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Growing up at the Deaf Club

by Charlie Swinbourne

17th July 2009

There's a pub a mile outside Nottingham city centre where, every Wednesday night, you'll find a cast of characters congregating, telling jokes, taking the mickey out of each other, welcoming people in as they walk through the door.
Children playing in the nottingham deaf centre
As you stand there, children sprint past you, running laps of the bar, the pool room and the entrance hall, and back round again, screaming in delight - yet no-one bats an eyelid.

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.
The deaf club in Nottingham
At some point I've been in every one of its rooms, from the chapel on the top floor (where my cousins were christened), to the IT suite, main hall (for discos and birthday parties) to the function room, bar and pool room.

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!).
People at the bar in the deaf club
I now live in London, and in February, we made the journey north to introduce everyone to my baby daughter who was then six weeks old.

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."
Terry Riley
So why has the younger generation become disengaged? Firstly, there's the fact that many deaf schools have closed in favour of deaf pupils being mainstreamed. Terry told me that in the beginning, "deaf clubs were the extension of deaf schools. They were where we met up and shared ideas."

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.

Comments

    • 1. At 10:30pm on 21 Jul 2009, Wheelie EDSer wrote:

      Everything you see before you takes place in perfect silence.

      I'll be surprised! At my local Deaf club, the children run round screaming and shouting, and some Deaf people laugh and vocalise loudly (though not always coherently).

      If it was silent, then that would be bliss, but there are a lot of noises that Deaf people do not seem to be aware of (hearing parents would have asked their kids to be a bit quieter) which meant that as a student of BSL who had gone there for a lesson and to practise communicating, I found it very hard to concentrate!

      Not knocking it - it's the Deaf people's space after all - but it certainly wasn't silent!

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    • 2. At 01:04am on 25 Jul 2009, saltbar wrote:

      I suspect it was a hearing editor who put in "Silently Supportive". Charlie wouldn't do that. Article on this page reads differently. Just goes to show how much ignorance there is in this world and it is among us, editing this disability section. Why not give the job to someone disabled or deaf?! There are plenty of unharnessed talent out there.

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    • 3. At 5:17pm on 03 Aug 2009, lyrogersle wrote:

      I am blind, radically so. I am also a writer and editor concentrating on the community of those considered "disabled." saltbar is correct in saying that more people in our community should be responsible for communicating about our community. In fact we are; the mainstream media just has to catch up with us. Look for sites that interest you on any search engine, and make your choices known to advertisers.

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    • 4. At 5:17pm on 03 Aug 2009, lyrogersle wrote:

      I am blind, radically so. I am also a writer and editor concentrating on the community of those considered "disabled." In fact many are; the mainstream media just has to catch up with us. Look for sites that interest you on any search engine, and make your choices known to advertisers.

      Complain about this comment

    • 5. At 5:18pm on 03 Aug 2009, lyrogersle wrote:

      I am blind, radically so. I am also a writer and editor concentrating on the community of those considered "disabled." In fact many people are; the mainstream media just has to catch up with us. Look for sites that interest you on any search engine, and make your choices known to advertisers.

      Complain about this comment

    • 6. At 5:21pm on 03 Aug 2009, lyrogersle wrote:

      saltbar, look for sites written by and for those considered "disabled." Patronize their advertisers, and tell them why. Remember, the mainstream media will always look upon us as lesser beings, and do not expect them to write for us.

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    • 7. At 10:28am on 20 Aug 2009, deafser wrote:

      Providing a service such as advice, interpreting, and IT will not help the deaf club unless there is a clear connection between the social club and the organisation providing the service. Many deaf clubs are run separately from the local deaf association that provides the services, and people do not realise that there is any connection. The services might become bigger and more successful, but the deaf club will not benefit from the success of the services.
      There is a danger that the local deaf associations will become just an agency that provides services to the deaf, funded by the local social services.
      Deafser

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