Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

12:25 pm

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Acting Chairman. I will commence by replying to something Senator Mark Daly said. We have signed but not ratified the UN convention because there are certain things we need to do first. Some countries have signed and ratified it, but they are now being held to account for not putting in place the necessary structures to implement what is included in the convention. Ireland has adopted a more sensible approach and is putting the necessary structures in place before ratifying the convention. That is why the capacity legislation is vitally important. It is the largest piece we need to put in place before ratification, but there are other little bits and pieces that have to be put in place also.

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House and thank the Senators concerned for proposing the motion. I ask the person signing for those seated in the Visitors Gallery to let me know if I am speaking too fast.

The programme for Government commits to examining different mechanisms to promote the recognition of Irish Sign Language and that process has commenced. The commitment was made in recognition of the fact that Irish Sign Language was the preferred sign language of the deaf community in the State and an expression of culture. As a first language for many in the deaf community, we also recognise that its use is the means through which full and equal opportunities may be achieved by its users. In addressing the commitment in the programme for Government I requested, as a starting point, that the National Disability Authority facilitate consultations with the deaf community to more fully understand its position. The consultations took place in May last year and brought together broad representation from the deaf community. Written submissions from those involved were subsequently received outlining proposals for the promotion and recognition of the language and detailing actions that could be taken to improve access to services. The contents of the submissions were brought to the senior officials group on disability services and considered for inclusion, where possible and appropriate, in the national disability strategy implementation plan published in July this year.

As part of the national disability strategy implementation plan and to continue to build on the work undertaken to date, I intend to hold themed meetings of the national disability strategy implementation group to deal with specific issues to be advanced on a cross-departmental basis. The first such meeting will focus on this matter. I will chair the meeting that will consist of representatives of the relevant Departments, the National Disability Authority, the deaf community and other relevant stakeholders. They will be in a position to examine the current position across Departments and their agencies on promoting recognition of Irish Sign Language, including in-service provision. In this way we can address the most pertinent issues regarding service delivery and identify means and supports to assist public bodies in delivering more accessible services. Actions identified and agreed will be incorporated into the national disability strategy implementation plan, with key performance indicators and timelines and the relevant person being identified for implementing the action. Progress on the actions to be undertaken will be monitored as part of the implementation plan monitoring process.

It must be made clear that there are no plans to establish Irish Sign Language as Ireland's third official language. That approach might ultimately result in scarce resources being used to meet legislative requirements that may be of lesser, if any, real benefit to the deaf community than more targeted actions that would significantly improve the situation at the more practical level of service provision and improved communications when conducting business with public bodies. This is not to say it should not be recognised in terms of its cultural and linguistic identity.

I fully understand Irish Sign Language is an expression of culture and an indigenous language of the deaf community. It is in this regard that mechanisms for the promotion of the recognition of Irish Sign Language will be examined in order that an agreed platform can be reached regarding the form of recognition that is possible. I understand other countries have made legislative provision for the recognition of sign language. However, it must not be overlooked that the existing legislation in Ireland and the provisions made on an administrative basis give a level of recognition and provide practical measures equal to or above those offered by countries which have formally recognised sign language. In Ireland legal provisions regarding sign language are set out in the Disability Act, equality legislation, broadcasting legislation and the Education Act 1998. While some of this legislation does not specifically reference the Irish Sign Language, its intention is to ensure provision is made and support given to prohibit discrimination and enable all citizens to access public services. The Education Act 1998 makes explicit reference to Irish Sign Language. I will highlight the extent of the provisions made and their impact. Specific reference to Irish Sign Language is also made in two pieces of secondary legislation, the code of practice on access to services and information for people with disabilities and the statutory broadcasting access rules.

Section 26 of the Disability Act obliges public bodies, where practicable and appropriate, to provide assistance, where requested, for people with disabilities to enable them to access the same public service as anyone else. Section 28 of the Act requires that, where a public body is communicating with a person with a hearing impairment and where requested, the contents of the communication, as far as practicable, be communicated in a form that is accessible to the person concerned. The statutory code of practice on accessible services and information which provides guidance on these two provisions references the provision of Irish Sign Language interpretation in the case of major public consultations. It does not specifically refer to it otherwise, but it does stress the need to establish procedures for processing requests and determining the practicability of providing the form of support requested within particular communication contexts and timeframes.

The Employment Equality Acts require an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee with a disability in areas such as employment and training, while the Equal Status Acts require service providers to reasonably accommodate a person with a disability availing of the service. The provision of sign language interpretation is something which should be considered in providing these accommodations. The Broadcasting Act 2009 enables the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to make rules specifying the steps broadcasters have to take to promote understanding and enjoyment of their programming by people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The access rules in place under these provisions have specific requirements set out for Irish Sign Language. The Government recognises the importance of the provision of television broadcasting services with Irish Sign Language, as well as captioning and other supplementary communication platforms, in terms of inclusion and the need to support members of the deaf community. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is committed to continuing to pursue with RTE delivery of television programmes with Irish Sign Language in line with this legislation and the commitment given in the national disability strategy implementation plan. In this regard, mainstream programming with Irish sign language interpretation is due to commence on 16 October covering three hours per week approximately.

