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.
I thank the Deputy for raising this question this evening and welcome the opportunity to address the House on the issue.
Irish Sign Language is a matter of significant importance to me. I will put on the record that I met with families and with ISL interpreters. I have engaged with users of ISL and know how important it is to them that they can use ISL when accessing key services. There are an estimated 5,000 deaf people in Ireland. An additional 40,000 people rely on ISL to communicate.
The Irish Sign Language Act was signed into law in December 2017 with the aim of addressing the extreme marginalisation of sign language users. The Minister, Deputy O' Gorman, and I jointly signed the commencement order for the Irish Sign Language Act on 23December 2020. Through the Act, Ireland recognises ISL to be a native language of the State and users of ISL have the right to develop and preserve it as their native language.
The Act places a statutory duty on all public bodies to provide ISL users with free interpretation when accessing statutory entitlements and services. The Act also creates specific obligations with regard to areas such as the accreditation of ISL translators; the use of ISL in legal proceeding; the provision of ISL in education; guiding principles regarding programming and broadcasting; and provisions to allow for ISL access to social, educational and current affairs. Nowhere was this seen better than when ISL was used at every one of our briefings throughout the whole pandemic.
In assessing our progress against the requirements of the Act, we must be realistic, honest and ambitious for our ISL using citizens. We must also recognise the scale of the challenge in providing the supports required and the systemic change they represent. We must be honest about where we have made progress, where we need to keep doing better work and where we have done nothing. I ask every Department to look at themselves now because observations have been sent out. I ask them to be honest and truthful. It is three years since 2017. The various Departments and public bodies have had three years to make good on what the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and I signed into law in December 2020.
Implementing the Irish Sign Language Act requires a whole-of-government approach. As such, all public bodies have obligations to fulfil. To monitor the implementation of the Act, as required under section 10, my Department this year arranged for a report on the operation of the Act to be prepared. The National Disability Authority, NDA, was commissioned to produce the report and the NDA has submitted a draft to me. The report is based on the views and experiences of stakeholders, the lived experiences of ISL users and survey responses from public bodies.
Let us be very clear. It was my ambition to have that report produced approximately three to four weeks ago. It was also my ambition to have it form part of the NDA annual general meeting, AGM. Unfortunately, it has gone out to the various Departments for observations. It is regrettable that I am still waiting on the observations from those Departments to come back in. It is remiss of them to be so slow in facilitating their return.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I will always concede time to the Minister of State, if she wants it. I appreciate her frank response. To follow up on how she finished in terms of the delay of Departments in coming back to the Minister of State, it is quite apparent from the report I cited earlier that a number of Departments are not compliant with the Act, which was established in 2017. It is also quite obvious that a number of State bodies and even a number of Departments did not bother to even respond to requests in terms of the NDA report. To be honest, that type of behaviour is a travesty. We are at a point where, if one peruses the report, a number of education and training boards, ETB, did not bother to respond to say whether they were compliant with the Act. The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science did not respond to the request to see if it was compliant. A number of city and county councils, An Garda Síochána and the Office of the President did not respond to the request from the NDA. There is a problem here with communication. There is a problem with people having the manners and grace to respond to requests from the NDA to say whether they are compliant with the Act.
Of those people who did respond, a number of Departments in government are only partially compliant or not compliant at all. That will all come out when the report is published. I am hoping that report will be published in the coming weeks. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could elaborate on whether she has a date or a timeline of when that is going to come before us.
I will finish on this point. I take the Minister of State's point that we must be realistic. This cannot be done overnight and that is fine. The Act came in in 2017 and, fine, it only came into effect last year but that is still a significant period of time. The Minister of State and I have met, and I know she cannot comment on this individual case, people such as the Geary family in Cork. Their child has now been in school for the last four years without a properly trained and qualified language interpreter, as is his constitutional right. That is what we are talking about here. People are being lost in the system and falling through the cracks. That is four years of his education that he will never get back.
Yet again, I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Anybody who is listing to the debate this evening might not realise the relevance of the Irish Sign Language Act that was signed into law 2017 and the commencement order that we brought forward in December 2020.
It was not just one Department, however. It was a whole-of-government approach across all Departments and all public bodies. The Deputy referenced the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. To me, that is only a newly-formed Department. I am, therefore, prepared to be very reasonable and say that I understand why it could not contribute in the way it should have. However, the Deputy referenced other Departments and public bodies that should know better. They should know the value of communication and of allowing people the opportunity to be the very best they can be to perform in their roles and responsibilities and integrate with services and peers, but also to recognise that ISL is a form of communication.
It is their first language, no different from how I speak. This is my first language. When a person uses their hands to communicate or understand, we have said, as legislators, we recognise that. We recognise it to the extent we asked the public bodies and the Departments, for the past three years, to work with us. I look forward to bringing it in before Christmas. I hope all Departments will return their observations. I also hope that when it goes to the Cabinet, it will be accepted warts and all because we need to be honest. All the people want is to be honest. If we are honest with the people, we can start to make it better. I have run over my time and I thank the Ceann Comhairle.