I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. I also welcome the people seated in the Visitors Gallery, particularly the people from the deaf community. I call Senator Mark Daly and he has ten minutes.
I thank the Minister of State for attending. I also thank my colleagues, Senators Labhrás Ó Murchú, Thomas Byrne and Sean Barrett for supporting this important legislation.
A number of months ago we discussed the issue of Irish Sign Language and nobody on this side of the House opposed the motion. However, we need to put the matter in legislation because the previous Government and its predecessors did not enshrine the rights of the deaf community in law. The Minister of State has engaged with the deaf community and previous governments have engaged with the deaf community yet the community does not have the same rights in terms of access to Government services like every other citizen in the State and they should have regardless of the circumstances of their birth. The Minister of State supports the concept behind what we are trying to achieve but I want to put the matter on a legislative footing so that when the Minister of State is moved on to a higher office that rights for the deaf community are enshrined in law. The provision would enable them to go to the courts, if necessary, if access to Government services, employment and other areas are not available to them in the same way that they are to any citizen.
As the Minister of State is aware – we spoke about the matter when we supported the Government’s motion – an element of the Good Friday Agreement has been breached. I refer to the aspiration that languages, whether it is the Irish language, Ulster-Scots, English, British Sign Language or Irish Sign Language, are afforded recognition in the North. Recognition has been granted in the North, yet the Good Friday Agreement has not been honoured here many decades after it was signed by the Government. That situation affects the citizens of this State and it is why I ask my colleagues opposite to support the legislation. This is not about scoring points. I admit that I engaged with the officials of the previous government and they engaged with the deaf community but there was nothing in law that allowed the deaf community to say to the Government and Departments that their legal rights were being infringed. That is the issue before us today and is the reason I put forward the Bill. I want the members of the deaf community to be able to seek a remedy when they are unable to gain access.
I acknowledge the work of the Minister and other Ministers, including the Minister for Social Protection who has put in place a worthwhile and comprehensive new system whereby members of the deaf community can access social welfare in a manner that is beneficial to them. Communication systems have been put in place and thanks to modern technology interpreters can be online, as opposed to physically having to attend meetings with the social welfare Department. However, that should not be the be-all and end-all. All Departments should be required by law to do the same, not simply give a gesture to the deaf community as if it were charity. It is not charity. The community has not sought such charity but should receive access as a right.
Enshrining the provision in legislation will mean that when someone else sits in my seat – in a number of years – we will not need to debate whether an interpreter will be available to meet a consultant when a member of the deaf community goes to the doctor or the emergency department. An interpreter should automatically be available online for every accident and emergency when a member of the deaf community presents with symptoms. A worse case scenario is where nobody can communicate with a member of the deaf community when he or she presents with symptoms. The Department of Health should be required by law to put a system in place that will provide interpreter assistance for every accident and emergency. The reason that it has not been done is because it is not required to do so by law and, therefore, cannot be held accountable. As I have often said about some of the speeches given in reply to Private Members’ motions tabled by both sides, they comprise almost always of off-the-shelf material.
I know the Minister is getting the same response because we are talking about the same issue. I know that, despite the fact that this legislation was written up by professional draftspersons, there will be reasons that it cannot be done. That is why I sent the e-mail to all 60 Members of the Seanad, asking them if they had any amendments they would like to make to this legislation, and explaining that, if they felt it was not on a sound legislative, legal or constitutional footing, I would be delighted to take the amendments. No such amendments came back, so the legislation we see before us is the legislation that was sent out two months ago to every Member of the Seanad. We consulted on this issue.
We are asking for support on this issue, not for any political party, for the Opposition or for the Government, but for those in the Visitors Gallery and the wider deaf community because, as citizens, they are not being treated equally in the eyes of the law. They are not able to go to a doctor or to a Government Department, or to interact with the State and with others in the same way that other members of the society are able to do. That is why we are putting in provisions in regard to television. As an aside, and I believe my colleague, Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, might touch on this issue, one of the most watched soap operas in Ireland by the deaf community is “Ros na Rún”, because it is subtitled. There is no requirement on RTE, our national State broadcaster, to have any set amount of hours that are subtitled. Under this legislation, it would be required to do so.
There are other provisions in regard to setting up a body that would oversee this, although there are arguments for and against that. I am well aware of the proliferation of quangos over the past 20 years. However, while I am not a fan of setting up further quangos, I do want to see somebody to whom the deaf community can go, whether that be the Ombudsman’s office or otherwise, in the event this legislation and other elements in it were not being fully followed by the Government.
The reason we are putting forward this Bill is to ensure that when members of the deaf community go to a Government Department or speak with a Government official, they can point to a piece of law and say, “I am entitled to an interpreter and you must provide one”. At this moment in time, that is not the case. When the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, put in place that provision – I commend her on doing so – she did it because she felt it was the right thing to do, which it is. However, there is no legislative compulsion on her to do it. Other Ministers should do the same thing, most especially in the area of health. However, that is not allowed for at this time. No member of the deaf community can go in and actually demand that of officials – they cannot get that remedy. I ask the Minister to look at that and to ensure that, in the lifetime of this Government, of which there is a little over two years left, the rights of all citizens, including the members of the deaf community, would be recognised on a legislative footing so they would have equal access to all elements of the State, as they should as citizens of the Republic.
I thank the sign language interpreters and all the members of the deaf community who came here today to witness the debate on this legislation. I thank the Minister of State for coming back to the House.
Labhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
Is mian liom fáilte a chur roimh na daoine atá linn sa Teach inniu freisin. I would like to start by commending Senator Mark Daly on bringing this Bill forward. Indeed, he has played quite a pioneering role in this House with legislation for people who sometimes do not get the profile they deserve.
I have found the Bill inspirational and informative. I say “informative” because it is only when it is brought forward as a proposed piece of legislation that we can stop, reflect and research. All of a sudden, we are introduced to a whole new world, a world that was there but that, to some extent, we had not interacted with. I have always been fascinated by sign language, even though I do not understand it, and I always wished I did understand it, in the same way as any other language that I have not taken time out to study and to use. I am fascinated by it, in particular by the movements, because the movements are not just of the hand, they are of the face and of the body. That is what sign language is. Even when I am watching it, whether on television or otherwise, I can sense a fluency coming from the people who are using that language. That is what is important.
The deaf community do not want to be regarded as impaired in any way. They have a language of their own. That language has a grammar of its own and it also has nuances and a culture of its own. If we bear that in mind, and regard it as the third indigenous language on this island – Irish, English and Irish Sign Language – then we start to open our own minds in debating issues like this. There are those who are now totally dependent on that language to communicate, and not just among themselves because they must also communicate with family members and others. This is the essence of the Bill. We are talking about communication with the wider public. It may be in the areas of interpretation or it may be in the area of basic rights, but it is more than that. They want to be able to communicate. I do not know if Members have ever watched some of the political conventions in America, where there is signing of what is happening at the convention. This does not in any way distract and one begins to realise this is a bilingual communication that is taking place through television at that particular time.
Why is legislation important? Why must it be enshrined in law? I ask Members to cast their minds back a short number of years to a time when the new comhionannas teanga or language equality legislation was brought in by a previous Government. That gave a particular right and equality to the Irish language. For example, it specifically mentions 600 State agencies that must provide a bilingual service, with many other requirements also. The interesting thing is that once the legislation came in, it did away with a lot of destructive debate because it became a reality – it was de facto. That is precisely what I see happening with this Bill. Once it is there, it will be accepted. The implementation may require that we overcome certain challenges, but who has the right to say that any section of the community is not entitled to full recognition?
