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March 18, 2005

Deaf Talkabout: Looking for signs of improvement

From: Belfast Telegraph - UK - Mar 18, 2005

by Bob McCullough
18 March 2005

March 29, 2004, was an important day for Northern Ireland's deaf community. That was the day the British Government announced the recognition of British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language as languages in their own right.

Has the past year made a difference? Last Friday, at a conference organised by DANI, the Northern Ireland branch of the British Deaf Association, professionals and deaf people from all over the province gathered at the Radisson SAS Hotel on Belfast's Ormeau Road to discuss what progress has been made.

Recognition is an empty gesture unless it is backed by action. Has the change improved our lives in any real way? The adoption of the Sign Language Charter is meant to foster greater awareness of BSL and ISL. Has it led to greater inclusion in modern society? The Secretary of State had promised more tutors of sign language, better interpreting services and the installation of specialised equipment in public offices. Has it happened?

Aideen McGinley has been Permanent Secretary of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure since 1999 and spoke on what recognition means within Government. "All of us are aware of the great need for qualified interpreters," she said. "We also know that this can only happen when deaf people themselves have received training in the best way to teach their language and pass on their expertise to others."

Just being deaf does not make one an expert on sign language and tutor Raymond Abernethy told the conference that he and other teachers can only do their job properly when they are all well-prepared and properly qualified.

Susan Barry, the BDA's Community Advocacy Officer, supported this position and said that this professionalism should be extended to sign language presenters and all others who read the news on TV. Sue is concerned that deaf people miss out on important information such as the ads on binge drinking and other health related subjects. Subtitles don't always give the full picture.

Chair of the BDA, Doug Alker, is a well-known exponent of BSL and has led a richly varied life, including ten years as Director of the RNID. Doug has said again and again that it is not just deaf people themselves who need to understand the advantage gained by sign language, but also parents of deaf children and all other interested hearing folk.

"We must make the general public understand," he said, "that the important issue is language and not the ear. It's not just a medical problem. All of us need communication from a very early age if language is to develop normally and the free and easy communication afforded by sign language is of crucial importance where education is concerned."

DANI is led by director Majella McAteer, who is proficient in both BSL and ISL after school in Dublin and later life in Northern Ireland. Majella has been working hard with her staff to bring awareness of deaf people to staff in hospitals and social service boards around the province.

One way in which this has proved most successful is by encouraging the PSNI to become involved with the deaf community. Plans are in hand to have deaf awareness training in all police colleges and to have at least two officers in each locality with proficiency in sign language. And next month it is hoped to officially launch the new emergency textphone number for police, fire and ambulance services.

© 2005 Independent News and Media (NI) a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd