Connected: How a Cochlear Implant Made Me More Deaf

Book cover final pub size


I’ve finally published a book. It’s a shortish ebook about my experience of getting a cochlear implant, parts of which I’ve written about in the past for this blog. It’s been some five years in the works, although I left my first draft to gather dust for a while before revisiting it and re-writing the ending.  The title might imply to some that the implant was a failure, but this is far from the case. In fact, it’s great and continues to be so. It’s more that the whole process of getting one went hand-in-hand with what I would describe as a significant part of my search for a ‘deaf’ identity. I think that many deaf and hard of hearing people and their families, friends and colleagues will relate to many of the stories in this book – whether they have cochlear implants or not. You can purchase it via an ebook publishing platform called Smashwords or from Amazon for the modest price of $2.99. I hope you like it! Any questions, you can email me at john [at]




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When signing is singing


It’s often assumed that when profoundly deaf children are involved in any kind of musical performance it’s mainly for their therapeutic benefit: a worthy attempt at confidence-building or something that might help with their speech development.

But watching the teenagers of St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls choir perform the traditional Irish song May the Road Rise Up to Meet You in Irish Sign Language (ISL) is to witness something special. Not special in the “special needs” sense. Just special. Hands moving, faces animated, bodies swaying; it’s a compelling performance, not least because it is effectively bilingual.

The girls are signing in time to a backing track of the song with the guidance of the conductor, but they are not signing each and every word of the lyrics. The song has been translated into ISL, a language of the face, hands and body that is very different in structure and grammar to English. (It’s a common misconception that sign languages are based on spoken languages. The national sign languages of other English-speaking countries are all different ).

You don’t need to know any ISL to appreciate it, in much the same way that you don’t need to be fluent in Italian to appreciate a performance of Nessun Dorma.

This choir has performed for audiences of thousands at several venues around the country, as well as on TV, including RTÉ’s Saturday Night Show. 

At a concert in Germany last September, accompanied by the world-famous Mahler Chamber Orchestra and a group of backing singers, the group was one of the stars of the concert. It was part of the annual Beethovenfest in Bonn, where the choir performed along with three other signing choirs from Cologne, Prague and Brescia.

The choir left a lasting impression on concert organiser Paul Whittaker, a profoundly deaf musician and founder of UK charity Music and the Deaf, when he met them in Dublin this year.

“I was so impressed with them, they actually made me cry,” he says. “I have seen many signing choirs over the years but the ensemble, musicianship, body language and facial expression they showed was phenomenal. Signing is not just about what your hands do, but the whole body, and St Mary’s are absolutely first-class.”

The Beethovenfest concert came about through a project run by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra called Feel the Music (see panel). “It was so interesting watching all the different signing choirs in Bonn and the different approaches they all had,” says Whittaker. “I know that each choir learned so much from watching the others, and it was a huge privilege to be part of that event.”

The choir members had a great time. “It was a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Emma O’Higgins. And Aimee McLoughlin adds that “it was amazing to hear the other languages from the different countries, and to see what their sign was like compared to ours”.

Gaining respect

When conductor Shirley Higgins started up the choir four years ago, she did not set out to form a “cute deaf choir” but one that would be respected as a choir in its own right. It has since performed at DCU’s Helix, Dublin Castle, Belfast’s Titanic Exhibition Centre and Croke Park.

“We’ve been so lucky,” says Higgins, a teacher at the Cabra-based school for 18 years. “Everybody we have worked with has just treated us amazingly and with full respect. And the awareness it is creating around Dublin, around Ireland, is huge.”

Signing choirs are emerging as a growing genre of community-based musical performance. Whittaker says a signing choir gives people who might not feel confident in singing vocally (he describes his own singing as a “painful noise”) an opportunity to be part of a choir, and to perform, but using a medium other than the human voice. “Deaf people say that their voice is their hands and their bodies.”

While St Mary’s is blazing a trail in this emerging genre, it’s also clear from Higgins that being in the choir has an educational value for the teenagers on many levels. Not least of these is their “X-factor” confidence: seeing performance as a normal, natural thing, and in front of audiences of thousands. “I have kids who, when they first came here, had no self-esteem, no confidence, and I see them, a year later, full of confidence,” says Higgins.

It also adds depth to their musical education and listening skills. Higgins encourages them to listen to and choose the songs they perform, and then gets them listening to the key rhythms, signing them, devising movements, and even setting up signing “harmonies”. As a result, the teenagers say they are listening to music and sharing tunes with each other far more.

One of the biggest benefits is in language development. Higgins says understanding abstract meanings in songs doesn’t come anywhere near as naturally to deaf children as those with normal hearing. “While they are in the choir their language is just being opened up. They are looking for the hidden meaning. They are not just looking for the exact meaning of a particular word. They can see the emotion.”

It has filtered through to their understanding of poetry. “Their English teachers have come to me and said you can see that they are thinking more; the feeling from it, the hidden meaning from it. And that’s coming through the music.”

But it’s not all about English. The choir members also renew their appreciation for ISL. In St Mary’s, sign language has roughly equal status with spoken English as the medium of teaching and communication. Higgins trained for two years at the centre for deaf studies at Trinity College for an ISL teaching qualification, so she is well able to guide the translations of song lyrics from English to ISL.

Powerful impact

The proliferation of signed choirs is dovetailing with a growing interest in sign language in Europe, says Whittaker. “Signed song really makes you think about the lyrics, and a visual interpretation of a song can have a very powerful impact.”

But he adds that some “wannabe” signing choirs have tried to take shortcuts. “I have met quite a lot of signing choirs in schools who have simply watched something on YouTube and copied it. The risk there is that they don’t know whether that signing is actually good. It may not even be the right sign language for the country.

“What every signing choir needs, in my view, is someone who really understands the sign language so that a good translation of the lyrics can be achieved, working alongside someone who understands music.”Music is the universal language, especially in the grounds of St Mary’s school on weekday mornings from 8am, when the choir practices.“In the morning they could come in in a bad mood,” said Higgins. “By 9am it’s forgotten. They’re walking out the door singing, dancing to music. It’s amazing.”St Mary’s signing choir performs at DCU’s Helix as part of the Emmanuel Live school concert series, March 3-5, 2015, 



The recent success of St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls’ signing choir brought them to the attention of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which runs Feel the Music, a project designed to open up classical music to deaf children across Europe.

Under the guidance of Paul Whittaker, a profoundly deaf musician who runs the UK charity Music and the Deaf, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes visit children from deaf schools and invite them to hear, feel and play their instruments, including a grand piano, kettle drums, a viola, a cello and an oboe.

In Dublin, 25 teens from St Mary’s got to physically play the instruments, put their fingers on the strings of the piano, crawl under the piano and feel the soundboard, to sit with the 50-piece orchestra during rehearsals and to have a go at conducting them. “There wasn’t a sound to be heard,” says teacher Shirley Higgins. “They were so focused on it, listening to it. An amazing experience.”

Feel The Music is part of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s Beethoven Journey concert series, which will have visited 40 European cities when it finishes next year. Part of the project examines how Beethoven’s own deafness – which began when he was in his 20s and left his career as a virtuoso pianist in tatters – not only brought him to the brink of despair but greatly influenced his compositions.

“Feel the Music has been the most exciting and inspiring project I have done in my 26 years of working at Music and the Deaf,” says Whittaker. “It has shown thousands of people that deaf people can enjoy [and make] music; it’s been a real eye-opener for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and for Leif Ove Andsnes.

“And it has opened new doors and opportunities for many deaf people whose experience of music may previously have been non-existent.”

He thinks it would be a shame if the project were not to continue after next year. “I want to keep in touch with all the schools that have taken part, to visit them again if funding can be found and to encourage them to develop links with music organisations and venues in their own country.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Times


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Classic cars and the NCT


This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the Irish Times Nov 12

Most classic car enthusiasts in Ireland are hoping the Government will continue to exempt their vehicles from NCT tests following a public consultation on the issue that is due to end this Friday.

A new EU directive on roadworthiness testing due to come into force in May 2018 will require that any vehicle less than 30 years old must be tested, but leaves it up to member states to decide if and to what extent “vehicles of historic interest” that are over this age would be tested.

This has prompted the consultation, which is being conducted by the Road Safety Authority (RSA). It outlines four possible options regarding NCT testing for cars over 30 years old.

The Government could exempt from the NCT cars that were first registered before a fixed date, which would be either January 1, 1960 (option 1) or January 1, 1980 (option 2). Or it could exempt cars on a rolling basis when they turn 40 years old (option 3) or 30 years old (option 4).

