Schools Building Tradeblocks

Amanda Joyce (centre) and the Tradeblock team building bridges to the hearing world. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

It’s a scorching spring afternoon and the iced latte orders are piling up at Tradeblock cafe, a beautiful old brick building with exposed wooden beams tucked on campus at the Victorian College for the Deaf (VCD). It’s the tenth anniversary year of this remarkable outpost where deaf and hard of hearing students learn the hospitality ropes and a whole lot more as part of the school’s VCAL program, usually over two years.

About an hour before the lunch rush kicks in, already there’s a throng, encompassing a mix of teachers – both from VCD and nearby Wesley College – and various St Kilda Road office workers.

Acting assistant principal and AEU member Amanda Joyce, who set up Tradeblock ten years ago, is pleased to see several former students chatting away in Auslan as we sit down on squishy sofas at a big, low, square table.

“That’s our job, helping them develop strategies so that they can build confidence, independence and pride – all those core things that help them to then step out into the world.”

Students enjoying their work at the Tradeblock cafe. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

The fact that the deaf community use the space as a hub for meetings thrills her, as does the number of former students who have found work in hospitality post-graduation. “The idea was to set up a really authentic workplace so that we could provide a meaningful work skills program,” Amanda says of the self-sustainable not-for-profit cafe.

“Once you step outside of this kind of environment, it’s a hearing world essentially. There are jobs in the deaf community, but they’re rare and tightly held, so we help break down some of those barriers for students. It’s a step away from the school because it’s open to the public, but they’re still supported.”

Tradeblock encourages hearing customers to learn a little Auslan as they go, with help from a handy app and a colour-coded menu you can point to if stuck. But first and foremost, it’s about empowering students. Some 120 deaf and hard of hearing kids have learned the ropes here to date, skilling them up and building confidence too.

Happy scenes at Tradeblock cafe. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Not that there aren’t initial nerves when students first pull on the apron. “Meeting the challenges can be overwhelming,” Amanda acknowledges.

“A lot of our students have very delayed language due to their deafness, so writing English can be difficult. So, at first we see these kids struggling to work out how on earth they’re going to develop the strategies they need. But that’s our job, helping them develop those strategies so that they can build confidence, independence and pride – all those things that help them step out into the world.”

A small college, VCD takes in around 60 students annually, with a cohort of about 12 in the senior years. Currently, the cafe taps seven of these seniors, including Rafael Villamerar and Dilpreet Kaur. Amanda translates as they take a quick time out.

The scrumptious chocolate cake at Tradeblock cafe. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Rafael, who wants to become a baker, says he was overwhelmed by how much there was to get a handle on when he started at Tradeblock. “But I’m confident to step outside this environment now, because I know deaf people can do everything hearing people can do,” he signs. “I’m a bit of a mentor now and help new students find their way around and support them as part of the team.”

He spent his early years in the Philippines in an all-hearing family, relying on hearing aids, but is now a dab hand at Auslan. His parents are playing catch-up. “They’re not great, but they’re learning and I’m supporting them,” Rafael smiles. “I’d love for more hearing people to become really sophisticated with signing. Tradeblock helps. My parents can see the progress I’ve made here, and there are so many different things they get to taste.”

Dilpreet was also nervous initially. “I was a bit unsure, but my teacher explained Tradeblock would be really good for helping me develop my communication skills,” she says. “It was overwhelming at first, and I asked for a lot of help from teachers and other students, but it wasn’t long before I became confident.”

Students signing as they work at the Tradeblock cafe. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Her parents are similarly proud. “Now I’m super-independent and it’s sort of similar to how I would need to communicate in any other business. Amanda has really encouraged me and given me a lot of support. We develop a real sense of team here.”

Tradeblock has been so successful they’ve expanded the kitchen and moved into catering, as well as transforming the space next door into a bike repair shop.

“I don’t have a business background, but I figured that if we do something well, then we can have a look at how it’s going and expand it,” Amanda says. “We’ve been really lucky to receive a few grants and awards for the project and it’s helped us provide employment and opportunities, and that’s amazing.”

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