Saturday 3 December 2016

Proud to be deaf - Irish woman Lisa Carroll (45) who swam the English Channel

Being deaf may have its drawbacks, but tenacious sportswoman Lisa Carroll tells our reporter that her life has been transformed by joining a like-minded group of deaf swimmers that conquered the English Channel

Joy Orpen

Published 08/02/2016 | 02:30

Tenacious sportswoman Lisa Carroll. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Tenacious sportswoman Lisa Carroll. Photo: Gerry Mooney.

Even though it's mid-winter, Lisa Carroll (45) and two friends shed their warm clothes and plunge into the chilly Irish Sea. They stroke their way through the choppy waters and eventually round a distant buoy. When they return to the iconic Forty Foot, Lisa is freezing, but she's still upbeat. "I get so cold I can't feel my body, but I keep on swimming anyway," she quips with a grin. Later, nursing a cup of hot chocolate in Dun Laoghaire, she explains that she is a member of the Irish Deaf Women's Group (IDWG).

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Dubliner Lisa was born deaf. "It's genetic, on both sides of my family," she says. However, two powerful hearing aids allow her to hear some sounds, but even so, her speech is sometimes difficult to understand. "When I take my hearing aid out, I'm stone deaf," she explains.

Lisa attended St Mary's School for Deaf Girls in Cabra. "I enjoyed being there, and felt 'normal' because everyone else was deaf," she says. However, 30 years ago, things were not as enlightened as they are today. "Mum was told not to learn how to sign," explains Lisa. "We weren't allowed to sign at school either. So how was I supposed to communicate with other deaf people? We had to lip-read all the time, which was exhausting."

Today, all that has changed. Now, Irish Sign Language (ISL) is a popular method of communicating at the school. Its principal, Eimear O'Rourke, says, "Our pupils communicate both orally and through ISL. Many of our teachers hold a qualification in deaf education, and most teachers and SNAs have a high degree of competence in ISL.

"In addition, the pupils have access to speech and language therapy."

And while St Mary's forges ahead helping its charges achieve their full potential, those very same pupils are, according to Lisa, being held back by official policy. "The Government doesn't recognise our right to communicate through ISL," she says. "That's why it's so hard for us to get into college, and why our opportunities for further education are so limited."

She points out that accessing public services is also a huge problem for deaf people, as there is no provision for ISL interpreters. "I don't want my neighbour, or my mammy, or my husband having to tell my doctor about a very personal medical problem I may have, or talking to the bank manager about my account," Lisa says. "Where's the freedom or dignity in that?"

She says a Caribbean cruise catering for deaf people was a real eye-opener for her. "If you had a problem, you went to reception, and there was an interpreter to help you. All the shows had interpreters. For the first time in my life, I fitted in." That's why Lisa is personally encouraging parents of deaf children to send them to St Mary's, which is currently amalgamating with St Joseph's School for Deaf Boys.

"They won't feel right in a mainstream school," she says. "They won't learn to sign, they won't be able to communicate easily, and they won't fit in as easily as at a deaf school. These days, St Mary's has every facility imaginable, including a lovely swimming pool. It's just like any other good school, with the added advantage that it makes provision for hearing difficulties."

When she completed her education, Lisa secured a job with an electronics company. "I got promotion after promotion," she volunteers. "Deafness never held me back." But she believes she was one of the luckier ones. "After they finished school, parents would take their deaf son or daughter home to isolated farms, and, following those parents' deaths, some of those children didn't do too well."

That is one of the reasons why Lisa (who is married, and has two hearing children) got involved in the IDWG; to help deaf people reintegrate into the deaf community, thus avoiding isolation. The IDWG provides information, events, workshops and services, facilitated by ISL interpreters, for deaf people in Ireland. In order to raise funds for the group, Lisa joined a team of swimmers a few years back. "We started in the pool at the Deaf Village [in Dublin] but we were just messing - deaf people never stop talking [signing] about things like EastEnders, even in the pool," she says. "Then we heard there were sea races over the summer, so we joined a club. Our first race was in Portmarnock. I wasn't prepared at all. We realised we'd have to start taking our training more seriously. We knew we would have to do this, if we were going to build our confidence."

Then the women got a very good coach who, Lisa says, "whipped" them into shape with tough training programmes. When Lisa swam competitively for the first time in Lough Lene, Co Westmeath, she came last. A year later, she won that very same race.

"My family was there, supporting me," she recalls. "I really got a buzz out of that."

Then came the group's really big challenge - swimming the English Channel. It took some serious planning to arrange a boat, a pilot, a slot when the weather was right, a hotel and flights. Until the very last moment, the seven women were up against so many obstacles, (weather and boat availability) they thought they wouldn't make the crossing at all. But it all came together, and on July 7, 2014, they set off from Dover. Each team member swam for an hour at a time.

When they made land at Calais, team members Deirdre Byrne Dunne and Nora Duggan picked up stones from the beach and, having shown them to the pilot, they returned to the boat for the return journey. The swim took 14 hours, 14 minutes and 44 seconds.

"It was absolutely amazing, and we raised €32,000," says Lisa. "Because we trained hard every single weekend, the crossing was not as difficult as we had expected.

"It was a huge boost to our confidence. Swimming in the sea all year round helps my mental health. I get a buzz from it, even when it is very cold. And no, we don't wear wetsuits."

Lisa says she plans to go on swimming, and hopes to be even more adventurous, emulating the experiences of team members who have swum around the Statue of Liberty, and another two, who are planning to plough through the Bosphorus, swimming from Asia to Europe.

In conclusion, Lisa has absolutely no regrets about her life. "I'm very proud to be deaf. If I wasn't deaf, I don't know who I would be now."

For more information, contact the Irish Deaf Women's Group, tel: (01) 860-1878, see deafwomen.ie or email info@deafwomen.ie

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