The consultation has been attracting a large volume of responses from clubs and individual enthusiasts. According to the RSA, more than 300 responses had been received at the end of last week.

An informal poll by The Irish Times of several clubs, including the Irish Vintage and Veteran Car Club (IVVCC), suggests that most of them will be pressing for a return to the rolling 30-year exemption.

This exemption had been previously in place since the introduction of the NCT in 2000 until 2010, when the RSA recommended a change to the current fixed cut-off date of January 1st, 1980. Any car first registered after this date has to be tested indefinitely.

The agency said this move was made to “gradually bring Ireland more in line with the current roadworthiness Directive, and also because the RSA believed that vehicles which were 30 years old were still relatively modern and in frequent use on Irish roads”.

While acknowledging that vintage cars are used infrequently, typically covering less than 2,000km a year, the RSA appears to have listened to complaints about the lack of consultation over the unpopular 2010 move.

RSA communications manager Brian Farrell said: “Nothing has been cast in stone. These are just proposals, no decision has been made and we are genuinely looking for people’s views on the proposals that are there.”

However, the chances of the agency recommending a return to the 30-year rolling exemption are understood to be slim.

Mr Farrell said that returning to this exemption would result in some 2,000 vehicles being removed from the testing net straight away. Option 1 (the January 1960 cut-off point), by contrast, would result in up to 7,500 vehicles being required to undergo testing, although some 4,000 of these are current declared off the road.

Peadar Ward of the IVVCC said a decision to go for option 1 would seriously damage the old car movement. “These cars are part of our motoring heritage and the owners support many charities with them throughout the year.”

Mr Ward said he understood the RSA’s concerns over the numbers of motorists regularly using cars that are 30-40 years old which are currently exempt from testing.

“While there will always be a minority of people who will try to abuse any concessions available, we do not believe that this is widespread,” he said.

“The cost of maintenance and the running costs of older cars far outweigh the benefits to be gained from fuel-efficient modern vehicles with longer service intervals and greater reliability.”

Judging by discussions on classic car forums and reports of club public meetings around the country on the issue in recent days, there is a split of opinion between those who argue that any car using public roads must be tested and those who say most classics are lovingly maintained and little used and that there exists no crash data or statistics showing any serious issue over the safety of classic cars in the absence of a testing regime.

“I know some of the feedback we’re getting is ‘show us the crash data’, but that is not what this is about,” said Mr Farrell.  “This is about us having to adhere to the minimum standards in the first instance set down at EU level and it’s just common sense; that if you have vehicles on the road that they are roadworthy.”

But while most enthusiasts and clubs are expected to press for the 30 year rolling exemption, at least one club could be voting for the 40 year rolling exemption.

Tomas Curley of BMW Classics Ireland, a 400-strong club which caters for BMWs of mainly 70s and 80s vintage, says the most important thing that any exemption should be a rolling rather than a fixed one.

“As it stands, the 1980 cut-off point is arbitrary and seriously effects the future survival of 80s cars,” he said.

“Ideally, what we would like is the 40 year rolling exemption but frozen until 2020, and also that cars between 30 and 40 years old would be tested every two years rather than every year, until exemption.”

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IT conversion courses – not all employers are converts

Conversion courses have mushroomed since the IT industry complained it couldn’t find enough graduates to fill jobs. But some say the tech sector is reluctant to take on conversion graduates

proposition seems simple – even compelling – at a time when the tech industry here is crying out for new blood: if you are currently out of a job, want to change career or are desperate to work for an industry that offers more scope for career progression, sign up for an information technology conversion course.

Conversion courses to IT have been around for over 10 years, but recently the number has risen sharply after tech companies complained they couldn’t find enough computer science graduates to fill jobs.

The Government responded by setting up Springboard and ICT Skills Conversion, two schemes that fund free or heavily subsidised places on conversion courses in IT and other growth areas for unemployed yet skilled professionals in industries that have been hit by recession.

On the surface they appear to be working well. A 2014 review by the Higher Education Authority, which runs both schemes, found that 67 per cent of participants were reported to be in employment or self-employment, and another 5 per cent in further study. Some 92 per cent of Springboard participants said they would recommend the scheme.

But one specialist IT recruitment firm says the tech sector is still somewhat reluctant to take on conversion graduates.

“The indications in the market right now are that tech companies are reluctant to hire conversion graduates versus four-year computer science graduates,” says Neil Sullivan, a partner at Dublin-based Stelfox. “Conversion courses, because they are relatively new, haven’t filtered across the majority of the tech sector.”

Although Stelfox doesn’t engage in graduate recruitment, its staff sometimes work with candidates they consider very promising, including one young man who had done an IT conversion course at UCD after he had struggled to find work as an architect. He finished top of his class and did all the right things in his job-search strategy, applying to more than 30 companies. He eventually got a good job as a software developer, but Sullivan was surprised at how difficult it was to get interviews for someone they considered a top-notch candidate, and some of the feedback he had got strongly hinted at a heavy bias against conversion graduates.

For Mark King, vice-president of engineering at education tech firm Fishtree, doing well in a conversion course would not be enough on its own to secure a programming job. “The reality is that most hiring managers, be they HR folks or engineering managers, would limit the hiring of IT conversion grads to specific roles in the organisation” such as IT support or testing.

“When you read about IT companies ranting about the massive shortage of IT grads in Ireland, what they are really referring to is a chronic shortage of computer programming grads. Unfortunately, IT conversion courses tend not to focus on this particular skill set, or, if they do, they only touch on it lightly.”

Top of the tree

Dr Mark Roantree, who chairs the graduate diploma in IT at DCU, says firms favouring a four-year degree graduate is to be expected, particularly for programming, which is “top of the tree” in the IT sector.

However, he insists that if conversion students do well in the core programming modules, doors will open for them, particularly given current skills shortages.“What I say to these students as they come in is, if they do well, they will get a good job. They will get a programming job. If they do badly or just scrape through, employers see that and they’ll be somewhere else in the IT sector.”

Joe Howley did a HDip IT conversion course at NUI Maynooth in 2001, but a lack of software jobs at the time forced him back into the construction industry. In 2012, he went to DCU to do a MEng in telecoms engineering as a way back into software. “I don’t think I would have found work with just the HDip on its own,” he says.

Since then he has been working on internships to get some experience, which has been useful, but he is now looking for paid work. “I think the job market is good but competitive, with programmers from all over Europe applying for jobs in Dublin.”

Howley says that more employers are asking candidates to do aptitude tests on specific programming languages and to demonstrate projects they have worked on.

“Simply having the academic qualifications, whether it be at Dip, master’s or BSc level, may not be enough for entry-level positions,” he says.

Craig Bell, who finished a two-year master’s computer science conversion course at UCD last year, did well in his programming modules but also built a website to showcase a portfolio of programming projects. He did an internship for three months this year at youth charity, but after that he was unemployed for three months before being recruited in August on to the graduate programme at Realex Payments, an Irish online payment-processing firm that employs 170 people. He now works there as an integration and support analyst.

“Before I joined Realex, I was at breaking point. I actually felt like going on a holiday or something, or running away.”

He had been “sending out CVs everywhere” and was required to do aptitude tests as part of several job applications, which he disliked. His application to Realex also included an aptitude test, but “they still took me on because they could see that I had a year’s experience in customer care, customer service, and that I had potential for programming”.

Many people say this is a conversion graduate’s trump card: transferable experience and skills from another industry.

Although he enjoyed his course at UCD, Bell says it badly needed to have a work placement element. Students on the National College of Ireland’s IT conversion courses get work placements, and the college has managed to get them into a variety of firms as Java developers, web application developers and test engineers, says the college’s careers and opportunities officer, Caroline Kennedy.

“We don’t have students working in the tech-support roles – they were working in quality roles, but other institutions may have a different experience.”

Most of the work placements offered to students are with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) because they value transferable skills, says Kennedy.

Sullivan also believes SMEs are more open-minded about conversion graduates.

King disagrees. “Small start-ups do not have the luxury of bandwidth or time on their side to train up such grads, as time to market with the product or idea is of the essence. Mid-sized and larger firms tend to be the ones that can do this, as “the pace of product releases is a bit slower, therefore the team has more time to invest in training colleagues up on a particular skill set.”

Storm trooper

It was mostly large and medium-sized firms that hired the 2013 graduates of NUI Galway’s higher diploma in software design and development, including Sarah Kennedy, who now works as a software developer for Galway-based Storm Technology, which employs 80 people. Most of the graduates she kept in touch with got their jobs through work placements.

