Joe Costello Delivers Keynote Address at Irish Deaf Society, Jubilee

23 September 2006

by Cllr Joe Costello

I would like to thank the Irish Deaf Society for inviting me to speak at your national seminar in your Silver Jubilee Year. The Irish Deaf Society is located in Blessington Street in my constituency and the special schools for the deaf are located in Cabra also in my constituency. There is a vibrant deaf community living in the surrounding areas. When I was invited to speak at this event I started to think about the concept of language and communication. Language comes so naturally that it is easy to forget what a miracle it is. Without communication –verbal or signed- there can be no mutual sharing of ideas, no understanding, no personal enrichment and indeed no humanity. “Languages Open Doors”, was the slogan of the European Year of Languages in 2001. Of course, languages open doors but language does so much more. How we express ourselves in whatever language defines our very being, our culture and our core. Moreover, linguistic and/or communicative competences enable us to ensure that we can participate fully in society, ensuring our rights are protected and also enabling us to make positive contributions to our family, community, nation and indeed in this global era – the planet itself. “Active citizenship” is a term that has gained some currency in recent times – implying the desire to encourage all our “citizens” or people to take an active role in society. Therefore to deprive someone of the right to communicate fully and participate is to deny them their basic human rights. The European Union, is now a union of twenty five countries with twenty-one official spoken languages (including Irish from 1 January 2007) and several hundred “unofficial or regional languages” such as Basque, Catalan, and Scottish Gaelic, and including the lesser used languages of Alsatian and Sami Languages of Northern Europe. Respect for linguistic diversity is a core value of the European Union which is founded on the principle of “unity in diversity”. Indeed the Charter of Human Rights of the European Union enshrines the values of respect for linguistic diversity and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of language (which incidentally is not one of the nine grounds of discrimination here in Ireland). Each European country has its own sign language – as there is no one universal spoken language, so there is no one universal sign language. It is important to recognise that in linguistic terms, sign languages are as rich and complex as any oral language, despite the common misconception that they are not "real languages". Professional linguists have studied many sign languages and found them to have every linguistic component required to be classed as true languages. Sign languages are not a visual rendition of an oral language. They have rich, complex grammars of their own, and can be used to discuss any topic, from the simple and concrete to the lofty and abstract. Sign Languages should have the validity and rights of any minority language – in an era where English is fast becoming the Lingua Franca. The European Union of the Deaf representing Deaf People throughout Europe has been unrelenting in promoting and lobbying for the recognition of signed languages. Their work has resulted in two important resolutions on signed languages from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. The European Parliament has also passed two resolutions regarding the status of signed languages in the European Union, in June 1988 and in November 1998. Each of these resolutions calls on respective Member States to recognise at national level the indigenous signed languages of their territories. They also call for Member States to adopt proposals for the official recognition of their indigenous signed language. However, due to the principle of subsidiarity, they cannot go that step further and oblige Member States to so do. The Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages offers protection to Minority or Regional Languages in areas such as education, media, law, and public administration. Countries signing up to the Charter must list the languages covered. To date not one European country has included sign language in their list. Incidentally, Ireland has not yet signed the Charter. The legal recognition of sign languages is one of the major concerns of the Irish Deaf community. There is no unique way in which such a recognition can be formalised; every country has its own interpretation. In some countries, the national sign language is an official state language, whereas in others it has a protected status in certain areas such as education. Here in Ireland Sign Language has been given some recognition in the Education Act of 1998. This Act proclaims to be “an Act to make provision in the interests of the common good for the education of every person in the state …………. Respects the diversity of values, beliefs, languages and traditions in Irish Society”. In reply to several parliamentary questions on the issue of recognising Irish Sign Language, numerous Ministers for Education referred somewhat smugly to the recognition afforded in the Education Act. The present Minster has stated “it is a function of the Minister for Education and Science to ensure, 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 the needs and abilities of that person”. However the question remains whether the type of recognition accorded in the Education Act (support services) is the recognition that is due to Irish Sign Language as an indigenous minority language. Moreover it is significant that there is just one reference to Sign Language in the act which is included under the heading of “support services”. Apart from this, there is nothing in Irish legislation to recognise the status of Irish Sign Language users or their