Deaf village project

A €25 million community development designed for deaf people will open in September, writes John Cradden

AFTER FIVE years of planning and a huge amount of consultation, the first and most significant phase of a new €25 million community village development for deaf people is set to officially open in Dublin this September.

The development, to be officially named Deaf Village Ireland, will be located at a 30-acre site off the Navan Road in Cabra, and will be the base for a set of new administrative, social, religious, sports and residential facilities designed specifically for deaf people.

These include offices, shops, a sports centre, a museum and residential accommodation for deaf adults as well as for boarders at a new deaf school, which will merge the existing boys’ and girls’ schools on the site.

But during consultations with local politicians, Government and local authority officials over the past five years, the various deaf organisations involved in the project have had to fend off criticisms about the very nature of it.

The criticisms have been many, but the general thrust appears to be that the idea of having nearly all of the available services and facilities for deaf people on a single campus goes against the grain of the Government’s disability policy, which is to integrate as many of the services for people with disabilities as possible into mainstream institutions, including education.

Indeed, some have reportedly gone as far as to argue the village will end up creating something of a deaf “ghetto” or a kind of social enclave, effectively re-institutionalising deaf people or sectioning them off from wider society.

However, the unanimity of the response to these criticisms from all the partners involved in the project appears to have helped them win the argument – and a €3 million Government grant towards the project.

Liam O’dwyer, chief executive of the Catholic Institute for Deaf People (CIDP), which has spearheaded the development, confirms that this is “a subject that has come up all the time”.

The response, he says, is very simple: “Deaf people need other deaf people to use sign language. Deaf people therefore want to be with hearing people who sign and deaf people who sign. It’s very much as simple as that.”

Brendan Lennon of Deafhear, the country’s largest service provider to deaf people, says: “Some people believe that it (the deaf village) is inconsistent with the government policy of mainstreaming, but we believe that this is a misconception.

“Deaf people who are ISL (Irish Sign Language) users need to be able to meet, socialise and make friends together just as hearing people do. This is actually consistent with mainstreaming, where people can meet with their peers and participate on an equal basis.”

O’dwyer doesn’t dispute the wider trend in the disability sector towards mainstreaming, but says “the needs are different for deaf people. The policy makers need to understand that and they still don’t understand that”.

Kevin Stanley, founder of disability organisation Inclusive Enterprises and a consultant to the project, says: “I don’t agree for a minute that the deaf village would ghettoise or effectively section off the deaf community. It will be quite the opposite, as it will become a gateway to opportunities and services, not only to deaf and hard of hearing people, but also hearing people.”

But he also believes the village will provide a space for deaf people that will help cultivate a stronger deaf culture and identity based on using Irish Sign Language.

The project was sparked in 2008 after the CIDP’S €15 million sale of the St Vincent’s Deaf Centre on the Lr Drumcondra Road to the RPA for the Metro North line in 2008.

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 to those planned for the Irish project, which 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. According to O’dwyer, this involves considering how buildings and landscaping can be designed to make using sign language easier, such as wider paths and corridors, brighter colours and lighting, and removing objects that might block peoples’ view of signing.

To outsiders, the word “deaf” in the Deaf Village Ireland might turn out to be a bit of a misnomer as it becomes clear that the village has no intention of excluding hearing people, but if they have no knowledge of – or intention of learning – Irish Sign Language, then they may not feel quite at home. “The commonality in the village is not deafness, it’s sign language,” says O’dwyer.

One issue about the village that would prove contentious within the deaf community was about who would run it. While it was accepted that the CIDP will own the land and buildings in the new development, the organisation decided, after much consultation, that it would take a hands-off approach to the running of it.

O’dwyer candidly admits that many groups within the deaf community are “understandably” wary of the CIDP as a Catholic organisation, based on experiences they would have had in the past. But by fully embracing the principle of community-led development, the CIDP fostered the idea of setting up a separate management company run by deaf people themselves, and on which it will have just one seat on the board.

“I think once they saw CIDP was putting in place, or enabling the deaf community to put in place its own management company to run the village, then the community was satisfied and ultimately are now running the project.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Times Insight quarterly magazine

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