Dáil debates

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Irish Sign Language Report: Motion


5:55 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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This motion will conclude after two hours if not previously concluded. I welcome the visitors in the Gallery, for whom I know this is an important issue. I ask Deputies to be alert to the fact that there are sign translators in the press gallery and to adjust their pace accordingly. I call the chairman of the committee, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, to move the motion.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality entitled, Report on the Formal Recognition of Irish Sign Language, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 13th October, 2016.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, for his attendance to debate the committee's report on the formal recognition of Irish Sign Language. I also thank the members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality who contributed to the production of the report. The report was unanimously agreed by the committee at its meeting of 5 October. I am delighted that it is now the subject of a debate in the House.

I welcome the members of the Irish Deaf Society who are in attendance in the Visitors Gallery to observe this important debate. I also extend a warm welcome to our two interpreters whose presence is perhaps a first for this Chamber.

The joint committee identified Irish Sign Language as one of its priority issues in its work programme agreed in September 2016. Following this, the committee invited representatives from the Irish Deaf Society to a meeting which was held on 28 September 2016 to discuss the issue of official recognition of Irish Sign Language. In the course of the evidence presented, the committee heard of the extent to which the deaf community experiences exclusion and isolation through the lack of sign language provision. One witness described this experience as one of "extreme marginalisation" and this extends from the personal level through to interactions with key organs of the State such as the education system, Courts Service, health service and Parliament, Dáil and Seanad Éireann.

I thank the representatives of the Irish Deaf Society for the evidence they presented to the joint committee. Members were very appreciative of the effort made by the delegation and on behalf of the committee, I express to Dr. John Bosco Conama, Wendy Murray and Brian Crean our sincere gratitude. The committee is of the view that legislation will be required to achieve formal recognition of Irish Sign Language and that this should be progressed with the urgency that is required.

Three years ago, Senator Mark Daly and the then Senators Thomas Byrne and Labhrás O Murchú introduced the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2013. The Government did not accept the Bill, which proposed the recognition of Irish Sign Language. In July 2016, Senator Mark Daly initiated the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2016, an updated version of the 2013 legislation. The report presented by the joint committee recommends that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality and Government lend their full support to the Bill initiated by Senator Daly. The Bill completed Second Stage in the Seanad last month and is awaiting Committee Stage. The joint committee believes the proposed legislation should be prioritised and enacted as soon as possible and urges the Minister to ensure this happens without delay.

As confirmed by the Irish Deaf Society in its revised working paper on formal recognition of Irish Sign Language, ISL is a language of the face, hands and body that has been in existence for hundreds of years and developed from within the deaf community in Ireland. It is one of our two indigenous languages, the other, Gaeilge, being our first official language. Irish Sign Language differs from sign languages in other countries and is unique to Ireland. All informed opinion urges earliest exposure to and development of proficiency in ISL. Just as with other language acquisition, the early development of a competency in Irish Sign Language does not affect a young person’s capacity to later acquire other communication skills, including spoken language skills, if within their later competency. ISL is, as the authors state, a naturally occurring form of communication among deaf people, developed over centuries and, as with all living languages, it is developing to meet the times and needs of those who are its primary users.

The right to use one’s own language is an important human right. The right to communicate and impart one’s thoughts, ambitions, fears, hopes and ideas is a universal right. The failure to date of independent Ireland to accord official recognition to Irish Sign Language has echoes in history for many of us who lament the enforced decline in the use of our first language.

There is an almost infinite number of barriers faced and experienced by members of the deaf community. Could we, who are fortunate to have sufficiently clear hearing, imagine the difficulties of daily life if we were born without the gift of hearing, for example, hearing the telephone ring, answering it and having a conversation; not being able to summon help; never listening to the radio or music players or whatever; being dependent on subtitles to follow films and the daily news on television; not being able to communicate with our doctor, dentist, nurse, solicitor, priest or minister; encountering difficulties while shopping, attending public events, the hairdresser, bank, post office or credit union; accessing State services; and presenting in labour or having a child? The list goes on and these are only a few examples that I can cite in the short time available to me. I can well believe that our deaf fellow citizens in the Visitors Gallery would alarm us with the many examples they could advise in an equally short period.

Mentioning not being able to summon help and the earlier reference to "extreme marginalisation" brings me again to a sad and tragic chapter in the recent story of the deaf community in Ireland and those most seriously impacted among its number. In launching the report on 13 October in the Leinster House audiovisual room, I dedicated the event to the memory of brothers Daniel and William McCarthy whose remains were discovered at their Millrose Estate home in Bluebell, west Dublin, just over a month ago. Their story is a sad and tragic one, their lonely deaths among the saddest and most tragic imaginable. Their story and passing will always be recalled when we address this most important, long overdue and now, as always, essential need to accord formal recognition to Irish Sign Language. Go ndéana Dia Trócaire ar a n-anamacha dílis.

There are 5,000 people and an additional 35,000 hearing people using Irish Sign Language on a daily basis. The World Federation of the Deaf advises that many countries worldwide recognise their indigenous sign languages. Why is Ireland not one of them?

Why do we delay and delay? Irish Sign Language was formally recognised in the North of Ireland in 2004. The Good Friday Agreement requires equal respect of all rights bestowed in either jurisdiction in both jurisdictions. That equality is not in place for the Irish deaf community. I appeal to the Minister of State, and to this Government, to accept the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. I appeal to them to continue support for the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2016 through all remaining Seanad Stages and Dáil Stages and to facilitate its signing into law by our President at the earliest date possible.

Anois, inár dteanga dúchais eile, molaim go mór don Teach glacadh leis an tuairisc seo agus tacaíocht a thabhairt don sprioc soiléir atá ann. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas le gach Teachta Dála atá anseo as a bheith i Iáthair don díospóireacht tábhachtach seo.

6:15 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I welcome the Irish Deaf Society, members of the deaf community and the interpreters to the Gallery. I thank Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Senator Mark Daly and the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality for their amazing work on the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2016. I also commend members of the committee for their considered report on the formal recognition of Irish Sign Language, ISL.

Like the committee, I recently met with the Irish Deaf Society, as well as other groups and individuals from the deaf community, to listen to their concerns, experiences and objectives. I am keenly aware of the priorities of the deaf community and, in particular, the problems relating to ISL. We have about 5,000 users of ISL in the State. It is fair and appropriate that public services provide this group with interpretation services at no cost to the user when questions of statutory entitlement are at issue.

Our discussion of this issue is particularly appropriate as we move toward ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As Members will be aware, the Government is committed to ratification of the convention. It is working on finalising the details of the necessary legislation to remove the final legislative barriers to that ratification. We hope to be in a position to publish this Bill in the near future. We also intend to ratify the convention's optional protocol at the same time as the convention itself is ratified.

Interpretation services for deaf people on a State-wide basis are provided by the Sign Language Interpreting Service, SLIS, established by the Citizens Information Bureau in 2007. The SLIS is a voluntary not-for-profit organisation in the form of a limited company, which promotes, represents, advocates and ensures the availability of quality interpretation services to deaf people. The overall vision is to ensure deaf people can easily exercise their rights under the Equal Status and Disability Acts, as well as being able to access their rights and entitlements to public and social services. The SLIS has a board of directors comprising representatives of key national stakeholders such as the Citizens Information Bureau, DeafHear and the deaf community. SLIS receives State funding directly from the Citizens Information Bureau. In 2016, it has an allocation of €275,000. It is generally acknowledged the SLIS does superb work in its provision of an extensive range of services, and that it intends to build on its current capacity is clear from its statement of strategy document 2015 to 2020. In particular, the service intends to increase availability of interpreting services in key areas of daily life, particularly where deaf people are exercising their rights or entitlements. It is important in the context of this discussion that we acknowledge the excellent services that the SLIS provides for the provision of interpretation services. It is my intention to build on and develop this capacity.