Kevin O’Shaughnessy, chief executive of travel software firm Indigo, which employs 15, has not yet hired a conversion graduate, but he has interviewed a few and is open-minded.“We demand very flexible, multidisciplinary staff, and I think that’s where the conversion courses may appeal.

“Above all else, whether it’s a college graduate or a Springboard graduate, the most important thing for me is attitude: the ability to take on a problem and the ability to solve it and work independently. That person could easily be from another discipline, so, to be brutally honest, we’ll take whoever fits that description.”


This article first appeared in the Irish Times

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Open Days: smoothing the way to third level

The Better Options fair in Dublin aims to be a one-stop shop for would-be students with disabilities, with all the information they need about facilities, supports and navigating a path to a college of their choice.

Finding out about the options for third-level study can be a hugely interesting, stimulating and even enjoyable experience for most secondary-school students. But for those with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds, it can be a much more daunting prospect, driven by a range of anxieties, including whether they can even gain entry in the first place or get the appropriate supports they need to complete a course successfully.

The good news is that the Irish third-level sector has long acknowledged these concerns and works hard to give these students every opportunity to pursue an ambition to go to college.

In fact, these efforts provided a lifeline to me as far back as 1991. When I applied to the CAO early that year, I was invited by my first choice college, DCU, to take an interview and aptitude test as part of a direct-admission scheme it offered to students with disabilities and mature students.

Following disappointing A-level results later that summer, which I was certain would rule me out of admission to the college’s communications studies course (not to mention most of my other choices), I was shocked and delighted to receive a letter offering me a place on the back of that direct-admission scheme.

That was my ticket to three fantastic years at DCU, shared with what turned out to be a highly diverse student body, which included several people from the nearby Ballymun area as well as a number of other students with disabilities.

Perhaps some might regard the admission processes available to students like me 25 years ago as a little arbitrary or unsystematic, but the reality today is that these processes are much more formal and standardised across most of the third-level sector.

Information is also a bit easier to come by. For example, one unmissable event is the Better Options fair at the National College of Ireland campus on November 24th.

Run by the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (Ahead), it aims to provide a one-stop shop, supplying all the information a would-be student with a disability needs to navigate a path to the college of their choice.

“It’s a really good forum for parents and guidance counsellors and students to come up and just get their questions answered,” says Ahead’s executive director, Ann Heelan.

In some ways it’s an alternative to attending a larger event, such as Higher Options at the RDS, which may be “too crowded for someone with a disability”, she adds. “It’s to give students and their parents information about how accessible the colleges are for disabilities, for supports they can get if they go, and the fact that all of the student disciplines and courses are open to them.

“It’s really there to reassure people if they’ve any fears or doubts, to say, ‘No, it’ll be good, it’ll be fine’, and to raise expectations.”

There will also be information on accessible campus accommodation for those with physical disabilities. “It’s very reassuring for parents sending their young children with a disability away from home, while students have come back to us and they’ve said to us, ‘I actually made a decision on that day to go to college’. Maybe they weren’t sure before,” Heelan says.

The website of Ahead also has a lot of useful general information about what types of supports are available, and staff are on hand to answer any specific questions. It doesn’t have data that enables people to compare colleges in terms of the supports they can provide, which means that contacting disability support officers is an important step in the information-gathering process.

Hear and Dare

All the main colleges and universities will have stands at Better Options, run by their disability support staff, along with those who administer the Disability Access Route to Education (Dare) scheme. This scheme, along with the Higher Education Access Route (Hear), allows colleges to add additional CAO points to an applicant’s Leaving Cert as long as they meet the criteria for being classified as either economically disadvantaged (Hear) or having a diagnosed disability (Dare).

Both schemes have been operating in some form for a while, but are now a formal part of the CAO process, which kicks in once you tick the box on the CAO application form to say you have a disability or are from a disadvantaged background.

The Dare scheme, in particular, can trace its roots back to supplementary admission schemes such as those run by DCU 25 years ago. Dare has also been influenced by the work of Ahead, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.

Over time, changes have been made to the Dare criteria, to make them more transparent as the number of students applying to the scheme continues to rise (there were 9,000 applications to Dare last year), but this has reportedly led to some problems.

Ahead’s Ann Heelan believes the Dare process has become too “medicalised”. “The way they run it at the moment, they actually specify how disabled you have to be,” she says. “For example, how deaf you have to be, in decibels, or if you have dyslexia. They say you have to be under the 10th percentile in two areas, which could be reading or writing, but that does not make sense to me, because the student’s experience of education in school could be completely different.”

As a result, Heelan believes that the Dare process can be a very negative experience for some students and that there are few avenues for information or appeal. “We get a lot of phone calls here every year from parents or students who have been deemed ineligible, and they don’t know why and it’s very unfair to them.”

Helpdesk queries

The Irish Times Leaving Cert Results Helpdesk also received a number of queries last August from parents and students concerned about how the Dare criteria were being applied.

“I’ve heard reports of somebody who was deaf in one ear but not the other ear, who struggled in school, and it had an impact, but wasn’t eligible for Dare,” says Heelan.

The Irish Universities Association (IUA), which recently took over the running of the Dare scheme (along with Hear), is understood to be reviewing the criteria.

However, Heelan concedes that Dare is better and fairer in a number of ways compared to the old individual supplementary-admission schemes, particularly in light of the high volume of applications it receives.

One of the biggest advantages is that it reduces duplication, as students can apply to many different colleges but only need to go through the Dare process once.

“I can see why they set up Dare. The problem is it’s implemented very rigidly. And I think in any system, if you’re very rigid and you’re not looking at any grey areas, you’re going to exclude certain people,” says Heelan.

While all seven universities and 10 other colleges now use the Dare scheme, some other colleges, such as Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology Tallaght, operate their own supplementary-admission schemes. Their criteria may be different, and possibly more flexible, than for colleges operating Dare, or they may be very similar. The only way to find out is to contact the colleges directly.

Other colleges, including private colleges, may not operate any supplementary admission for students with disabilities, although they would still offer supports to students who gain admission, perhaps with technical assistance and exams.

Useful links:,,


Profile: Maeve Dermody – ‘I found I had a passion for accounting’

Growing up with four older brothers who all went to college, and then seeing them graduate in their robes and caps, was all the motivation Maeve Dermody needed to pursue third-level education.

“I suppose, as well, my parents saying that I would go to college after my Leaving Cert meant that was always going to be the plan anyway,” she says.

Dermody’s initial desire was to be a primary-school teacher but she discovered in her transition year that Irish was compulsory for teacher training college. As she is deaf and went to a deaf school, this wasn’t a realistic goal.

So she explored other options, and went to various college open days, though in the end the biggest influence on her future was a school trip organised by DCU’s disability officer.

“When I was studying for my Leaving Cert, I found I had a passion for accounting, so when I saw DCU had the accounting and finance degree course, I decided to apply for it as my first choice,” she says.

Dermody applied through the Dare scheme in 2008. “I remember the huge amount of writing involved,” she says. “I needed to get an audiogram, which the school principal had to sign. It wasn’t enough for them to say that I attended a deaf school.”

Her results put her 40 points behind the DCU requirement for the accounting course, but through the concessionary points facilitated by the Dare scheme, she was able to get a place.

It wasn’t until after she got her place at DCU that she discovered more about the supports available, after attending a two-day workshop.

“I was so sure that an ISL [Irish Sign Language] interpreter, along with a note-taker, were the best supports for me, and so I told the disability officer at DCU, who then arranged the supports without any problem.”

This set-up was reviewed after some difficulties in her first year, and after further discussions with the disability officer, she decided to change from a note-taker to a stenographer and “never looked back”.

After graduating in 2012, Dermody went on to do an MSc in education and is now a qualified secondary-school teacher, specialising in business studies and accounting. She is also studying for chartered accountancy qualifications.


Profile: Mark Ryan – ‘It’s that support which makes the difference’ 

Mark Ryan, a marketing graduate from Cobh, Co Cork, who has dyslexia and dyspraxia, found out too late that he had more options than he thought.

His Leaving Cert points were high enough get him into University College Cork in 2009, but he didn’t apply there because he had been told that, due to his exemption from the Irish exam (because of dyslexia), he couldn’t go to any of the universities.

“What wasn’t mentioned was that if you had an exemption from Irish, like I did, they would actually accept this, and I could have applied. I had ruled out UCC and didn’t put it down on my CAO form.”

