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December 31, 2004

Deaf Talkabout: Lessons that Hong Kong can teach us

From: Belfast Telegraph, UK - Dec 31, 2004

A friend called to see us the other day and regaled us with the story of his five-day holiday in Hong Kong over the Christmas break and the wonderful weather and magnificent scenery.

The food was delicious, the hotel clean and comfortable, the taxis cheap, the shops full of amazing gadgets at reasonable prices; but most wonderful of all was the fact that nearly everybody spoke English and, used as they were to visitors from many different countries, soon learned to accommodate his deafness.

Hong Kong is one of the most densely concentrated cities in the world and on his first day, Paul, my friend, felt intimidated by the non-stop throngs passing his hotel when he ventured out and worried about finding his way back. But he soon learned to trust the taxi drivers and a quick flash of his hotel name was enough to get him home safely.

Paul is hard of hearing with knowledge of sign language and has the confidence to communicate confidently in most situations; but on sharing our experiences we had to acknowledge that there seems to be much better deaf awareness abroad than here, and that there are very few places in this country where deaf people feel at home and where the staff really try to cross the barrier.

Last week I was chatting with RNID director, Brian Symington, and he mentioned that for many years their service was focussed on response to problems such as interpreting, typetalk and mental health. With hindsight this was good, but he felt that we now need the vision to see problems before they arise and have the resources available.

We were talking in a church where the carol service was being interpreted for deaf people and I told Brian this was a case in point. Under the old order we either had specialised churches for deaf members or one or two mainstream hearing churches providing sign language, interpreting on a weekly basis for a coterie of deaf people. But all was done on a voluntary basis.

Maybe this needs to change and the time is ripe to expand the service to deaf people so that deaf awareness and communication support can be provided all over Northern Ireland.

The RNIDs own research mentions 200,000 in the province with hearing problems and, while only a minority need sign language, there are many who would find the church more attractive if better use was made of powerpoint and other aids to enlighten and enliven the services.

Some churches may object that only a few would benefit and the cost would be prohibitive, but deafness is an invisible handicap and the benefits would be incalculable.

It is true, also, that many deaf people prefer to suffer in silence and don't want attention drawn to their disability ? but this will have to change.

And where cost is involved surely the time is now ripe for paid interpreters in church settings, especially now that so many of our deaf receive DLA and may be willing to contribute?

Our registered interpreters are too heavily involved to be available for Sunday morning services, but stage three and other students may be glad of the opportunity to improve their signing skills and be paid while doing it.

Church leaders, and leaders in the deaf community, are slowly becoming aware of this vision and, as Brian suggests, to 'see the problem arising and have the resources ready'.

It would certainly help to change the ghetto image from which many of us suffer and bring us more into the mainstream of life.

2004 Independent News and Media (NI) a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd