Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Irish Sign Language: Irish Deaf Society
The purpose of the first part of our meeting is to have a discussion with the Irish Deaf Society on the formal recognition of Irish Sign Language, ISL. I welcome Dr. John Bosco Conama and Ms Wendy Murray, directors of the Irish Deaf Society, and Mr. Brian Crean, deaf adult literacy services manager with the Irish Deaf Society. I thank the delegates for their attendance this morning to discuss this most important issue. I also wish to extend a very warm welcome to Mr. Darren Byrne, who will be interpreting for us all this morning. The format of the meeting is that the delegates will be invited to make a brief opening statement and this will be followed by a question-and-answer session. I welcome members of the committee and extend a warm personal welcome to Senator Mark Daly who has a very special interest in this area.
Before we begin, I must draw our guests' attention to the situation regarding privilege. The witnesses should note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should be aware that under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I now invite Dr. Conama to make his opening statement.
Dr. John Bosco Conama:
I thank the committee and Chairman for the opportunity to be here this morning. It is quite a daunting experience to appear before a joint committee of our national Parliament and we thought long and hard about how we would prepare for this meeting. We looked at the Oireachtas website but found it difficult to find accessible committee information. We do not even have full access to the Parliament itself. I know that Senators and Deputies generally prefer communication by phone but that is also a struggle for us. I thought it important to say that before addressing the main subject of this meeting.
The recognition of Irish Sign Language can affect people at a personal level right up to State level. In terms of access to health services, for example, if there are no qualified interpreters available, people may be relying on family members to avail of health services. In some instances, they may seek services of a sensitive nature about which they do not want their families to know. At a State level, while there is some access to interpretation in criminal cases, in civil cases such access often depends on the goodwill of the presiding judge. Often deaf people find themselves paying for interpretation in civil court cases. It would be great to be able to give the committee an understanding of the depth of experiences but I will try to be as concise as possible this morning.
Historically, there has been a negative attitude towards the use of sign language in Ireland. Families were advised by health care professionals to avoid signing to people who were born deaf and to focus instead on written communication or speech. That would have been the experience of many families throughout the country. However, Irish Sign Language is such an expressive and a beautiful language which could greatly enhance family life. That was my own experience and while I get on very well with my family, I still meet family members who do not believe in the idea of signing early. They still think that it should not be implemented straight away with deaf children.
Before this meeting began, we were discussing incidental knowledge.
I was told by a person over the age of 60 years that he suffered a heart attack. He had no idea that there was a family history of cardiac conditions. His family were not communicating with him through Irish Sign Language and because of that, he was missing out on shared information. We have been working with Senator Mark Daly to try to look at ways to progress recognition of Irish Sign Language, so that professionals and families will actually see the value of having the language. Sometimes it is seen as a language that is just tolerated and is not properly recognised as being a basic right.
Ms Wendy Murray:
Let me again mention the fact that a person did not know about the family medical history because of the poor communication in the family. I am in a different situation because my parents are deaf and we all communicate through sign language. That is great because I have access to my family but as a deaf person, I still experience oppression in terms of access to communicating. I have access to my parents because they are deaf too. I have siblings who are hearing but we all sign. I went into an education system that tried to force me to speak. I would often try to figure out what was being said or we would spend time trying to advise each other what the teacher was saying because we could not necessarily make it out. At the age of six, seven and eight years, I was not allowed to utter a word in sign language while I was in school. When I left school, I went on to third level education which was such a difference from my experience at primary and secondary schools. At third level, I was provided with sign language interpretation, I could ask questions and have them answered through sign language and it always made me wonder why I spent my time in primary and secondary schools guessing what was being said. I was able to access the world when I was so much older. Why would it make sense to wait until I was 22 or 23 years before I could access the world? Even saying that I had access in university, there is still not 100% access in the world in general.
I wish to give members an idea of how things are and of the differences. We would often struggle in relation to interpretations. In terms of meetings, we would worry about the availability of an interpreter. Will the interpreter turn up and how will we be able to express ourselves if the interpreter fails to turn up? That is our primary focus instead of focusing on coming to a meeting and worrying about the content of our contribution, we are often worried about the access arrangements and the barriers we will face. We are looking at Irish Sign Language as a means to bridge the barriers to communication and as a way to be able to connect with each other.
I will hand over to my colleague, Mr. Brian Crean.