Prior to the publication of the Irish Sign Language Bill, I had approved a draft of the new national disability inclusion strategy with the following proposed action for public consultation, namely, we will propose legislation to ensure that all public bodies provide ISL users with free ISL interpretation when availing of their statutory entitlements. There will be more work needed to tease out the detail of how this will operate. In principle, however, what is required is a highly focused approach directly on statutory entitlements. We know from our experience with the Irish language and the Official Languages Act that what is really important is developing the capacity to provide services in the language of the customer's choice, and that enacting legislation, or indeed constitutional protection, which the report also alludes to, does not solve the practical service delivery issues that need to be planned for. We need a pragmatic and feasible approach backed up by statutory recognition of the right of users of ISL. We must also ensure we can actually deliver and that the service can be guaranteed in practice.

I note the committee has recommended the Government should fully support the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2016, which passed Second Stage in the Seanad on 19 October. In this regard, I must flag several questions about specific provisions in the Bill. While the Bill's central principle is sound, it seems, however, to take a disproportionate approach to the provision of services for users of Irish Sign Language. Preambles are not a feature of how we draft primary legislation and do not seem necessary. I am not sure anything useful would come from the proposal to impose an obligation on public bodies to develop three yearly action plans for ISL, as contained in section 9. The establishment of a new public body by the Citizens Information Board, instead of letting the board continue to develop an ISL service as it has been doing, does not seem to be necessary. Section 18 includes a provision to offer the annual accounts of the new body for sale. Usual practice is to publish accounts online. It is difficult to see that this provision is necessary.

Section 19 provides for borrowing by the public body established under section 12. Allowing an Exchequer-funded public body to borrow money is manifestly not a good idea. Of particular concern is how the loans would be controlled and paid back. Section 29 provides for 12 months' imprisonment for either offering interpretation services or teaching ISL on a commercial basis without being registered. I fully accept the need for proper standards. However, this approach is unnecessarily punitive and does nothing to address the real issue, namely, the need to develop the availability of ISL interpreters.

The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has considered the proposed amendment of section 43 of the Broadcasting Act 2009, as set out in Part 4 of the proposed Bill, in consultation with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It makes the point that the proposed approach would remove an important part of the broadcasting regulatory framework from its natural and appropriate statutory locus, namely, the Broadcasting Act 2009.

Section 43 of the Broadcasting Act 2009 already provides for the preparation of statutory rules by the BAI that place a range of statutory obligations on broadcasters. In the case of persons who are deaf or have a hearing impairment, persons who are blind or partially sighted, and persons who have a hearing impairment and are partially sighted, the BAI has adopted access rules that contain specific target percentage ranges in regard to sign language and subtitling that broadcasters are required to comply with and that are revised by the BAI from time to time in accordance with the provisions of the Act.

In addition, sections 53 to 55, inclusive, of the Act provide for an investigation and potential enforcement action in circumstances where there has been an apparent breach of a broadcasting rule. It is noted that this latter aspect is not provided for in the proposed legislation. Furthermore, section 43(6) of the Broadcasting Act 2009 provides for biennial reviews of the access rules to be undertaken by the BAI, thereby allowing for potential revisions to be made to the rules. In Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the proposed Bill, however, it is proposed to incorporate a number of percentage targets for the period 2017 to 2019, which appear to have been taken from the current access rules. The Bill seeks to make no provision for any review or potential revision of those targets. As such, the Schedule would become outdated every two years. We should consider this also. It should also be noted that Part 1 of Schedule 1, as currently proposed, omits certain services, such as Oireachtas TV, Irish language television and UTV Ireland.

Finally, from the BAI's extensive and ongoing consultations with user groups, it is evident that quality and reliability of access service provision is as, if not more, important than the achievement of targets as such. This is a quantitative measure only. The BAI's regulatory approach facilitates a far more flexible and consultative approach that takes account of improvements in the quality, reliability and range of the access service provision - for example, increased live subtitling, subtitled Irish content, etc., rather than just quantitative targets, as envisaged in the proposed Bill, thereby providing a regulatory approach that delivers in a more comprehensive and nuanced way on the wishes of users and intended beneficiaries of the services.

All these points will need to be considered very carefully as the examination of the Bill moves forward in the House. I am delighted that the pre-legislative scrutiny process of the Bill will now be complete and that, in due course and in the light of the assessment by the Oireachtas of the Bill's proposals, we can work together to determine what amendments are needed to create the focused right to interpretation I am thinking of and remove some of the other elements that do not seem appropriate, as I mentioned.

For now, the new national disability inclusion strategy I mentioned is quite relevant. The strategy, which it is intended will be in place before the end of 2016, includes a specific action to create a statutory right for a person to receive free Irish Sign Language interpretation services when availing of statutory services. That is an important step in the right direction. In taking this approach, we will still need to tease out in detail several issues, including how statutory services are to be defined and whether advance booking of the service would be required, but this approach would provide a more fruitful way forward, focused on meeting real riced in a pragmatic and cost-effective way, than the overly elaborate approach in the Bill. One of the issues the House might consider is whether it is better to build on the existing support provided for the provision of interpretation services by the Citizens Information Board rather than create a new public body, as proposed in the Bill.

I thank all those who have contributed and I look forward to the debate.

6:25 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Before I begin, I wish to make a suggestion. I am keeping an eye on the monitor and I am conscious that, unlike the people in the Visitors Gallery, those watching the stream of this debate will not benefit from being able to see the interpreter. I am not sure whether any of the Oireachtas staff can do anything about it. It might be worth focusing a camera on the interpreter in the press gallery for the benefit of those watching online.

Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh don Teachta Ó Caoláin agus as an tuairisc a chuir sé os ár mbráid agus do Chumann na mBodhar as an bhfeachtas mór a bhí acu le cúpla bliain anuas. Is ócáid thábhacht í seo do phobal na mbodhar agus is céim in airde shuntasach atá ann dóibh.

I have started in Irish because it is one of my native languages. It is a language of which I am very proud and which I have spoken since I was a child. It means a great deal to me. Despite the complaints I might have regarding its status, promotion and funding, I know that although everyone might not understand when I speak it here or in the courts or engage through Irish with public services, it will feature on the record and be translated. It is officially recognised in the Constitution. I have a right to use it in the courts in any circumstances and to engage with public services through my native languages, to greater or lesser extent. While all this is done imperfectly and while there are flaws in how it might be done, I am aware that these are privileges that the deaf community in Ireland does not enjoy. Users of Irish Sign Language do not enjoy these privileges in respect of what is their native language.

I note what the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, said about the Official Languages Act. There is a lot to be learned from that because the manner in which it has been implemented has been quite imperfect and flawed. If we are to use it as a template, it needs to be improved on significantly in terms of how we are to create additional capacity. I have significant complaints I could rehearse in regard to it.