It is interesting that in Europe it has already been stated that all states should work towards what is being requested here. I can think back to a time some 25 years ago, when the new European legislation on minority languages was brought forward not just in Ireland, but throughout the whole European Union. During that period, all the necessary structures were put in place. There will not be much reinventing of the wheel because, if one looks at what is required for the minority languages and then looks at the legislation in this State regarding equality of languages, we have the basis of the structure already in place.
I am not going to make any political point on this because there is not a person in this Chamber, present or not present, who will not agree 100% with the spirit of this legislation. However, I believe there is a fear that what will happen is that, in some way, some small “handout” will be given, although I do not mean that in any insulting way. It has to be much more fundamental than that. Why should a person who goes into a court of law be made to feel diminished or inferior when they are not in any sense? They absolutely are not. They just have a different method of communication. However, how can that be accomplished, for example, in the courts?
How can it be accomplished with any State agency, in the public sector, on public transport and in so many other areas? It would be gratifying and uplifting for the spirit to take away the mental obstacles once and for all, and start seeing obstacles before we even reach them. Would it not be great for the spirit and morale of this nation to take on board what is in this legislation, which Senator Daly has gone to so much trouble to draft? The spirit of what is required by the Irish Deaf Society is enshrined in this legislation as well.
I hope this Bill will not be stopped at this Stage and that we will let it go forward to the next Stage. As I said earlier when I referred to this being informative, I have learned a great deal in the last few days, prompted by this Bill, because I went to the trouble of doing so. A new discourse has been opened. That discourse can be expanded and enhanced on Committee Stage in the House. Many other nations will watch us to see if we baulk at the high fence, as they say in my part of the country, when there is a way of circumventing it. I commend the Bill to the House. I hope it will not stop today but will be allowed to move to the next Stage.
I welcome the members of the deaf community to the Visitors Gallery. It is typical of the Seanad that this is the second time in a few months that Irish Sign Language is being discussed. That is extremely positive, and I thank Senator Daly. Whether people agree or disagree with the Senator, one must agree that he has put this on the agenda. However, he is not the only Senator to do so. Senator Keane’s first motion on the Adjournment was about Irish Sign Language and, indeed, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, ensured that Irish Sign Language was referenced in the programme for Government, something which has not happened previously. It is a very positive step.
Let us consider what has happened since the motion that was proposed by me in this House on behalf of the Government was supported unanimously. Not only was it supported unanimously, but the actions that would be taken, which were outlined by the Minister, were also supported unanimously. That leads me to wonder why we are discussing it again today. That said, it is good that we are, because every time we speak about Irish Sign Language, it is positive. I tend not to dwell on the negatives, but on the positives.
Since the motion was discussed on 28 November last year, there was a significant meeting which some of the people who were present found inspirational in terms of working through the issues to try to chart a way forward for the future of Irish Sign Language. It is easy to put forward a legislative measure and expect people to come back with amendments but I understand that some of my colleagues had so many amendments, a new Bill would have been required.
With no disrespect to anybody, because I would not question anybody’s motives in this regard and certainly not those of Senators Daly or Ó Murchú, who have the height of integrity in this area, what is preferable and far more constructive is what the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, committed to in the House when she was responding to my motion, namely, that there would be significant engagement and consultation to ensure that we get it right. That commenced with a meeting on 14 November in Deaf Village Ireland. I am not sure what happened at that meeting as I was not there, but it was followed on 28 November by another meeting which was facilitated by the NDA, the agency charged with many disability issues in this country. What we want is to put something in place that is workable and makes a real difference to people’s lives. Legislation is one thing, but processes and practices that work are far better.
I have utter faith in the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch. She is sincere in how she goes about her business. She wants to create change, which is clearly evident in many of the other initiatives she has been engaged in since becoming Minister with responsibility for mental health and other areas of disability. She ensured that Irish Sign Language was committed to in the programme for Government. Knowing the Minister as I do, and as I hope others do, she will be anxious that this is delivered. However, it must be done properly and effectively. It must be channelled in a way that will make a real difference to people’s lives. That is what I want, and I sincerely hope it is what others want.
The motion I mentioned was debated only three or four months ago in the House, and we are now discussing this issue again. In that time, however, there has already been action. The positive aspect of today’s proceedings, as was the case previously, is the increased public awareness of Irish Sign Language during this Oireachtas term. I am disappointed that the issue has not been brought forward in the Dáil Chamber by some of our colleagues there, and I urge them to start this discussion in Dáil Éireann as well. It would be very useful if a motion similar to the one we discussed here some months ago was tabled in the Dáil. Again, it would provide another two-hour period for debate and deliberation on this issue. That would be a step forward. I expressed that hope when discussing my motion but it has not yet happened, so let us hope it does.
I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to what has been said in the Chamber and to hearing about what followed the debate on the unanimously agreed motion in this House. In unanimously agreeing that motion, we also agreed to support the Minister in terms of her solution or pathway to resolving this. Again, I am somewhat perplexed that we are here. The Government will not be in a position to support the Bill as drafted but it is very supportive of its spirit, as we all are. There will be significantly brighter days ahead for this issue. It is now firmly in the public arena, is subject to public debate and is certainly on the political agenda.
Aontaím leis an Seanadóir Ó Dálaigh agus an Seanadóir Ó Murchú. Is duine an-mhaith í an tAire Stáit, an Teachta Caitlín Ní Loinsigh, atá i láthair anseo. Cuirim fáilte roimh na daoine atá sa Ghailearaí, go mórmhór na daoine ó Choláiste na Tríonóide. Tá sé mar cheart ag gach duine a chás a phlé sa Pharlaimint. Mar sin, tá an Seanad ag plé an Bhille atá romhainn inniu. The Bill is very important, and I agree with what Senators Conway, Ó Murchú and Daly have said. The Minister of State is one of the kindest of the people who visit this House and she is most welcome. On every occasion that she has visited the House we have learned something. That is most valuable.
The Bill is important. We need courts that can cater for all citizens. I visited the Canadian Parliament some time ago and the facility with which people changed from French to English and interchanged the two languages was most impressive. That is because it wished to include the speakers of the two founding languages of Canada in the parliamentary debate.
Translators are also present and head phones are provided at European Union committees.
This House needs to hear from the Irish Sign Language community. It is wonderful, therefore, to have two signers with us today. As Senator Ó Murchú noted, we have not been involved in the dialogue with this group. I am delighted we are joining in at this point.
What Parliament does is important. This is especially in the Seanad where Members are seated much closer together than in the much larger Dáil Chamber. Signing, for example, would be much harder in the case of the Dáil, as Senator Conway hinted, because one is in the Gallery. Senators can meet people before they come in to the Chamber and have close contacts with the Irish Sign Language community, which is most welcome. Parliament has a role to play in this regard because it is the place to which people from all strands of society come to discuss the great issues of the day. Representatives of the Irish Sign Language community have been overlooked and are visiting the House today only for the second time. It is important that we treat them kindly and favourably at all times. This should not depend on having a nice Minister or a particular group of facilitative public servants, as so many of them are. People with hearing difficulties must have their rights enshrined in law as it is the law that the courts will interpret. Nice sentiments expressed in Parliament are rarely raised in court cases and, as any lawyer will agree, such sentiments do not count for anything in court. For this reason, legislation is required to enable people to vindicate their rights and become full citizens. This will mean having bilingual courts for Irish Sign Language users, bilingual treatment when they visit hospital and so forth. That is a crucial aspect of the Bill.
