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September 19, 2003

Deaf Talkabout: Queen's tackles communication issues

From: Belfast Telegraph, UK - Sept 19, 2003

By Bob McCullough
19 September 2003

AT Queen's University last Friday, the seminar on disability had several lectures on the distinction between the medical approach to the problem and the current feeling that disability is more of a social disadvantage that can be alleviated by changes of attitude in the general public.

Deaf people, especially the profoundly deaf, who use sign language, have become very angry about recent TV programmes on gene therapy and speculations that deafness can eventually be eradicated by medical means. Many of them insist they are perfectly happy with their lot and say they just want more public understanding of their special mode of communication.

Chairman Dr Cowie admitted that Queen's was not setting a good example in the societal category with the haphazard layout of the campus and the difficulty of access to many buildings.

As visiting lecturer Michael Schwartz pointed out, even the way the chairs were arranged for the meeting made things difficult for deaf people watching and participating in the lectures.

Mike has been deaf from birth and gained his law degree in New York after graduating from other US universities with the help of interpreters.

He told the audience of academics that deafness was one of many disabilities that could be successfully overcome with the infusion of funds to supply the help required for inclusion into the academic life of the university

During his Phd. course, Mike had found that his university was widely exaggerating the cost of aids for deaf students and that a speed-text computer, which would enable him to move from one lecturer to another, could be purchased comparatively cheaply.

"There is no medical cure for my condition," he said, "but with the expenditure of reasonable amounts of money disabled people like myself can enjoy a much better quality of life."

Other speakers dwelt on the need to think positively along the same lines and seek the input of disabled folk when planning programmes. As one speaker profoundly put it: "How do we avoid disabling individual students with that knowledge?"

I got the impression that the academics were becoming worried about their inability to find a real solution to the problem and were starting to realise that disability cannot be understood until it is experienced.

On Tuesday, a film crew from the Hands On company in Dublin were at my home to make a programme for showing in the South and this question was among the many issues we explored. I told them it is my conviction that the deaf community suffers from too many competing organisations and we lack a united voice when making our needs known to government and other authorities.

But it's not enough to shout our wants. We need to get together and think out a sensible and coherent policy that has the support of the majority of our deaf people and then patiently explain it to those in authority. The deaf from the south told me they have exactly the same problem? so it would be good to find a way to express our position with the humility shown by the staff at Queen's.

- Facilitated by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, an open public meeting with the deaf community takes place in Jury's Inn Hotel next Monday from 2pm to 4pm. Interpreters provided and free lunch at 12.30.

© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd