Deaf clubs are dying out – but an unlikely saviour could be here | Tech News

Can a virtual club recreate the Deaf club boom of the 70s (Picture: Google/meta)

530 Valencia Street isn’t as remarkable – or punk – as it once was.

Now the location of Los Amigos Mexican restaurant, its pale wooden front and bay windows sandwiched between apartment blocks, it was once home to San Francisco’s vibrant Deaf community, where bass-heavy performances reportedly resulted in police raids and noise complaints.

Away from mainstream social establishments, these Deaf clubs created an essential sense of belonging and empowerment for a community which is so often left isolated and excluded.

Not only were they home to entertaining nights out, but also a hub of lived experiences and resources, a place to meet new people, and the physical embodiment of Deaf culture.

To Rebecca Withey, a writer for The Limping Chicken, they are ‘undeniably powerful – both to a Deaf person’s life and how it shapes their identity’.

‘Going to Walsall Deaf Club growing up,’ she writes, ‘it was the one place where I didn’t have to fall in line with the hearing “societal norms”.

‘I didn’t have to keep my voice down and I could laugh as loud as I wanted. I could be as animated and expressive as I liked. I could order a drink at the bar using sign language and I could chat to just about anyone who came into the centre.”

The punk and Deaf scenes collided in 1970s San Francisco (Picture: Hearst)

Across the pond and a considerable way from Walsall, Valencia Street is a lot quieter these days. Like many other once great clubs across the world, it shut up shop amid financial pressures and emerging technologies simplifying communication within the Deaf community.

Yet one of the very things responsible for the decline of their physical presence could set them up for a modern-day resurgence – thanks to the rising tech phenomenon that is the metaverse.

It’s the new dimension which prompted a surprise rebrand from Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook (now Meta) in October 2021, but the company’s metaverse vision – of chatting to colleagues remotely in virtual boardrooms, or replacing the gym with headsets – is yet to be fully realised.

Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, is hoping we all move into the Metaverse (Picture: Getty)

However, activist and artist Melissa Malzkuhn has spotted a niche into which it may just fit perfectly – and in a very familiar location.

After learning of 530 Valencia Street’s history, she has launched the first Deaf club in HTC’s Viverse – another open platform for computerised worlds – set in a virtual version of the famous location.

‘I was chatting with [Deaf model and Dancing with the Stars winner] Nyle DiMarco, and we had a lengthy conversation about this project,’ she explains to

Deaf model Nyle DiMarco first alerted Melissa to the club (Picture: Getty)
Melissa has launched the first virtual Deaf club (Picture: Wei Wang)

The pair had been eating in a restaurant one door down from the club and Nyle explained: “I don’t know if you know, Melissa, but there used to be a Deaf club in San Francisco that’s long gone now, but it is a historical landmark here in the city”.

Reportedly set up in the 1930s, the story goes that in 1978 Daphne Hanrahan, manager of punk band The Offs, discovered the club for herself. Soon, two of the city’s underground communities converged for messy nights and big vibrations – an atmosphere which sparked noise complaints from neighbours before it closed with one last concert a year later.

That sense of community is one which Melissa hopes to re-establish in the metaverse – though probably without the chaotic backdrop from the 70s.

Rebuilt as a digital environment for people to navigate and explore through VR headsets, the virtual Valencia Street building contains several large rooms for users to – one day – interact with other real-life individuals through avatars, as well as spaces to exhibit information and content about Deaf culture.

‘With the metaverse, you really can go anywhere – anything goes,’ says Melissa, founder of the Motion Light Lab at Gallaudet University for Deaf and hard of hearing students. ‘I wanted to create a grounding experience for artists to express and connect within a singular space.’ 

Melissa’s project is one of the first-ever commissions from the CripTech Metaverse Lab – a collaboration between tech manufacturer HTC’s VIVE Arts initiative, the arts festival Gray Area and think tank Leonardo.

And if this is the future of the Deaf club, it is – quite literally – bright.

Nowadays the once famous Deaf Club is home to a Mexican restaurant
But in the Metaverse, it is a glowing hub for the Deaf Community (Picture: Melissa Malzkuhn)

Putting on a VR headset, my eyes take a second to adjust to the neon signage which greets me outside the virtual club. Expressive artworks – 50, in total – adorn the walls on both floors, while videos are projected showing moments of Deaf history and how to sign the American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet. 

The potential for it to replicate the physical information hubs of the past is certainly there.

‘Even looking back to the 1980s in London, there were an impressive 44 Deaf clubs in a single town,’ recalls David Simmons, an app designer and ASL teacher.