Mr. Brian Crean:
Our department deals with about 500 deaf adults. They would often say they felt access was not good in terms of their experience in education. If they went to a vocational or other school, they would have felt left out perhaps because there was no interpretation available. We would have had 500 students of whom 71% would be unemployed. That comes down to the disability allowance system.
The disability allowance is good in some ways but it encourages people to remain on the disability allowance. It does not motivate people to get going and try to get back into doing things. I would have grown up in a hearing family. I got on well but my family would have taken the advice from the State about it not being good to use sign language straight away. The three of us who are representing the deaf community, and 93% of people in the deaf community, would say that if they had the chance to go back and be educated again, they would choose to be educated through Irish Sign Language from the very beginning. That is the reason we come looking for recognition for Irish Sign Language. We hope that in time, other children will not experience a repetition of our experiences but that the system will be able to remove the oppression that happened before in order that it is not repeated. We want to ensure there is access to ISL from the very beginning for deaf children.
Ms Wendy Murray:
My parents are over the age of 70 years and they have experienced a great degree of oppression. They would not have had the opportunity to have felt like full citizens. They would not have had the experience of privileged access to information that hearing people would have, like the members of the committee. It often makes me think there are barriers in society in terms of very minor things we would find out that we do not have access to and we feel it is really important that recognition of Irish Sign Language, as a language, is a way for the system to change for the better, to offer another route where there is not that cycle of exclusion, marginalisation and oppression. It is almost like there is a wall surrounding us because our language is not recognised but if that wall were to be removed, we would be able to communicate, understand and have people understand us more easily.
Before we came to this committee meeting, we looked at a video clip of Bressie when he made a presentation on mental health to the Joint Committee on Health and Children to get an idea of what it is like to appear before a committee as a witness. We only had access to that because were using the interpreter this morning. It was not accessible to us immediately. I know it has been mentioned already but in terms of accessing health services, there is an expectation that a deaf person would be accompanied by a family member. The professionals would not think of providing a professional sign language interpreter in many cases. If one is bringing in somebody who is not a professional interpreter, does he or she necessarily understand what is being said in terms of the terminology that is being used or will he or she try to shelter the deaf person because they think it is for the best? The non-professional interpreter would often leave out vital information that the deaf person should know because he or she thinks it is best for them.
We are looking at society as being the cause of many barriers. What I worry about is the state of services for me as an older deaf person and how it will impact on my mental health. We are asking whether the system can be broken down, so that it is not stay the same. I would hate to think that in 50 years' time, the situation will be the same and that by the time I am buried, nothing will have improved.
Mr. Brian Crean:
Thinking about the luxury of access, even people who are in dire situations, who are self-harming have access to a helpline, they can telephone somebody. Deaf people face barriers to getting access to that kind of helpline. We are looking at the extreme marginalisation of deaf people. All that we want is to become full citizens and the way that will happen is through the recognition of our language.
I thank the witnesses, Dr. John Bosco Conama, Ms Wendy Murray, Mr. Brian Crean and Mr. Darren Byrne, for that very informative presentation. I am very taken by Mr. Crean's last words, not to isolate it from all the other information shared but the words "extreme marginalisation" convey the message that has most certainly impacted on the committee members this morning. I thank the witnesses most sincerely for it.
I would like to welcome the other members of the committee. They are all very welcome here. With the assistance of Mr. Darren Byrne, we are going to have a question and answer session with Dr. John Bosco Conama, Ms Wendy Murray and Mr. Brian Crean. We will then have a short engagement ourselves. We will take a break at the end of the session for five minutes to take a photograph with our guests outside. I invite everyone here to participate in that. We hope to prepare and present a report. If members note the document that has been prepared by the Library and Research Unit on this issue and the other salient information that has been shared, I believe we can make an important and fruitful intervention on this issue at this time. It is open to members to indicate via a show of hands that they would like to speak. I invite Deputy Jim O'Callaghan to open our engagement with our guests. He will be followed by Senator Mark Daly.
Members are probably entitled to know that Senator Daly has sponsored a Bill that would formally recognise Irish Sign Language. When the Bill was presented previously, it was not carried forward because it was not a Government Bill. I understand he is on the cusp of reintroducing it in the Seanad.