The Oireachtas is an assembly of 60 Senators and 166 Deputies who have been elected to represent citizens and express their will. The will of the people should be manifested in legislation. Some people will argue that power has moved away from Parliament and towards the permanent Government or bureaucracy. I would not like that to happen.
Senators from all sides have taken up the case of the Irish Sign Language community and worked on their behalf, which is exactly what Parliament should do. We must recognise the rights of this minority and all of the rights set out in the Good Friday Agreement. The Seanad exists because in 1921 a minority was concerned that former Unionists would not be represented in a future republic. They visited Arthur Griffiths, Éamon de Valera and Lloyd George and this resulted in the establishment of the Seanad. Today, we are asked to give consideration to another minority. A long time has passed since 1921-22 but we should provide in legislation for the full rights of this minority.
The Government can amend the Bill if necessary and I appreciate Senator Conway’s remarks in that regard. Parliament is here to represent the people. Taking into account what happened in the case of other minorities who were cherished – the first Seanad had a great record in that regard and helped defuse much bitterness – we are being asked by another minority to espouse their cause and we should support the Bill on that basis. This community has been left outside and has come here today with its signers. It has given a whole new dimension to how a parliament operates. It is a privilege to be associated with this legislation.
On a point of information, I ask Senators to refrain from using Gaeilge because the signers may not be fluent in Irish.
It is a matter for each Senator to decide which language he or she wishes to use.
I realise that but I wish to be fair to the signers.
Mary Moran (Labour)
I, too, heartily welcome members of the deaf community back to the House. It is commendable that this is the second time in three months that the Seanad has debated Irish Sign Language. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has been widely praised, as always occurs in this House, for her work in this area. I, too, compliment her on her work. Senator Conway was responsible for a worthwhile and excellent debate in the House in October on which Senators reached unanimous agreement. One of the first conversations I had with Senator Cáit Keane was on the issue of Irish Sign Language. Considerable work has been done in the House on this issue.
I commend Senators Mark Daly and Labhrás Ó Murchú on the spirit behind this legislation, although as Senator Conway noted, some aspects of it are confusing. Senator Daly acknowledged that this discussion took place also when Fianna Fáil was in power. Some aspects of the Bill need to be corrected to enable it to progress.
The text states that the State has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This may result in confusion because, unfortunately, Ireland has not ratified the convention. We have signed it but cannot ratify it until the mental capacity Bill has been enacted. The Government has taken a major step forward in bringing the Bill to Committee Stage and its enactment will make a significant difference.
As my party’s spokesperson on education and disability in the House, I believe we, as legislators, have much work to do in addressing literacy issues for deaf or hard of hearing adults and children. I was surprised to learn from the website,IrishDeafKids.ie, that many deaf adults using Irish Sign Language have a reading age of between 8.5 and 9 years. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, has consistently placed a strong emphasis on improving literacy and numeracy among the population. We must prioritise this area to improve the literacy skills of future generations of people with hearing difficulties and impairments.
From my meetings with members of the Irish deaf community, specifically those involved in the Happy New Ear campaign, I understand English is a second language and that Irish Sign Language is much different from English in respect of grammar, structure, etc. We must bear this in mind when considering the literacy issue. I support providing further reading tuition for Irish Sign Language users to improve the literacy skills for the next generation of people with hearing impairments.
The State formally recognises Irish Sign Language in the Education Act 1998 and the Department of Education and Skills offers supports and schemes to help in the training of Irish Sign Language for children and their families. Senators will agree, however, that more could be done to address the literacy and promotion of Irish Sign Language in education.
In terms of access to interpretation in dealing with public services, the Department of Justice and Equality co-ordinates an Irish remote sign language interpreting service across the relevant Departments. The Department of Social Protection commenced a pilot of the service on 25 July 2013 at its Navan Road office and it is also being trialled at the Dundalk Citizens Information office in my locality. I have spoken to staff at the Dundalk office who are very pleased with the results to date. The service is available from Tuesday until Thursday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and was developed in collaboration with the Sign Language Interpreting Service, DeafHear and the Irish Deaf Society. I was pleased such collaboration took place because key workers on the front line have the knowledge required to make progress on this issue. While I am aware the service is not suitable for every occasion, it is a significant improvement on the current format for Irish Sign Language users. I look forward to it being rolled out to other public offices.
On the basis of consultations I have had with members of the legal profession in recent days, I believe Irish Sign Language users do have free access to an interpreter in the courts, whether they are a victim or witness, have been accused of a crime or are involved in proceedings.
That is another aspect of the matter on which I am not too clear. I understand from my dealings and my research in this area that anybody who would be before the courts in any role would be provided with an interpreter.
As I have continually reiterated during debates on issues like education and disability, service users need to be meaningfully included in consultations on services and policies. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has taken an inclusive approach to her meetings with the national disability strategy implementation group. She has done excellent work in this regard. As Senator Conway has said, she has met representatives of the deaf community and other relevant stakeholders. While I understand that recognition would be a key milestone for the deaf community, I remind the House that the Department of Justice and Equality has repeatedly said – this was reiterated recently – that recognition as a third language will not be forthcoming, unfortunately.
I am delighted that €10 million has been allocated for bilateral cochlear implants. This will be of considerable assistance in improving the lives of members of the deaf community. I have met many of those involved with the “happy new ear” campaign in my own area of Dundalk. I commend them for their ongoing dedication and work to ensure this will be rolled out. I have never met a group of parents and supporters who are more dedicated to pursuing their goal. The video campaign they ran before the budget, which showed children in need of second cochlear implants, was heart-wrenching. Having met mothers, fathers and family members of the “happy new ear” campaign, I know how important this is. Many children are reaching the deadline for a second implant. This allocation of money is one of the best decisions taken by the Government since coming into office. The day it was announced was a proud one. I look forward to the positive effects it will have on the children and families concerned.
Ned O’Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
I support those who are promoting this Bill. I welcome our visitors in the Gallery. I commend their campaign and wish them well. As others have said, this campaign is supported by all sides of the House. I acknowledge the work that has been done by the Minister of State and by my colleagues on the other side of the House. As Senator Conway has said, several Senators have raised this in the past. I commend my party colleagues – Senators Daly, Ó Murchú and Byrne – for bringing forward this Bill and trying to bring some cohesion to what has generally been a useful debate. I suppose it is a question of highlighting the issue and trying to move the debate on. I commend Senator Daly, in particular, because he has been very proactive on this and many other issues that affect people who are on the margins, to a certain extent, and out of the mainstream. I would like to praise the tremendous work he is doing in that regard.
It is important to acknowledge that we are talking about a human right. I think it is a right that will happen. I do not know whether it will happen today. I can understand the Government’s reluctance to accept Opposition Bills. I would prefer if we did not divide on this issue as it is too important for that. I hope the Government might be prevailed upon by the end of the debate to accede to letting this Bill go forward to Committee Stage. I do not have much more to say. I have some personal experience in this regard. My family was in the menswear business for generations. During that time, we employed quite a number of tailors. A significant proportion of them were people from the deaf community. I think tailoring work was compatible with their affliction, if that is the appropriate word to use. As a small boy, I learned some rudimentary sign language. I used to be fascinated by it. I gained a great deal by engaging with those tailors, who enlivened my days. Unfortunately, I have forgotten it all now apart from a few rude bits. I empathise with the deaf community in a special way on account of that. I hope we can find agreement on this Bill.
