Wednesday 26 June 2019

Deaf community roar for recognition of sign language

Eddie Redmond and Elaine Grehan
Eddie Redmond and Elaine Grehan

Claire McCormack

Sign language gives tens of thousands of Irish people the priceless gift of communication - but it's still unrecognised as an official language by the State.

Now, 40 local authorities are heaping pressure on the Government to fully recognise Irish Sign Language (ISL) as an official language, the Sunday Independent has learned.

More than a year after the Seanad rejected a bill to legally recognise ISL, county and city councils, all over the country, have passed a motion on the issue to "help put pressure on local TDs".

After more than 30 years of campaigning, Eddie Redmond CEO of the Irish Deaf Society (IDS) says the community still feels hugely isolated and ignored at national level.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mr Redmond said: "The Government have been avoiding the issue. There is huge uproar among the deaf community, because we are cut off from access to information.

"Every citizen should have access to services as a human right, and until there is adequate provision, the deaf community will continue to be discriminated against and there will be a constant invalidation," he said.

Eight years ago, the Irish government signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which contains duties towards native sign languages. To date, Ireland remains one of the few European countries that have not ratified the convention into law.

Meanwhile, 45 other countries - including the UK and Northern Ireland - have granted legal status to their own unique sign language.

"We constantly have to depend on English, our second language, for access to information. We've been left in the dark on announcements about the local property tax, water charges and the Marriage Equality Referendum, because announcements are made on the radio, television and newspapers with no translation," said Mr Redmond.

There are currently around 5,000 deaf people in Ireland who communicate through sign. In addition, an estimated 40,000 other people - including family members, interpreters, community workers, teachers and students - use the language.

However, there are only 70 interpreters across the State.

Last October, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, insisted the Government is committed to examining different mechanisms to promote the recognition of ISL.

However, she also said the focus remains on "improving service delivery on the ground, rather than on its designation as an official language".

For the deaf community, recognition of ISL would mean more legal rights and better access to public services - including education, healthcare, media and banking. Plus, better employment opportunities and a higher-quality interpreting service.

Until then, Elaine Grehan, advocacy manager at the IDS, who has been deaf since birth, said "everyday will remain a struggle".

"It's a challenge in terms of isolation and for mental health. There is a higher percentage of depression among deaf people and it's contributing to that. For a lot of services, the only option might be for access via phone call," Ms Grehan said through an interpreter.

Dr John Bosco Conama, assistant professor at the Centre for Deaf Studies at Trinity College, told the Sunday Independent that the treatment of ISL by numerous governments "has not been a happy one".

"Even to this day, it has been demonised in some way. ISL has been seen as an inferior language or being a compensatory tool rather than being treated as a language in its own right," he said.

For Dr Conama, who is also an avid campaigner on the issue, the rejection of the ISL Bill by the Seanad in January 2014 left a negative impact on many deaf people and a feeling that "their State doesn't attach the importance to their language, moreover their right to express it".

At the moment, the campaign aims to get all county and city councils to pass the motion calling on the government to recognise ISL by this summer.

The issue will also be raised in a report to be discussed at a United Nations meeting in Geneva in June.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fail Senator Mark Daly, who is in favour of the recognition of ISL, said there is a lack of political will on the issue.

"Political will, not cost, is the main issue. The most tragic part to all this is that the deaf community is suffering silent discrimination because they can't access services and state institutions in the same way as everybody else," he said.

Senator Daly argues that interpreters should be made available to the deaf community through Skype and other online resources.

"It needs to be standard practice, but the Government doesn't have to do it because they are not required by law.

"I believe the local authorities will add the pressure, but parliament must lead the way to provide equal rights and services to every citizen, especially to those who literally cannot speak for themselves."

Sunday Independent

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