Yes. We have worked with officials in the Oireachtas to draft this legislation. This Bill has been put together with the assistance of Dr. Conama and others. It covers a wide range of topics, including the recognition of Irish Sign Language and the rights of the members of the deaf community. Dr. Conama referred briefly to access to this Parliament. When Brian Crowley, MEP became a Member of the Seanad, he could not get into the Chamber because there was no wheelchair access. We brought in legislation over time to ensure everyone would be able to access public buildings. We argued that access should not be provided on a case-by-case basis, but should be based on legislation. Similarly, I am proposing in my Bill that members of the deaf community should be given access to services and to the national broadcaster and that service providers should be obliged to provide access in the same way that we now provide access to people with disabilities.
I will give an example of the importance of putting this in legislation. Funding for the advocacy service for members of the deaf community was cut some years ago. I was contacted by people who wanted the matter to be raised in the Dáil Chamber and I asked our Leader to do so. Two hundred members of the deaf community wanted to come into the Public Gallery on the day this was due to happen, but they needed interpreters. We asked the Ceann Comhairle's office to ensure an interpreter was made available and put on the floor of the Dáil, but we were told this could not be done. We were advised that members of the deaf community could go to the audiovisual room, where an interpreter could be provided. These members of the deaf community were unable to go to the Public Gallery like other citizens. When this row became public, the head of communications in the Oireachtas at the time was not pleased that it became public that no interpreter was available. He wanted to meet me and members of the deaf community. We went into a meeting. We sat down and he explained his displeasure and set out the plans for the use of the audiovisual room. After five minutes, I asked why the services of an interpreter were not being provided at a meeting with the head of communications. The other people at the meeting had no idea what he had been saying. It dawned on him that it was a question of citizens of Ireland not being able to access the Parliament of Ireland. As it turned out, interpreters were put into the Dáil Chamber for the benefit of the members of the deaf community who were in the Public Gallery. The advocacy funding was reinstated. That was a clear example of how the hearing community has no concept of how difficult life is for members of the deaf community. Everyone has the right to access a doctor who can interpret what one's symptoms are. If one has to write down what is wrong with one when one goes to the doctor, that is simply not acceptable in life-and-death situations.
My Bill was introduced on two occasions during the last Dáil, but unfortunately it was defeated on both occasions. It was explained to us that we firstly needed to take all the steps in relation to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by passing that, then all the other bits and pieces would be brought in on a piecemeal basis, and then consideration might be given to recognising Irish Sign Language. We were told there would be no need for recognition at that stage because everything would have been done. That could take decades because there is no obligation on anyone to provide such services. It would be too piecemeal. Some things have been done in certain Departments. In fairness to the former Minister for Social Protection, she put in place a system to ensure interpreters would be made available for members of the deaf community while interacting with her Department. That happened because of her own personal experiences. It is not a wideranging policy across the Government. The Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2016 would oblige the Government over time to enable members of the deaf community to be able access Government services, the national broadcaster and others. The Bill has been published and placed on the Seanad Order Paper. We hope it will debated and the Minister will support it. However, he did not outline this as one of his three priorities when he launched the Bill. However, it is a priority for the deaf community. There is a disconnect in this regard. I hope that with the assistance of members, we can push this Bill forward and get it passed during the current Dáil term. We need to understand that it can be difficult for the deaf community to access Government services. Indeed, it is virtually impossible for a member of the deaf community to visit this Parliament to see what is going on here.
I thank the witnesses for coming in this morning and giving such effective presentations. Like the Chairman, I was not aware of the extent to which deaf people have been subjected to extreme marginalisation, as we heard in the presentation. That is why I think it is so worthwhile that the witnesses are here. I thank Senator Daly for the work he has done in this area. My party will be supporting the legislation he has proposed. The Government has indicated that it will ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the end of this year. Everyone in the Oireachtas should be holding the Government to that commitment. I would appreciate it if the witnesses could respond to three questions. First, Dr. Conama mentioned that there has been a historic bias against sign language. Why does he think that has been the case? Second, how early should deaf children learn sign language? My third and final question might be an indication of my ignorance in this regard. Is there a difference between Irish Sign Language and other forms of sign language throughout the world? If users of Irish Sign Language go to other countries, can they communicate as effectively as the witnesses have been able to communicate with us today?