It is extraordinary that the campaign for the recognition of Irish Sign Language has been taking place for so long. I note from some of the information we have received from the Irish Deaf Society that the matter was first raised in 1988 by former MEP Eileen Lemass. Perhaps this was not the first occasion on which it was raised but it was certainly the first resolution on sign languages in the European Parliament. The year 1988 is the year before I was born so it is literally a lifetime since that happened. There has been recognition in the North since 2004. The campaign has been going on for many years.

I commend the work of the Irish Deaf Society, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and the Seanad, which passed Second Stage of legislation on recognition recently. It is the culmination of a long campaign. It was a very substantial and widespread campaign. I was actually canvassed on it during the general election campaign. Clearly, the community on the ground was aware of the matter and it was lobbying on it. This is evidenced by the support of the 40 local authorities who supported this motion.

The 5,000 people who use Irish Sign Language daily and the hearing people who use it regularly deserve so much more than what they have received in recent years. It is a question of respect, access and equality. Having learned about the importance of Irish Sign Language, I am astonished by the extent to which the deaf community has been disadvantaged by the lack of recognition, particularly regarding rights before the law and the right to access to justice. It is absolutely extraordinary that, aside from criminal hearings, there is no automatic right to an interpreter in Irish Sign Language. An interpreter may be provided in practice but the fact that there is no legal entitlement is absolutely extraordinary. The lack of a register of interpreters is incredible, as is the lack of teachers in the language. This is about much more than legal entitlements, although they comprise a very important part. It is a matter of dignity and respect.

7 o’clock

Language has different nuances in terms of humour, tone, attitude and culture. No matter what language one speaks, it is an intrinsic part of our identity. The Irish language is certainly an intrinsic part of who I am. The same is likely to be the case for those who use Irish Sign Language in that it is a central part of their identity. For the deaf community and all users of Irish Sign Language, recognising it will be a mark of respect, esteem and equality before the law and in society.

6:35 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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I warmly welcome the report on the recognition of Irish Sign Language and commend the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, in particular my colleague, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. I extend a warm welcome to the signers in the Visitors Gallery. As I have a penchant for signing, I am enjoying their language as the debate unfolds.

The report is straightforward and its conclusions and recommendations are beyond question. It reflects not just the level of marginalisation but also the difficulty, hardship, isolation and distress members of the deaf community experience daily, in some cases when they are denied appropriate access to basic public services up to and including their interaction with the courts, as my colleague, Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, mentioned.

The report's conclusions must be taken on board and implemented. To this end, it is welcome that the Minister of State speaks so passionately and sincerely on this issue. I welcome his recognition of the need to develop the capacity to make real any right a person has to access interpretation and other services he or she requires. However, I am concerned that he has not made a straight, simple and clear commitment to legislate for the recognition of Irish Sign Language. He critiqued Senator Mark Daly's legislation, for which the Senator is to be commended, in the Seanad. Many of the Minister of State's concerns are reasonable and need to be teased out on Committee Stage, but there was nothing in his remarks that would be insurmountable or merit the Government not supporting legislation to recognise Irish Sign Language. I had hoped he would say that, notwithstanding the issues that needed to be resolved, the Government was committed to implementing the legislation.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I said that in the Seanad a month ago.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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That is great.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I have already said it.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister of State can assist us by repeating that commitment in the Dáil Chamber. That is important for the purposes of this debate.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin made an observation about the official recognition of Irish Sign Language in Northern Ireland in 2004 and the fact that there was an equivalent provision in the Good Friday Agreement that placed on us an obligation to have equivalent, matching rights, North and South, for citizens on the island. Aside from being a basic equality imperative and the decent and right thing to do, there is a legal obligation on us to make progress in this regard.

I had an interesting debate with deaf citizens in the run-up to the general election. We reflected on the fact that this year marked the centenary of the Easter 1916 Rising and discussed the promise in the Proclamation of full equality for all citizens. To my astonishment and disappointment, I was told that people had requested copies of the Proclamation in sign language format but had been refused. This is an astonishing indictment of us all. If the Proclamation stood for anything 100 years ago, or today, it was full equality. That means the full recognition of Irish Sign Language.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputies Catherine Martin and Connolly are sharing time.

Photo of Catherine MartinCatherine Martin (Dublin Rathdown, Green Party)
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I welcome the members of the Irish deaf community, the interpreters and all those who have worked so hard and for so long on the Irish Sign Language recognition campaign who are present in the Visitors Gallery. I commend Senator Mark Daly for introducing the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2016 which I welcome, with the report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, in recognition of and out of respect for the basic right to communicate of the more than 5,000 members of the Irish deaf community. They are important steps we need to take as a country. In 2015, while I was a member of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, I tabled a motion that received unanimous support and which called on the Government to give recognition to Irish Sign Language. It is a privilege for me to stand in this House and welcome the report which seeks to make it a reality. Irish Sign Language gives thousands of Irish people the invaluable gift of communication. The deaf community feels isolated and cut off from access to information. The Irish Deaf Society has been campaigning for more than 30 years to have Irish Sign Language officially recognised so as to ensure equality for deaf people in society who simply want to secure their right to full participation as citizens.

It is essential that public bodies be required to provide the necessary interpretative services for deaf people. I welcome the measures that seek to do this which are included in the report and the Bill. Not even for one moment can I attempt to contemplate how frustrating it must be for a person who is deaf to have to engage with a public body. Simple acts of daily life that we take for granted such as contacting a local authority or departmental office become increasingly frustrating for those who are deaf because there is no one on the other side of the counter who can interpret or communicate with them.

The Irish Deaf Society has stated the failure to recognise Irish Sign Language places at risk the health and well-being of deaf people, as they often struggle to avail of vital health and educational services. Many public and private services taken for granted by others are inaccessible to deaf people. Availability of services and information in Irish Sign Language as guaranteed by law is the only means of ensuring deaf people will have the opportunity to access and participate fully in society. The Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2016 seeks to ensure members of the deaf community will be able to participate fully as citizens of the country by legally guaranteeing their right to access information in what is their first and, for many, only language. The Green Party-Comhaontas Glas is happy to support the Bill.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I am delighted to take part in the debate and welcome everyone in the Visitors Gallery, including the interpreters. I pay tribute to the Oireachtas committee and its Chairman. I also pay tribute to Senator Mark Daly and the other Senators who persisted in pursuing this matter. It is nearly three years since the Seanad defeated by three votes the last attempt to do something about the recognition of Irish Sign Language. Those who defeated the Bill were not listening, despite having full hearing at the time. They did not read any of the reports available.

I also pay tribute to Dr. John Bosco Conama for his working paper on the recognition of Irish Sign Language, which he revised in 2012.

The unique linguistic and cultural identity of deaf people has already been recognised in 41 countries, including Northern Ireland, by the recognition of each country's individual sign language. In this country, the Education Act refers to Irish Sign Language, but only as a tool in education and not as a right in itself. I have learned, as a result of the work of organisations like DeafHear in Galway and others, that Irish Sign Language is a language of itself. As Deputy Ó Caoláin pointed out, it is a language of movement, space, of the hands and the eyes. Most significantly, however, Irish Sign Language is a language of abstract communication. This is something that those of us with hearing forget. It is not a watered down version of English or Irish. Irish Sign Language is not a pictorial version of the world of spoken language. It is not an artificial form of communication devised by hearing people nor, indeed, is it an incomplete or broken form of English of the hands. It is a language of abstract communication.