Jillian van Turnhout (Independent)
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I would also like to welcome the Bill that is before us. Before I became a Senator, I did not really have an appreciation or understanding of this problem. Nobody in my family is deaf or hard of hearing. I am on a journey as I try to understand and appreciate this issue. I am cognisant that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Ireland signed in 2007, contains obligations regarding native sign languages. We need to be mindful of the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing community. We need to look at improving our consultation systems, particularly by meeting and talking with various families. The question of access to legal services, which has been raised with me in my children’s rights role, is a significant issue. I would like to raise the visiting teachers service with the Minister of State while she is here. Parents around the country tell me frequently that the level of resources being allocated to that service is not sufficient to develop the various options and ensure they are available to children. Irish Sign Language is an important option in that context.
I had an opportunity last Saturday to see a film, “95 Decibels”, which was being shown by the Irish Deaf Kids organisation. I met parents who are involved in the “happy new ear” campaign and informed them that this Bill would be before the House today. Some of those parents have chosen the cochlear implant route. They wanted to convey their sincere thanks to the Minister of State. I was able to tell them about last week’s discussion at the Joint Committee on Health and Children and about the Government’s plans to roll out this service over two years. They told me they are part of a community in which Irish Sign Language plays an important role. They said we have to provide resources and supports and we must be cognisant of the differences in this area. It was illustrated to me that we need to give the parents of deaf children a choice, in the same way that we enable the parents of children without hearing difficulties to use different methodologies to teach them to speak, participate and develop. Similarly, it is important that we do not exclude people from facilities like State services and legal services simply because they use Irish Sign Language. As I have said, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities obliges Ireland to recognise Irish Sign Language.
I would like to put a question to those who are more knowledgeable than me. When I was preparing for today’s debate, I read that there has been a deterioration in the use of sign language in New Zealand since 2006, when New Zealand Sign Language was made a national language there. I would be interested to understand that. While I would support the recognition of Irish Sign Language, it is obvious to me that recognition alone is not the answer if we want to ensure it is used. It is not enough to tick the recognition box and say that is great, if it sits on a shelf and nothing actually happens to it. Having read a considerable volume of literature about the significant decrease in the number of New Zealanders using sign language since it was legally recognised, I am concerned about what might happen here.
It is important to ensure early detection services are in place to assist babies and young children. We need to give guidance and support to parents. I heard parents last Saturday talking about their journeys of discovery. They spoke about calling their babies’ names and assuming they were caught up in their own little world before eventually realising they have hearing difficulties or have total hearing loss. As a Senator, I did not have exposure to those journeys. I do not know where the supports are. How do we get those supports? How do we ensure those choices are given? There is a significant take-up of sign language by the family members and friends of those who are deaf or hard of hearing. People also use techniques like lip-reading and the new technologies that are being developed. There are many different ways.
I want to support the recognition of Irish Sign Language. I intend to listen more carefully to the debate. I am erring on the side of voting in favour of the Bill unless I hear some more convincing arguments. I believe we have to do more.
I also recognise that the Abbey Theatre, which is our national theatre, has put on an Irish Sign Language interpretative performance for each of its plays for the past 13 years. Other bodies are doing it and today should also be a call to those types of organisations and all of us to see whether there are ways we can ensure that where needed or appropriate, Irish Sign Language is available. I am thinking of the organisations with which I am involved. That is something that is a challenge for each of us as Senators.
I support the Bill but I very much welcome and look forward to hearing what the Minister of State has to say. I echo the thanks from the parents I met who are involved in the Happy New Ear campaign. The Minister of State probably hears a lot about the difficulties and problems. I cannot express to her the thanks they asked me to convey to her.
Feargal Quinn (Independent)
The Minister of State is very welcome, as is this Bill. It is an admirable step in the right direction. It was interesting that Senator O’Sullivan spoke about his business experience. I had business experience as well. For about 50 years, I ran supermarkets and, in trying to look for extra customers, we taught as many people as we could basic French so they could put “Je parle français” on their check-out or customer service desk. We did the same with Irish. Somebody then asked about sign language, so we also did that. The benefit it gave us was that customers came to us in preference to other supermarkets because we were able to solve a particular problem for them. We never got around to doing Irish Sign Language but we certainly got benefits and a lot of praise for what we did so there are all sorts of benefits.
I welcome the work of Senators Daly and Ó Murchú on this Bill. It is only right that those who communicate in Irish Sign Language should be able to communicate with public officials. That has been part of the problem in the past. We do not need every official publication to be converted into Irish Sign Language but it is about giving recognition to something that should largely have been recognised many years ago. It would mean the State would have to pay for interpreters where needed if someone was using a State service. It is also about recognising the basic human rights of a group of people who are marginalised as their language is not recognised.
Would this Bill mean that a deaf couple would be entitled to interpretation at the birth of their child? I presume all State services including hospitals, would be covered. Would an interpreter be obliged to appear at very short notice? Does something need to be included in the Bill to ensure an interpreter would have to be made available at short notice, for example, in an emergency, or would we simply have to trust the State to provide that somebody would come? I am thinking about an accident or childbirth.
It is interesting to note that deaf people often have difficulty with literacy skills in English as it is their second language. It has been noted that Irish Sign Language has been recognised in Northern Ireland and was one of the obligations of the Good Friday Agreement. Why did this never happen in the Republic of Ireland before now? Surely it would have been the obligation of a Department or it should at least have put forward the issue and published legislation on this issue. I support the Bill wholeheartedly and congratulate Senators Daly, Ó Murchú, Byrne and others for their work on this Bill. I hope it gets the support from the Government that it deserves. I think it will not only attract the support but the enthusiasm of many people who realise there is a benefit in this and that it is needed. I congratulate everybody involved and look forward to the acceptance of this Bill.
Caít Keane (Fine Gael)
I welcome everybody from the Irish Deaf Society and the deaf community here. I know some of them were here on occasions when we were discussing this very important issue. I commend Senator Daly on bringing forward this Bill because we should take every opportunity we get to debate Irish Sign Language in this House and the other House and keep it in the minds of the Minister of State. I know the current Minister of State is very supportive, on which I compliment her. I spent more than 20 years with Brian Crean and Dr. John Bosco Conama who also came here lobbying. It is important to keep the Ministers of the day focused. Senator Daly’s Bill will help to do that. I commend that aspect of the Bill. It gives us an opportunity to say what we want to say.
I know the Minister of State and Senator Conway have spoken about the national disability strategy implementation group and the important meeting that was held in November. The Irish Deaf Society will come back to the Minister of State with a report on that. I would love to see this Bill implemented though not, obviously, the way it is written at the moment because I will bring out a few things in it. The Senator said there was no tick-tacking back and forth. I met the Irish Deaf Society and the first Bill was re-jigged after that, on which I compliment the Senator. There are other things that cannot be done until we have the view of the entire deaf community.
The Catholic Institute for Deaf People, CIDP, is not mentioned in the Bill. The CIDP is a very important body. A total of €15 million is being spent on the deaf village, which is made up of the Irish Deaf Society, the CIDP and the Centre for Deaf Studies at Trinity College. The fact they are not mentioned in the Bill is an omission. The council that is proposed in the Bill could be a good idea. I am not saying it is good or bad but it is mentioned that it would be under the auspices of the Citizens Information Board and would be known as the Sign Language Interpreting Service, SLIS. It would be better if it was an all-encompassing body including the deaf village, the CIB and the SLIS. Issues like that need to be looked at. When the Minister of State gets a report, I would like her to come back to the House and we will be asking for statements on this again.