Irish Sign Language has formal recognition in the Education Act 1998. It is a function of the Minister for Education and Skills to ensure, subject to the provisions of the Act, that there is made available to each person resident in the State, including a person with a disability or who has other special educational needs, support services and a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting his or her needs and abilities. This includes provision for students learning through Irish Sign Language.

With regard to education, the Government has passionately defended the provision for children with special educational needs, including children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some €1.3 billion will be spent this year in support of children with special educational needs. This will ensure the majority of pupils with special educational needs can continue to be educated in an inclusive environment in mainstream schools with their peers, while pupils who have additional special educational needs which require intensive interventions in a specialised environment, special class and special school placements can continue to be provided for.

In line with the policy of the Department of Education and Skills that children with special educational needs access appropriate education interventions in mainstream settings, where possible, many deaf or hard of hearing pupils are integrated into mainstream classes at primary and post-primary level with the assistance, as necessary, of resource teaching and special needs assistant support. In addition, there are 16 special classes for pupils with hearing impairment attached to mainstream schools, as well as three special schools for children with hearing impairment. Enhanced capitation grants are provided for the special schools and special classes for hearing impaired pupils. Pupils in special classes and special schools for hearing impaired children are supported by an enhanced pupil-teacher ratio of 7:1. Special needs assistant support is also provided in these schools and classes, as required. Many of the pupils in special classes or special schools are either taught through Irish Sign Language or use Irish sign language for part of the day and the special schools for the deaf and hearing impaired have been encouraged to use sign language in class.

Providing deaf and hard of hearing children with opportunities to acquire fluent language skills at an early age is fundamentally important to developing effective communication skills, facilitating greater access to education and ensuring unproved educational outcomes when the child engages in education at a later stage. The Department of Education and Skills, therefore, funds a number of initiatives which seek to promote and develop Irish Sign Language in order that it will achieve greater recognition and use in the education system. This includes provision for an Irish sign language tuition scheme to assist deaf or hard of hearing children and their families to acquire competency in a language at the earliest possible opportunity. To ensure the child can communicate with his or her family members and assist him or her to acquire fluent language skills while engaged in meaningful activity with capable users of the language and significant others, the child's family members, parents and siblings may also be included in the Irish sign language tuition under the scheme which is provided in the child's home. Under the scheme tutors visit the homes of deaf or hard of hearing preschool and schoolgoing pupils to provide training in Irish Sign Language for the children, their siblings and parents. Funding is also made available through the special education support service to enable individual teachers and school staff to undertake courses in Irish Sign Language which are available throughout the country through a variety of providers.

The Department of Education and Skills, through the Higher Education Authority, has established and funds a centre for deaf studies in Trinity College, Dublin which provides diploma courses for Irish Sign Language interpreters and tutors in deaf studies. In addition, the visiting teacher service for children and young people with hearing impairment is provided by the Department from the time of referral through to third level education. The vservice provides advice and support, including in Irish Sign Language provision, to ensure the needs of children and young people with hearing impairment are met. The service is available at preschool, primary and post-primary levels. Specifically, the service works in partnership with parents of preschool children with hearing impairment, visiting their homes and-or meeting them in groups to inform, advise and offer guidance in matters pertaining to their education and overall development and in helping their children to derive maximum benefit from the educational opportunities available.

Recently the National Council for Special Education published its policy advice on the education of deaf and hard of hearing children which makes a number of recommendations for the improvement of educational provision for deaf and hard of hearing children, including recommendations relating to the provision of Irish Sign Language. Stakeholders in the deaf community were consulted as part of the preparation of the policy advice. A number of the recommendations contained in the policy advice have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented. They include recommendations on the rolling out of a universal newborn hearing screening programme, the provision of information for parents on services available to children with hearing impairment and the establishment of new special classes for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Work is also under way on the implementation of recommendations to improve the provision of Irish Sign Language services.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout mentioned the cochlear implant centres and the lack of a bilateral implementation programme. That is a matter to which the Minister for Health has committed. We all hope the budget will be such that the programme will be delivered on. It is essential to ensure very young children get the best possible advantage.

In addition to the provisions made through legislation, there are a number of examples of good practice across the public service where there is recognition of the need for Irish Sign Language. It is examples such as these that we hope to promote further, to create a greater awareness of and learn from in order that they can be used as examples for others and to encourage widespread implementation and increase access to services Government-wide.

Senator Mark Daly mentioned that people had difficulties in accessing information.

The Department of Social Protection commenced its pilot remote interpreting service in its Navan Road office on 25 July 2013. The Irish Remote Interpreting Service was officially launched by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, this week at the Deaf Village Ireland, Ratoath Road, Dublin. The manager of the service demonstrated the remote interpreting service at the launch and a Department of Social Protection staff member interviewed a deaf customer at the Navan Road office while linked to the remote interpreting service at the Deaf Village so that the Minister could observe the operation of the service while in the room with the interpreter in the Deaf Village. The remote interpreting service is currently being used on a trial basis in the Citizens' Information offices based in Dublin north west, O'Connell Street, Tullamore and Dundalk, and in the Deaf Village in Cabra. During the pilot phase, it has been provided as a free service to all departmental users. Service providers such as Departments and their statutory agencies, Citizens' Information offices, employability offices, county councils and schools can avail of the service. It is a collaborative project between the sign language interpreting service, DeafHear and the Irish Deaf Society. The sign language interpreting service is funded by the Citizens' Information Board under the auspices of the Department of Social Protection. Funding of €245,000 has been allocated for 2013.