The deaf community comprises people who consider deafness to be a difference in human experience rather than a disability. While the Minister of State has been very positive in some respects, I will come back to some of his weasel words in the midst of his introduction. The deaf community is telling us that deafness is a different experience and not a disability and therein lies a clue. We, the Government and society are disabling those with hearing impairment by not providing, as a human right and through legislation, services to which they are entitled so that they can communicate with each other and with us. Indeed, for many deaf people Irish Sign Language is the only language they can acquire spontaneously and naturally without teaching.

I believe that the Minister of State is very positive and wants to do something but I am concerned by the fact that he has listed out, in what should be a celebratory speech, obstacle after obstacle. I find that worrying.

6:45 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I did not use weasel words.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Okay, I apologise and take that back. I was upset because I listened to the Minister of State very positively but then I looked at the bullet points relating to difficulties and one in particular jumped out at me, namely, the assertion that there was no benefit to having a three year plan. That is exactly what is necessary in legislation, that we would have built-in targets and built-in plans so that the Oireachtas would be forced to review, reflect and determine what has been achieved in a given period in terms of implementation. Without that, we are going to have empty legislation. If my use of the term "weasel words" was too strong, I take it back. However, it strikes me that three pages of small print, highlighting obstacles, is not encouraging.

The deaf community deserves a hearing in the Dáil about the daily obstacles that it seeks to overcome. The report from Dr. John Bosco Conama highlights 51 of these, many of which are things that hearing people would not even think about. I will select a few at random. Driving through a take away is not accessible. School tours are not accessible. In waiting rooms when a nurse or staff member is calling for the next client or patient, the deaf person must try to lip read. The list goes on but I will not read them all out. The challenge is for us to help the deaf community to overcome those 51 obstacles and more. We must progress the legislation, give it the thumbs up and tease out the practical difficulties on Committee Stage. Today should be a day of celebration and a day to say sorry because we should have done this before now. We should learn from what happened three years ago when previous legislation was voted down and go forward now.

Photo of Clare DalyClare Daly (Dublin Fingal, Independent)
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I am absolutely delighted to be here today to welcome the publication of the Irish Sign Language Recognition Bill report which has been brought to the House under the stewardship of our excellent Chairman, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. I would like to thank Senator Mark Daly, Dr. John Bosco Conama from the Trinity College Centre for Deaf Studies, Mr. Eddie Redmond and Ms Lianne Quigley of the Irish Deaf Society and my good friend, Mr. Mícheál Kelliher, who is in the Public Gallery and who has educated me about the situation facing deaf people in Ireland. In fact, one of my outstanding memories of the recent election campaign was when we were out canvassing and a woman answered the door and started signing. She was probably asking what we were going to do for the deaf community and we were able to respond immediately when Mícheál signed back to her. I would say that was a first for that woman in any election campaign. That is the type of experience that deaf people should have as a norm, not as an exceptional circumstance.

I am delighted that we are here. The report commissioned by the joint committee highlights the extreme marginalisation and isolation of members of the deaf community and strongly recommends that we deal with this urgently through legislation. It is shameful that the last Oireachtas did not take the opportunity to recognise Irish Sign Language.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I agree completely.

Photo of Clare DalyClare Daly (Dublin Fingal, Independent)
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I really hope that this Oireachtas will not make the same mistake. Even by being here today and discussing the committee's report, we are raising consciousness of the issues. Talking about people as customers is the wrong way to deal with this. We are talking about citizens accessing public services as a right and for the 5,000 deaf people in Ireland, the lack of recognition of Irish Sign Language has had the effect of ingraining discrimination into everyday life and has exacerbated their isolation. This was sadly highlighted recently with the death of the McCarthy brothers, as Deputy Ó Caoláin correctly pointed out. We know the statistics already. Deaf people have a low employment expectation, with only 40% in employment, mostly in low-paid jobs. Large numbers of our deaf community are excluded and we could spend a lot of time talking about the areas of exclusion. The report highlights, for example, the need to have interpreters in judicial proceedings. Earlier this year in a court in Donegal a judge decided to proceed with a case in the absence of an interpreter even though the defendant was deaf. We would not tolerate a language interpreter not being provided for a person from another jurisdiction but such a barrier was allowed to prevail for a deaf person. Such inequalities exist throughout the State in terms of other service provision.

The report focuses on the fact that Irish Sign Language, which is formally recognised in Northern Ireland, should also be formally recognised in the South where there are actually more users. The example of Finland has been given, which has a deaf community roughly the same size as ours. That country formally recognised Finnish Sign Language in 1995.

I wish to pick up on some of the points made by Deputy Catherine Connolly. As far as I am concerned, the most important aspect of the report is the recognition of Irish Sign Language as a language and the need for us to educate ourselves as to what that means. Clause 4 of the Bill moved by Senator Mark Daly last month in the Seanad goes to the heart of this issue.

We are talking about a language in its own right. It is not a substitute, a tool for disability or a tool to access public services. If we take that approach, we will downgrade the language and have a poorer outcome for users and future users.

Our starting point in the committee report is that ISL is a language in its own right and lack of access to language creates barriers. It would be a very important step forward if we were to recognise that. In the past, we have had some awful situations. Many children were abused in the history of our State but sign language was actually denied and even discouraged in the case of deaf children. We have heard stories of deaf children having their hands tied behind their backs to force them to stop signing - to force them into a verbal language. This was crazy. We spoke to Deputy Shortall on the way over. She was a trained teacher who taught in schools for deaf children and was prevented from learning sign language because the State discouraged its use. We must say that this caused lifelong communication problems for deaf people and their families. It was a horrible part of our history and one that we should learn from and not repeat. Like any other language, the learning of sign language needs to be developed as early as possible. We do not wait until our children are teenagers or adults before we expose them to language and deaf children should be treated the same as hearing children in that regard.

We should point out that deafness can last a lifetime but it may not. It may be something that people develop in the course of their lives. Very young children below school age and older citizens can become deaf so it is not just about accessing ISL in school or work hours or accessing social welfare. It is more about a system of accessing a language.

As hearing people, we must shift our focus from thinking of deafness as a kind of medical phenomenon and attempt to understand that there is a culture and language that we have ignored and that this is what has caused the problem. Senator Ruane made a very good and relevant contribution in the Seanad debate when she said:

When people who are deaf gather together, for example in the deaf village in Cabra, there is no communication barrier and no discrimination. It is only when they leave that setting that their language becomes a problem or a disability because we have not catered for their inclusion. We make their language a disability.

That sums it up for me very well.

A total of 80% of deaf adults have a low level of literacy in the English language and while we need to achieve higher rates of subtitling, etc., on television, we must understand that written English is not the first language of deaf people. Subtitles are very good but we must do more. The training and proper scrutiny of ISL interpreters and their broadened availability is critically important. Other Deputies have spoken about the scenarios people are left in without language. Earlier this year, the Department of Social Protection brought out a new card that could only be activated over the phone meaning that a deaf person had to give their private information, password details and so on to a hearing person so that the card could be activated. It is a lack of thought and consciousness. Deputies have made other points about visits to doctors and so on and said that having a third party involved in one's most intimate and private contacts with doctors is completely unacceptable.