I agree that when something is in legislation, it is stronger. However, we do not want to see money being spent on administration that could be better spent on front-line services. When I tabled the motion, it was the Department of Education and Skills that dealt with it because it dealt specifically with interpreting, education, rights and sign language. In deference to Senator Conway, I did not speak in the Irish language but it is right that we should have interpreters who interpret the Irish language in sign as well. I saw a lady in the Visitors Gallery interpreting the Irish language in sign. It should not be confused. I raised a matter relating to the recognition of Irish Sign Language at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. When I first raised the issue, the members thought I was talking about the Irish language, so there is a lot of ignorance. We need education for all Members regarding what is involved and the fact there is a vast difference between people who want cochlear implants and people want choice, as one of the other Senators said. It is important that choice is brought into the equation. If a baby is born deaf to a parent who knows nothing about Irish Sign Language or deaf society, that parent needs to be given choice and informed. It has to be written down that whoever goes into that hospital or school is equipped with both the knowledge and wherewithal of Irish Sign Language, signed English and every other bit of information about cochlear implants. There is no point in giving one side of the debate.
An Coimisinéir Teanga resigned because of the lack of rights for the Irish language. If Irish Sign Language had a commissioner, he or she would have gone long ago because rights are important. The national disability strategy has pointed out that it is under one Department per se. Every Department is responsible and when every Department is responsible, no Department is responsible. I have found this to be true because when I asked for support for the good elements in this Bill, I received a response from the Department of Education and Skills thanking me for my submission looking for its support but advising me that as the matter was more appropriate for the Minister for Justice and Equality, I should correspond with him. As far as I am concerned, sign language, education and interpretation are important for the Department of Education and Skills and the buck stops there.
I ask that a designated person in the Department or in the Department of Education and Science take charge and make decisions on what is expected from public bodies and notice should be taken if a Department is unable to provide a service for those wishing to use ISL, Irish Sign Language. There should be an onus on all Departments to provide this service. For example, the Courts Service provides interpreters when required. I ask if there are interpreters skilled in legal procedure and terms as well as in Irish Sign Language.
I support legislation to recognise Irish Sign Language. In the meantime I want to see what can be done by the Minister. I suggest that guidelines can be implemented without the need for legislation. The Minister should issue informative circular notices on the services available in Irish Sign Language, for example, in maternity hospitals, preschools or schools for the deaf. A register of qualified interpreters should be compiled under the existing body. It is important to provide recognition for Irish Sign Language. I raised this matter at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Scotland is introducing a Bill to recognise Scottish Sign Language and this could serve as a model for similar legislation here.
I look forward to publication of the report which follows from the national disability strategy. I hope the Minister will bring proposals to the House. The issue about the use of ISL in broadcasting could be dealt with immediately under the provisions of the Broadcasting Act. I ask the Minister to implement the provisions and to ensure a greater use of ISL. I could speak at much greater length on this subject. This Bill could be tweaked to allow for more inclusivity and I will be happy to support it when these improvements are included.
Paschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
Like my colleague, Senator O’Sullivan and others, I support the initiative of Senators Daly, Ó Murchú and Byrne in proposing this legislation. This is the second occasion the House has had the opportunity to discuss this very important issue. I echo the welcome to the deaf community. I hope this Bill will be another milestone in their continuing search for recognition. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to the House. I suggest the most relevant and important part of this proposed legislation is section 4 which states that the State recognises Irish Sign Language as the native and independent language which is utilised as a primary means of communication by a sizeable minority of the Irish population. This statement encapsulates the core provision of the Bill. Other provisions deal with technical and administrative matters and with processes.
I will give the background to this debate. Irish Sign Language is the sign language of Ireland used primarily in the Republic of Ireland. As Senator Quinn said, it is used in Northern Ireland where British Sign Language is also used. Irish Sign Language is more closely related to French Sign Language than to British Sign Language which was first used in Dublin. Irish Sign Language has influenced sign language in Australia and South Africa. According to the Irish Deaf Society, ISL arose from within the deaf community but I understand the language arose in its current form between 1846 and 1849 in the schools for deaf boys and girls in Dublin. It was introduced as far back as 1816. The first school for deaf children in Ireland was established in that year by Dr. Charles Orpen. It took some considerable time for a cultural change to develop, particularly in the Catholic religion, in favour of the introduction of oralism. Shamefully, at one point, the Catholic and Protestant institutions did not teach the children to speak. It was not until 1887 that the Claremont report changed the approach from a manual to an oral method.
Sign language was suppressed and religion was used to further stigmatise the language. For example, it beggars belief that children were encouraged to give up signing for Lent and they were sent to confession if caught using signing. We have come a long way, despite the hard rocks on the road towards full recognition.
St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls moved to an oral approach in 1946. I was surprised to learn that it was as recently as 1956 that St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys shifted to oralism. This approach became formal State policy but not until 1972. All the developments in the use of Irish Sign Language are relatively recent. It is significant that as far back as 1988, the then MEP, Eileen Lemass, made Irish Sign Language recognition an imperative in a resolution she presented to the European Parliament. Recognition is imperative for fulfilling the Government’s obligation under EU legislation. I ask the Minister of State to comment on Ireland’s EU obligations in this regard.
I refer to statements by Dr. John Bosco Conama of the Irish Deaf Society at the launch of an appeal last year: “In keeping with the theme of achieving equality for deaf people, the IDS calls upon the Government to take urgent action in support of its commitment to the people of Ireland.” He refers to Irish Sign Language as the third indigenous language of this country and the first and natural language of many deaf people. This fact is sometimes forgotten. We take the verbal word for granted and we think that everyone is at the same level but this is not the case. Irish Sign Language is the first and natural language of a significant minority of the Irish population and as such it should be legally recognised.
Public bodies should be required to provide the necessary interpretation services for deaf people. I cannot even for a moment 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 which we take for granted such as contacting a local authority or departmental offices become increasingly frustrating for those who are deaf because there is nobody at the other side of the counter who can interpret or communicate with them.
The Irish Deaf Society has stated that 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 remain inaccessible to deaf people. In spite of the frustration of dealing with the majority of service-providers who are unable to communicate with deaf people, I am pleased to note that the Irish deaf community is a vibrant and welcoming environment for those who embrace Irish Sign Language.
I ask the Minister of State to give some comfort to the Irish deaf community in this regard.
While I accept that not all elements of the Bill will be acceptable to the Government and I am somewhat disappointed that it is opposing the Bill, it could embrace some elements without legislating.
In the context of broadcasting, I hope that RTE might take a leaf out of the BBC’s book. When the latter repeats programmes late at night, particularly on its minority channels BBC 2 and BBC 4, which carry many documentary-style programmes, they are always accompanied by a sign language interpreter.
Many initiatives could be introduced without the need for legislation. I hope that the relevant bodies will take account of this fact.
Marie Moloney (Labour)
I welcome and thank our guests for attending this debate. Like Senator Ó Murchú, I have always had a great interest in sign language, but I took it a little further and learned some. However, I would be afraid to use it today, as I have forgotten most of it. Like President Obama’s interpreter, I could end up signing incorrectly. Having watched the interpreters who are present, though, it is coming back to me.
I was able to use sign language while campaigning and canvassing during the elections and I met many deaf people. They were delighted and immediately made a connection with me because I was able to sign to them, even though much of it was finger spelling. Having worked for 15 years with a public representative, during which time I dealt with many people who were deaf or could not speak, I found that it was only right that I help them communicate. Many places started using telephones on which one could type a message, but text messaging took over from that.
