Pandemic exposes inequality in language access for Deaf communities.

Unite member Micheál Kelliher explains how the Public Health Emergency has exposed some of the structural inequalities in access to information for Deaf people.

Since Irish Sign Language (ISL) was recognised as Ireland’s third official language in December 2017, it has been a long and difficult fight to get the Act fully implemented. I am Unite member and a spokesperson for a campaign called #StopHidingISL. We started this campaign when RTÉ refused to include ISL in their broadcast during the national anthem at the All Ireland GAA finals in Croke Park in 2018.

Micheál Kelliher ISL video explaining concerns of the Deaf community with access to public health information

The GAA were very good in including a Deaf person and an ISL interpreter to sign the national anthem at Croke Park on finals day so that the Deaf people at the game could be involved with their hearing friends and family members. However, RTÉ failed to feature this in their broadcast.  This excluded the Deaf people at home and in pubs across Ireland from participating in their national anthem before the game began. RTÉ at that time said that it was technically impossible to include the ISL user on screen, in a bubble for example. However TG4, a significantly smaller station and the GAA managed to do just that without any issue.

In the same month, the Pope was visiting Ireland and was sharing a large, bright stage with the Taoiseach. The interpreter was off the stage, far away in a dark corner away from the cameras. It was somewhat ironic that the Pope was speaking about how society should be more equal, while my access was actively hidden from the screens?

The #StopHidingISL campaign has asked RTÉ about this situation, and their response was that they were filming for an international audience, and that ISL is ‘obsolete’. Wow! It’s a strange word to use. When someone is speaking Irish, does RTÉ tell this person their language is obsolete or edit them out? I’ve never seen this happen, but somehow it keeps happening with ISL! There are clear signs of discrimination and active exclusion of our language.

COVID-19 Health Warnings

When the global COVID-19 pandemic came to the forefront of news broadcasts in Ireland, the Deaf community was initially excluded from access to crucial information in their preferred language for more than a week. Without having access to critical information, we were vulnerable to misinformation and misinterpretation.

Some of you may be wondering why written English is not an adequate form of communication for Deaf people in these circumstances. Sign language is a visual language which like all languages develops organically and for some Deaf people, spoken and written English is like a foreign language. It’s critical that everyone has access to information in their first language so they won’t put themselves and everyone else at risk. Inclusion is not a luxury, it’s a necessity to protect society as a whole.

After a campaign involving the Irish Deaf Society, Chime, and the Deaf community, we got our first briefing with Irish Sign Language on the 5th of March with the HSE (or Department of Health) but it was still a disaster for us. The camera kept focusing in on the speakers and cutting the ISL interpreters out of the shot. The interpreters kept trying to walk into shot so they could be seen by viewers. It was clear that the media team needed some Deaf Awareness training. Slowly, we ISL is becoming more prominent in briefings, because of media teams becoming more aware, but it has been slow and difficult to make progress.

Despite the passing into law of the Irish Sign Language Recognition ACT there is still no consistency across government and state institutions.  When we achieve access to information in our language with one agency, we have to do it all over again with other agencies, departments, media companies and staff. In recent weeks we have observed briefings and announcements by the Ministers for Health, Education, Finance, and the department of An Taoiseach without Irish Sign Language interpreters.

Another situation which is of great concern to our community is the education and inclusion of Deaf children. RTÉ launched a valuable initiative called the Home School Hub, to help with home schooling that children all over the country are facing. However, RTÉ yet again failed to include Deaf children who are ISL users.

For the first week or so, out of concern for the children Deaf teachers and special needs assistants stepped in and volunteered their time to translate the content into ISL. The Deaf community and its organisations again mobilised to campaign to get ISL included in the Home School Hub.

The approach to sharing information in ISL is not consistent across platforms either. For example, there are regular videos with ISL on RTÉ’s social media pages coming from the HSE’s daily briefings. But when the Taoiseach made an announcement about restrictions on the 1st of May, there were no videos with ISL on their social media pages, leading to confusion and stress when trying to access the new information. The ISL videos were only on the RTE News Now TV channel, and RTÉ Player. Each Deaf person has their own preferences on where they get news, e.g. TV channels, newspapers, websites, social media. And besides, not everyone has TV or the Internet. Access to information in Irish Sign Language should be on all media platforms.

Deaf communities around the world are experiencing similar barriers. British Sign Language users and the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign have started a class action legal case against the UK government. The World Federation of the Deaf and World Association of Sign Language Interpreters has made a joint statement “reminding governments on all levels of their commitments under the Convention on the Rights of Peoples with Disabilities (CRPD) to ensure full access to information and accessibility to all services under CRPD Articles 9 and 21.” The Irish government ratified the CRPD, but they, their agencies, departments and public owned companies consistently fail to follow the convention.

Moving forward, I hope that seeing ISL interpreters on screens will be normalised and not only during exceptional events. Interpreters are signs of an inclusive society and can inspire some people to learn ISL, and to let Deaf people play a bigger part in our inclusive society.

Here is a list of demands that I, and members of the Deaf community, would like to see all media companies, agencies and departments follow:

  1. When interpreters are at televised events, they must be beside speakers and on camera, no matter if the audience is national or international.
  2. Media teams should receive Deaf Awareness training and always keep access and inclusivity in their minds.
  3. Full time and well paid staff who are fluent in ISL at RTÉ to always be ready for exceptional announcements or sudden changes (e.g. red warning weathers, COVID-19), in a timely manner (information translates immediately, not a few days later).
  4. Consistent access to Irish Sign Language and subtitles across all media platforms, from TV channels (including the main one) and websites to social media.
  5. Provide full access to ISL and subtitles for important events in our society like political debates.
  6. Roles such as policy officers with a focus on access to ISL across all departments, agencies and media.

The demands above are so simple, and some of them don’t cost anything. We are aware that there won’t be any ‘getting back to normal’ after the COVID-19 pandemic. RTÉ shouldn’t get ‘back to normal’, actively excluding ISL from screens. The government departments and agencies shouldn’t get ‘back to normal’, forgetting about the Deaf community’s needs. The media companies shouldn’t get ‘back to normal’, having inconsistent approach on sharing information in ISL on all of their media platforms. I’m hopeful that we will keep going forward, not backwards.

“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance” – Verna Myers

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