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May 12, 2006

Deaf Talkabout: Why sign language isn't a joke

From: Belfast Telegraph - United Kingdom - May 12, 2006

12 May 2006

It was an evening of nostalgia in Wilton House, Belfast, during the annual meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP). Professor Mary Wilmot, former director of Social Services in Northern Ireland, spoke on her personal and professional experiences of deaf people and the changes that she feels are still required.

Mary's parents were both deaf and she grew up in a house where sign language was regarded as the natural mode of communication.

Her father, James Golden, was educated at the boys' school in Dublin and has long been regarded as one of the most charismatic members of the deaf community, intensely interested in all the news and always ready for a chat and a laugh.

Having deaf parents made Mary acutely aware of the big gap in their lives through lack of appropriate communication when big stories were taking place in the province.

This came to a head during the Workers' Strike of the 70s when hourly newscasts were being shown of the turmoil on our streets but subtitles were not available to help deaf people understand what was going on. She protested to the TV authorities but was told money was not available for the technology required.

Speaking at last Thursday's meeting, Mary said there is much more respect for sign language and the needs of deaf people now - and she wishes she had filmed more of her family history to illustrate the great progress that has taken place.

Subtitles on TV are now almost 100% and sign language is being sustained and promoted by organisations like the CACDP and BDA. There is a danger, she warned, of some students treating sign language as a bit of a joke and we must always endeavour to dignify it with professional and respectful teaching.

We were told about the terrible isolation James Golden suffered when he had to be hospitalised for a cataract operation. Mary and her husband arranged for private treatment, but nurses are not trained for such a situation and it's hard for them to understand the agonies deaf patients go through when even for a short period of time they are blind as well as deaf and the only way of communicating with them is by spelling words on their fingers.

The human touch is life enhancing and Mary appealed for doctors and nurses to become proficient in basic signs and finger spelling.

After Mary's speech John Carberry of the RNID interviewed a former resident of the popular old hostel that used to exist for young deaf people on the top floor of Wilton House and Coralie Heron told us of her life there from the age of 16 to leaving for marriage at 25 nearly 40 years ago.

"It was dark and cold," she said. "We paid £2 a week and the food depended on the cook who couldn't sign and communicated by pointing. I worked as a machinist from eight to five, after leaving the Lisburn Road School, and as my family lived in Tempo I only got home at weekends.

"Boys and girls were not allowed to mix and of course there was no drink and few amusements apart from chatting. We sometimes went to the pictures but had to be home for 10.30pm. Except for something really serious we never saw the doctor and learned to treat ourselves. After nine years I met the right man and got married".

RNID director Brian Symington told us that 5 College Square was first acquired in November 1906 by the Mission for Adult Deaf and Dumb to become a mission for the deaf community in Northern Ireland.

Now, 100 years later facilities, services and support flourish in what is now known as Wilton House and arrangements are ongoing to celebrate its centenary.

© 2006 Independent News and Media (NI)
a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd