Thursday, 14 October 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Irish Sign Language
I am glad the Minister of State is here to take this matter because I know she understands it. She and I have met a number of groups to discuss it over the last few weeks. I would like to speak to her this evening about the Irish Sign Language Act and seek an update regarding its implementation and oversight in her Department. This Act places a statutory duty on all public bodies to provide Irish Sign Language, ISL, users with free interpretation when availing of or seeking to access statutory entitlements and services provided for under statute. In addition, the Act provides for specific obligations in the areas of legal proceedings, educational provision and broadcasting. By its very essence, and the reality of the interactions users have with the State, these obligations the State has to the deaf community overlap many different Departments.
I know the Minister of State will not be allowed to comment on a lot of what I am about to say as it is subject to litigation in the High Court. That is my first point. Why are we, as a State, subjecting people to that kind of torment and anguish? The Irish Sign Language Act 2017 is quite clear. These children have an educational, and now constitutionally supported, need and it is not being met by the State. These views are not mine. They are contained in a yet to be published report by the National Disability Authority. It states:
Overall, consultees generally agreed that the current ISL supports provided in schools for children whose primary language is ISL are not effectively addressing the needs of these children in terms of access to the curriculum, access to language models, language development, peer interaction and psychological support. Consultees emphasise that without effective supports in these areas, children whose primary language is ISL will struggle to achieve their full potential.
Deficiencies in the education system for these deaf and hard-of-hearing children are listed in the report. It found there were issues with inconsistent or inadequate teacher qualifications in ISL, children learning incorrect ISL at school due to limitations on teachers and SNAs, teachers mixing up ISL with Lámh, which is a different form of communication altogether, and deaf children interpreting for deaf peers because some teachers lack proficiency in ISL.
Some teachers who contributed to this yet to be published report acknowledged that they felt they did have the adequate training or knowledge of ISL to get their students to a standard equivalent in any other language such as English or Irish.
Now we come to the nub of the issue. At present, there are ISL degree courses in both Dublin City University, DCU, and Trinity College Dublin. These are four year courses. Students on these courses are among the most - if not the most - competent ISL teachers and interpreters in the country yet they receive a rate of pay equivalent to that of a special needs assistant, SNA. This is in no way to detract from the excellent work our SNAs do on a daily basis in our schools. Believe me; I know. I spent 15 years working with some of the best SNAs in the country. ISL graduates from Trinity College Dublin and DCU will find far more lucrative careers in other fields and this is the travesty of all this.
Three or four weeks ago, the Minister of State and I met with a group of ISL language interpreters who love their jobs and the kids they help daily, both in and out of school. They want to stay in that profession yet they cannot. They cannot afford to raise families of their own and pay a mortgage or whatever the case may be when the harsh reality is that they train for nearly as long as a fully qualified teacher yet receive far less when it comes to pay. This is wrong. We are subsequently finding that schools are getting by with upskilling SNAs or teachers in mainstream classes as a stopgap.
To go back to where we started, however, these children have a constitutional right and the State has an obligation to provide appropriately trained personnel to impart knowledge and teach these wonderful children. I will quote again from the yet to be published report:
The remuneration on offer for ISL communication support workers, which is at the same level of SNA, is considered to result in the employment of workers with insufficient ISL skills.
It is quite apparent that we, the State, have failed and continue to fail these families. The ad hocarrangement that exists at present in our schools does not require the SNA to have ISL qualifications. Anyone involved in teaching knows and will tell us that language development and fluency takes hundreds of hours. I will quote again from the report:
Neither the qualifications nor the available upskilling time for the SNA roll provides capacity for this. The question could be asked whether language interpretation is a role that can be easily integrated with the SNA model at all.
I will allow the Minister of State to respond.