The sign language interpretation service seeks to ensure that high-quality interpretation services are available to deaf people in Ireland so that they can access public and social services. The service provides a live link to an Irish Sign Language interpreter using a variety of programmes such as Skype, ooVoo or WebEx. The sign language interpreter is based in the centre in the Deaf Village and interprets using a computer with Internet access and a webcam. While it will not replace face-to-face interpreting, this service is particularly suitable for short meetings, phone calls, information inquiries, form filling and interviews. There are 130 social welfare offices and Intreo centres throughout the country where customers can obtain information and guidance on their entitlements and on the services provided by the Department. In larger offices, there are staff dedicated to information provision duties who are available to explain all the Department's supports and services and to help and assist people in completing application forms and accessing their entitlements.

In order to facilitate deaf customers in their interactions with the Department, the services of a sign language interpreter are made available when required. On average, ten requests per year for sign language interpreters have been facilitated by the Department over the past number of years. These services are provided by the sign language interpreting service and the Centre for Sign Language Studies. Certain offices provide a loop system for hearing aid users. Information in alternative formats, such as Braille, audio and larger print, is also available upon request.

In regard to employment supports for people with disabilities, the Department of Social Protection continues to offer the job interview interpreter grant through employment services. This is used in circumstances in which a jobseeker is deaf, hard of hearing or has a speech impairment and is attending job interviews. They can apply for funding through Department of Social Protection employment services to have a sign language interpreter attend the interview with them. Funding is also available to cover the cost of a sign language interpreter during an induction programme when they start work.

The Irish Deaf Society has assisted the Department's staff development unit in raising deaf awareness in the Department over the past few years and providing information to staff in regard to its Irish Sign Language classes. The HSE recognises the obligations on health and social care providers to ensure that the services provided are accessible and has a specific guidance document for language interpreters, entitled On Speaking Terms. Patients and service users are entitled to request and be provided with a qualified sign language interpreter. The cost is borne by the service as it is considered an integral part of the service being provided and it legally protects both the health service provider and the patient or service user. It is understood that failure to make appropriate provision for communication difficulty may result in avoidable serious risks and errors for both patient and health care provider. I agree with the point made by Senator Daly in this regard. It is essential that we are clearly understood when it comes to our health. Providing a qualified sign language interpreter when delivering care to a patient or service helps avoid a situation in which information may be misinterpreted or misunderstood, which may lead to a potential adverse outcome for the patient or service user.

In regard to practical supports for staff, patients and service users, the HSE, under the auspices of the universal access steering committee, is developing two documents. The first is national guidelines on accessible health and social care services, and the second, which is more specific, is the HSE policy and guidelines on access to health services for the deaf community and people who are hard of hearing. Both of these documents are being prepared in consultation with key stakeholders. The development of these documents is in progress and it is intended that they will provide a valuable resource for staff and be available for staff by the end of 2013.

The National Advocacy Unit is working with the sign language interpreting service to identify areas within the HSE where the Irish remote sign language interpreting service could be used to improve patient and service user experience. The National Advocacy Unit has been working with MEDISIGNS, Interesource Group (Ireland) Limited, to develop a sign language version of the Your Service Your Say leaflet, which will make the feedback process more accessible for service users who use Irish Sign Language as their primary means of communication. The Revenue Commissioners also recognises the importance of making information available to users of Irish Sign Language and, to coincide with the introduction of local property tax earlier this year, it commissioned a video through the medium of Irish Sign Language, with subtitles. This video was produced by the Irish Deaf Society and included information on how to complete and submit local property tax returns, details of who is liable, information on exemptions and deferrals and guidance to assist in valuing a property. The use of similar videos will be considered in the future should the need arise.

On a broader level, ongoing development of the Revenue Commissioners' website and other online services assists persons with hearing difficulties in accessing information and in performing certain transactions online, such as using PAYE Anytime. We hope to build on and develop awareness of these types of measure and what we learn from them so that we can spread this good practice across all public bodies. Using the governance mechanisms already in place, such as the senior officials' group on disability, we can share learning and promote good practice.

Once again, I would like to thank the Senators who proposed this motion. I fully understand the importance of this issue to the deaf community and the need to raise awareness, particularly in the public sector, of the importance of accessible services in providing equal opportunities for all. I commend the work of the many State and non-governmental organisations to support and promote the use of Irish Sign Language in the State to date and it is the continuation of these efforts that will, hopefully, see greater results for the deaf community. It is only through this continued support and partnership between the Government and the deaf community that we can achieve our common goals of improved access to services and greater recognition of Irish Sign Language as the first language of many Irish citizens.


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