However, while he was annoyed at this misinformation, Ryan has no regrets about going to Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) instead. If anything, he is glad it happened, as he “really excelled at college. I loved it there and and I graduated with first-class honours. I would put that down to the fact that CIT has such good supports.”

These included a note-taker, three hours of free grinds per week, and supports for doing exams. Some of these supports were the same as ones he received at school, making the transition from second to third level much easier.

Ryan recommends seeking out information from colleges in advance, particularly from the disability support officers, to “get a feeling for what supports are there”, as some places may be better than others.

“It’s that support which makes the difference between graduating with a first-class honours and just scraping through college,” he says.

Ryan also recommends speaking, where possible, to current and former students, who can often make the information from the disability support officers more three-dimensional. While at CIT, Ryan gave speeches about his experiences at disability support workshops in local schools.


This article first appeared in the Irish Times

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Live captioning phone app on the way

Advances in automatic voice recognition technology have spurred a Paris-based start-up to launch a crowd-fund campaign to bring to market the first worldwide service that offers captioned telephone calls for deaf people.

For the past two years, RogerVoice has been working on developing a subscription-based app that combines a Voice-over-IP telephone platform with streaming automated speech recognition to transcribe voice calls onto a smartphone, tablet or PC screen in real-time so that users who are deaf or hard of hearing can engage easily in a telephone conversation without relying on any human intervention.

The service works by starting a phone call to a landline or mobile number via Skype or any other VoIP service. “When your contact picks up the call, she receives a spoken message saying: ‘This call is being transcribed . . . ’ but aside from that, nothing distinguishes it from any other call,” said RogerVoice founder Olivier Jeannal. “He or she speaks, and you receive a text transcription on your screen, in real time, during the conversation.”

“RogerVoice counts most when you have no option but to call. Our app is designed to provide deaf people with as near to an instant and conversational phone experience as possible.”

But what about deaf users who cannot or don’t want to use their voice? Jeannal says he is working to get “text-to-speech synthesis” (TTS) in the first version of the app, which means that words a user types into the app can be relayed by the service using an automated voice facility, but this may not happen until early next year.

“Our first impetus was to get the hardest part working and get it out there: streaming speech-to-text transcriptions of phone calls. The second component, TTS, will be a stretch goal.”

The Kickstarter campaign, which was launched last week to coincide with International Week of the Deaf, aims to raise $20,000 to build a more solid and stable platform, which will initially be based on Android.

“The solution appears simple but the technology is incredibly hard to implement,” said Jeannal. “Our goal is to make it so that the end client doesn’t have to do any special tinkering.”

Automated voice recognition technology has come a long way, but is it accurate enough to work without any human intervention?

“Machines will never replace human ability to detect and understand speech,” said Jeannal. “In a world where the phone is still very much present, though, I figure voice recognition can help cope with 80 per cent of situations. It is more than a stop-gap solution. It’s a real improvement.”


He says the service will charge a “minimal” monthly subscription to cover the cost of the high-quality app and the outbound minutes.

The service, which will be available in a variety of languages, is likely to be strongly welcomed by users in Ireland, where there are very few options for text-to-speech services.

Only Eircom offers a text-to-speech relay service for deaf users, which relies on a human operator and requires a landline and a specialist device called a minicom, but is a “very underused and poor quality service”, according to Niall Maguire of Deafhear, which has been lobbying Comreg to push operators to offer a better quality and more flexible text relay service for deaf users.


This article first appeared in the Irish Times 

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What can hearing people learn from deaf people about effective communication? Quite a lot, actually….

John Cradden – 20 February 2014

Learning how to communicate more like a deaf person could improve your listening skills and make yourself heard better at work, according to international business consultant and coach Dr Bruno Kahne.

Dr Kahne, who works as a senior consultant with the AirBusiness Academy, a training and research consultancy in France owned by Airbus, has spent the last seven years researching the communication habits of deaf people, the results of which he has made into a new book entitled ‘Deaf Tips – Powerful Communication’.

To most of us, the idea that we could learn lessons in effective communication from people who can’t hear very well – or at all – might seem like a bit of a oxymoron, but Dr Kahne insists that while deaf people can find it difficult to communicate effectively with hearing people, this is not the case when talking to other deaf people.

“Deaf people are not deaf when they are together, only when they are in contact with hearing people,” he said, and adds that they are better communicators, “passing messages much faster and more precisely than any hearing person”.

In his book, he describes how he set two groups of three people – one group of signing deaf people and the other hearing – the same problem-solving task involving putting together a sequence of six images in the right order.

The deaf group took less than two minutes to figure it out, while the hearing group took well over six minutes – a result that was repeated in similar exercises Dr Kahne conducted with over 1,000 people.

But what makes deaf people more effective communicators? One example, says Dr Kahne, is that deaf people talk one at a time, in a very sequential manner, while hearing people talk all at the same time, and often interrupt one another.

Another example is that during conversations, deaf people tend to “stay focused on the interaction, while hearing people disconnect regularly”.

Hearing people also rarely ask others to repeat things they have said, and never say when they don’t understand something. In deaf culture, Dr Kahne says, “deaf people constantly reformulate and check their understanding, saying when they don’t understand”.

Dr Kahne uses the tips and information he has collected for the book with his day-to-day work with corporate clients, but says the idea is not to teach them sign language, but help them adopt communication tips and tricks from the ‘deaf world’ that would make them better colleagues and managers.

Among the more popular tips in the book are:

* To pay a lot more attention to other people’s body language. “Learning to listen with your eyes, like deaf people, can help you improve your memory,” he said.

* To speak one at a time and without interrupting others, and resolve any conflicts one at a time.

* Be both simple and precise in how you convey information. “This is something that hearing people have a hard time doing,” said Dr Kahne.

“When hearing people try to be simple, they are automatically vague. When they try to be precise, they suddenly become complex.”

* Dare to ask questions. “Hearing people tend to stop asking questions around the age of five, believing that asking questions shows inferiority, weakness or incompetence. Not so with deaf people.”

* Use visual words and stories to help convey specific messages or answer questions.

Dr Kahne says he hopes his book will help bring about a turnaround in how we perceive deaf people by realising that, in finding ways to compensate for their deafness, they have developed communication behaviours that could be useful to hearing people.

“When I came up with the idea in 2006 that hearing people could learn from deaf people, I was convinced that I was not the first one to think that way,” he said.

“I was wrong. The only literature I could find was on ‘what poor deaf people could learn from the hearing experts’.”

He says the response to the book so far has been “overwhelmingly positive” from both hearing and deaf people.

“There are many behaviors described in this book that people already know, even if they rarely apply them.

“Readers report that by reading the book they become more aware of the reasons why their communication fails, and consequently know what to do.”


This article first appeared in the Irish Independent (business section)


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Lessons in equality for parents and teachers

This is a longer version of an article and accompanying videos published in the Irish Times Health and Family supplement on January 7. It is the second part of a two-part series. The first part was published on January 7

Special education in mainstream schools

Part 2 – QualityJoandHarrisonFlood


By John Cradden

Above: Jo Flood and her son, Harrison

Jo Flood has just learnt that her 13-year old son, Harrison, will be able to attend a local mainstream school near New Ross in Co Wexford next September that is opening a new autism spectrum disorder (ASD) unit.

At the moment, he attends a special school in Goresbridge in Co Kilkenny, which she says is “not the most appropriate placement” for him but adds that the staff there are “exceptional”. She had to drive 1,000km a week just to get him to and from the school, but a school transport grant application was recently approved and Harrison now gets a taxi instead.

For Jo, these two developments are among the few positives in what has been a long, sometimes difficult and often expensive saga concerning Harrison’s school education that has included issues with inaccurate disability assessments, poor teacher training and breakdowns in communications with schools. Harrison has ASD and a behavioural disorder.

But she has no regrets about the many battles she has fought on the special education front, not just for Harrison, but for members of the Cottage Autism Network, a Wexford parents support group that she chaired for two years. She also home-schooled Harrison for a year following a disastrous experience with a local mainstream school.

“Because I had made good choices, up until this point, even though they were hard choices to make but good choices because they were benefiting Harrison, I said I was going to look out for what I think is the best school, because I know this chap better than anyone.

“He is a very special kind of a guy.”

Just over 30km away in Oylgate, near Enniscorthy, Margaret Nolan and her husband, Paul, live on a farm with their two boys, Liam, 12, and Sean, 10, who both have Fragile X syndrome, resulting in moderate intellectual disability, speech and language delay as well as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and social anxiety problems.