Dr. John Bosco Conama:
Those questions are relatively easy for me to answer. I could probably go on forever in response to them, but I will try not to. There has been a bias against sign language for historical, political and perhaps religious reasons. An attitude began to develop in the 19th century that sign language was not a real language. Research in Holland and America in the 1960s showed that the linguistic features of sign language are the same as the linguistic features of any language. Such features exist in sign language too.
Since the 1960s, not one piece of research has been produced which indicates that sign languages are not valid languages. Sometimes people suggest that sign languages are unable to deal with abstract concepts and so on, which is not the case either. As a deaf sign language user, I find that spoken languages are more limited in what they can do than the visual language we use.
The Department of Education and Skills allowed the school systems to run in its own way and the idea that prevailed was that if spoken languages were used and if the oral education system was used, deaf people would better integrate in society. The opposite is the case when this occurs.
Mr. Crean referred to a conference that took place in Milan in 1880, at which the removal of sign language from the education system was discussed. Some 210 international educators attended and they thought it was a good idea to get rid of sign language.
On the second question, children should have access to Irish Sign Language at the earliest possible time. If one looks around, one will find classes for baby signs, which are targeted at hearing children who will eventually be able to speak. We do not have the same attitude towards deaf children. Hearing children should learn to sign as early as possible but deaf children should not learn to sign as early as possible. The obvious thing about early access for hearing children is the language processing benefits arising from having access to language. These benefits are also available for deaf children. The answer to the question, therefore, is that children should have access to Irish Sign Language as early as possible.
On the third question, sign languages vary throughout the world. There are approximately 6,000 spoken languages in the world and perhaps 300 or 400 sign languages, depending on the countries. Irish Sign Language is used in the South whereas British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language are used in the North due to historical developments. My experience when I visit other countries is sometimes similar to the experience a hearing person will have when travelling abroad. If one has some familiarity with a language, one can make out bits and pieces, depending on how much one knows beforehand. Sign languages are different, for example, in terms of syntax and structure, different hand shapes and different ways of expressing words may be used. Despite these different linguistic structures, we may be able to catch up and pick up on them. Ms Murray has a point to make on that.
Ms Wendy Murray:
On going abroad, I did a year abroad at Gallaudet University in the United States. I had to do a course in American sign language before I was allowed to attend any lectures. The purpose of this four-week crash course was to try to get as much of the basic linguistic structures and vocabulary into my head before I did my main course of study.
Mr. Brian Crean:
Members may not be aware of Gallaudet University. It is the only liberal arts university in the world for deaf people. I have been there also and when I went for the first time I had no concept that sign languages were different. I had always assumed they were exactly the same everywhere. When I visited Gallaudet University it took me a little time to pick up the language, perhaps a week, and start to get a grip in terms of my receptive and understanding skills. My expressive skills took two or three years to develop.
In terms of how early children should sign, I agree with the idea that they should sign from the moment they are born.
To go off topic slightly, in terms of society in general, we got to where we are now because the attitude was that if a child who is deaf signs, he or she will not learn to speak. The focus was on removing sign language from the equation to get deaf children to learn to speak. However, sign language is the only fully accessible language for deaf children. Once they are exposed to sign language, they can acquire that regardless of what goes on separate from that. I have two hearing children and their first language was Irish Sign Language. When public health nurses visited us, they said our children would probably not learn to speak properly because we were signing with them. I remember telling them that in the case of parents who were Irish speakers, which is also a completely different language, public health nurses visiting Gaelgeoirí would never tell them that their children might never learn to speak English properly. They do not do that. Having access to Irish Sign Language does not lead to the development of any intellectual impediments. We ask, therefore, that the system take this into account and understand the richness of Irish Sign Language.
People may or may not develop the ability to speak but that is a completely separate issue and one on which the use of Irish Sign Language does not have any impact.
I thank the witnesses for their comprehensive and insightful presentation. I believe all Members will agree with them on the issues deaf people face in respect of access to services and service provision. Is Mr. Byrne with the Irish Deaf Society or have his services been provided by the Oireachtas?
Dr. John Bosco Conama:
That is a good question. In an ideal world, it would be the choice of the Oireachtas to pick the interpreter. Through experience, however, I have volunteered to take on the role of assigning an interpreter for a number of reasons. There are often not enough interpreters available and some are not competent to work at this level. As I know Mr. Byrne is one of the top interpreters, I wanted him to perform this role to ensure this opportunity was not wasted and that we did not have to worry about whether we were being understood.