In respect of the services provided by our national broadcaster, the target of providing 2% of television shows with ISL interpretation is insultingly low and indicative of the lack of focus on this. The cancellation of the "Hands On" television programme is something the deaf community feel badly about. The use of interpreters on RTE is low. It is late at night. We need to make that more accessible. I echo the point that we have a small deaf community in Ireland which is, in essence, living in a world where nobody else speaks its language. Governments have not invested the amount of money necessary to rectify and change its quality of life. We are going to be given that opportunity in the course of this Dáil thanks to the fact that the Bill has gone through Second Stage in the Seanad. I hope we will not be found wanting this time around.

6:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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There are six Deputies offering to speak. If they all take ten minutes, I will not be able to call them all and we will have to return to the Minister of State and proposer. However, I am in their hands.

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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I will not take ten minutes. I am sorry I have not learned any sign language. I was hoping to get Rhona to teach me to say a few things. I thought of something this morning but I forgot. I was going to get her to teach me how to say, "Come on the Wexford Youths". Then I thought that if I could say that in sign language, after the results we had last weekend, they would probably say, "God help the Wexford Youths". I welcome everyone in the Visitors Gallery and the sign language interpreters. It is amazing what they are able to do. I hope my Wexford accent is not too much of a problem. I commend the work of Senator Mark Daly. Listening to John Bosco Conama, Eddie Redmond and Leanne Quigley when they came before the committee was a real education. I commend Deputy Ó Caoláin, the Chairman of the committee, for his enthusiasm. He seems to have been very enthused by it from the outset.

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Ireland signed in 2007, persons shall be entitled on an equal basis with others to recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic identity, including sign languages and deaf culture. However, despite the fact that ISL is the first language of 5,000 deaf people and approximately 40,000 people who communicate with deaf people through ISL, it has no official status in Irish legislation. In failing to recognise the indigenous language of a linguistic and cultural minority group, the State is actively facilitating the marginalisation of deaf people, particularly with regard to accessing public bodies such as the health service, the courts and the educational system.

Recognition is particularly important in education where its acquisition as a first language for deaf children is essential. The deaf community has suffered greatly by being ignored by the system. According to the Irish Deaf Society, one in four deaf adults leave school with no qualifications and one in three has literacy problems. According to the Irish Deaf Society survey entitled "Signing In, Signing Out", deaf people have higher than average unemployment rates and those who are in employment tend to be in low-paid positions earning below the average industrial wage.

Failure to recognise the rights of a minority is a recurring theme in this country. Despite the State's promises to the UN Human Rights Committee in 2011, it has persistently refused to recognise Traveller ethnicity, a group that visited the justice committee this week and the previous week. If we were to recognise their ethnicity, it would help members of the Traveller community towards full employment and full enjoyment of their human and constitutional rights. At the moment, they are completely marginalised. Listening to John Bosco Conama, I was taken aback. It was amazing and not something I had thought so much about. The manner in which deaf people have been marginalised and discriminated against all these years beggars belief. Hopefully, this will change.

The last time a Bill on Irish Sign Language was introduced in 2013, the Government refused to allow it on the grounds that not enough services were in place for the legislation to be put into effect. This obviously sounds bad. Surely the introduction of legislation could give the impetus needed to change the structure of our public services to make them more accessible to deaf people. Rather than keep on using the excuse that we cannot supply the services to make it happen, we should bring it in and then the pressure will be on to do what is right.

The Flemish Sign Language was recognised in 2006 by the Flemish Parliament. A sign of the progress that has been made is the presence of Helga Stevens, who is deaf, as a parliamentarian in the Flemish Parliament and more recently as a Member of the European Parliament. Perhaps I should not wish it on them, but perhaps some of the visitors in the Gallery might be in here as Members in a few years' time. It is not a job I would recommend.

We should waste no more time in recognising Irish Sign Language, but we need to give some consideration to the practicalities of it. The regulation of the teaching of Irish Sign Language by the proposed Irish Sign Language council must be done in such a way as to avoid disenfranchising existing Irish Sign Language teachers. I was approached by a member of the public who is deaf and who is an Irish Sign Language teacher. While he was very positive about any moves to recognise Irish Sign Language, he expressed concern over the proposed teacher registration requirements. Currently the only registration course available is at the Centre for Deaf Studies and is a two to four-year full-time course which effectively rules out someone working elsewhere for the duration. Requiring all Irish Sign Language teachers to register in this way could be overly onerous, both financially and in terms of time commitment.

Currently there are two options for learning Irish Sign Language under Signature and Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, which many Irish Sign Language teachers use. If these were not to be recognised under the new legislation, it could create problems for those who use them as their source of income. Given the already lower employment rate among deaf people, any measures taken must not jeopardise existing jobs in this area.

I hope the next time I have the opportunity to talk to some of the people in the Gallery I might be able to use my hands a bit better to communicate with them.

7:05 pm

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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It is a great honour to be able to speak in this historic debate. I understand this is the first occasion on which a Dáil debate has been interpreted for members of the deaf community. I welcome all the members of the deaf community who are in the Public Gallery. I know this is an issue of great importance to them and I want them to know that Fianna Fáil, every other party and every Independent Member of the House recognises the importance of their right to communicate and to do so through Irish Sign Language.

I commend the Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality, Deputy Ó Caoláin, who has driven the issue forward since it was given to him at the beginning of the Dáil term and who has produced a report. It is fair to say that the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality is the most productive committee in the House, and a number of us are present. Not only have we produced one report, we are in the process of producing another. I do not know how many reports other committees can claim to have produced so far.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Self-praise is no praise.

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I also commend members of my party, Fianna Fáil, in particular the former Senator, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Deputy Thomas Byrne and Senator Mark Daly, who played a very important role in bringing forward this issue in 2013 when they introduced the Irish Sign Language Bill in the Seanad. I commend them on doing that and I give particular credit to Senator Mark Daly for the very important driving role he has played in all this.

We cannot appreciate the difficult position in which members of the Irish deaf community find themselves unless we understand the importance of the right to communicate. Everyone in this House understands the importance of being able to communicate. We take it for granted. Sometimes when we are abroad in countries where we do not speak the language, we realise how helpless we become when we cannot communicate and find it difficult to be able to state to another person what we seek or what we are trying to say.

We need to recognise that this is a disability and a disadvantage that members of the Irish deaf community face continually as a result of the State's failure to ensure their right to communicate is properly vindicated. Every person in this country has a constitutional right to communicate. Members of the Irish deaf community have a right to communicate. We have to ensure this right means something. It is putting them in an impossible position unless the State makes strenuous efforts to ensure this right to communicate means something. We can achieve something for them by seeking to emphasise that right.

What is sought in the report produced by Deputy Ó Caoláin's committee is very limited. We want to ensure this State recognises Irish Sign Language. Although we mention it, we are not even seeking a constitutional amendment for that right to be given express reference in the Constitution. We simply recognise that it can be done through the passage of legislation. The legislation is already there.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, here this evening. I know he is committed to vindicating the rights of people with disabilities. However, I am disappointed with his speech which, I know, he did not write. As Deputy Connolly said, the speech simply sets out a series of obstacles to dealing with the issue before us today. If I were the Minister of State, I would go back to the civil servants and ask them to provide some enabling advice. I do not want a page and a half on how to improve the Bill. What we need, and I welcome that the Minister of State has said it, is a commitment from the Government that this will be done.