After attending their local Montessori pre-school, Liam and then Sean enrolled at St Senan’s primary school, a mainstream school with an ASD unit in Enniscorthy town, a school that Margaret has nothing but praise for – and which she didn’t have to look very hard to find.

“They’re whole attitude was integration, making sure that there was no child left behind. Their enrolment policy includes all children of all abilities and all disabilities. I really do believe it’s a unique setting.”

While her story is an almost entirely positive one so far, guided also by the valuable input of a number of local health professionals (“my three wise women”, as Margaret calls them), she and Paul do appreciate how lucky they have been.

“I’m in the company of parents of children of special needs frequently, and it can be very depressing because everybody is giving out about something. You know, ‘What did you not get’, and all the fights you have to have to get this, that and the other.

“I’ve never had a fight because, I don’t know, somebody is looking after us and we happened upon this fantastic school, where we have been very lucky to have very good people who send us down the right pathway.”

The contrasting experiences of these two sets of parents of children with (broadly) comparable special needs illustrates just how much of a geographical lottery it can be – even within the same county – to get access to the most appropriate education for special needs children in a local mainstream school setting.

We spoke to a number of other parents around the country about their experiences, and while sometimes the issues are simply to do with cuts to resources and the inflexibility of the current resources allocation system, there are also serious problems relating to poor training, information not shared or parents and professionals simply not working together well.

But almost all the parents had many positive things to say, not least the essential value of inclusive education for the majority of children with special needs, even some of those at the more severe end of the disability spectrum.

In 2008 at least, parents seemed to be broadly happy with the support their children were getting at school – usually in the form of resource teaching hours or access to special needs assistants. A survey of 1,400 parents commissioned by the National Council for Special Education, the agency which looks after the delivery of special needs education as well as advising the Department of Education and Skills, found that 75 per cent of them were either satisfied or very satisfied.

But how parents would respond today given the many cuts in funding since 2008 is anyone’s guess.

But what do the children themselves think? Indeed, despite reams of research into many aspects of special education policy, very little is known about how these children are faring in mainstream schools some 20 years after the landmark ‘blue’ report by the Special Education Review Committee in 1993 that kick started mainstreaming policy.

In an attempt to look at both social and academic inclusion, ESRI’s Growing Up in Ireland, a Government-funded longitudinal study of children, asked nine-year old children with and without special needs questions about well-being, school engagement, learning and relationships with friends, peers and teachers.

Overall, 12 per cent of children with special needs said they never liked school, compared to 7 per cent of their peers without special needs.

Researcher Joanne Banks said: “They were asked to what extent do you like school, and for a nine-year old to say they never like school we would consider to be quite a strong statement, but 12pc of children with SEN reported never liking school. It’s quite a significant difference.”

Broken down by disability type, the study also showed that pupils with physical or sensory disabilities were no more likely to dislike school than children with no special needs, which implies that pupils with learning difficulties, emotional and behavioural difficulties and multiple disabilities are still struggling. “They’re the ones with the huge barriers in the mainstream context,” said Banks.

Dr Joseph Travers, director of special education at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, acknowledges the difficulties over ensuring social inclusion for children with special needs. “Social integration may not happen as naturally as people think. It requires more interventions and structure for it to happen.”

So while the clear evidence of these difficulities doesn’t call into question the principle of inclusive education, it does reveal the complexity of the challenge. “Some parents actually opt for special schools at second level around issues like that.  That they feel their child may be more socially included in a special school setting ….and that their needs are better met in a special school setting.  So that’s a challenge to inclusive education in mainstream schools that they need to respond to.”

Brendan O’Sullivan, a special needs teacher in Leixlip, Co Kildare, and president of the INTO, says experience as a special needs teacher in his mainstream school has been positive. “The social integration of the children with SEN coming to our school over the last few years has been a huge success. The kids are extraordinarily accepting of difference.”

However, he adds that the pressure to pursue it even in cases where it demonstrably doesn’t work is still strong.

It should be about what is best for the child, not what is best for your notion of equality, or your notion of what equality demands. Equality demands many things and it might demand, in some instances, treating people differently. I am totally supportive of inclusion, I think it is absolutely the way to go, but there may be some situations where you have to ask the hard question: is this getting the best for that child in the academic setting, or are we just salving our conscience in treating everyone equally.”

Teachers report that differentiating the curriculum for an increasingly diverse class group can be very difficult without the right support and resources, while O’Sullivan hints at the frustration many teachers feel about the growing reams of research and information on special needs.

“There is a lot of information about diagnosis and what characteristics tell us about ADHD, autism and Aspergers. It’s not quite as clear when it comes to the point of saying, ‘Well, what do we do?’.”

O’Sullivan recalled lectures for his Masters diploma in special education at St Pats, where they were told about things like characteristics, behaviour patterns and so on.

“That’s not really hugely relevant in school situations. The point I really want to get to is: ‘what are the interventions we can make to make life better?’

“The guy in the ADHD lectures was talking about connections in the brain, and I said, ‘Yes OK but can we forge those connections’, and he said ‘No, not really’. So what can we do, I asked. It turns out its just adapting your teaching, such as things like slowing down, make sure you repeat the message twice, and that the child is in an uncluttered, distraction-free area. Build up slowly with small little messages, one thing, then two, and three things. That’s useful for teaching. Those things are as relevant for a child who doesn’t have ADHD.”

Lorraine Dunne is a resource teacher at North Kildare Educate Together school in Celbridge, Co Kildare. She loves her job, but feels a permanent sense of “shifting sands” as the Department of Education tries to react to new thinking about teaching children with special needs.

“What seems to happen is that the Department just moves it onto the teachers and now, because they need to see what we’re doing, they require a huge amount of paperwork from us… whereas before, you knew in your heart that this was something you should run with, you went with it. Now, you have to plan it in advance, make sure it’s written down, and report back on it.”

Newly qualified teachers will have undertaken a module in special education as part of their ordinary teaching degree course, but there remains many more within the teacher body with no formal qualifications in this area.

Even in special schools, less than a third of teachers have any qualifications at post-graduate level, according to 2009 study by the NCSE.

Although she has no post-grad diploma in special education, Dunne has 12 years experience and was previously a visiting teacher for traveller children. She said it would be nice to have such a qualification, but “I think what really prepares you for this job is experience and, unfortunately, the two things are up against each other”.

“You can’t go to college to get experience, but there are so many different areas of special needs that it’s very difficult to learn every different angle, every different aspect of children with special needs. And every child is different, and not only do they bring their special needs, they bring their personalities, their family, their background, their likes and dislikes, and that is something that you have to take into account all the time. Because you’re not just dealing with their special needs, you’re also dealing with their strengths.”

St Pat’s has provided post-graduate teacher training in special education for nearly 50 years, but Dr Travers doesn’t recommend developing undergraduate courses in special education, as they do in several other countries.  “I suppose it’s separating special education too much away from general education. Whereas if you go the post-grad route, you have your general education, you see the connections, and then you are specialising after that.  That makes more sense to me.”

Such courses are often over-subscribed but, given the low base, it’s unrealistic to expect all of the nearly 10,000 special needs teachers to have specialist qualifications.  “What you could do is have a system whereby every school in the country got at least one person with a post-grad qualification in this area,” he said.

There is also confusion, particularly with parents, over the role of an SNA, given what what Travers calls “the tension between care needs, education needs, support needs and how you try to draw a distinction between them and what the actual SNA is doing versus the role as it was envisaged initially”.

Officially, the role of an SNA is just to focus on the child’s extra care needs in the school, such as clothing, feeding, toileting and supervision, but a value for money review of SNAs by the Department of Education from 2011 showed that they may be used for administrative, behavioural management and therapeutic duties, too.

In the UK, SNAs are called teaching assistants. “They specifically have teaching as part of the role description,” says Travers.

To expand the potential of SNAs here would clearly require a re-definition of the role, but care would need to be taken in this redefinition to ensure that they don’t become replacements for specialist skills of teachers.

At the end of the day, how special education resources are used in mainstream schools is really critical, and that there are structures to support school staff, says Dr Shevlin.

“If it’s a good school with strong commitment to the children, then generally you find that they find ways of working together.  They develop teams.  That’s what’s beginning to happen. That’s the big change I have seen, especially at primary level. Teams of people developing, supporting each other. Often, the resource teacher before was on their own.”

But too many more cutbacks could see SNAs being lost, and therefore a key building block in a good team that had been built up in a school, he said.

Educational psychologist David Carey says the working relationship between professionals – teachers, SENOs, psychologists and other therapists – and parents must also be evenly balanced.

