'Social enterprise is our thing': Visiting the Cork Deaf Enterprise showroom and workshop

Some of the employees and management including Rebecca French, Conor Cahill and Marie Harris, at Cork Deaf Enterprises.Picture: Denis Minihane

Celebrating its 30th year in business, Cork Deaf Enterprises is seeking corporate sponsorship for its apprenticeship programme. Donal O’Keeffe visits the Ballinlough showroom and workshop.

"Social enterprise is our thing," says Conor Cahill, manager of Cork Deaf Enterprises (CDE), Ireland’s only dedicated employer of Deaf and Hard of Hearing people.

Stepping into CDE’s Sundrive Park premises, you are met by the smells of furniture polish and new upholstery fabric.

Tables, armchairs, sofas and couches fill the showroom. Some are for sale. Some are repaired and awaiting collection. Every year, CDE repairs, re-upholsters and restores an estimated 150 tons of furniture which might otherwise end up in landfill.

At the moment, CDE employs 26 people. Twenty are deaf and four are differently abled. The company offers training and placements, as well as full-time employment, for members of a community which has suffered for years from high levels of unemployment.

CDE was founded in 1987 by Father Bill Clarke. 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of their showroom and workshop. Over the past three decades, it has gone from strength to strength, and it has earned a reputation for work of the highest quality.

Now the registered charity is asking the private sector for help to take on three new apprentices a year.

“We’re looking for direct sponsorship to facilitate our employees to express their creativity, using material that would otherwise go to waste,” says Conor Cahill.

“€20,000 would pay for one person’s full apprenticeship for a year here. We are giving purpose and focus and employability to people who perhaps might otherwise not gain employment.

It’s a total group effort here, says Conor. That’s the reason CDE’s sales turnover last year was €240,000.

The workshop is a hive of activity, but to my (blessedly hearing) ears, it seems eerily quiet. There’s no radio playing, no conversation, no audible workplace banter.

John O’Connor and Dermot Dennehy are repairing a couch together. John, a tailor, is with CDE six years, and Dermot, an upholsterer, is here 19. Both men are profoundly deaf. Their colleague, business development manager Rebecca French, helps with communication.

“It’s a lot of work to do the whole couch,” signs Dermot. “It could take as long as a week. But we like working together. We share the work, and we get on well with each other.” John agrees: “Two heads are better than one”. They work in silence, quickly and efficiently, and in signed conversation they have comedic timing and humour.

A query about Dermot’s age is met with a look of mock horror and a downward tugging on the nose which suggests to even the most sign-illiterate observer nosiness and mind-your-own-business. They both laugh at the discomfort of the questioner, but are careful to be clear it’s all in good fun. They seem gentle men, and gentlemen.

Across the way, Mary Lawlor is hard at work, stripping office furniture. Mary is usually the first person to look at any job, and today she is stripping the upholstery from an armchair.

Mary says she worked here before for eight years. She says she could find no work outside CDE, and she returned here three years ago. Mary is profoundly deaf, but she says all of her siblings have hearing. Mary’s son, Paul, has full hearing too, she says. He’s 24, and he’s a football coach.

This is a good place to work, Mary says, and everyone uses Irish Sign Language (ISL). She knows everyone, and they’re all friends.

Gerard O’Sullivan is working in the back office. He is hard of hearing, born with a hearing difficulty, but over the past ten years his hearing has deteriorated significantly, and now he wears two hearing aids. ISL is not his first language.

He’s been with CDE since last July, when he was brought in to set up a computer network. He points out that Ireland now has three national languages, and not enough people realise one of them is ISL.

“ISL is a not as difficult as people think,” he says. “I learned the alphabet in a day, and once you have the alphabet, you can communicate – a lot more slowly, obviously – but you can communicate.

“The reason you can learn the alphabet so quickly is it’s really very simple.” By way of demonstration, Gerard holds up three fingers and asks “What letter is this?” It’s clearly W. He turns his hand upside-down, the three fingers pointing down. M. The sign for O is easy.

The sign for V makes us both laugh, and inverted it becomes an n. And so on.

“ISL really should be taught in primary schools,” says Gerard. “And do you know something? Kids would absolutely love to learn.” As I prepare to leave, I stop for a quick chat with Michael White. Michael trained here in upholstery, and he’s a senior upholsterer. Michael is profoundly deaf.

Senior administrator Marie Harris, who has been here since 1990, helps with communication. She says Michael is a genius at deep-buttons and pleating.

Michael has been with CDE since he was 20 years old, 23 years ago. He says he likes working here, and he loves anything which is a challenge.

‘Is there ever any job you can’t do?,’ I ask Michael. I mean it as a compliment, but he looks taken aback. He signs his response, and Marie looks confused. She signs a question, and Michael replies. Marie turns to me, apologetically.

“He’s talking about Health & Safety,” she says, “but I don’t understand.” Gerard O’Riordan intervenes. Gerard is hard of hearing, and he wears a hearing aid. He and Michael sign intently to each other, before Gerard speaks.

“Michael is saying he can’t get a job anywhere else because employers won’t take on deaf people, because of Health & Safety, and all the other reasons people won’t take on deaf people.” Thanking Gerard, I apologise to Michael and Marie. They both then apologise to me and we all apologise again. Everyone laughs, the ice well and truly broken.

“Michael’s problem is he doesn’t look deaf,” suggests Gerard. “I look deaf, because I have a hearing aid, because a hearing aid helps me. Michael doesn’t wear a hearing aid, because one wouldn’t help him. So people don’t realise he’s deaf.” Marie tells me misunderstandings like this happen every day, and even with years of experience in using ISL, wires can get crossed, as in all communication.

Getting our conversation back on track, Michael responds to my question, now that I’ve expressed it more clearly: Do you get any jobs here that you cannot do?

“Some jobs are more difficult than others,” he signs with a gentle and confident smile, “but usually, I can do them all.” Conor Cahill says CDE is at a crossroads: “It’s critical that we get support.

“We’re telling the world we’re not fit for the scrapheap. We have disabilities, but we’re not defined by them. It’s actually the opposite: we’re aligned by our abilities.”

Corporate sponsorship would mean the world to CDE. That’s up to the corporate sector. For the rest of us, bringing our old or broken furniture to Cork Deaf Enterprises, for repair or renovation, helps an extraordinary business, one which nurtures extraordinary talents, and rewards extraordinary abilities.

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