I compliment and commend Senators Daly and Ó Murchú on introducing the Bill and agree with its sentiment and the spirit with which they have presented it. This is not our first time discussing the matter. I have raised it on the Order of Business several times. Senator Quinn has some sign language and we have often discussed the matter.
I understand that the Minister of State will not accept the Bill at this time, but we as a Government must introduce legislation to give equal rights to the deaf community. The Minister of State has already started this process and has ensured its inclusion in the programme for Government. She will see it through. She has started promoting the recognition of Irish Sign Language, ISL, and has received submissions. She has chaired the first meeting of the special group that was put in place. This matter is in the right hands, pardon the pun. She takes a hands-on approach to disabilities.
Members of the deaf community cannot be made to feel like second class citizens. The most recent figures from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, show that more than 92,000 people in Ireland are deaf or have hearing difficulties. The Irish Deaf Society estimates that approximately 5,000 people use ISL as their first language. Figures also show that literacy problems are more common in the deaf community. This problem among others facing the deaf community must be addressed. People like doctors, teachers and those in the public light must become more aware and educated as to the difficulties faced by members of the deaf community in trying to communicate their views, thoughts or problems.
While I was taking sign language classes and a few exams, my son, who was in medical school at the time, took them with me. It was constantly impressed upon him that he needed to continue with his sign language, as few doctors had it. People who were deaf or hard of hearing would attend such doctors. He has continued with his sign language. When one does not use something constantly, one loses some skills. He has set up his own practice and is able to communicate with patients through sign language or finger spelling.
The question of equal rights for deaf people is often overlooked by society. Equal rights must play an important role in achieving equal access, equal opportunities and participation for the deaf community. As spokesperson on social protection, I am delighted that the Minister, Deputy Burton, did not wait for legislation. Using her own initiative, she put the Irish remote interpreting service, IRIS, in place. I am sure that everyone is well aware of what IRIS means. It is being piloted in a number of places throughout the country. I hope that it will be rolled out everywhere as soon as possible. It is a great system, as one does not need to wait for an interpreter on site and people incur lower costs. I remember needing an interpreter while working with a union. Bringing one in proved expensive. The Minister’s introduction of IRIS will reduce costs.
I will not labour the points, as all Senators have contributed and are in agreement that we need to do something to make life easier for people. One of my sign language teachers was deaf. While I was taking signing classes, his wife gave birth to two children. I asked whether his children were deaf, to which he replied they were. He explained that he did not mind and was comfortable with the fact. He would raise them in the deaf community and teach them sign language. I found it strange, but he did not see being deaf as a disability. It was a way of life for him. We should not see deaf people as having a disability just because they cannot hear. This is an important point.
I presume that most of our guests know Mr. Willie White, who did a great deal of interpreting for former President Mary McAleese. I know him well and worked with him in Kerry promoting ISL.
I am delighted to welcome our guests. I know how important it is that I speak towards them, as many are lip reading. People do not realise that they must pronounce their words and avoid blocking someone’s view of the speaker. These are simple steps that do not require legislation, only common sense. I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me time and I look forward to the Minister of State’s reply. Even if she does not accept this Bill, she will not put the issue on the backburner or let it fall off the agenda. I ask her to process it into legislation.
David Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
I thank and commend Senators Daly, Ó Murchú and Byrne, who is not present, on drafting the Bill and on using their Private Members’ time to raise this important issue and to allow us to debate it. I also welcome members of the deaf community to the Gallery.
In recent months and years, there has been a great deal of discussion on citizens’ rights and sovereignty for a variety of competing reasons. However, the Bill goes to the heart of the question of sovereignty, in that it relates to citizens’ rights. All citizens should be treated equally. Given the Minister of State’s political ideological, she supports this view. Recognising ISL concerns the rights of all citizens.
We should take up their campaign and vindicate their rights.
I have often made the point, when it comes to minority groups, that we as legislators are here to vindicate the rights of all citizens and we have to vindicate the rights of members of the deaf community as well in all facets. This is one of the areas where we need to do more. It is where my party is coming from on this issue. I support and recognise Irish Sign Language as the preferred sign language of the deaf community in the State and that is what the Bill seeks to achieve but the State has to live up to its obligations also. It is one thing for us to accept that is the case but we have to provide the resources and do all the things that go with the recognition. I agree that it is an expression of a unique, rich and valuable culture.
Irish Sign Language is unique and has an interesting history in that it arose from the deaf community and was developed by deaf people. It is a language that has struggled against official suppression with the result that it did not receive State recognition until 1972. As with the Irish language, recognition as an official language does not necessarily mean the resources required are provided in order that users can practise it on a daily basis. We can all give examples of that when it comes to the Irish language. We have much legislation, we have many policies and we have strategies for the Irish language but when it comes to living one’s life through the medium of that language it is not always positive and the resources are not always in place to make that a reality.
I note the positive points mentioned by the Minister of State in her constructive and comprehensive contribution. It is regrettable that the Minister of State is not accepting the Bill. I always make the point when opposition Deputies or Senators table Bills that if there are defects and problems in the Bill, Committee and Report Stages can deal with that. If we agree with the fundamental substance of the Bill we should accept it, allow it to go to Committee Stage and seek to amend and perfect it if the Minister has problems with it. To simply reject the Bill is not the way to do business. I regret the fact that the Minister of State may be going in that direction. It would be better if she supported the Bill and then sought to amend, tweak or change aspects of it with which she may have a problem. It is also a question of resources being made available in order that members of the deaf community can use Irish Sign Language when they need to do so.
I wish, if I may, deal with access to services which is important. It is long past time for the State in conjunction with the deaf community, because it has to be a partnership, to develop ideas to improve access to public services for users of the Irish Sign Language. I welcome some of the movements which have been made in this regard. The CEO of the Irish Deaf Society, Mr. Peter Regan, stated that it is a matter of principle that this Bill is passed. The Irish Government signed the UN Human Rights Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007, which contains duties towards native sign languages. In addition, an EU parliamentary resolution from 1988, presented by Irish MEP, Eileen Lemass, has since been ignored by consecutive Irish governments. The more recent Brussels declaration on sign language in the European Union of 2010 urges member states to actively support the use of sign languages. Although we have taken on board the ethos of the convention, that we have not ratified it since 2007 is not good enough for the deaf community in Ireland. I refer not only to this Government but to previous governments also.
I welcome the Government’s targeting of initiatives which would enhance the effective availability of interpreters and interpretation solutions such as the use of technology for remote access to services. However, I revert to the primary point that to recognise the language as an official language infers the right to use that language. The crux of the issue is that the deaf community in Ireland should be given that right. The deaf community are citizens of the State and as such should be treated with equality and respect. Accepting Irish Sign Language as an official language would achieve that aim. They should not be discriminated against, even unwittingly, by the State. However, the failure to officially support the deaf community and their unique and valuable language and way of life seriously impacts on their ability to fully participate in Irish life. I also would argue, as I do on many issues, that we should adopt an all-island approach to this issue. I recognise that strides have been made in the North to recognise the language and we need to catch up here. If it can be done in the North there is no reason it cannot be done here.
I commend the Senators who tabled the Bill. It should be supported by all Senators and the Government. If we have problems with it, let us discuss them on Committee Stage and tweak and amend it. The substance of the Bill is sound in that it seeks to give recognition to Irish Sign Language. However, we must go further to ensure the resources are in place in order that users can use Irish Sign Language in their daily lives.
Paul Bradford (Fine Gael)
While I will be brief I wish to state my general support for the legislation which has been presented. In regard to comments made by Senator Cullinane, if there is a difficulty, as there often is, with particular parts of the legislation or the phraseology, it would be preferable to keep the Bill alive and if the Minister of State was in a position to reflect further on Committee Stage. We await her verdict in that regard.