“Co-operation which is power-hungry, that puts one person in a position — be it a principal, teacher or parent, by the way – are in a position of decreeing or demanding exactly what is going to be done is counter-productive and it doesn’t help the child.

“Parents know the child best, but the professionals ought to be in a position to listen really carefully, respond appropriately and hope parents understand what kind of strategies, techniques and instrumental supports that are needed for the child. That’s genuine co-operation.

“Nobody knows the child better than the parents. They know what’s worked in the past, they know what’s failed in the past. We don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. So, with collaboration, which I think is the word we really ought to be using more than co-operation, is what’s demanded here.


Case study

Sinead Winters Smith and Julie Anne Cunneen have two things in common. They are both parents to deaf children, and they are also deaf themselves. But there, their similarities end.

Sinead’s three children are all deaf, with her two older boys, Callum and Oisin, attending St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra, Dublin, while the third girl, Eva, is at a pre-school but is expected to attend the local mainstream school in Arklow, Co Wicklow, as she is not as deaf as her brothers.

Sinead’s eldest son, Callum, who became severely deaf as a toddler, first attended the local mainstream school and seemed to manage fine in the beginning. But as he got older, there were clues that he was missing out on what was being said, and also became more aware his deafness. “His confidence started to suffer as a result of being seen as being different,” said Sinead, whose first language is Irish Sign Language (ISL).

By this time, Oisin had started in St Joseph’s school and, eventually, Sinead and her husband decided to enrol him there, too, against the strong advice of the same visiting teacher for the deaf who had urged them to send Callum to mainstream school years previously.

But the difference in Callum was clear: “He has come along in leaps and bounds in terms of vocabulary, learning and in his self-confidence,” said Sinead.

Julie Anne Cunneen’s son, Liam had, until recently, been attending both the deaf special class and a mainstream class at St Columba’s National School in Douglas, Cork. He has sensory processing disorders as well as severe deafness, and has a cochlear implant – as does his mother.

Julie Anne, also on the advice of a visiting teacher, sent her son to the deaf special class along with six other deaf children in St Columba’s in September 2011.

Six months later, he got a cochlear implant from Beaumont Hospital, and his speech quickly improved. “We were told that our son’s speech and language had bypassed the other children in the unit who used Irish Sign Language, and that he needed to move to the mainstream school.”

But in order to make the full transition from a class of six to a mainstream class of 30, the educational psychologist recommended that he have access to a full-time SNA because of his sensory processing disorder and other complex needs.

The bizarre upshot was that, from last April, Liam was restricted to one hour of school a day, which the maximum amount of time the school could allocate a special needs assistant and his parents were told he would get no more unless the school could increase its SNA allocation.

But why not put him back in the deaf special class until more SNA support became available? According to Julie Anne, the principal said the special class could not meet his oral needs and would not allow him back in.

“Liam, like me, is a verbal deaf person.  He uses very little ISL and he himself prefers to use oral communication. However, our problem now is that he seems to be stuck in no-man’s land. He can’t stay in the unit, and the mainstream class of 30 children is too much for him.”

Shortly after talking to the Irish Times, Julie Anne pulled her son out of the school and is tutoring him at home until another school can be found.

In their own different ways, Sinead’s and Julie Anne’s stories highlight how, even though the vast majority of deaf and heard of hearing children are today educated in mainstream settings, the system can still fail them badly, or else offer very stark choices for their parents.

And at a time when the Department of Health has agreed to allocate nearly €13 million towards bilateral cochlear implants for children, advocates for Irish Sign Language point out that visiting teachers and other professionals still regularly fail to inform parents about family tutoring supports available for ISL, or even continue to argue that teaching deaf kids to speak English and use sign language are mutually exclusive choices.

“There would have been misinformation in the past that using sign language would hurt speech development and that’s not accurate, or that there would be information that if the child was using speech that they don’t need sign language,” said Elizabeth Mathews, co-ordinator of the Deaf Education Centre, which produces research and offers advice to parents.

“Sign language is frequently discussed on a ‘needs’ basis, in that it should only be used if you need it, or if you don’t have speech, and that sign language is used almost as a form of rehabilitation. But it’s not. It’s a language in its own right and it has all the links to cognitive development that you’d like to see in a language.”


Additional research by Alvean Jones

This article (and accompanying videos) was supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund






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Special needs education in mainstream schools

This is a longer version of an article published in the Irish Times Health and Family supplement on January 7. It is the first part of a two-part series. The second part will be published on January 14. 

Special education in mainstream schools

Part 1 – the Cost of Cuts

By John Cradden

Mary Doherty and her son, Aaron

Mary Doherty and her son, Aaron

When the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, proposed a 10pc cut in resource teaching hours earlier this year, the reaction from parents of children with special needs was furious.

“Over the last two years, our children have faced individual cuts of 15 per cent in their resource teaching time per week, and to ask parents to take another 10 per cent cut that would really affect their childrens’ educational outcomes, it was just too much,” said Lorraine Dempsey of the Special Needs Parents Association, a national cross-disability parents support group. “It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

It sparked a round of 13 separate demonstrations that took place across the country on June 26, and which still went ahead despite the INTO calling off its own protest after the government announced on the day that it would scrap the proposal. The parents’ clearly still felt they needed to make a point.

If the government was surprised at the extent of the fury, it’s probably fair to say that some others were, too. After all, total spending on special education has shot up significantly over the last decade, from €468 million in 2004 to €1.3 billion in 2011, and which now accounts for around 15pc of the education budget.

But anyone in school education circles will be aware that it was a system playing catch-up. It was only from the early 1990s that government policy on special education changed from one that was almost entirely catered for by special schools to one where the majority of children with special needs are today educated in mainstream schools.

Parents were also playing catch-up, too. As funding increased year-on-year, parents’ awareness of special needs and what supports their children were entitled to also rose, particularly since 1998, when the then Minister for Education, Michael Martin, introduced the ‘automatic entitlement’ policy.  This guaranteed a minimum level of support for inclusive education in the form of one-to-one resource teaching hours and special needs assistants (SNAs).

However, after 2008 the Department of Education started to roll back on automatic entitlement, finally telling the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) in 2011 that it was no longer allowed to allocate resource teaching hours or SNAs on a “demand-driven basis”.

As well the 15 per cent reduction in resource teaching hours for low incidence children since 2010, there had been a cap on the number of whole-time SNA posts at 10,575 since 2011, approximately 2,000 of them working in special schools. (Although the cap remains in place, it was increased last month by 390).

The number of resource teaching posts, which had remained largely static since 2010, was increased by a recent Budget 2014 allocation of 455 resource teaching posts to just over 5,700.

Joe Travers, director of special education at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, says that this new allocation was  what the 10 per cent cut – if it had gone through – would have meant. “It was going to be 455 teachers who would not be employed.”

The caps and cuts of the last few years amid rising demand has forced schools to spread SNA support much more thinly. According to the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), the number of pupils currently “accessing” SNA support in mainstream schools in 2010 was 13,000. In 2013, the figure is 15,000.

Catherine Cummins’s seven-year-old daughter, Niamh, who has Tourettes and Aspergers, goes to a local mainstream school in north Co Longford, and is very happy there. But her mother says she needs a full-time SNA but there is just one part-time SNA, who is shared between four other children in the 200-strong school.

“The school is fantastic, absolute brilliant, but they can only do so much with what they’ve got,” said Catherine. “It’s a constant battle to get SNAs.”

Ever since the school was forced to let go one part-time SNA last June, Catherine has been contacting the SENO (Special Educational Needs Organiser), local TDs and councillors and anyone else she can think of try and reverse the decision. “I might as well have not bothered. No-one is interested.”

“It’s ridiculous. If children who need a full time SNA don’t have one, it can hinder them in accessing the curriculum and therefore stop them reaching their potential.”

With a lid firmly on the number of resource hours and SNA support provided but school populations and demand still rising, something has had to give. While few would suggest that the special education system is creating any kind of artificial demand or that the Government has a bottomless pit of money, it’s clear from talking to several parents of children with special needs, along with experts, teachers, researchers and academics in the field, that the key issue now is how best to allocate what is now an effectively shrinking pool of funding.

The ESRI estimates that 25pc of children in Ireland have a special educational need. Not all of them need support at school, but for the purposes of allocating resources, the disabilities are classed as either ‘high-incidence’ – mild but quite common disabilities, such as dyslexia or other learning or behavioural difficulties – or ‘low incidence’ – complex but rarer physical, sensory or intellectual disabilities like cerebral palsy, deafness or autism.