Ireland does not have a national register of interpreters, nor do we have an accreditation or vetting process. Trinity College Dublin provides interpreter training but there is no monitoring after graduation. This can also be a missed opportunity. The way we see it is that the qualification is a starting point but there is no continuing professional development programmes available for interpreters. This means the matter is left to the interpreters, who mainly work freelance, and they often leave the profession over time.
In an ideal world, the chairperson should have been able to give somebody the role of booking an interpreter. However, without a national register and an accreditation process, I would have a concern in that regard. The Irish Sign Language legislation calls for an accreditation mechanism for interpreters for this reason. I hope that answers Senator Ó Donnghaile's question.
In bringing Mr. Byrne with them, the witnesses have chosen well. I was trying to expand on Senator Daly's point that lessons do not appear to have been learned from previous experiences of visiting the Oireachtas. Members do not need legislation to take action on this issue, notwithstanding the importance of the Bill, which certainly has my support.
I have a technical question on the proposed legislation. Do its proposals extend beyond the issues of accessibility and recognition for Irish Sign Language? Does it, for example, propose mechanisms for sharing the language within the hearing community? As important as it is to take a step forward by giving recognition to Irish Sign Language, society must also engage more with the language, whether through people working as interpreters or through children who are in school with other children who are deaf. If Irish Sign Language were shared beyond the deaf community and across society, it would have a key role to play in breaking down the extreme marginalisation that exists.
I wonder if there is provision for that. If there is no such provision, how might we go about seeking to push the matter into both the Irish consciousness and the mainstream?
Dr. John Bosco Conama:
The Senator is making very true comments. It is certainly true that Irish Sign Language is not only used by deaf people, it is also used by hearing people such as co-workers, family members, neighbours and sign language interpreters. For every deaf person, there would be four or five hearing people around them who may sign but whose level of fluency may vary. It is very true that Irish Sign Language belongs to Irish society rather than to the deaf community only. It is part of our country. However, people may not have had exposure to it all the time. Attitude and understanding are the two really important aspects. They need to be progressed with regard to bringing forward access. Family members need to have access to learning Irish Sign Language. The gentleman with the heart condition, whose family did not have clear access and communication with him, was missing out on the incidental information. People may be interested and they can certainly go along to learn to sign, if that were a possibility.
Mr. Brian Crean:
Putting Irish Sign Language onto the national curriculum could be a way of improving awareness and recognition so that hearing children have the choice of learning it as they would with any other language. They have the choice to learn French or German. They learn Irish. Why not learn Irish Sign Language? It would benefit the deaf community in Ireland but it would also mean that hearing people would have the proper opportunity to learn the language. Their learning the language would help us to change attitudes. Sometimes people see deaf people and their language as a negative thing but attitudes could really be changed so much if people were looking at the language and wanting to know more about it. It could allow them to develop a respect for deaf people as citizens going forward.
Ms Wendy Murray:
Some deaf children obviously need access to Irish Sign Language but so too do some hearing children. Landau-Kleffner Syndrome is a condition where some hearing children, a number of whom I have worked with, start off being able to speak and at around the age of two and a half years their language processing skills deteriorate with regard to spoken language but they are still able to communicate through Irish Sign Language because it works in a different way. I have seen the parents of hearing children lobbying to try to get access to Irish Sign Language for their children. It is amazing to think there are hearing children who, because the focus is different, get so much more access to Irish Sign Language than deaf children. Often, the focus with deaf children is that we should try to get them to speak and when or if the speech does not work or when they "fail" - and I use that word in quotation marks - then that is the point where we can start to allow Irish Sign Language into the picture. It is about waiting until they fail out of the other system. Then the Irish Sign Language becomes something that will do for those children. Some parents want to learn Irish Sign Language for their own benefit. Their children may or may not want to speak a bit, but the parents want to be able to communicate with other deaf people around their children. The idea of waiting until they fail is such a bad way for things to be.
We spoke about the decades ahead. We are already decades into this and I would hate to think of it going even further. I hope members will not forget all of this tomorrow and that we would be able to keep the issue moving forward.
I assure Ms Murray that we will not forget it. However, we are also affected by other considerations. I understand that Dr. John Bosco Conama has to return to Trinity College shortly after 10 a.m. Is that correct?
