RTÉ 1 showed a documentary called London Calling earlier this year. The programme highlighted a silent phenomenon in the history of Irish emigration: Irish deaf people going to the UK because there are better job opportunities there.
Deaf people here in Ireland face barriers on a daily basis, including critical areas such as healthcare and justice. But one of the biggest obstacles is the lack of job opportunities and the poor attitude shown to Deaf people during their job search.
Looking for a job in UK as a Deaf person is a completely different experience; they have the Access To Work scheme. Under ATW anyone with a disability can apply for support services worth up to £57,000 per year. As a result, Deaf employees can book interpreters and other supports (e.g. notetakers) to assist them carry out their work.
Knowing that they are supported by the government, regardless of their employees’ requirements, UK businesses can take a positive approach to recruitment.
Eoin Burns from Cork moved to London to take up a role in a construction company. He books sign language interpreters and/or notetakers for meetings as he needs them. He is highly qualified, with a Masters from UCC, and tried to find work here before relocating to London, but he found himself arguing with potential employers about the safety of him being on site. His current position is design manager on major construction projects. His company has promoted him three times in five years.
Tom Mulloy’s parents are also Deaf and use Irish Sign Language as their first language. Today Tom is chief accountant for the London borough, Barking and Dagenham. The council has an annual turnover of £1 billion. Tom manages a team, all of whom are hearing. To do his job as well as he does, he counts on the services of sign language interpreters paid for by ATW.
Research from 2011 into the ATW scheme found that for every £1 spent on supports, the government took in £1.48. On that basis, it would make sense for the Irish government to set it up here too. At present, the Department of Social Protection only covers interpretation costs for job interviews and basic induction. Many employers, however, are not aware that this is even a possibility.
Many of these Deaf jobseekers qualified here; the government pays for support services in third level education. Like the programme presenter, Joanne Chester, who is considering moving to the UK, they are talented and enthusiastic. They want to stay; they don’t want to be forced to emigrate because of the inaction of generations of Irish governments. In fact, Joanne, along with other Deaf people, has taken to social media to lobby the Minister for Employment Affairs, Regina Doherty, to set up an ATW scheme here. But for some, there is no choice as they would have no chance of finding work in their field. It’s a Deaf brain drain.
For those who stay at home, the situation is complex with long-lasting consequences. A lucky few are in good jobs, but for most the situation is stark.
Despite having completed many courses, including a Masters, I have struggled to find full- time employment. I work as a freelance Irish Sign Language and Deaf Awareness Training tutor. I enjoy it, but it’s part-time and it does not provide a steady stream of income. Over the years I have engaged with several different employment services, to no avail. Some have had a positive attitude, but underestimate the level of prejudice that exists in society towards Deaf candidates. Others take a different approach, sending you on endless training courses, identifying work experience ‘opportunities’ (again and again), regardless of your previous experience. They encourage you to apply for the lowest paid factory jobs or yet another CE scheme. Their low expectations are demoralising and dehumanising.
In 2006 the Irish Deaf Society published research on the education and employment experiences of Deaf adults in Ireland. It concluded that the Deaf community has a strong work ethic, but that long-term unemployment and chronic underemployment are real prospects for Deaf school-leavers.
The jobs that are offered to us tend to be in low level clerical or manual occupations with slim possibilities of being promoted. The report states: “Far from employment being a source of emancipation for Deaf adults, it is a place of low pay, poor prospects and considerable isolation… [Deaf employees’] profile [is] of dutiful workers, tending to stick with the same employer, reluctant to stand out from the crowd, who are poorly paid relative to 21 st century Ireland.”
The situation has barely improved in the intervening years.
The benefits of work are not just economic; it is also vital to psychological wellbeing. Mental health difficulties are more common in the Deaf community. It would not be surprising if a lack of equal work opportunities contributed to this.
London Calling was not easy viewing. It confirmed what we already knew, that Ireland is no place for who Deaf people want to fulfil their potential.
The Deaf community in Ireland is small; many of us will have met one or more of the people featured on the programme. You can only feel proud of them and their achievements, but inevitably it leads you to reflect on your own situation and how little the government here is doing to provide meaningful access to work.
To view the programme watch London Calling on https://www.rte.ie/player/movie/london-calling/100117032437