The Minister of State will be well aware that political careers in general are very short. The best that most of us can hope to achieve is that we may be lucky enough to be a Minister for two to three years. Time passes very quickly. I urge him to put this at the forefront of his ambitions. He should go back to his Department and say that he is going to ensure Irish Sign Language legislation is brought through Leinster House during his time as Minister of State. That can be done.

I am very concerned that his speech stated this would go to pre-legislative scrutiny. Pre-legislative scrutiny is a new term in these days of new politics. I have a deep concern that pre-legislative scrutiny can mean putting something into a storage facility to be left there for a while. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, who is committed to the rights of individuals with disabilities, needs to push this. He should not worry about the fact that some changes can be introduced to this legislation. Of course, there are changes that can be introduced. Let us put it down to amendments on Committee Stage. We have a very diligent and hard-working committee that is ready to take on the legislation and we are prepared to do the work in consultation with the Minister of State.

As Deputy Ó Caoláin stated, 5,000 deaf people use Irish Sign Language daily and an additional 35,000 hearing people use it. We talk about the rights of children in general. The right of a child to communicate is fundamental. The right of a child who is not deaf to communicate with his or her deaf parents is also a fundamental right that child must enjoy. We must ensure the precious right of communication which we all take for granted can be enjoyed by members of the deaf community.

As has been mentioned, in court cases, members of the deaf community do not have access to interpreters. They may have such access in criminal cases. People go to civil courts to have their constitutional rights vindicated and it is unacceptable that there is no direct access to interpreters in civil cases.

I am reminded of the essay James Joyce wrote in Italian in 1907 about the Maamtrasna murders. He wrote about Myles Joyce, who in 1882 had been wrongly convicted of the murders in Maamtrasna. What was so revealing about that criminal prosecution and trial was that Myles Joyce could not speak a word of English and yet his trial was conducted in English.

He did not know what was going on and he was subsequently hanged. This gives an indication of the disadvantage and disability that members of the deaf community can be under if they are exposed to a State that does not make strenuous efforts to ensure their rights, and not simply their rights to communicate, are vindicated.

I want to give other Members time to contribute and I will conclude by urging the Minister of State to drive forward with this issue, to go back to his departmental officials, tell them to give him enabling advice and not to find problems in a very well-intentioned Bill that has at heart the interests of the Irish deaf community. If we work together on this, we can achieve something very useful for these citizens, some of whom are in the Gallery this evening.

7:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank Deputy O'Callaghan. There are 28 minutes remaining and four Deputies offering. I invite Deputy Jack Chambers.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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Before I begin, I wish to note that Deputy Mary Butler will take the final two minutes of Deputy O'Callaghan's time. I welcome the members of the deaf community to the debate this evening. At the Committee on Justice and Equality a really honest description was outlined to Members of the current situation faced by many members of the deaf community. I thank Dr. John Bosco Conama, Ms Wendy Murray, Mr. Brian Crean and the interpreter, Mr. Darren Byrne. I thank also the Chairman of the Committee on Justice and Equality which has produced this report, and as has been mentioned by my colleagues, there is another report on the way. We are seeing a universally constructive justice committee. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for making the change to allow interpreters in the Chamber, which has empowered members of the deaf community to see Members of the Oireachtas and to be communicated with. As Deputy Wallace has said, it is to be hoped members of the deaf community might join the House in the not too distant future. I would encourage them all to join a party, or none-----

A Deputy:

Or make their own.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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-----to run for local or general elections and to participate in the political process. That would certainly accelerate the work that is being done by the Committee on Justice and Equality and by the Oireachtas on this matter. It is to be hoped we will see people who are deaf becoming members of different local authorities and becoming Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It would be a very progressive and important step in our own political history.

I am very pleased to be able to speak on this important topic today, which I believe is an issue of basic dignity, human rights and equality. The debate offers an opportunity to reflect and consider how this State treats those in the deaf community. Unfortunately, a situation has been allowed to develop where some 5,000 people who are deaf in Ireland face a whole host of challenges and problems. In Ireland, many people who are deaf feel marginalised and socially isolated because of the lack of recognition, understanding and compassion towards this issue. The deaf community has been very proactive in trying to advance our understanding of the challenges facing people who are deaf and in highlighting the need for legislative action.

I commend the various interest groups who have championed the rights of people who are deaf, including the Irish Deaf Society and Deaf Village Ireland. I was very impressed, but also deeply disturbed, to hear some of the testimony of those involved in this area when they appeared before the Committee on Justice and Equality. I was struck by the issues and problems faced by so many people, for example, around seeing a general practitioner or any other health care professional and the lengths to which people must go to get that basic interface and communication in a situation that is fundamental to any person's life. As Deputy Clare Daly has said, if this measure were strengthened as legislation, we would be able to focus each core part of public policy towards improving the lives of and services for people who are deaf. It would also send a positive message that we take this matter very seriously and that we want to deliver for the people in this community.

A 1991 National Rehabilitation Board report found that 80% of adults who are deaf have a literacy equivalent of an eight or nine year old. This means that trying to read books, letters, newspapers, the Internet and all the things that hearing people do without a second thought becomes very difficult for some people who are deaf. Similarly, watching television, going to the cinema or listening to the radio is more difficult when English is not a person's first language. It is important that we put interpreting to the fore on our television screens as this would build positive awareness that sign language is a different language, and not just for the graveyard slot in broadcasting schedules on our national television. The small amount of interpreting by our national broadcaster is regrettable. One person, who is deaf, described their experiences for the committee as extreme marginalisation. This is simply unacceptable and cannot continue. It requires swift action, supported by all in this House. My colleague, Senator Mark Daly, has introduced a Bill on two occasions in the previous Oireachtas, which was rejected by the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government. It is unfortunate that no Member from either party has attended this debate at any stage this evening.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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It is regrettable but perhaps it also shows the lack of will on their part to take this matter seriously and to address the Bill positively. With regard to the Minister of State's speech, I know that he takes matters around this issue very seriously, but as my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, has said, a simple message around bringing this Bill forward and having it progressed and legislated for is a much more positive message then listing conditions and constraints around the legislation that has been tabled. All Opposition proposed legislation had some faults with regard to drafting and requires amendments, but this is a motion about delivering a message to the deaf community that we take this matter very seriously and want to address its needs. The Minister of State's response should not be an outline of constraints of the Bill being put forward by Senator Mark Daly.

I will allow my colleague, Deputy Mary Butler, to contribute and I will conclude. Recently I was at the Cabra Cabaret in the Irish Deaf Village and I was taken aback by the skills of the Deaf Tones choir, which was absolutely excellent. To see members of our deaf community celebrate our history on a wonderful night in the Irish Deaf Village and to see the work that is going on there was truly inspirational. I hope that we in the Oireachtas can progress this matter positively and properly. Senator Daly's Bill would result in the proper promotion, development and cultivation of sign language for the very first time in the history of the State. This is an issue of human rights and equality and I call on sides of the House to participate and be involved in future debates and not to go home early on a Thursday. All sides should be here to see this very important debate. It is important we support this Bill, this motion and the deaf community by ensuring the Bill is passed when it comes before the House.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank my two colleagues for sharing their time with me because I felt it was very important to be here. I welcome everyone in the Gallery. There is one young girl sitting up there who has been on work experience, up from Waterford, all week. Her brother is deaf, and before I came to this debate tonight, she taught me how to sign "Hello".