The most frequent complaint that children with ‘low-incidence’ disabilities often have to ‘tick the right box’ of a set list of 11 disability categories in order get resource teaching hours, even if their educational needs are more complex in reality. According to the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), which allocates resource hours and SNAs, any child with a formal diagnosis of a disability like autism, deafness, moderate general learning disability or emotional disturbance will get between 3 and 5 resource teaching hours a week.

Mary Doherty from Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, who has a son with Down syndrome, is one of a number of parents who has had to deal with the inflexibility of this allocation system.

For reasons that are still unclear, Down syndrome is not listed by the Department as one of the 11 low-incidence disabilities, but parents can apply for resource hours on the basis of their childrens’ assessed IQ. A child with Down syndrome who is judged by an IQ test to have moderate general learning disability would get three and a half hours, but someone with a mild general learning disability is not guaranteed any resource hours.

“I took my son for an assessment in January and, basically, if he did well in his assessment, I was told he wouldn’t get resource hours,” said Mary.

She managed to get resource hours by getting a second diagnosis. “Children with Down syndrome have many complex needs, but not all of them would have them to such a degree as to get a second diagnosis. It’s those children who are falling through the cracks, and other children are only getting resources because of other diagnoses.”

“You have parents running out hoping their kids will get a moderate diagnosis before they go to school, hoping they’ll fail this assessment,” she said, while other parents might desperately try and get their children assessed for any other possible disability, such as deafness or emotional disturbance. “They spend the money going to all these psychologists to try and get a diagnosis just so their child will have help at school.”

Mary has been involved in an ongoing campaign to lobby the DES to classify Down syndrome as a low-incidence disability, but is exasperated how hard she has had to fight.

“When my older girl started school, it was all about her uniform, getting her ready for school, getting her excited. With him, I couldn’t even enjoy or do that because it was all about trying getting him resources, fighting to get the money needed.”

The system also demands, in most cases, a formal assessment leading to a formal diagnosis of the disability before resource teaching hours or SNAs can be allocated.

But the clamour for formal assessments has also created a huge bottleneck in the form of a long waiting list for psychological assessments that the public system – namely the National Educational Psychological Service – can’t cope with, forcing many parents like Mary Doherty to fork out for private assessments in order to ensure that early intervention is not delayed.

Not surprisingly, this has provoked many to complain about unfair access to resources for better-off families because they can afford to pay for private assessments. But Brendan O’Sullivan, a special needs teacher in Leixlip, Co Kildare and president of the INTO, says this is not always true, as he has heard principals from disadvantaged schools saying they use any additional funds they get to buy more assessments for its pupils.

But elsewhere there is strong evidence of inequity in how resources are distributed. A recent Department of Education investigation revealed that children in wealthy parts of Dublin benefit from more resource teaching for special educational needs than their counterparts in disadvantaged areas, even though ESRI studies have shown that children from working class areas are more likely to be identified with a special need.

Dr Michael Shevlin, a senior lecturer on special education in TCD, agrees that it is difficult to quantify what resources a child needs simply on the basis of a disability category.

“You could have a child with Asperger’s Syndrome who would have very few support needs, but you could have another child with Asperger’s Syndrome who would have enormous needs. So it’s a bit of a crude model to say you will get three hours or you will get five hours. What does that mean?

“The three hours only means something if you have highly qualified people who are well able to deliver that kind of support.”

But following advice from the NCSE, Minister Quinn has appointed a working group to come up with a more flexible and more equitable system that allocates resource teaching on the basis of the profile of need in a school rather than individual diagnoses of disability, and which is expected to report back by Easter 2014.

The hope is that any new model will allocate resources more efficiently as well as more equitably, but even if the Minister accepts any of the working group’s recommendations, he told the Dail recently that any changes would be at least two years’ away.

Despite a reportedly wide consultation among parent groups, teachers and disability organisations by the NCSE, there are few hints about what model the working group might come up. Some sources suggest that it could be based more on the general allocation model (GAM), which is used to distribute resources for pupils with ‘high-incidence’ needs and which is regarded as working quite well, at least in the primary sector.

Under this model, resources are allocated to schools according the number of children it has identified as having milder or less complex disabilities, such as learning difficulties, social or emotional difficulties, or attention-control difficulties, and who need extra learning support. Unlike low-incidence children, there is no formal assessment as the screening is done within schools at selected stages.

“The advantage with the general allocation model is that you can get access to resources without having to have a label,” says Dr Travers.

Mary Doherty understands the moving-away-from-labels approach, but has reservations. “My only worry would be is, if you don’t have a starting point, how do they decide what cases they are going to assess? Are they going to start assessing kids who tick this box or this list. Are they going to start assessing every single child that goes to school? I don’t think so. It’s impractical.”

Despite the obvious appeal and simplicity of GAM, Dr Travers concedes that doing away with individual assessments altogether would be unworkable.

“But what they can do is set up what are called different levels of response,” he said.  “So, you would have children maybe at a ‘level one’ who require a certain level of support then level two, level three, level four.  So instead of using labels, you can say that the child has needs that would require a ‘level three’ response or a ‘level four’ response.  And that would be equated to certain hours of resource teaching, one-to-one tuition, small groups or whatever it was.”

Brendan O’Sullivan would worry that the responsibility for failing to spot precise needs could fall on the teacher if individual assessments were scrapped. “There is the fear that if there isn’t the level of assessment provision, which is quite small as it is, that decisions – and quite acutely difficult decisions – would be put on teachers in schools who may not have the precise qualifications to distinguish the levels of need.”

On the other hand, others point out that the danger with a model like GAM it is that children could fall through the net, and that there is no way of ensuring that schools are using the money in the most appropriate way.

Whatever way the resources are allocated, Dr Travers says that school principals should have more flexibility around using the teachers that they have, with schools encouraged to assign the teachers with the most experience and the most qualifications to work with those with the most complex needs. “You don’t want anything to happen in the allocation process that would prevent that from happening,” he said.

According to ESRI researcher Joanne Banks, most other countries are using a combination approach like Ireland’s: a GAM model for less severe disabilities with individual allocations for low-incidence disabilities – although in most cases this is not tied directly to hours so to ensure they get the resources they need, she adds. Some countries, such as the UK and Holland, are moving back to individual allocations, but Banks says this wouldn’t be practical for Ireland given that is still playing catch-up in terms of mainstreaming disabled children.

The other worry that is frequently expressed is that any new model will be just another way to cut back on resources by stealth. “The reason why they are doing this is to take resources away from children. Of course, they are never, ever, ever going to admit that,” says Mary Doherty.

Shevlin agrees that it’s a bit of a ‘catch 22’, with parents going through economic sacrifices to pay for private assessments to get a diagnosis, only for them to risk losing out again under any new system. “I think what you have to see, and what the system has to deliver, is confidence and trust.” But having observed the special education sector for the past 20 years, he believes that’s beginning to happen, albeit slowly.

But regardless of any new allocation model, the point is frequently made that the key Education for Persons with Special Needs (EPSEN) act, which was introduced nearly 10 years ago, remains largely unimplemented.

In response to questions from the Irish Times, the Department of Education said that, due to the “difficult economic situation” and the multi-million euro cost of implementing EPSEN (estimated by the NCSE to amount to €235m a year over a number of years), the government has put it on the long finger indefinitely.

Educational psychologist Dr David Carey published a book in 2005 entitled ‘The Essential Guide to Special Education in Ireland’, which aims to help parents navigate the horrendous complexities of the special education system here. “It was a time of great optimism, actually,” he said. “We were looking forward to changes, and eligibility for services for children with special needs.”

However, Carey says that if he was to write his book today, he wouldn’t come across as quite so optimistic, mainly because most of the 2004 EPSEN act is gathering dust on a shelf somewhere.

“This legislation enshrines the statutory right of the child to receive a free and appropriate education based on their profile of strengths and weaknesses once they are identified as having a special education need.”

Without it, little hard progress will be made, he said. “The establishment of this working group, in my opinion, serves one unique purpose: to see to it that no progress is ever made. We don’t need working groups, we need legislation. It’s simple.”


Panel: A 20-year history special education provision in mainstream schools

1993: Publication of the ‘blue report’ by the Special Education Review Committee (SERC). This report essentially kick-started the change in government policy on special education that would see most children with special needs educated in a mainstream school environment rather than a special school.

1998: The Minister for Education, Michael Martin, granted all children with special needs an ‘automatic entitlement’ to special support services.