I am going to bring everybody in but I am going to group the contributions in twos. I ask all contributors to be as succinct as possible because I want everybody to have an opportunity. I am very conscious that Dr. John Bosco Conama has to return to Trinity College.
Now I am under pressure and I have to rush everything together. With regard to Senator Mark Daly's point on the issue being a priority for the deaf community, it is also a priority for the committee. It is the first equality issue that we have tabled. We are taking it very seriously. The witnesses have done very well in highlighting that what we are talking about here is really a language and a method of communication, without which people are marginalised. People's human rights are being violated. Given that we are pushed for time, I have a couple of quick questions on what would it mean in practical terms. I know we have spoken before about cases in the courts system, for example, and I have had to deal with someone who was excluded because they are deaf and could not understand what was going on. The witnesses have also raised previously the outrageous case of two co-accused - one of whom was asked to sign for the other and give the message back - one could not make this up that this would be deemed acceptable in a court of law. If somebody arrived in Ireland from a different country and came before one of the courts, an interpreter would automatically be provided. It is, in part, about raising awareness. There are a couple of issues around what it would mean in practical terms.
The point was made that Ireland is behind the times. In that context, the fact that other countries have recognised Irish Sign Language was highlighted. With regard to the points made by Dr. John Bosco Conama about standards and scrutiny, I would be interested to know the size of the deaf community and how many professional interpreters are there. That is a big body of work. Reference was made to initiatives in schools. I understand there is a cycle at junior certificate level which does Irish Sign Language. Does the Irish Deaf Society liaise with the Department of Education and Skills with a view to expanding that programme?
Can the witnesses please to take these questions with those from the next contributor? I know it is difficult but I ask them to remember the questions Deputy Clare Daly has asked and group them with those Deputy Chambers is about to pose. I will then revert to the panel for answers.
I thank the Chairman. I will be brief. I thank all the witnesses for attending and for giving a very honest insight into their community's current situation around what has not been recognised. I was particularly taken aback by the information around the cardiac conditions and how a basic facet of any medical history is that a person can check the family history. The fact that this is being constrained in a medical scenario is very difficult. This also applies to the issues around mental health where people in a community are being blocked and barriers are in place to getting access to the services which we all take for granted. This is something that can be addressed in the Bill. I thank Senator Mark Daly for trying to progress this.
Will the witnesses clarify if there is any other country in which a model of set of rights has been codified and has worked well and to which Ireland can immediately look in order to progress this quickly? As we know, legislation can achieve some things but progressing the necessary and practical implementation of the rights that are codified in any legislation is very important. Is there any other place that has done this well and to which we can look in order to try to progress the practical implementation of the Bill?
Will Dr. John Bosco Conama please respond to Deputy Clare Daly? Perhaps the points raised by Deputy Chambers could be addressed by Mr. Crean and Ms Murray. If we could all be more succinct, it will allow everyone the opportunity to participate.
Dr. John Bosco Conama:
To address Deputy Daly's questions first with regard to the case of the brother and sister, the sister was not even signing. She was actually trying to lip-read somebody else, which is a slightly different issue, but an issue nonetheless.
The size of the deaf community is sometimes debated. We try to follow the international rule of thumb that there is in or about one deaf sign language user to every 1,000 of the population. If we have a population of 4.5 million people, we are talking about approximately 4,500 deaf sign language users. However, according to the census, we have 72,000 deaf or severely hearing-impaired people listed, approximately 19,000 of whom are under the age of 50. I wonder if those who are under the age of 50 are sign language users. If one breaks down the big group, approximately one quarter, or 19,000, would be right.
The way the question was asked in the census was not very clear. It asked how many people used sign language. There figure was approximately 3,500 but they were mostly hearing. I think that it is very much under-reported. If one were to compare it with Scotland or New Zealand, which have similar populations, Scotland has 12,000 British Sign Language users. These are people who use British Sign Language at home. We have 3,500. In New Zealand, there are 20,000 sign language users. There is obviously something going on in terms of the answering of that question and how it is being filled in. We are looking at there being maybe 20,000 to 50,000 people who use Irish Sign Language regularly. I hope that answers the question.
Mr. Crean has just reminded me about the question on interpretation and the number of interpreters. Off the top of my head, I would say there are approximately 60 or 70 interpreters. These would be freelance people who often leave or who get summer work and then come back and do bits and pieces. Internationally, 60 would be seen as an incredibly low number for our population. In Finland, there are 500 Finnish sign language interpreters on the register. We have 60 to 70 qualified interpreters. That is the historic number of qualified interpreters. It is not the number of people who are actively on the register as such. Mr. Crean is also saying to me that, in Finland, they would say that 500 is not enough. That is comparative to the population.