related rights to access public services. Whereas the limited “recognition” of Irish Sign Language in the 1998 Education Act is welcome, official recognition is so much wider. Moreover, it is unclear to what extent the “recognition” afforded in the Education Act is implemented in practice. For example so many teachers of deaf children do not know sign language and as was noted by educationalists Kyle and Allsop “No hearing community would tolerate their children being educated by those who cannot communicate with or understand their children. Yet deaf children with normal cognitive ability are expected to function in this environment” Deaf and hearing impaired children attending mainstream schools are not learning Irish Sign Language – a language which could be so much more accessible to them and which could give them so much more communicative abilities to help them develop their full potential. Moreover, the Irish Deaf Community have rightly pointed out that deaf children are treated as “special needs”. They resent the pigeon-holing of the deaf community as disabled. Official recognition of Irish Sign Language would not only improve the quality of life for deaf people but would go a long way towards debunking the myth that deaf people are “disabled”. I was very struck on listening to a radio programme recently where children of deaf parents relayed theirs and their parents’ experiences of the system. One of the participants recalled that her parents had difficulty in interfacing with the school as parents, and told how her mother attended a parent teacher meeting. On returning home, the eager child awaited her mother’s approval for her excellent reports from teachers- the child was bitterly disappointed as her mother explained she did not understand a word the teacher said and merely nodded in agreement and smiled for the duration of the meeting. I was also disappointed to see that Minister Hanafin decided to disband The Advisory Committee for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing established in 2001 before it had completed its final report and that she has reverted back to the “special needs” approach in asking the National Council for Special Education to complete the report According to the renowned linguist David Crystal half the world’s languages are in danger of extinction as 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by just 4% of its population. Crystal states that “unless something is done to reverse this trend we will lose the cultural and linguistic diversity which is so essential to human devleopment”. The need for protection of all minority languages is clear. It is also important to note that whereas technology such as internet email and even texting have greatly assisted the deaf community to interact in day to day societal actions particularly in dealing with state services, this should not be seen as a substitute for sign language but rather as a communication aid. Indeed the internet, “netspeak” or “text speak”are not only threatening many minority languages including Sign Language but are also inflicting serious damage to the English Language the lingua franca! At a political level, I understand that action is needed to protect and nourish Irish Sign Language as a minority language in its own right but more importantly it is necessary to ensure the communication development and cultural enrichment of the Irish Deaf Community and ensure that they interact in society on an equal basis. In researching this speech, I was particularly struck by some of the measures taken by our near neighbours in the UK to recognise Sign Language as a Language in its own right. In addition, the Northern Ireland Office agreed to extend there the official recognition of sign language to Irish Sign Language for the benefit of the nationalist community there. Morevoer, the Good Friday Agreement recognises cultural and linguistic diversity on the Island of Ireland in terms of the minority languages. Yet similar recognition is not available in the Republic. The Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland was established to oversee the safeguarding and protecton of human rights and equality in all aspects of life. The Irish Government has also committed itself to establishing a Human Rights Commission with a mandate and remit equivalent to that within Northern Ireland. I note that Maurice Manning President of the Human Rights Commssion is another of your guest speakers I would suggest that the issue of recognition of Irish Sign Language is one that could be taken up by the two Human Rights Commssions to ensure that there is a parity of rights accorded to citizens North and South of the Border. Maurice may wish to elaborate further on this in his contribution. The Irish Labour Party was the first polical party to have a sign language interpreter for the Party Leaders keynote speech at its national conference in 1989. Dr Lorraine Leeson who is now the Director of the Centre for Deaf Studies in Trinity Collge was the interpreter on that occasion. Recognition of official languages is not without controversy nor is it without cost. The debate on the cost of implementing the Official Languages Act 2005 for the Irish language has just begun. I believe that official recognition should be given to Irish Sign Language. I will work to ensure that the Labour Party in Government gives formal recogniton to Irish Sign Language as the indenous language of deaf people in Ireland. Such recognition will require the provision of resources and the protection of rights for the thousands of adults and young people who use or require access to sign language to communicate, to learn and to devleop fully as human beings. We will engage with the Irish Deaf Society to ensure that the gap between policy aspirations and practice is bridged and to ensure that the appropriate measures are enshrined in law.