‘These venues have always been our equivalent of a cinema, offering us the opportunity to enjoy subtitled movies long before televisions sets became a common feature in our homes.’

David Simmons is a big fan of online deaf clubs

David says his personal experience with the digital club was ‘truly mind-blowing’.

‘It marked my first encounter with a Deaf-centric metaverse, complete with a rich tapestry of artworks by Deaf artists, symbolic representations, motifs, Deaf Cinema, and even merchandise,’ he adds. 

‘Melissa’s meticulous attention to detail deserves special recognition and appreciation.’

But why did these ‘social hubs’ die out on such a substantial scale? 

‘I think there are many factors to that,’ says Melissa. ‘Some of it is just economic, some of it is operational.

‘Before, having captions was often not available, having access was not available, so folks would have to go to the same place… and then they would see each other.

‘But now that more accessibility is available to us and laws have changed, those spaces have diminished.’

Virtual drink? (Picture: Melissa Malzkuhn)

David adds that although the community spirit held by Deaf people is ‘undeniably strong’, the rapid evolution of technology has dispersed some of the communities.

‘While we now have the convenience of communicating with Deaf friends through electronic interfaces, we risk missing out on the wisdom, support, and leadership of the larger community,’ he says.

Change, however, can be a daunting prospect, and when its potential replacement is a technology that Melissa herself concedes is lacking a ‘universal definition’, it can be hard to know where to start. 

Virtual artworks are displayed throughout (Picture: Melissa Malzkuhn)
Melissa on stage at the Gray Area festival

‘It really should be a space for every single person,’ she says. ‘Anyone and everyone should be able to access the metaverse, but we know that that’s not true, right? We’re having to wait for that technology to be accessible for the everyday person.’

As we talk in a quiet room in the Grand Theater in the city’s Mission District, I’m reminded of the fact that the HTC Vive headsets required to enter her Deaf Club come with the standard ‘point and shoot’ controller. The dexterity required to be able to communicate in sign language isn’t available yet – which is a big problem.

It’s an issue acknowledged by Conor Kelly-Cummins, a Deaf and hard of hearing teacher, when describing his experience with the VR headset. 

Conor Kelly-Cummins tested out the metaverse Deaf club (Picture: Mizue Callejas)
The club has several rooms and a rooftop bar (Picture: Melissa Malzkuhn)

‘[There’s] a ton of potential for sure; I just wish the communication part was more flowing as sign language,’ he says. ‘Currently, there are some new VR hand controllers that allow you to use every finger independently, but it’s still mostly utilised for picking things up and interacting with objects in the world than it is for sign language.’

Melissa is also starkly aware of the obvious cost factors behind VR headsets, as well – something made clear and frank to her when speaking to the 30 artists whose work is exhibited in the virtual space.

‘I asked each of them if [they had any sort of VR equipment headset] – and every single person said no,’ says Melissa.

And yet, interest in both augmented and virtual reality is already there, with ‘subtitles glasses’ introduced by the likes of the National Theatre and British firm XRAI making headlines in recent years.

Deaf people who are more apprehensive about the solutions offered by the metaverse are also wondering what solutions aren’t offered by existing technology.

Lisa Davies has some concerns over relying on technology to interact with others

‘The idea is certainly interesting and would be an excellent medium for people to connect online in a “Deaf Club” that is metaversal. But aren’t we already doing that anyway via video calls, online video chat rooms and so on?,’ argues Lisa Davies, a Deaf marketing and multimedia specialist.

‘Although this may bring the environment of a Deaf club to you, it will never be able to replace the emotional and physical aspect of attending in person.

‘Being isolated is one of the main reasons why more Deaf people have issues with their mental health, and while attending a Deaf club in the metaverse may help to reduce that horrible feeling of being lonely, there is a risk that you will feel even more lonely when you log out – or you may become addicted to needing to be online all the time, as we are now seeing, unfortunately.’

However, David is more optimistic. 

‘Within Melissa’s immersive metaverse, there exists ample space for Deaf club enthusiasts to come together, with various rooms offering opportunities for socialisation and engaging in activities,’ he says.

Melissa very much sees her Deaf Club as a work in progress, though. On the second floor, a display talks of hopes to have 3D sculptures in the space, as well as live performances and narrative-driven experiences.

‘This is version 1.0,’ she says, ‘and I would like to have 2.0 and 3.0 in the future. We’ll see how far we can take this project.

‘The metaverse is a wonderful new way where we can pull some of those things from the past into the future, and relive those things in a digital memorial – a digital memoir of past experiences.’

It’s in its early stages, but it still manages to capture a community nostalgia through the most unusual and ‘explosive’ of revivals – punk, in a whole new sense of the world.

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