I welcome the report from the Committee on Justice and Equality which calls on the Government to support the Irish Sign Language Bill. I compliment the Chairman, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, on the great work of the committee. I also compliment Senator Mark Daly on the work that has taken place in the Seanad to move this forward. We hope that when this Bill is passed, it will make a positive and meaningful difference to the quality of life for Irish Sign Language users.

Under the Bill, Irish Sign Language would be designated as a native and independent language to be used as the primary means of communication by more than 5,000 members of the deaf community. We must realise and accept that Irish Sign Language is the language of the deaf community in Ireland. It is a visual, spatial language with its own distinct grammar. It is not only a language of the hands but also of the face and the body. A high percentage of adults who are deaf have low English literacy skills due to English being their second language. This creates barriers in a society that is so reliant on English. Irish Sign Language is the first and preferred language of 5,000 people who are deaf in Ireland. Some 40,000 people in general will communicate with Irish Sign Language daily.

The impact of this legislation would be truly transformative for the deaf community. It would enable Irish Sign Language to be used in legal proceedings and would require Irish television broadcasters to have subtitling on a greater proportion of broadcasts.

For interaction with social protection services, such as buying a TV licence or dealing with a local authority, the Irish deaf community has been denied equal rights and opportunities for years. When the Bill is passed, it will also require the State to provide interpreting services for students who use Irish Sign Language and would require every public body to devise and implement an action plan to promote the use of sign language in the organisation.

The legislation further proposes the creation of an Irish Sign Language council to promote the development of the language, regulate its teaching and co-ordinate interpreting services. Numerous local authorities have passed motions to date calling for the recognition of Irish Sign Language and the implementation of supports to aid the deaf community. It is important these calls are answered by the Oireachtas. This is sensible, pragmatic yet highly transformative legislation. I hope for cross-party support to bring it to the next Stage of the legislative process. I also am very disappointed that my colleagues across the House are not here this evening. Deaf people are not just represented by certain political parties. They should be represented by all political parties.

7:25 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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This is an important step in fully and properly integrating the deaf community into wider Irish society and it certainly is a step forward for an Ireland for all.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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It is worth repeating that it is extraordinary that the Bill is coming before the House, and it is extraordinary and wonderful to see all of the people here with the extraordinary event of an interpreter being here to facilitate them in joining the debate. I must admit a huge amount of ignorance on the subject prior to reading the Bill, not entire ignorance but a huge amount of ignorance. Reading the Bill and sitting here make me think that we are all deaf in society, and what we are deaf to is the needs of the people with deafness. Clearly we have been deaf since the foundation of the State to the needs of those who cannot hear. Otherwise, we would not be sitting here in 2016 having been at a point in 2011 when a commitment to recognise Irish Sign Language and resource it was given in the programme for Government. Five years later, we are now speaking about it. All credit is due to the Deputies and Senators mentioned, including all of the members of the justice committee.

Sitting here reminds me of a comedy sketch show from years ago called "Not the Nine O'Clock News". It was very good at throwing a light back on ourselves for the obviously stupid, irresponsible and hypocritical things we do in society. It had a sketch where a guy had invented a big light that went on and off so that deaf people would know the phone was ringing. In the sketch, he tests his invention and a deaf person picks up the phone and cannot hear what is being said on the other end, but a fortune was spent on designing the light. It is ironic and was intended to be funny, but it threw at light back on society on our own hypocrisy and inadequacies. Being here today discussing this all these years later reminds me of this.

With regard to services for deaf people, I want to mention the very admirable points in the Bill on resourcing classes for parents, siblings, grandparents, other persons in loco parentis, a guardian of a child, and to provide hours and hours of academic provision in primary and second level schools and at third level. There is no point in repeating everything. Several months ago, I represented a family in Ballyfermot who are as poor as church mice. They have several family members who suffer with different disabilities. One sister resides in a school for deaf people in Derry because this State is not able to look after her needs. The family visits her every week. I wrote to the Minister and asked whether we could get training for one member of the family in Irish Sign Language so they can communicate with their sister. I received a one liner back with No as the short answer. The family cannot afford the training but needs the training, but the short answer back was No, along with a link to the Irish Deaf Society.

With all of these very admirable and important measures in the Bill, we must ensure they are resourced and not just aspirational, because quick as lightning when austerity hit us in the last recession Minister after Minister cut the funding for disability. Those of us in opposition will remember being outside the Taoiseach's office, and sleeping overnight in some cases, with people with disabilities to help them retain their funding. Quick as lightning this is an area that could be neglected in terms of resourcing and funding. It is very important that people such as the Cummins family in Ballyfermot are not disregarded and dumped and that training for siblings, children, parents and grandparents or whoever is resourced by the State and poor people are not expected to pay for it.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)
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I congratulate the justice committee for bringing this report to the Dáil. It has been a very important debate. We have had this debate previously, but this time we have the legislation which Senator Mark Daly brought to the Seanad a number of months ago, which is very important and must be worked on. I would like to hear the Minister of State when summing up state he will support recognition of Irish Sign Language and that it should be legislated for.

I do not want to repeat what has been said, but earlier I imagined someone suddenly being dropped into Russia, China or Japan without the language and with no access to the English language or anyone who could speak it, looking for a language school to try to learn the language but not being able to find one. The person would be absolutely isolated. This is where people who are deaf have been. They have been in a dark area where they cannot break out. They are not recognised by society. This is a terrible indictment on us in the Chamber for not dealing with this much quicker.

I know that 40 local authorities have recognised Irish Sign Language. Service providers such as Government bodies are not legally obliged to respect Irish Sign Language. They translate information into English and Irish but rarely into Irish Sign Language, although their websites have other language translations such as Chinese, Polish, Romanian and other languages. We have a minority of people who use a language and who determine their lives by this language and we do not recognise it, facilitate it or put into legal means a way to access it.

I am delighted to be able to speak this evening to support the community and welcome everybody here, including those in the Gallery and the interpreters. It has been an eye-opener to watch the interpreters speak. I hope the Minister of State brings this through the legislative process in a positive way and makes the community feel strong.

As Deputy Connolly stated earlier, the three-year review is important. It is up to the Minister of State to go back to the deaf community, and the deaf community to come back to the Minister of State, to ensure what is in place is working and see what can be done to progress any issues where the deaf community finds resistance in any area of the State or other areas where they cannot access information and live.

7:35 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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8 o’clock

I thank speakers for their contributions to this important discussion. I strongly disagree with a number of them, and I am a bit surprised to be saying so because everybody knows my position on this legislation. I was at the launch and I have had discussions with both Senator Mark Daly and the Irish Deaf Society. I thank colleagues for their excellent contributions and I agree with every single word that came from the Opposition benches.

I am hearing very clearly, and we are all agreed on the fact, that there is a palpable need to improve and further social inclusiveness for people in the deaf community, and that there is an onus on Government to provide statutory recognition of the rights of ISL users. That is why I support the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill. The sponsors of the Bill have carried out a valuable public service by putting the need to cater for the rights of ISL users on our agenda in the Oireachtas and I am committed to working with Members to try to meet these needs in an effective and responsive way. Let there be no doubt about my position on this Bill. I want it implemented. In answer to the negative criticism, I have concerns which I have outlined and I would not be doing the sponsors of the Bill any favours were I not to do so. That is my job as Minister of State. We need to be practical and to ensure the approach we have taken is realistic as well as fruitful. I take my job very seriously, as I do the rights of all people with a physical or intellectual disability, and I would never use weasel words about them.

