MICHAEL Callanan is in the furniture business. These days, he’s an estimator for a company that does upholstery, repair and restoration. He travels county-wide, costing revamps to people’s much-loved heirlooms.
“I say if you’re going to do the job, do it right,” he says. “When you give someone a good job, they don’t care about the price. If you give someone a bad job, that’s when they remember the price!”
Michael, from Blackrock, came up in the trade; he left school to do a FÁS course in carpentry and joinery in the 1980s before being taken on as an apprentice by the firm he’s worked with for 30 years, bar a five-year stint in a partnership that folded.
“I did the French polishing, the upholstery, the furniture repair…I did all the jobs, and that’s how I became the estimator, because I know what all the jobs are,” he says.
Michael is deaf. As are his colleagues: the company he works for is Cork Deaf Enterprises (CDE), where a staff of 22 trainees and professionals work restoring furniture.
He’s got partial deafness, and so is fully able to hold a spoken conversation, but many of his work colleagues are profoundly deaf. On the factory floor, where workers are re-upholstering a set of theatre seats, cutting fabric and working on a fabulous green-upholstered sofa, the usual workplace chatter is replaced with almost total silence; a lot of the communication is through Irish Sign Language (ISL).
Cork Deaf Enterprises has just celebrated its 30th year in business. Opened in 1988 by Fr Bill Clarke, it was set up to tackle the high rates of unemployment among Cork’s deaf community but has been involved in many different schemes through its history. To this day, its Ballinlough workshop is Ireland’s only dedicated employer of deaf and hard of hearing people.
Today, despite the historic Irish Sign Language recognition bill having been passed last December, integrated schools, and numerous technological improvements like cochlear implants, deaf and hard of hearing people still face a range of challenges in education and employment.
The most recent census figures, from 2011, show that while 62% of the national population aged between 20 and 64 were in employment, that compared to just 42% of the deaf and hard of hearing.
In third-level education, the figures are even more stark; 25% of the national labour force were registered as not being in work due to sitting a programme of studies. Amongst deaf people, the figure was just 6%.
Michael’s education dates back to an era where deaf children’s only hope of a school education was to be sent away from home to attend Ireland’s two Dublin-based dedicated schools for the deaf: St Mary’s for the girls, and St Joseph’s for the boys.
“If I was born today, I’d probably go into an ordinary school,” he says. “But way back in 1977, we were all sent up to St Joseph’s in Cabra. If I had gone into a normal class with 35 students, all I’d pick up would be background noises and I wouldn’t hear anything. So I went to Dublin.”
Maltreatment of the vulnerable deaf children at St Joseph’s, run by the Christian Brothers, would eventually form part of the Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse, but Michael says this was not his experience and that his own time at the school was a happy one.
He decided to enter a trade rather than complete his Leaving Cert, against the advice of his teachers.
“But the problem in the early eighties was that you had to start your carpentry or joinery trade before a certain age, and that’s where I was caught,” Michael says. “I had to leave, because that was the job I thought I wanted to do. But I was sorry I never did my Leaving Cert; I should have done it. I would have preferred to have gone higher.”
But Michael still thoroughly enjoys his job, not least his enormous pride in the craftsmanship.
“We’re not even advertising, and we’re still getting business,” he says. “Every house that I call to, they say ‘I’ve seen your work somewhere else and your work is brilliant’.”
Michael may have been around from day one, but manager Conor Cahill is something of a newbie: he only took up his role with CDE, which is a non-profit organisation, two years ago. In a previous career, Conor had risen up the ranks in waste management before starting to suffer from chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia: although he’s not deaf, he has a disability, as do all of the CDE staff except one person.
“The bug has bitten me,” Conor smiles. “When I do something, I go all in. I’m signed up for sign language in February and I’m trying to learn about deaf culture now.”
Conor is overseeing CDE’s strategic plan 2018-2021: he’s ambitious about what can be achieved. He wants to provide more training services. Seeing the potential in his colleagues, he also sees their own unique set of challenges.
“I have four employees here who are extremely gifted, and who, in the hearing world, would probably have moved on to Master Craftsman if they had the support behind them,” he says. “There are lots of issues for the deaf community there are multiples of other issues that historically come with being deaf.”
Conor’s ambitious plans for the CDE include Education and Training Board backing so that their training courses are accredited and transferrable, and he also wants to expand them beyond just furniture-making skills. He believes CDE can play a vital role in getting a broad spectrum of deaf people work-ready.
“All the sectors in any business can be managed by a deaf person with the level of technology there is now,” he says. “Whether it’s in HR or Health and Safety, they can pick up the skill and then move to another company, or wherever they want to move. That’s our vision; not just a token gesture.
“We want to do broader mentoring and be able to introduce people to training on other sites.”
At the same time, he believes, CDE can help protect some trades from dying out: “Upholstering is gone from being a recognised trade: in 20 years, that’s a skill that will be gone. We’ve a tailor here that had his own shop in Winthrop Street for years, and now it’s a dying trade. That’s going to be a shame.”
Celebrating the wonderful milestone of 30 years in business is a real cause for joy for the whole team at CDE, but they don’t want to be stuck in the past; under Conor’s guidance, CDE have doubled their staff and increased sales by 20% so far.
“They provided at the time what I believe they thought was a basic skill set of polishing and upholstering,” Conor says. “But it was treated like a charity and not a business. It’s time for that to change.”