THERE was a lot of excitement among the Cork Deaf community before the Dáil debate on the Irish Sign Language (ISL) Recognition Bill just before Christmas.
Over the years, Irish governments had rejected legislation relating to ISL on at least three separate occasions. Despite these setbacks, the deaf community refused to suffer in silence.
In fact, the negative actions of those rejections seemed to energise the community. A massive grassroots campaign began, led by the Irish Deaf Society (IDS).
Deaf people across the country contacted local TDs and senators asking for the decisions to be reversed, but also to sit down with their public representatives and explain to them in lay terms what ISL means and what it is like to be a deaf person in Ireland today.
And so the campaign for recognition persisted. Like a spider making its web, the campaign stalled and stumbled at times, but the community had a vision and it was determined to continue lobbying until that vision was realised. The Irish Sign Language Bill was revived in 2016 and the legislative process started again.
The bill progressed slowly through the Seanad. The IDS collected feedback from the deaf community on a regular basis, using this information to rework and improve the bill. Along with the bill sponsor, Senator Mark Daly, and various advisers, the IDS pored over the details of the bill for weeks on end and went to long and intense meetings with civil servants and the government to iron out a final draft that everyone was happy with.
Finally, a date was announced, December 14, when the bill would pass through all five Dáil stages in one sitting. But as everyone knows even a week is a long time in politics. And so, the lead up to that Thursday was tense, and filled with emotion for deaf people.
Members of the deaf community consider Irish Sign Language (ISL) to be their first and preferred language. That is why they write Deaf with a capital D: to identify themselves as part of a distinct community with its own language (in very much the same way as people write Irish, English, American, etc. with a capital letter).
The roots of ISL go back to at least the early 1800s. In 1816 Cork man Dr Charles Orpen opened the first school for deaf children in Dublin. A few years later Dr Patrick Kehoe opened a day school for deaf children in Cork. Both schools used sign language as the language of instruction. The Deaf schools in Cabra, Dublin – St Mary’s and St Joseph’s – opened in the mid-1800s.
Initially, the Deaf schools had both Deaf and hearing teachers. But this changed when oralist methods became popular. Deaf people were largely removed from teaching roles, though some worked at the schools as cooks or cleaners. All over the world, the priority of deaf schools changed from education and learning to endeavouring to ensure that children had the ability to speak.
In Ireland, some older members of the community still remember being taught by Deaf people through ISL. Many younger Deaf people would consider those older generations to be very lucky.
Despite being strictly banned, ISL survived. The schools were its natural home.
Children at the Deaf schools signed to each other in the yard and in the dorms. Older children signed to younger pupils. Pupils from Deaf families signed to their classmates. The language evolved – the children created new signs on a regular basis– and was passed on to the next generation.
ISL developed differently in the two Deaf schools: St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys and St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls.
Even though the schools were only down the road from each other, the boys and girls were not allowed meet or mix. When they left school and finally got a chance to socialise, the male variation became the ‘standard’.
For many years too, it was frowned upon to sign in public. Luckily, ISL has the capacity to be very discreet. Especially some of the signs from St. Mary’s, by which at one time, a simple movement of the head from side to side was enough to find out where someone lived.
Things are very different nowadays. Parents get a lot of information about the communication options and supports that their Deaf child can use. Many families learn ISL as the language is accessible to everyone in the family. Anyone can learn ISL.
Attitudes to using ISL to access services have improved gradually over the years, but barriers remain, especially in areas like healthcare and the justice system.
This can be frustrating, especially when Deaf people ask for interpreters but are met with blank faces, excuses or often a straight refusal, despite disability and equality legislation seemingly being on their side. But more than that, poor communication can mean poor health outcomes as well as other serious consequences.
Now with the Irish Sign Language Act, the Deaf community is optimistic that change will happen more quickly and easily. The Act specifically places a duty on public services, including courts, as well as other publicly-funded organisations, to enable ISL to be used when Deaf people avail of their services.
The legislation also makes public bodies responsible for ensuring that verified competent interpreters are used. This is an area where Ireland has made inroads.
The Centre for Deaf Studies at Trinity College was established in 2001. It is one of the leading universities in Europe for training sign language interpreters and ISL teachers. The centre has a majority Deaf staff and sets professional interpreting standards. As a result, Ireland has not had to endure the embarrassment of cowboy interpreters at public events, such as the infamous incident at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.
The community will benefit from other sections in the act too. The section covering education provides for the establishment of a scheme for ISL classes for families of Deaf children, as well as the establishment of ISL training programmes for teachers working with Deaf children and the setting of minimum qualifications for teachers of the Deaf.
Another section makes provision for support so that Deaf ISL users can enjoy greater access to social, educational and cultural activities. This has been a bugbear in the community for many years. While many people take for granted that they can attend an evening class or go to a play without any more difficulty than attending registration night or booking a ticket, up to now there have been many barriers for Deaf people. To facilitate this it is hoped that an interpreting voucher scheme will be set up in the near future.
With the act in place, members of the Deaf community are looking forward to starting 2018 as equal citizens. ISL being enshrined and protected in legislation is an acknowledgement of the Deaf community and its language that has taken many years to achieve.
The Deaf community is positive that the act will lead to greater awareness of ISL and more appreciation in society in general for the beauty and richness of this unique language.
The first International Day of Sign Languages will be celebrated on September 23 next as part of the International Week of the Deaf.
Irish Sign Language has finally been recognised as an official language in Ireland. This was a historic moment for the deaf community. Graham O’Shea of the Cork Deaf Club writes about their long campaign.