The contributions made by all colleagues, to which I have listened either in the Chamber or in my office, send a very strong signal on behalf of all of us that this type of legislation is required and is a road we must travel. Much has been said in this country about the equality agenda but this issue is also part of the equality agenda. It strikes me from time to time that some parts of the equality agenda are deemed more important and more equal than others. If we are to have a culture of equality, all parts of the agenda must move forward together. I see this as a crucial part of equality.
Senator Martin Conway and others have spoken on many occasions here about the need to progress services for the deaf. I was very taken by the constructive comments of Senator Marie Moloney. It is interesting to note that within the House, Members have engaged in a constructive fashion. We must all work in that regard.
One aspect I would like put on the agenda is a service which would be of some assistance to the deaf community, the subtitling service. I have raised that issue many times down the years. I express my grave disappointment, particularly at our national broadcaster, at what presumably is a lack of investment in subtitling. I speak with a personal agenda in this regard as my mother has a profound hearing problem. At home some nights I would watch her watching live programming, in particular the news. I would ask any of my colleagues to turn down the volume, switch on the subtitles of the page, 888, and try to follow the News but it is virtually impossible because the subtitling is generally five, ten or 15 seconds behind the screen. That is not good enough. If it is a question of resources and investment that must be tackled. Another important Irish TV channel appears to have very little investment in subtitling. That entire issue must become part of the agenda which must be tackled.
I cannot ignore what concerns the Minister of State may have but we must all work together to ensure that either this legislation or something akin to it, or perhaps her improved version, is put in place as soon as possible. People who have lived without full access to the services they require must have their needs met. This is positive legislation. It is a good advertisement for the Seanad that we are taking this subject seriously as a result of the work done by Senator Martin Conway and others. It shows we are a listening Chamber, responsive to the needs of the Irish people. That we have had a calm and constructive debate shows there is very little to divide either the Members or the Government and that we are progressing in the right direction but progress, as soon as possible, is what we want to hear from the Minister of State.
I thank the three Senators who tabled this non-political, non-contentious and non-divisive Bill. It is about the equality agenda and we in this House must live up to that equality agenda.
Trevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo le labhairt ar an mBille fíorthábhachtach seo. My friend and colleague, Senator Conway, suggested that I not speak for too long in Irish so that we can make things a little bit easier for the person who is signing our contributions.
I am glad the Bill is before the House and I am delighted to speak on it. I commend the Senators on bringing it forward. This is a Bill of major significance. As a person who has been an advocate for most my adult life for language rights for the Irish language, I can appreciate the difficulties and the challenges that are faced by the deaf community looking for similar rights in the use of Irish Sign Language. Since our last debate a number of months ago I have been trying to do some work on the broad issues in this area and have been working with the deaf community in Galway on this issue. Being able to communicate in one’s own language is a fundamental human right. That is the starting point of the debate. People with a profound hearing difficultly or who are fully deaf need to be able to communicate in the language in which they are most comfortable, and we in the Sinn Féin Party, which I am sure my colleague, Senator Cullinane, has outlined, are fully supportive of the Bill and the implementation of the international obligations on the use of sign language.
My understanding is that a number of other issues arise in allowing the deaf community the right to work, being able to conduct a job interview, being able to find suitable employment and having the facility of a person who will use Irish Sign Language to facilitate the ability to communicate on those occasions. The rate of unemployment among the deaf community far exceeds the average. The types of employment people in the deaf community can find themselves might not be matched to their actual capabilities or academic performance simply because the person has an impediment of language. That is part of the mix, that we recognise the need for the deaf community to be able to use their language. I am glad to say that one of the bonuses of working in TG4 when I was there was the significant following among the deaf community because of the fact that most of the programmes are subtitled. It was brought to my attention when I mentioned this recently that they are not all subtitled and we need to work with them on that. I have raised with TG4 the need to consider subtitling more of the programmes. Senator Bradford is correct that RTE is extremely lacking. I am not sure about the situation with TV3, but together with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, we need to look at ensuring all broadcasters make subtitling available. The technology is available, so it is not a question of that so much as the resources and the money to use it.
Money is another issue, particularly in Galway, as I am aware the Irish deaf community find it very difficult to have a suitable space, which can be used as a drop in centre or for social and educational activities in which to meet each other on a regular basis. I call on the Minister of State to examine the funding for the organisations supporting the deaf community, which are totally lacking in funds at present. It is making it impossible for them to get together regularly.
On a positive note, I am sure a number of Senators are aware that I requested that the Houses of the Oireachtas provide a course in Irish Sign Language in order that Senators could learn it. When I was at the launch of Signs of Life exhibition recently in Galway, I felt very inadequate that I could not communicate with all the people in front of me in their own language, Irish Sign Language. We have asked for those classes and, as a first step, we hope to have a deaf awareness course over two half days which will be open to all Members to participate. I hope everybody will, and if we have sufficient numbers, I hope there will be a signing class so that instead of speaking as Gaeilge or as Béarla, in Irish or in English, we might speak in sign language the next time we debate the issue.
I commend the Senators on bringing this Bill forward. It is of major importance. Tugaimid ar fad tacaíocht do sin.
I call the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch. Senator Daly will be called to reply to the debate at 5.56 p.m.
Kathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
I thank everybody who contributed to the debate. I welcome the visitors in the Gallery as it is seldom we have a group that stays for the entire debate. Clearly they have an interest in the issue.
I thank Senators Mark Daly and Labhrás Ó Murchú for presenting the Bill. I will start with the bad news and follow with the good news. The Government will not accept the Bill. That is not to say, however, we are against the concept of rights for minority groups being enshrined in legislation. We are not. In principle, that is an aspiration the Government hopes to achieve, but having consulted the deaf community and the senior officials in the Department of Justice and Equality who have responsibility for the implementation plan for disabilities, we fully recognise there are certain issues that need to be dealt with as a priority.
I will explain what we are doing on the implementation plan for disability. I am not suggesting there is a lack of understanding on the matter, but some people may not be fully aware of the plan. When we came to power, the disability Act 2005 was in place but there was no implementation plan. That seemed very strange to me. How could one ensure people with disabilities in Dingle or Donegal would benefit from the legislation put in place by the previous Government? We set to work on putting an implementation plan in place. An implementation plan is very peculiar. It is a cross-cutting exercise over all Departments and we had to ensure all Departments realised fully their obligations under the disability Act 2005. We started off by outlining the roles of the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Education and Skills, Social Protection, Health and others and indicated what action each Department needed to take, the responsibility of the person who took on the role, the timeframe and when we expected it to be implemented. In doing that, we then went to the deaf community asking it to consider where it fitted into the implementation plan. That is very important. Our major concern about a Bill of this type at this time, and I am clearly stating “at this time”, is just as Senator Daly has said in his introduction: the right to go to court to vindicate one’s rights. We do not want to see scarce resources, particularly at this time of extremely scarce resources, used without the service being put in place. We need to put the service in place before we put the legislation in place. That is what we have done in other areas and that is what we would like to do in this regard.
I was advised when I first came to the job that the high level group on disabilities was a bit constricted, not very active, and perhaps that we should look at a different design. I responded by putting people with disabilities in the groups in order that what they had to say could be heard. That is what we are doing in terms of the deaf community. The meetings we will have from here on in will be themed meetings, such as on housing and disability, and that will include mental health disability, the deaf and people with other disabilities. We specifically articulated that among the disability groups, the most isolated community that had not been listened to up to this time was the deaf community. Having listed to the earlier debate, we came to that conclusion very quickly. We had our first themed meeting in the deaf village in November 2013, which was very constructive and successful.
