YOU could call it the mother of all deaf clubs. Deaf Village Ireland is an impressive €15 million sports and social facility in Cabra, Dublin, which is being officially opened next week.
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. It’s a stunning space, bright, spacious, well-lit and accessible.
The people behind the centre have also persuaded nearly all of the national organisations working for deaf people to take up offices here, creating a one-stop shop for deaf services. But despite the facility’s bold name, the sports centre and swimming pool is very much open to the wider local community.
Indeed, attracting local people will be critical to the success and financial viability of DVI and, so far, it has already signed up over 2,200 members in the space of a few months. I’m curious about this place because, while I’m deaf and know a bit of Irish Sign Language (ISL), I didn’t grow up in the ‘deaf world’. I went to ‘hearing’ schools, and nearly all of my friends are hearing. Will I be welcome here?
We also live in a country where there is a very strong drive to integrate services and facilities for people with disabilities into the wider community — not focus them all in one place. Yet that seems to be what is happening here.
Liam O’Dwyer, chief executive of the Catholic Institute for Deaf People (CIDP), admits he had a hard time convincing ministers, TDs and officials that this urban village-style development wouldn’t become a ‘deaf ghetto’.
“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.”
In the ‘Rathmines Room’, I talk with DVI’s manager, Sylvia Nolan, and a number of other deaf people working for different organisations now based in the facility. They explain that the room is named after the old Rathmines deaf club, a much-loved meeting place for the Dublin deaf community for many years until 1989, when it moved to the much less-liked location in Drumcondra.
“It was great, everybody loved it,” says Nolan. “Then, when they moved to Drumcondra, the young people and the older groups kind of separated. Some of the older people went to Drumcondra and they used it.
“But in the Deaf Village, it’s kind of bringing back the old times where we have the younger generation and the older generation. You can feel the atmosphere. Everybody loves it here.”
Paul Ryder, who works in Deaf Sports Ireland, was only a baby when the Rathmines club closed but he, too, never liked it. “I used to call it the ‘dead club’, not the deaf club, because there were no young people going.”
Kevin Lynch, who also works in Deaf Sports Ireland, says the centre is already proving a big draw. “I have seen lots of new faces, people who I never saw in Drumcondra. It’s also open seven days a week. There’s lots of different things on and, obviously, with the sports centre, it’s pulling in a lot of new people.”
On the other hand, there is also a strong sense of a community fighting for its survival. It has always been very small — ISL is estimated to be the first language of around 4,000 deaf people — but it may be getting smaller.
This is because the numbers enrolled at deaf schools have been steadily falling thanks to the huge push towards sending deaf children to mainstream schools, better hearing aids and the availability of cochlear implants. This is having an obvious knock-on effect on the strength and vibrancy of the community.
However, while this might seem to most of us like progress, there is a growing body of evidence to show that a significant minority of deaf children still don’t do well in a mainstream school setting.
The CIDP also runs the deaf schools. “What makes it such a hard sell for us is that, for every child who doesn’t do well [in a mainstream school], there are three or four who do great, because the levels of hearing are always different,” says O’Dwyer.
Some of these children may do very well academically, he says, but there is a strong sense that many are worse off in terms of social connections and inclusion, which can result in isolation and low self-esteem.
“Our experience would tell us that many deaf people find themselves isolated socially, regardless of how well they do.”
But by being a top-class facility with a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere (notwithstanding the name), there is a hope that DVI will become a showcase for all that is good about deaf culture.
So, you don’t have to know ISL to use the sports centre or any other part of DVI, but it’s a perfect place to go if you’re interested in learning — whether you’re non-signing deaf, hard of hearing or hearing.