Growing up at the Deaf Club
17th July 2009
As storytellers hold a crowd captive around them, older people sit and play dominoes, and mothers show off their babies to admiring onlookers. Members of sports teams arrive and explain their latest victory, defeat or injury to sympathetic listeners.
Sounds like a nice place to visit doesn't it? But there's one crucial difference between this and the average pub. Everything you see before you takes place in perfect silence. The venue? Nottingham Deaf Club.
I was born in Nottingham and my parents, who are both deaf and communicate in sign language, have been coming to the centre for over thirty years. I've known the building and the people who go there since I was a baby.
If the building itself is like a second home, the people who use it feel like my extended family.
Among the people I find there are my Dad's best man, an elderly couple who used to babysit for me, and members of the football team I played for in the Deaf Cup back in 1998, where we lost in the final.
The glue that binds everyone who goes to the deaf club is the chance it gives them to use their common language - sign language - to share conversations and stories.
When those stories are signed, they become like a film being played out before you. You can almost see the guy who slid along a muddy football pitch on his head and the reactions of the other people on the pitch, as if they were real.
There's certain conventions that are unique to the deaf club. One is when there's an announcement to be made. There's little point speaking loudly or ringing a bell to get everyone's attention, so the lights in the whole bar are turned on and off, plunging the signed conversations into darkness, simply because it's the only way of getting everyone's attention.
Then there's the phenomenon of the end of the night - the fact that no-one wants to go home. People say goodbye to each other, but this is only a prelude to a more urgent level of signed conversation, and it's usually well past midnight by the time they reluctantly make their way outside (the latest I remember is 1.30am!).
That night made me see the deaf club in a new light, and it wasn't just the fact that when we got home, we were amazed to find the older members had filled the baby's pram with pound coins..!
What struck me was that everyone was pleased to see us and greeted us as if we'd never been away. They genuinely wanted to know all about the baby, and were delighted to hold her in their arms. I walked out feeling like the proudest Dad in the world.
That night opened my eyes to a sense of community and shared history that the deaf club represented, that I could not imagine experiencing anywhere else.
Thinking about it a few weeks later, I began to wonder how many deaf people in the future will share my experience. The simple fact is that while Nottingham is going strong, deaf clubs in the UK are having to work harder than ever to survive, mainly because they are struggling to attract younger people.
I spoke to Terry Riley - Chair of the British Deaf Association and former Editor of See Hear - about deaf clubs and their role in modern deaf life. Terry was first taken to the deaf club when he was one week old, and he says that no matter where he is in the world, "I have to do two things: one, visit the deaf club, and two, visit the deaf school.
"The deaf club was where I met older people and found my heritage, stories from the older generation, it was like reading a history novel but in this case a signed version. Storytelling that's sadly been lost to the young generation."
Secondly, there's the rise of digital technology. As texting on mobile phones, email and the internet have made it easier for deaf people to communicate with their deaf friends, the role of deaf clubs in linking people together has been diluted.
Deaf clubs have had to adapt to survive, and as Terry says, have become "much more focused on providing a service". In Nottingham's case: welfare advice, a sign language interpreting service, IT courses, and so on.
Finally, many younger deaf people now often prefer the environment of hearing pubs, and prefer to visit the deaf club far less. "We have to get young people coming back to the club," Terry told me. While mixing in mainstream life is a good thing, it's worrying that it could come at the cost of a local deaf centre eventually shutting down.
If the trend continues, in thirty or forty years time, there is a risk of the deaf community existing more in smaller networks of friends, far less connected to their local area and club.
Maybe there's nothing 'deaf' about this, as society in general has changed in the same way. But if deaf clubs begin to close, there may be fewer places where deaf people who are currently outside the community, or have just moved to a new area, to go and meet other deaf people for the first time.
I hope this doesn't happen, and that when my baby grows up, deaf clubs will still be alive and thriving, so that I can introduce her to the world her father grew up in.
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