Ms Wendy Murray:
On Deputy Chambers's question, there are many variations in terms of legislative or constitutional recognition. Sometimes amendments are made. We like the model used in the New Zealand sign language recognition Bill. When that was passed, they realised there were some gaps in it. We have, therefore, tried in Senator Daly's Bill to work through and draw from the best of what is in other Bills, Acts and constitutions. The European Union of the Deaf has examined our Bill and stated it is a good proposal given it covers so much. It was a Ph.D. student who looked at it and compared it to other situations and said it is a very good proposal.
Before I introduce the next speaker, let me note that there are three further speakers, namely, Senator Black, Senator Clifford-Lee and Deputy Wallace.
Every one of our guests this morning are interpreters. However, am I correct in saying that Ms Murray is not just an interpreter but a television personality also? I think I have seen her before. Has she appeared on our television screens?
I thank everyone for coming here today. The work Senator Daly is doing in pushing forward this legislation is fantastic. Ms Murray mentioned various issues. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to feel the isolation one might feel at times when trying to communicate in general with society. It must be very difficult. She mentioned mental health issues which can often arise. Is there a huge incidence of depression and anxiety because of that lack of communication, particularly with the younger generation in the deaf community? What services are available for young people or anyone else with mental health issues?
I thank the Chairman. I will keep this as brief as possible. I look forward to supporting my colleague, Senator Daly, in the Seanad on this Bill. Like my colleagues, I thank the delegates for coming here today. Their contributions were informative and moving. I was particularly struck by the comments on access to the health service. I think many of us were surprised to hear of these barriers. I have some personal experience of those barriers because I have suffered a significant hearing impairment since birth. I, therefore, have an understanding of some of the barriers faced, although they are obviously not as extensive. I, therefore, look forward to supporting this.
I have a few quick questions. The delegates stated that children should learn to sign as soon as possible. What supports are there for children and how early can they access them? What supports are there for other family members that may be hearing, who want to learn and want to become fluent, to support their child?
The unemployment figure of 71% was shocking. The delegates mentioned that there are various issues around the disability allowance because it sometimes acts as a de-motivator for people to engage in employment. What would they suggest we, in the Oireachtas, can do to address that issue? Would this Bill assist in improving the unemployment statistics in the deaf community?
Ms Wendy Murray:
In reply to Senator Black, I would not be an expert in the area of mental health. However, looking at younger deaf people, it really depends on their own level of confidence as to whether they could actually go and ask for interpretation and whether they feel they are able to fight for it. Some deaf people are able to speak and that would be fine. Other deaf people may go to avail of a service but be afraid to ask because the person they are asking support from might say an interpreter is a bit expensive and ask them to try by themselves. They then feel the obligation to try by themselves. Even as an adult, I hate the idea of asking for an interpreter. The question is always asked, "Who pays?" One cannot prepare for that when dealing with a mental health issue and be supposed to be able to ask for more services. One would not necessarily have the confidence to be able to do that. A deaf person who has availed of mental health services might be better able to answer that question and the Irish Deaf Society might have a further response on that for the committee later.
Mr. Brian Crean:
I wish to discuss mental health for a moment before we move on to access for deaf children and the hearing families they are born into. When it comes to mental health, I may wish to avail of counselling but I may not get the opportunity to avail of it. I lived in the United States for a while. I am trying get my thoughts together. Hearing people may hear advertisements on the radio for support services that exist. However, often we find ourselves having to wait until someone asks us whether we knew X existed. When it comes to access to mental health services and awareness of the services, all deaf people have limited access. This applies even to awareness about services such as help lines and so on. We may not even know where to begin.
Senator Clifford-Lee asked a question relating to timing and the attitude that exists. Sometimes parents are not encouraged to sign with their children and instead are encouraged to try to get them to speak first. Then the view is that if speech is not working out, Irish Sign Language is something that we can use. However, the European Union of the Deaf, EUD, and the World Federation of the Deaf, WFD, have carried out research showing that sign language is the key and that the key to success is provision of sign language as early as possible.
