
The people behind the centre have persuaded nearly all of the Irish national organisations working for deaf people to take up offices here, including Deafhear and the Irish Deaf Society, creating a one-stop shop for deaf services.
The sports centre and swimming pool very much open to the local community and, indeed, its patronage will be essential to the facility’s long-term viability.
But the bold choice of name very much implies that deaf people are in charge.
According to Liam O’Dwyer, the (hearing) chief executive of the CIDP, there are currently two boards of management: a subsidiary board of the CIDP that was set up to build the centre and which runs the sports centre, and a newer, independent board that runs the whole of DVI.
The majority of seats on the independent board are filled by deaf people, while the subsidiary CIDP board is 50:50 deaf and hearing. The aim is that the independent board will eventually take over the running of everything, including the sports centre.
“The strategy of the DVI was to enable and encourage the deaf community to manage its own business,” he said.
Those who work for different deaf organisations now based in the DVI agree that the deaf community has been given substantially more input and control over the facility, and marks a very significant change to allowing the development to become a truly community-led enterprise rather than run by the CIDP.
Kevin Stanley (deaf), founder of disability organisation Inclusive Enterprises and a consultant to the village project, says that, before 2006, there was little communication between the deaf community and the CIDP management. “We didn’t even know who the chairman was. We didn’t even know who was on the board.”
Stanley believes there is still some way to go before CIDP hands over complete responsibility, but Sylvia Nolan, the (deaf) manager of DVI, says it’s unrealistic to expect so much change overnight.
“It’s hard for them to step back, because they have done a lot,” she said. “I can see it myself, as I am working here all the time. It will take time. At the same time, I have to applaud the CIDP because they are stepping back and letting go. It’s slowly, but surely. But it’s difficult for them, and to achieve a balance as well.”
Some in the community have privately voiced concerns about what they see as an overemphasis on the sports centre to the detriment of the rest of the facility.
So far, it seems to be doing well to attract members from the local community – 1600 people have signed up to the sports centre so far, the vast majority of whom are hearing.
While there is no question about who is in charge, Dr John Bosco Conama (deaf), assistant professor and lecturer at the Centre for Deaf Studies in Trinity College, concedes that its early days for the new deaf-led regime, but they need to grasp the opportunity to develop their confidence and leadership skills in order to achieve a reasonable balance between remaining financially sustainable and providing much-needed resources to the deaf community.
Interestingly, O’Dwyer admits that he had a hard time convincing government TDs and officials that this urban village development wouldn’t become a ‘deaf ghetto’, or a no-go area for hearing people.
“They don’t understand that it is not a disability issue, but a communication one,” he said. “They are only convinced when they come here, because they see that it isn’t a ghetto, it is an inclusive facility with as many hearing people – and indeed more hearing people – from the local community and the deaf community all mixing together.”
Visit Deaf Village Ireland’s website here: http://www.deafvillageireland.ie/
John Cradden is a freelance journalist based in Co Kildare, Ireland, and writes for a variety of Irish publications, including the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Sunday Times (Ireland), Sunday Business Post, as well as stuff for various other publications and websites, including a bit of sub-editing. Currently working on a (most-likely) self-published book about getting a cochlear implant and other musings on deafness. As someone brought up in hearing family and mainstream schools, used to be indecisive about his deaf identity, but now he’s not so sure.
Personal website: http://www.johncradden.ie
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