Breaking electoral barriers

Kerry man Micheál Kelliher is Ireland's first deaf election candidate and hopes to be the first deaf councillor. Tadhg Evans spoke to Michael ahead of May's vote.

It may be clichéd to describe someone as a history-maker - but Micheál Kelliher genuinely has made history.

He did so by becoming the first Deaf person to put himself forward for local election, or any election in this country for that matter.

Indeed, if the Independents4Change candidate convinces enough people in Cabra-Glasnevin that he's the best person to represent them, he'll create further history by becoming Ireland's first Deaf Councillor.

This piece is no attempt to boost the fortunes of a party that - according to a March 7 Ipsos/MRBI poll - only two per cent of people in Dublin support.

What we can do is give you an idea of the kind of person Micheál is.

Though we're both from Lios Póil, he's four years my senior. With him being Deaf, we never attended the same school and therefore had little to do with each other. My grandfather gave many years coaching local draughts teams and regarded Micheál as the best young player he'd seen. That's as much as I knew about him until very recently.

"No, no," Micheál says this afternoon in Cam an Lóndraigh. "There were better players than me on my team, never mind the other teams."

My grandfather also describes him as "an absolute gentleman". Going by Micheál's modest appraisal of his draughts-playing abilities, 'Granda' might be right.

Getting away from Lios Póil's early noughties draughts scene and on to more current and pressing matters, it's important to understand why Micheál is running for election and why he's doing so in Dublin rather than Kerry.

Cam an Lóndraigh is like many townlands in this county, this country. For a stranger to get there, they've to solve a riddle of boreens.

It's less isolated than most townlands; thriving Dingle is only a 10-minute journey away.

But it's pretty bloody isolated all the same, and if you're Deaf, that remoteness feels keener still.

"It was tough growing up Deaf in west Kerry," Micheál says.

"I only know four others here [the Dingle Peninsula] who are Deaf. Before I was 12, I went to school in Presentation Primary in Tralee. It's an all-girls school, but it had a Deaf unit. After that, I went to St Joseph's School for Deaf Boys in Cabra. I could have gone to Mounthawk, but I would have been one of just four students.

"St Joseph's had 85 students, and you have a much bigger Deaf community locally, around 5,000 people. I'm still in north Dublin now."

Going about every-day matters is challenging when you're Deaf. Being Deaf and running for election brings these challenges into sharper focus; you can't succeed in politics if you can't communicate with the electorate.

The process of this very interview isn't straightforward. I put questions to Micheál, and his girlfriend, Lauri, 'signs' them.

It's a smooth enough system - but while it helps that his verbal skills are strong, the interview does move at a slower pace than what I'm used of. It's also slower than what the people he's campaigning to are used of when politicians come to their door.

When the means to clear such hurdles aren't available, campaigning depends on others' goodwill.

"An interpreter costs about €600 a day, and you need two interpreters," Micheál says.

"Earlier this year, Clare Daly asked Minister John Paul Phelan if there were plans for a pilot scheme, like one in the UK, to provide candidates who have disabilities with financial support for disability-related costs. There weren't.

"I'm lucky to have a great team of volunteers behind me. Without them, this would be very costly."

It's unsurprising to learn that matters affecting Deaf people and those with disabilities are at the heart of his campaign, though his manifesto covers more issues than just these; being at the forefront of the Right2Water and 'Together for Yes' campaigns piqued his interest in politics.

On the former point, Micheál feels things have improved during his lifetime - but not enough, and certainly not quickly enough.

Before finding work as a civil engineer and later a software engineer, he says some companies wouldn't take him on because he was Deaf.

He can't carry out some tasks, that much is true. But when a work colleague takes a call on his behalf, he can fill in elsewhere for his colleague, perhaps by answering some e-mails. It seems a fair point to me.

A private college refused to provide a sign-language interpreter for him when he needed it. Some private transport companies have not accepted his free-travel pass. He has frequently criticised what he feels is RTÉ's cynical attitude towards Irish Sign Language [ISL]; the national broadcaster only showed the ISL version of the national anthem for a few seconds ahead of last year's All-Ireland hurling final which, in his opinion, was one example of RTÉ's disrespect towards the language.

Everything considered, he feels the Deaf community remains extremely marginalised, and he's working with 'Unite the Union' to set up a branch supporting the Deaf community.

"Things have improved and are improving," he says. "But it's happening too slowly. The Irish Sign Language Bill was signed into law in 2017, but we still don't have full implementation. Very few children have access to ISL. Not all public services provide access to ISL.

"I think my campaign has energised the Deaf community, and I'm getting a good reaction from the wider public as well because my campaign is not just based on Deaf rights," he says.

"I want public housing for all, where the rent would be based on people's income, not a building's value. I want public services based on human rights, not on pockets. I want public transport to be more accessible for wheelchair users and free to use for everyone [like it is in Tallinn and Dunkirk]. I want to penalise companies for non-sustainable environmental practices.

"What appeals to me about Independents4Change is that it is based on human rights - not your pocket."

I don't know if Micheál will win a Council seat in May, and I can't tell anyone reading in Dublin to vote for him.

What I can confirm as he waves me goodbye this afternoon is that Granda was right. He is a gentleman.