Is MacCurtain St set to be the most deaf accessible place in the whole country

An ambitious project is underway by Cork Deaf Society, to encourage traders along MacCurtain Street to make their businesses more accessible to deaf and hard of hearing persons. ELLIE O’BYRNE finds out more
Is MacCurtain St set to be the most deaf accessible place in the whole country
Geraldine (Gerrie) O'Grady of Cork Deaf Association pictured across from The Metropole Hotel on MacCurtain Street, Cork.Picture; Larry Cummins

“YOU can start with yourself, and you can start with your street.”

That’s the message the Cork Deaf Association (CDA) want to send out as they launch their pilot scheme to make MacCurtain Street the most deaf and hard-of-hearing accessible street in Ireland.

The CDA plans to ask every business on MacCurtain Street to take part in a “deaf audit” of their business to see how accessible their business is to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

Following the audit, the CDA will make recommendations on how the business can improve its services to deaf customers, and then present compliant businesses with a “CDA Deaf and Hard of Hearing Friendly Award” and stickers to display on their premises.

CDA manager Gerrie O’Grady is keen to highlight that the steps businesses can take towards becoming more deaf-friendly are often small, such as improving signage and keeping a pad and pen on countertops to aid communication with deaf customers.

“People think it’s going to be really difficult to make their business more accessible,” Gerrie says.

“They think it means a lot of money and a lot of effort, but it can be as simple as the position of cutlery in relation to seating in your café or restaurant.”

Besides any other considerations, Gerrie says, it’s simply good business sense to get involved: one in seven Irish people is affected by deafness or hearing loss, and gaining a good reputation with hard-of-hearing customers will have positive effects on a business’ custom.

“I can tell you for a fact that people avoid businesses if they know communication will be difficult,” Gerrie says.

“If a hard-of-hearing person knows that they’re going to get an accessible service, that’s a draw for your business and over the years an awful lot of our clients have complained that they don’t know of good restaurants to go to, for example.”

With the Cork Deaf Association celebrating 50 years on MacCurtain Street in 2016 and a historic ‘Recognition of Irish Sign Language (ISL) for the Deaf Community’ Bill before the Dáil, Gerrie says the time is right to show that small changes can make the world of difference.

“History is made every day, in the big ways, like the Irish Sign Language Bill, but also in the small ways, like how we control our interactions,” Gerrie says. “We have such a diverse street here, with such a wide variety of businesses. We could set an amazing example for the rest of Cork and the rest of Ireland.”

The Metropole Hotel was the first business on the street to take part when they volunteered for the pilot project.

CDA advocacy officer Susan O’Callaghan, who is deaf, stayed overnight in the hotel and used the restaurant, bar and leisure facilities before compiling a report and a list of advice on practical changes the hotel, which changed ownership in 2015, could make.

“They were 100% on board,” Gerrie says. “It was really heartening and they were completely receptive.”

She added that they are implementing a lot of what the CDA suggested. Changes made by the hotel include a printed information sheet and an audio induction loop system at reception. An audio induction loop is a magnetically transmitted signal that hearing aid users can tune into to cut out unwanted background noise.

When the CDA held their 50th anniversary celebration in the hotel in early October, they provided Deaf Awareness training to hotel staff before the event. The Metropole increased their signage, staff knew how to sign “please” and “thank you”, writing pads were positioned at every place and course changes were signalled by a flick of the light switches.

“We had 155 guests from all over Ireland and three quarters of them were deaf,” Gerrie says. “We could see these fantastic changes that we never see any hotel doing. It felt so good. It was quite profound because it underlined how the smallest effort can make a difference.”

While larger businesses may be able to make bigger changes, smaller businesses such as shops can participate towards making MacCurtain Street an all-Ireland first with simple steps. “Just turning the background music down a little can make a huge difference,” Gerrie says.

Although the CDA always advise their service users to control their own environment and tell staff in businesses if they are having problems, the isolating effect of having to assert yourself in every interaction can be off-putting for many deaf people, who may simply avoid returning to a business that doesn’t cater to them.

“An awful lot of older people who have hearing loss but who always identified as hearing don’t like to make a big deal because they suffer from embarrassment because of their hearing loss,” Gerrie says, while for people born deaf, for whom ISL is their first language, “meeting communication barriers everywhere you go makes it difficult to have to constantly assert yourself, especially in a language that’s not necessarily your own,” she says.

The deaf community is awaiting the Dáil vote on the Irish Sign Language Bill, which would require all public services to be available in ISL, a vital step in improving the state’s treatment of its deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens, Gerrie believes.

“This is a civil rights issue,” she says. “Sign language is currently considered a support service and not a legal language in its own right. People have a right to access information through Irish but not through sign language, even though it may be your first language. I’m not a fluent Irish speaker; asking a native sign language user to conduct all their business through English is the equivalent of asking me to conduct all my business — healthcare, banking, everything — through Irish.”

The CDA encounter deaf people who are forced to pay €150 for their own interpreter to access healthcare. A vote for the ISL Bill will change Irish culture and awareness, Gerrie, who has worked with the CDA for more than 10 years, says.

“There are all these barriers in society and people don’t even take them into account. In 2016 we spoke a lot about citizenship. It’s wonderful that in 2016 we could celebrate that, but the constitution guarantees equal rights and opportunities to all citizens. Here we are 100 years later and a deaf or hard of hearing people quite obviously don’t have equal rights and opportunities.”

Ultimately, Gerrie would like to see Cork become a flagship city for deaf accessibility, but looking to the future begins a little closer to home, she says, and is a gradual process.

“This can be a wonderful destination spot for people, with loads of restaurants, bars, shops and entertainment.

“We envisage that word will spread all over the country that MacCurtain Street is a great base for stays in the city. But we wanted to show how achievable this is first. Timelines can put people under pressure. I’d love to say, ‘in six months this is where we’ll be’, but it’s a long project.”

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