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Opinion The rights of the Deaf community have just been spectacularly undermined

Recent claims by the Government that it would support the development of key services through Irish Sign Language have been seriously undermined by the news that one national Deaf advocacy organisation has been forced to closed down.

I AM DEAF. I don’t like the term ‘hearing impaired’. It feels like I’m apologising for something. If it ever arises as an issue, I usually say, ‘I’m deaf but I hear with a cochlear implant’.

I’m thankful that implant technology works well enough for me to render my deafness all but imperceptible to most of the hearing people I encounter on a day-to-day basis. But I’m still deaf, and to say otherwise seems fundamentally dishonest.

One thing I’m not, though, is a Deaf person. As in, Deaf with a capital D. A capital-D deaf person is someone who uses sign language as their main means of communication and which they usually adopt if they go to a special school for the deaf. These people grow up using sign language and prefer the company of other deaf people who sign.

In Deaf community-parlance, I would be classed as a ‘mainstream deaf’ person because I went to a mainstream school and communicated exclusively through spoken English.

But at least one thing I have in common with Deaf people is that they, too, don’t like the term ‘hearing impaired’. They are happy – even proud – to be Deaf, because they have sign language and they have each other, and these two elements together create a strong, vibrant Deaf community and a Deaf cultural life. They don’t have a problem being deaf.

A real, living language

Having said that, in the most recent Census, Irish Sign Language was listed for the first as one of the tick-box options for the language question, and I ticked it because today I use ISL. Not all the time, and not because I need to, but to allow me to converse easily with Deaf people, including some very good Deaf friends I have made. Some 20-odd years after I went to my first ISL class, I’m still learning. And the more I do, the more I see that it is not a mere ‘communication tool’ for deaf people but a real, living and breathing language in its own right. And a beautiful one, too.

This is also why I supported a recent campaign, lead by a consortium of deaf organisations, to lobby the Government to recognise Irish Sign Language as an official language alongside spoken English and Irish. There is estimated to be around 5,000 people in Ireland who use ISL, which includes not just Deaf people, but many of their friends, family, colleagues, social workers, teachers, interpreters etc.

The impetus for this campaign is the serious deficit of information and interpreting services for the still substantial portion of the deaf community for whom ISL is their first and, in some cases, only language. Research from a few years ago revealed that 80 percent of signing deaf adults have literacy levels akin to those of eight to nine year olds compared with 25% of the general population.

The campaign, which successfully persuaded no less than 34 city and councils around the country to pass motions calling for the official recognition of ISL, culminated in a Seanad debate last January on a private member’s bill brought by FF senator Mark Daly proposing to make it mandatory for government departments and state agencies to provide interpreters and translation services in ISL any time signing deaf people needed to interact with the state.

The bill progressed to the second stage before being thrown out, although not before Minister of State for people with disabilities Kathleen Lynch said in the Seanad debate on the bill last January: “We need to be able to put in place the services which members of the deaf community need in their everyday lives before we start to put them in legislation and say they have an absolute right to something.”

Funding refused

This comes across as a reasonable point, but it has been spectacularly undermined by the news last week that one national Deaf advocacy organisation called Deaforward, an off-shoot of the Irish Deaf Society, is being forced to close down. Its most recent application to the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government for funding under the SSNO (Scheme to Support National Organisations) was refused, despite having won funding consistently under the scheme for the last 11 years and having received a personal assurance by Environment Minister Phil Hogan that this funding would continue.

It’s not yet clear why the funding was refused, but whatever the reasoning might be, it’s a brutal slap in the face of the Deaf community in light of Minister Lynch’s comments. Deaforward is an organisation that is striving to fill some of the gaps in providing information, support and education through ISL for those who need it.

In her Seanad debate speech, Minister Lynch made some encouraging words about recognising how the signing Deaf community had been excluded from wider discussions among disability groups about an implementation plan for the 2005 Disability Act, and wanted to “understand more” about the community, what its priorities were and how this could fit into the plan.

But the Deaf community has never been unclear about what its priorities are: the provision of a reasonable level of services in ISL for the Deaf community, most of whom are in poverty and who rely on the language as their primary means of communication.

The Minister also needs to realise that these are also very different priorities to those who do not sign, because signing Deaf people regard themselves more as a linguistic group rather than a group of people with disabilities. They don’t want to be mainstreamed into wider society as per the Government’s wider disability policy, they want to be together.

Cochlear implants

The net effect of the Government’s refusal to acknowledge this reality is that the needs of one group are disproportionately prioritised over the other.

One stark example is to see the millions of euro in state funding given to cochlear implants for both for children and adults (whose total numbers are still only in the hundreds). By contrast, all Deaforward applied for under the SSNO scheme was a modest €75,000 over two years to provide some essential services in ISL to at least 3,000 people a year.

If even a tiny portion of the annual funding given to CIs could be diverted to developing and supporting services in ISL, the benefit to the Deaf community in terms of quality of life would be at least equal – if not greater – to that provided to a small number of deaf people by implants.

In fact, you could argue that sign language is the most economical hearing aid ever made. As one deaf blogger put it: “It doesn’t require batteries. No oils, electronics or plastics are involved in its manufacture. It is quick to install, but it can take a few years before it is effective. And it is highly effective in face to face or group communication.”

All this is not to criticise cochlear implants in any way – I got my cochlear implant nearly three years ago. They get an overwhelmingly positive press, but this tends to obscure the fact that they won’t work for every profoundly or totally deaf person, which likely includes most of the adults among Deaforward’s client base. More importantly than that, not every deaf person wants one.

John Cradden is a freelance journalist.

For more information about Deaforward, please visit Save the IDS Deaforward Advocacy Service.

Read: Advocacy service for deaf people closes after funding cut, leaves 5,000 at risk

Read: Irish sign language website for parents launched

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