I look forward to continuing discussion on the Bill once it has moved along in a process in which I am sure that my concerns will be examined carefully. I will also be bringing forward some amendments that aim to add balance and perspective to the proposed legislation. I accept the need to push this along and I will need the support of Deputies at times. I am glad that Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and the Oireachtas committee will support me. In the meantime, the new national disability strategy will shortly be going to the steering group for sign-off and, as I said earlier, it contains a specific commitment that will cover much of the same ground as recognition of ISL, namely, the creation of a statutory right for a person to receive free ISL interpretation services when availing of statutory services. I am trying to get it moved along before Christmas.

In its report, the committee does refer to this proposed action, but it did not, to my knowledge, undertake any analysis as to how it might resolve some of the difficulties that ISL users face. It is my firm belief that this specific action in the strategy, in conjunction with developing the capacity of the sign language interpreting service, which is also committed to in the strategy, is the best approach to meeting the needs of the deaf community and will make a real difference in the lives of ISL users. As Deputy Bríd Smith said, action and resources are the key words.

It may be of interest to Members to know that the suggestion to provide free ISL interpretation when availing of public services originated in a public meeting in Cork during the consultation process. In fact, issues in relation to the deaf community featured particularly strongly in the process as a whole, and the Department intends that the new strategy will respond credibly to the issues raised and that it will make a significant, meaningful and practical difference to the lives of deaf people.

Let nobody be in any doubt tonight of my position on this Bill. I totally support it and I am determined to implement it. I will raise concerns but, equally, I will listen to the voices of people who have a genuine interest. Once again, I thank the deaf community for attending tonight. I also thank the interpreters and Opposition Deputies who have been very supportive of this legislation. I have a plan for all people with disabilities and both a strategy and a clear vision on all these issues. Part of my plan is to do my best to use the limited time I have to get as many things done as possible, one of which is this legislation.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Ó Caoláin and his committee have earned high praise tonight, which is well deserved. I ask him to respond.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I say "Thank you" to the Minister of State, which is also deserved. His clarification and crystal clear statement have left nobody in any doubt as to his position and I welcome them.

I wish to respond to his earlier contribution with a few points. He spoke about 5,000 users of ISL but the figure is actually 40,000, with 5,000 members being hearing impaired, deaf or hearing challenged. Their extended families and friends are an important and essential part in developing the same communication skills as the 35,000 hearing people for whom ISL is a part of their daily lives.

On behalf of the committee I welcome the signalled publication of the Bill, for which we have been waiting earnestly for some considerable time and which will allow for ratification, at long last, of the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities. We earnestly hoped it would be concluded this year and I am anxious that the deadline might not be met. It would be a disappointment, not only to myself but the all the members of the Committee on Justice and Equality, if it were not met. Everything should be done to progress it and we are ready to play our part.

The Minister of State noted what was being done behind the scenes in the way of the provision of ISL interpretation when members of the deaf community avail of their statutory entitlements. Other elements of the Minister of State's address, however, gave rise to concerns, and while he has gone a significant way to setting those aside, there are still concerns. The Minister of State paid particular attention to the importance of the capacity to deliver and made this a priority rather than bringing forward the clear intent to recognise ISL, which would force the delivery of the essential outworking of the implementation measures. It came across as a chicken and egg situation, in which we would never get to where we wanted to be. There is a need for a pragmatic and feasible approach, backed up by statutory recognition of the rights of users of ISL, and the ideal situation would be to have these in tandem. The critical line we must cross is the formal recognition of Irish sign language and whatever is not in place by that stage can then be worked on and delivered. I have no doubt the members of the deaf community, having achieved formal recognition of ISL, will be patient for some little time at least.

We will then be able to see the outworking of the hope and promise of that formal recognition.

I wish to make a few small points because from the list given by the Minister of State it seemed as if there were a litany of reasons we would not see the Bill progress. I have analysed each of them. The Minister of State commenced by stating that the central principle of the Bill is sound, which is important, and I welcome that comment. He went on to state, however, that it seems perhaps to have a disproportionate approach to the provision of services for users of Irish Sign Language. My question in response to that is what would he expect and why would we not take that approach? If he were dependent on Irish Sign Language, I would expect that he would have a disproportionate approach to the provision of services. Why should the users not expect, hope and aspire to the very best and the most that can be achieved?

On the Minister of State's comment that the preamble, in terms of the structure, does not seem necessary, that is a technical matter in my opinion. In regard to the position on imposing an obligation on public bodies to develop the three-yearly action plans, I, and colleagues who have spoken, could very well argue the contrary. That is something we can address on Committee Stage. The proposal for the establishment of a new public body by the Citizens Information Board can be discussed. On section 18, which provides for offering annual accounts of the new body for sale, that is not something that I expect is critical. In regard to section 19 which provides for borrowing by the public body, this can be reconsidered. Section 29 which provides for 12 months' imprisonment for either offering interpretation services or teaching ISL - I emphasise the next four words - "on a commercial basis" is critically important. We must have registration and standards. Unregistered people charging for services for which they are not registered or even, more importantly, not qualified in must be discouraged by some level of penalty. As to whether what is in the Bill, as constructed, is necessarily the way to go, that is open to us to discuss.

On Part 4, let us discuss it in regard to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. These points are not impediments or obstacles to the successful passage of this legislation.

7:45 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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We can do business.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I again pay tribute to Senator Mark Daly and those who have worked on the drafting of this legislation. I have no doubt many in the Visitors Gallery have worked closely with others in the preparation and drafting of the proposals before us.

We are 12 years on from the recognition of Irish Sign Language in the Six Counties and I take comfort from the fact that I believe the Minister of State would be of exactly same view as myself on this issue. It is to our shame that 12 years on we have yet to officially recognise one of our two indigenous languages on this island, while north of the Border this has been done. With all of the requirements entailed in the Good Friday Agreement, this failure to reach a point of equality of recognition of the needs and rights of sections of our society is an indictment of our political system and on successive Governments.

This is a motion on a report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality and all expressions of appreciation are due to all the members of that committee. We are a cohesive and hard-working body of Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas. We are industrious and intend to continue to so be. It is important to reflect on the Irish Deaf Society's key and critical points. I want to pay tribute to Eddie Redmond and all the team at the Irish Deaf Society. In its small publication, ten main reasons Irish Sign Language must be recognised by the State as a language of this country, it cites the number of people who use ISL on a daily basis. For these regular ISL users, it is an innate and an integral part of their personalities. ISL is the only natural and fully accessible language for deaf children. There is no national registry of ISL interpreters and ISL teachers and, furthermore, there are no accreditation or monitoring systems. ISL has been in use for centuries, as we have already reported. Service providers, such as Government bodies, are not legally obliged as matters stand to respect Irish Sign Language.

The motion calling on the Government to recognise ISL has been passed by more than 40 local authorities across this jurisdiction, which is an important point that has not yet been made. There is no automatic right for deaf people to have an ISL interpreter in the justice system. No deaf child can fully learn Irish Sign Language as not all allocated teachers are fluent or even qualified in the ISL. There is no access for deaf people to emergency or help line services in ISL, something that is hugely important.

I thank the Members who spoke, attended and our special visitors, the members of the deaf community and friends in the Visitors Gallery. I thank especially the interpreters who have been wonderful on this very exceptional and special occasion. I wish every success to our purpose.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at at 8.20 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 15 November 2016.