Dr. John Bosco Conama:
I wish to add a comment. The Department of Education and Skills provides a home tuition service for deaf children. Ms Murray is one of the tutors on that programme. However, that scheme is not well advertised. Some parents have found out about it by accident and much later in terms of their experiences with their child. Sometimes it comes about through word-of-mouth. It is not necessarily being promoted as an early service.
Ms Wendy Murray:
We have a universal neonatal hearing screening. When the hearing test takes place and a child is identified as being deaf, the common phrase is, "I am sorry your child failed the test". That amounts to setting the parents up in a particular way from the beginning. It brings about a certain devastation when they are being told their child has failed such a basic thing. We maintain there should be a provision of a broad spectrum of information in order that parents get to see their child as a human being and need not start to think that their child has some kind of limited potential or is "less than" in some way.
Irish Sign Language is a natural and beautiful language, as natural and beautiful as English and Irish. It works in a slightly different way. It is a visual language. Otherwise, there is absolutely no difference. We maintain that it should be the third official language in Ireland. However, it is the third language in Ireland and just as beautiful as the other languages.
I will not ask any questions. I thank the witnesses for the powerful presentations. From the start, I have felt sorry for Mr. Byrne, the interpreter. I find the pace that they go at incredible. I found the comment of Dr. Conama about the power of visual language very interesting. It is something I had not really thought about but it reminded me of something. I remember being in Italy years ago and I saw an Italian in a telephone booth. He was holding the telephone with the side of his head so that he could use his two hands. His two hands were going all the time while he was on the telephone talking to someone. The Italians probably understand the power of the visual more than we do.
I have to admit that I have found this incredibly educational. I had been ignorant about the issue. I am struck by the degree to which I had not thought about how much people's human rights are being violated. I thank the deputation for making us so aware of this.
That is okay. I have tried about six times to get your attention in the past quarter of an hour. In the last Seanad, as Dr. Conama and his colleagues will know, Senator Mark Daly and I very much supported the concept of Irish Sign Language. I hope this time around we will see more success than we did last time. I reiterate my support for the work done. I have had extensive engagement with Dr. Conama in recent years. More than anything else, I wanted to be associated with that.
That is very welcome. For the information of members, I will note intending contributors when they raise their hand.
Last week was Irish Sign Language awareness week. Our engagement this morning is coming soon afterwards. The launch of the week, which I attended along with Senator Daly, was a powerful event. You have replicated the impact here this morning for this committee. My understanding is that Irish Sign Language and British Sign Language are formally recognised north of the Border. If that is the case, can you confirm it? Are you in a position to tell us whether this formal recognition has made the critical difference for your counterpart community in the north of the island?
On behalf of the committee, I would like to say that it has been a powerful experience for all of us to be here with you this morning and to have shared this engagement. I have every confidence that in private session later, we will confirm our intent to press for the formal recognition of ISL at the speediest opportunity and I have every confidence in the support of all political opinion represented in the Houses. Can we have a quick response on the situation north of the Border, please?
Dr. John Bosco Conama:
Let us consider the United Kingdom as a whole. Scotland is the only place that has an Act as such. The legislation is the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act and it exists in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, there was a verbal decree but it did not come with any legal obligation. I suppose it is something we cannot really look at as being enforceable.
In terms of making a difference, however, I believe Northern Ireland is a little better in terms of attitude, education and understanding. I assume there is some kind of influence back and forth between Scotland and Northern Ireland. There has been research and discussions in Stormont in terms of looking at moving things forward. I would love to see legislative recognition here because it is long overdue. If people think of us as members of Irish society, we have been here as long as Ireland has, so it is a long time without that recognition.
Mr. Brian Crean:
Senator Daly referred to cutbacks in advocacy services for deaf people and how that was reopened. Northern Ireland has a much smaller population of deaf people than we have here.
There is a much smaller population of deaf people in Northern Ireland than here. There are 26 employees in the advocacy service for the deaf community there but down here there are three. There are not enough and we need much more to be done. Northern Ireland definitely has better advocacy support for deaf people.
The latter point aside, the critical message in the response about the situation north of the Border is that legislation is required. On that note, I thank Dr. John Bosco Conama, Ms Wendy Murray, Mr. Brian Crean and the very hardworking Mr. Darren Byrne for their attendance.
We will suspend for five minutes before engaging with the Policing Authority and its chairperson Josephine Feehily.