Community development has changed significantly in the last decade, and many community and activist organisations have changed to reflect this. However, it becomes a vague matter for marginalised groups where there are community organisations focused on the community development of these marginalised groups.
The Deaf community is a marginalised group, and there are many community organisations that provide services and advocacy for deaf community members. The question is: will they survive in the current context with the concepts of empowerment and participation?
There is a vast difference between various organisations within the Deaf community in how they approach community development, especially how they connect with the Deaf community.
There are two approaches in community development; top-down and bottom-up. Top-down approach is where decisions are made at the top and requires very little community participation. When decisions are made using this approach, the community is expected to implement it. If this approach is used in community development, the strengths, resources, skills and expertise of the community are usually ignored.
This can cause issues for the community, as they will feel ‘disconnected’ from their community organisation, which has been reflected with a couple of organisations and their relationship with the Deaf community. In the last few years, the Deaf community has begun feeling ‘disconnected’ from a number of organisations, thus they have lost trust in their preferred organisation; this was shown in declining membership numbers and lack of participation.
Power lies in the grassroots; however this has been forgotten as the top-down approach is constantly used in regards to making decisions for the community. Bottom-up approach is also known as grassroots development – we will use grassroots instead of bottom-up approach. A number of organisations effectively use this approach in order to work with the grassroots members within the Deaf community, and are committed to ensuring they have access to basic human rights, as this commitment is required to empower ordinary people so they can have real options for their future.
Deaf people are the ones who have experience living as a deaf person in the dominant society that consists of people who can hear. The grassroots development approach is also based on the argument that people who are affected by decisions about their future should be empowered to effectively control or influence decisions through collective action.
In 2012, Deaf Victoria submitted an inquiry into the provision of Auslan interpreters in Victorian public hospitals because they were receiving numerous complaints from deaf people across the state about public hospitals failing to provide Auslan interpreters when requested for their medical appointments. This is an excellent example of the grassroots development based on a group of people influencing decisions through collective action with the support of a community organisation.
Deaf people are often left powerless when it comes to decision-making, as they are often rendered marginal through their inability to hear. This is also considered audism, which is the belief that those with the ability to hear are superior or “normal” (Callis, 2015). Using the grassroots development approach is also an effective way to combat audism within the mainstream society.
Discrimination occurs when the needs of deaf people are ignored by others such as access to information in sign language and/or live captioning, provision of captions for films and television programs, access to education and other basic human rights. This happens often if the top-down approach is used in regards to making decisions for the deaf community. However, segregation also occurs within the deaf community where members are separated into two groups — ‘elites’ and ‘grassroots’.
Padden (2008) said that the difference between ‘elite’ and ‘grassroots’ varies in Deaf communities around the world. Based on discussions with fellow Deaf colleagues, the Australian deaf community sees ‘elites’ as these deaf people who are university educated; are members of a deaf family; hold professional jobs; and are leaders in the community, whereas ‘grassroot deaf’ are these who are deemed average people; do not hold a leadership role within the community; did not seek further education beyond high school, and are from hearing families. However, it is important to note that the deaf community in Australia is not too concerned about the segregation of ‘elites’ and ‘grassroots’ but there is the issue of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’.
Tall poppy syndrome is rife in the Australian culture, but even so in the Australian deaf community. Deaf people, who achieve something they have worked so hard for, or are well on their way to success, are often cut down by other deaf people in higher places. This kind of issue does not empower deaf people, especially these at grassroots level.
We often forget that we are humans who are productive, social and creative beings and we enter relationships with other humans in order to produce our world (Marx, 1977). Essentially, Deaf community organisations need to establish a strong rapport with the deaf community so they can support us to realise our fullest potential as equal citizens.
Empowerment is crucial for the deaf community because deaf people need to be empowered to be able to make decisions for themselves, as the concept of empowerment aims to increase the power of marginalised people. Community organisations have a social responsibility to empower their members, and we need to commit to the collective empowerment of ordinary people — that is grassroots — and to transform social structures, relations and processes. Essentially, Deaf community organisations need to give power to the deaf community so they can take matters into their own hands whilst being supported by these organisations.
Dr. Liisa Kauppinen (2015) stated that deaf people are a part of the human diversity and that we have a social responsibility to apply the CRPD to our everyday lives so we can live as equal citizens. This is where community organisations come in so they can advocate for our right to be included in the society as equal citizens. Diversity is an important part of community development as it takes place in a range of groups, and third sector organisations have a commitment to human rights and empowering marginalised people (Kenny, 2011).
Deaf community organisations have a social responsibility to strengthen the human diversity within the deaf community and in the dominant society. According to Kenny (2011), community development encourages a diversity of views, lifestyles and cultures. This is important because the deaf community is diverse, especially having Auslan recognised as the language of the Australian deaf community.
Holcomb (2013) said that the diversity of the Deaf community is so much more than just various racial, religious, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Diversity in the Deaf community makes it possible for academicians and community development practitioners to approach the Deaf experience in terms of Deaf culture and sign language (Holcomb, 2013). Deaf community organisations need to embrace the diversity of the Deaf community and to welcome people who are hard of hearing, parents of deaf children, educators, and sign language interpreters.
Participation is vital in community development especially with marginalised communities. In the Deaf community, participation is essential especially using the bottom-up approach. However, this can become problematic when people are consulted or information about a decision but has little or no power to affect it (Ife, 2013).
A strong response from the community can be expected if they are not consulted about changes to their community organisation/s. It is essential to hold community consultations with the whole community, rather than just members, so they can make decisions based on a grassroots approach, rather than using the top-down approach.
Ife (2013) says that community organisations should seriously attempt to encourage and develop community participation to overcome skepticism. The majority of the deaf community is skeptical of a number of Deaf community organisations nowadays, so they need to look at ways to overcome this — perhaps start with using the grassroots approach and establishing a rapport with the entire deaf community, rather than taking all the power and making decisions for them. This will not be achieved overnight, as it will take time as Ife (2013) said it is a slow and developmental process and requires sustainability.
There is a number of fantastic Deaf community organisations and they have done so much for the Deaf community. However, they will not survive in today’s society if they use the top-down approach, especially if they fail to establish a good & strong rapport with the Deaf community.
The bottom-up, or rather, a grassroots approach would allow the Deaf community organisations to survive in the current society – especially whilst representing Deaf people on all levels (national, state and local). Listen to the Deaf community and find out what they want, and effectively use advocacy tools to ensure Deaf people have access to basic human rights so they can participate in the society as equal citizens. Empowerment and participation are essential for the survival of Deaf community organisations, especially so they can connect with the deaf community at grassroots level. After all, Deaf community organisations are the organisations of the Deaf community.
Callis, L. Deaf Discrimination: The Fight For Equality Continues. Published on 18th July 2015 in The Huffington Post. Retrieved on 23rd August 2015 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lydia-l-callis/deaf-discrimination-the-f_b_7790204.html?ir=Australia
Holcomb, T. 2013. Introduction to American Deaf Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ife, J. 2013. Community Development in an Uncertain World. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
Kauppenin, L. 2015. Deaf People: An Important Part of Human Diversity. Presented at the XVII World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf on 28th July 2915. Istanbul, Turkey.
Kenny, S. 2011. Developing Communities for the Future. 4th edition. Melbourne: Cengage Learning Australia.
Padden, C. 2008. The decline of deaf clubs in the United States: A treatise on the problem of place. In H-D. Bauman (Ed.), Open your eyes: Deaf studies talking (pp.169-176). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.