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'It can feel daunting': Ireland's first Deaf candidate wants to break down the electoral barriers

30-year-old Micheál Kelliher is running as an Independents 4 Change candidate in the Cabra-Glasnevin constituency.

MICHEÁL KELLIHER IS the first Deaf person to run for election in Ireland.

Although the Deaf community is active in campaigning, there are obstacles when it comes to running for a seat on a council or in the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Kelliher said he is hoping to break down some of the barriers in his local election campaign and encourage more Deaf people to take the chance and throw their hats into the ring. 

“Canvassing requires a lot of time and without any funding, hiring interpreters is a huge financial strain on any campaign. Attending meetings can be more challenging as well. 

I wanted to attend a small political party’s public meeting and had requested an interpreter. However they were struggling to pay for rent, never mind paying for an interpreter. The same happens with grassroots campaigns, where they don’t have any funding for interpreters. 
Canvassing will be the biggest challenge. I’m fortunate that I have a great team of interpreters willing to volunteer with me. 

“And that’s only the challenges I’m aware of as a Deaf person, there are many more for people with different disabilities like wheelchair access etc. It can all feel daunting and discourage people from participating,” he told TheJournal.ie.

Discrimination

Kelliher, who is running as an Independents 4 Change candidate in the Cabra-Glasnevin constituency in Dublin, grew up just outside Dingle in Co Kerry and moved to Cabra when he was 12. There he attended St Joseph’s School for the Deaf and went on to qualify as a software engineer.

“I’ve been volunteering in the Deaf community for the last seven years with a few organisations for Deaf people. I understood what Deaf people were going through, because I went through it myself.

I had experienced barriers and discrimination in private education and during job-hunting. It’s where I became committed to social justice.

The 30-year-old was always interested in politics but he said getting involved in the Right2Water and Together for Yes campaign had a big impact on him.

“I was a speaker at one of Right2Water’s rallies and spoke out saying that the water charges would affect vulnerable members of our society disproportionately,” he said.

“I was involved with a few Together for Yes groups. One of them was Deaf Community Together for Yes and our aims were to inform Deaf community in their own language, ISL and to add a Deaf perspective to the discourse on access and reproductive rights, like no access to ISL abroad.”

He has also been active in campaigning for the recognition of Irish Sign Language (ISL).

So why Independents 4 Change? Kelliher said TDs and activists involved in the party have “fought hard” for the Deaf community, most recently highlighting the need to prevent the closure of the Irish Deaf Society. 

“I got great support from them when I was volunteering in the Deaf community long before I decided to stand for elections”. 

Canvassing has been going well, Kelliher said.

“A lot of people are excited about me standing for the local elections as the first Deaf person and as a democratic socialist.

“I’m building up a good profile out there, through mainstream and social media.”

Kelliher acknowledges there has been some progress in facilitating participation in politics for Deaf people since the Irish Sign Language Act was signed into law in 2017. 

Under this legislation, public bodies have to provide sign language interpretation when requested – and this applies to the council and Dáil chambers.

But he pointed out that there is a special funding scheme in the UK, called the Access to Elected Office Fund, which supports people with disabilities who stand for election. There is no similar fund here and he will be highlighting that over the course of his campaign. 

When asked in January about any plans to pilot a similar scheme, Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform John Paul Phelan said there were no current plans to do this.

Phelan said: “The focus of my Department’s work in this area relates to progressing the accessibility of voting and voter information, which is set down in the National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2017 -2021 as an action point for my Department in order to improve the participation of persons with disability in political and public life.”

Kelliher said Deaf people are often “forgotten about and left out” in policy and legislation. He used the CervicalCheck scandal as an example, pointing out that when the HSE set a helpline, it was not accessible for Deaf women.

The HSE’s crisis pregnancy information line also had the same problem. 

He said he believes he can “add a Deaf perspective” to many issues as they arise and “fight to have all public services accessible for everyone”. 

“Vote for me and I will fight for politics based on human rights and not your pockets.”

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