People presented their cases to us and what they considered to be their priorities. It was an amazing meeting because all the Departments implicated in the implementation plan of the disability Act were there to listen to what people had to say. There are some key issues. We are awaiting a report from the deaf community telling us what it considers to be its priorities. We will take a serious look at that to see where it fits into the implementation plan.
Clearly, there are issues. One of those issues, which is a serious and maybe a dangerous one, is health, which Senator Daly mentioned. One woman raised maternity services with us. It is not easy, even for someone who is verbal, to communicate rationally in the middle of labour, so how do we manage that in the case of someone who cannot communicate because the other person does not understand? It is not that someone cannot communicate but it is just that the other person does not understand what is being communicated. In the case of a sick child, it is difficult enough for any mother to interpret the symptoms of a sick child and go to a doctor. We are fortunate Senator Moloney is such a good mother and that her son is such a good doctor. The lack of communication worries me, although there is a huge amount in place. When advance notice is given interpreters are available and are paid by the State. However, advance notice is not always given, which can be a difficulty. That is something at which I hope we will look also.
Education is a major issue. Again, not to impose my values on others, we need to have a deeper discussion with members of the deaf community about what it means to them. There is a huge cohort of people for whom Irish Sign Language is their first language and, in some cases, it is the language they use 95% of the time. What does education mean? Are we going to impose the sort of standard of English, Irish, geography and maths? It is a serious issue. How do we manage that in a world where the dominant language is English with a lot of Irish thrown in? I have serious concerns around all of that.
The communication aspect is a huge difficulty. How do we communicate with each other? It is not that the deaf community has a serious problem with communication but we have a problem understanding sign language. It is an issue we need to get right. We need to be able to put in place the services which members of the deaf community need in their everyday lives before we start to put them in legislation and say they have an absolute right to something. The one thing I do not want to happen is what happened a number of years ago in regard to disability, that is, where people go to court to demand those rights and we are playing catch-up to put them in place. I do not think we are divided on this. We all want the same thing, although I do not think much progress has been made.
Those in the Visitors Gallery and those involved in the debate will probably smile when I say that the disability Act states that everybody with a disability should be mainstreamed. I admit I see huge validity in the argument of members of the deaf community that they would prefer to live together in segregated communities. I understand that better now than I ever did in the past. How do we manage to get over that? Will the next people in the queue, with a different disability, say they want to live in a separate setting? How do I manage all of that? This is about beginning to understand one another and, above all else, the Government responding to the needs of a community I believe has been excluded for a long time, which I do not want to see continuing.
We have the beginnings of a conversation and we need to know the priorities of the deaf community and take cognisance of them. They need to be firmly imbedded in the implementation plan published last year and which we need to ensure is rolled out. Putting legislation first is not the way to go. That is putting the cart before the horse. I think Senator Barrett said we will probably be at that point in the future but we need to put the services in place first.
I refer to technology. One section of the Department of Justice and Equality is funding people to develop an app for Irish Sign Language. That will be a huge advantage because friends of mine who are deaf text all the time and tell me it is a new world for them to be able to communicate without having to write or to ask someone else to communicate for them. The development of an app will not be the only thing in that other pieces of technology will come along which will be of benefit also. However, we cannot assume what is best for the deaf community and we must have that conversation with it. We have begun that conversation and I hope it will continue.
I would say to Senator Daly, which he knows is not something I like doing, that I think this Bill is putting the cart before the horse. I appreciate it because it gives us the opportunity for a discussion. Senator Conway said that perhaps this debate should take place in the Dáil but I do not think it could or that we could have this free-flowing discussion there. I do not think it would lend itself to that in that statements are standard.
We need to have this conversation and I admit it is one we are going to have to continue to have. We are awaiting the report from our meeting of 28 November last. From that, we will find out exactly what the deaf community considers to be its priority and then the conversation will continue.
I thank my colleagues, Senators Ó Murchú and Byrne, for supporting the legislation, all the Members who spoke and the Minister of State for taking this debate and not reading the script she was given, which shows she has a huge understanding of the issue and does not have to be enlightened by the civil servants. This comes down to the fundamental issue of what is a republic and what it means to be a republican or a citizen of a republic, which basically entitles every citizen, regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth, to reach his or her full potential.
Members opposite have talked about the legislation being premature, putting the cart before the horse. What the Department of Justice, Equality and Defence seems to suggest is that once we have put everything that the deaf community needs by way of rights and access to Government services in place, we will put in place the legislation that will compel the Government to provide the services. A timeline is missing from all of this. Priorities come and go. Ministers champion causes, as the Minister of State has done on this issue, and other causes and issues take priority. In that case, the deaf community will be left with nobody in the Government to champion its cause, the Department will say it is not a priority and the community will have no remedy to go to the courts. The Minister of State is right that people went to court over the disability Act 2005 and the Government had to act. Citizens got the rights in legislation to which they were entitled. The Minister of State pointed out that there is no requirement for an accident and emergency department to have an online interpreter on call. Legislation would do that. We are discussing it now and it may or may not happen.
Senator Barrett mentioned amendments. We would be delighted if amendments to this Bill were tabled. Senator Moran said that the Department says it will not allow for Irish Sign Language recognition. That is the officials telling the legislators what can and cannot happen, which, as we know, is a fundamental flaw in respect of the legislation. Senator Van Turnhout mentioned New Zealand and said that recognition is not enough, which is right. The Minister of State is working to make sure that the services are in place. I agree with the amendments that Senator Keane mentioned to widen the groupings. We would have no problem with amendments brought in by anybody. We welcome the motion that Senator Keane tabled at the session of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. We have, however, seen motions tabled but officials do not have to act on them, for example, those tabled by Senator Lemass in the 1980s, almost four decades ago. That is why legislation is so vital.
We can talk about motions and guidelines but one cannot go to a judge and say one’s rights are being infringed on the basis of a guideline. One has to go with legislation. I thank Senator Moloney for her support for sign language recognition. She would like to vote for this Bill and put it on a legislative footing and then force services to be put in place. I know others too would like to do that. I thank my colleagues in Sinn Féin, Senators Cullinane and Ó Clochartaigh, for their fight in respect of Irish Sign Language and their support, with Senator Bradford, for allowing this go to Committee Stage. We would be delighted if it went to Committee Stage but we understand that the comments that the Department of Justice, Equality and Defence will not allow this to happen are, unfortunately, the status quo.
We are fighting to ensure that members of the deaf community would have rights enshrined in law for which they can seek remedy when their access to Government services is infringed. Guidelines are not good enough. While Government initiatives are welcome, it is possible to row back on them and to cut funding when there is no legislative footing. I thank Senators Quinn and Barrett for their support. We will put this to a vote because we have seen what Senator Mooney outlined as the decade long fight for recognition, the appalling treatment of the deaf community by religious institutions and the State and the lack of recognition, all because the community had no legal right to seek remedy in court. I thank the Minister of State for her work on this proposal. She is doing a great job. The problem is that there is no timeline for her work within which we can achieve all that we want to achieve. Legislation will allow members of the deaf community get the rights they should have as citizens.
The Seanad divided by electronic means.
Ned O’Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
Under Standing Order 62(3)(b) I request that the division be taken again other than by electronic means.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 21; Níl, 24.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Mark Daly and Ned O’Sullivan; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.