2004: The 2004 Education for Persons with Special Needs (EPSEN) act was introduced. Among other things, it gives all children with special needs the right to an ‘individual education plan’. It has still not been implemented.

2005 NCSE established (under the Act)

2005 Introduction of the General Allocation Model, under which children with high incidence disabilities, such as dyslexia or other learning difficulties, can get access to resource teaching without an individual assessment, but which low-incidence children continue to need.

2010 Cap on whole-time SNA posts at 10,575

2011 End to automatic entitlement.

2012: 15pc cut in resource hours


This is a longer version of a panel article that appeared here

Panel: Constitutional rights vs legislation

“We are judged by legislation that is out of step with the constitution”

Kathy Sinnott has no regrets about taking her infamous case against the Department of Education in 2001 seeking to compel the Department of Education to provide an appropriate education past the age of 18 for her son Jamie, who has ASD.

While the former MEP and disability rights campaigner lost that high-profile case, it joined a long list of cases taken by parents of children with special needs against the government since the 1990s, which each highlighted serious deficiencies in this country’s special education provision, but also helped to shape the development of the field in the years that followed.

However, Sinnott says any optimism that followed in the wake of her case was short-lived. “There were some really good services set up,” she said. “A good start was made.  And then the Education for Persons with Special Needs Act (EPSEN) was brought in. And all that did was, if you like, dampen it all down again.

“It’s disheartening to see it ignored when every child has a constitutional right – and it is constantly being ignored – to an education according to need,” she said.

Along with the Sinnott case, the High Court case taken in 1992-93 by Cork mother Marie O’Donoghue on behalf of her son Paul, who had severe and profound general learning disabilities, were critical in establishing that the constitution gave every child – even those with the most severe learning disabilities – a legal entitlement to a free State education based on whatever the child needs.

But what’s wrong with EPSEN? Surely, if the government got around to implementing this act, things would improve? Sinnott believes the legislation was all about the Department of Education taking back the control from families and forcing them to choose from special educational options approved only by them.

“What the O’Donoghue and then the Sinnott case did was it gave the control to the child.  In other words, the needs of the child determined what the child got.

“There was a period after the case when you could go to an independent expert, an educational psychologist or whatever, and they would look at your child and could say what that child needed, and that was a legal entitlement.  That was your constitutional right.

“Now that’s all over.  No expert opinions are accepted anymore.  It’s only what one of the Department of Education-paid psychologists say you need and then when they described your need, it only refers to a set menu of things.  If you need something that’s not on the set menu, you don’t get it.

But surely you have to keep a reign on costs to some extent – to give carte blanche to any method of special education under the sun means costs would run away?

“If you don’t meet their needs, you are wasting money anyway. If you are going to give the child what they don’t need, it’s a waste.”

But after one of the most expensive and long-running cases in 2007, when Yvonne and Cian O’Cuanachain were seeking a particular form of education – applied behavioural analysis – from the State for their son Sean, who has ASD (and which they lost), the number of court cases taken by parents dropped off markedly.

In 2003 and 2004, for instance, the Department of Education contributed €3.6m and €5.1m in legal costs and court settlements respectively. By 2010, those costs fell to around €650,000, while in the year to October, the figure was up to just €60,000.

A spokewoman said that the fall-off in legal costs was partly due to precedents on some of the legal issues being set in a number of cases in the High Court and Supreme Court.

But psychologist David Carey, who has provided testimonies in a number of High Court cases on special education, insists there is more to this. “The fact that they’re not mentioning is that there weren’t a lot of precedents. The majority of those cases were settled out of court and agreed between the parties, so we’re talking about only a small number of precedents actually having been established.”

He adds that the number of court actions by parents dropped off markedly after the O’Cuanachain case because the department decided to pursue them for costs. “That frightened a huge number of parents who were thinking of bringing cases before the High Court. And so a lot of cases fell by the wayside.”

Sinnott also believes the O’Cuanachain case was the “turning point” in how special education court cases were settled or resolved. Her view is that even though the O’Cuanachains fought on the basis of the constitution, the judge in that case did not consider the constitutional right.

“And it was tragic. Instead it took the constitutional right and stuck it back in a confined box.”

Additional research by Alvean Jones

This article and the accompanying videos were supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund.

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Disability lingo – getting it right


Dignified way to find right words

Rather than focusing on remembering the nuances of political correctness, if you respect the person and see the individual and not just their disability, you will get it right, writes John Cradden

Wed, May 29, 2013

Is a person with autism someone who is mentally ill? Is a deaf person not hearing impaired? Is calling someone handicapped not acceptable anymore?

Journalists do sometimes struggle to find the most appropriate or acceptable ways to refer to people with disabilities, particularly if little is known about a specific illness, condition or disorder.

The Associated Press newswire in the US recently updated its guidance for reporters on how to write about mental illness and conditions such as autism, and which now advises them, among other things, to be as specific as possible when referring to a person’s mental illness and include examples of symptoms.

This addition to the widely used guide also advises journalists not to mention a diagnosis of autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or other common mental disorders unless it is germane to the story and properly sourced. It also notes that many experts do not classify autism as a mental illness but as a development disorder.

Pat Mathews of the Irish Society of Autism agrees. “Autism doesn’t come under the umbrella of mental illnesses. It’s a developmental disorder. It’s called autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because that reflects a broad spectrum encompassing those who would be quite handicapped to those who have Asperger’s.”

“It doesn’t fall under intellectual disability either, as a lot of the children who have ASD would have normal or above-normal intelligence,” he said.

There can be problems in finding the most broadly acceptable way to refer to well-known disabilities such as deafness, of which there are many degrees. Are they deaf or hearing impaired, hard of hearing or partially deaf?

Many deaf people don’t like the term “hearing impaired”. “The vast majority of people with deafness or hearing loss describe themselves as either deaf or hard of hearing,” says Brendan Lennon of Deafhear. “Hearing impaired is generally a term only used by medical or health professionals. I think I have only ever met one person who was insistent that she wanted to describe herself as hearing impaired.”

Brian Crean of the Irish Deaf Society agrees. “Hearing impaired can influence the greater population to think negatively of the deaf in that there is something impaired or wrong with us.” He also dismisses “partially deaf” as a medical term. “We all hardly ever talk about how deaf we are on our audiograms in any social gatherings. We’re all deaf, whether we’re partially or profoundly deaf.”

Other disability groups seem more relaxed about the lingo they use to describe themselves.

“No one has ever asked me what the right term is,” says Elaine Howley of the National Council of the Blind of Ireland.

She says the few people who are born totally blind tend not to have any issue with being called blind, but “the vast majority of us have impaired vision”, she says.

Impaired vision
“Partially sighted is the term they use in the UK. It’s the term they used to use here, but then about, I’d say, 25 years ago, there was a movement to change it to people who have impaired vision. We went through a period of using visually impaired, but now we talk about people whose vision is impaired or have impaired vision.”


“Talking about partially-sighted people, it’s kind of a moot point. For some people, it’s not upsetting at all or it doesn’t really matter, but for other people it is very important that the person comes first.”

“I always think a person is a person first . . . so for me, I always talk about people who are blind or people who have impaired vision because I don’t think the disability should ever come first.”

Nikki Hegarty of disability awareness organisation Kanchi also strongly advocates the use of “person-first” language, but also to avoid using negative descriptors, such as “sufferer” or “victim”. She concedes, however, that the influence of “political correctness” and a fear of causing offence has had the effect of stifling disability discourse.

“This is an issue because until we are willing to talk about disability, we will be unable to overcome the challenges being faced around the inclusion and valuing of people with disabilities in society,” she said.

“When we work with businesses and individuals we encourage them to think about two things instead of political correctness – dignity and respect. When it comes to language around disability and talking about and with people with disabilities, if you always respect the person and see the individual and not just their disability you will get it right. If in doubt, ask someone who knows. Even in our own organisation, we often reach out to others if we have a query.”

If there is ever a serious campaign to reduce the influence of political correctness, people with disabilities themselves are likely to be involved.

Comedian Laurence Clark last year wrote about how paralympic athletes are always described as inspirational, no matter how well they do. “It’s a bizarre form of political correctness,” he wrote.

Elaine Howley agrees that jokes and humour helps break the ice, but “it also depends on who you’re talking to”.

“When I’m talking to my friends, I can joke about the fact that I’m half-blind, or whatever but in my work context, it’s different. People who grow up with any disability, brought up with it, can laugh about it. People who acquire a disability, it’s a different thing, they can be vulnerable, so it can be inappropriate or insensitive.”



This article first appeared in the Irish Times

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