18th century ruin becomes stylish low-energy home

Homeowners Anne and Patrick Jordan’s ambitious upgrade and extension project in County Kildare took the shell of an 18th century farmhouse and transformed it into an elegant family home with a striking-yet-sensitive modern extension — all while embracing a healthy and fabric-first approach to retrofit combined with clever heating system design that has brought them from a G to an A3 rating.

You can’t see it when you turn off the main road and start driving down the short but narrow gravel pathway, but once past the forest of trees that hide this newly renovated 18th century farmhouse from general view, its tall four-storey structure reveals itself dramatically.

As first impressions go, it looks great. It’s far more understated than you might expect a building like this to be — you might even describe it as minimalist, with its simple and subtle finishes. Pebble-dash may be out of fashion, but this building has an unpainted period roughcast finish that looks just right.

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The traditional white sliding sash front windows are beautifully painted and elegant, while everything else, including the front porch, the steps and the landscaping are all finished in the same subtle but tasteful theme.

But you’re also looking at a historic building that has been retrofitted to a building energy rating of A3, a spectacular achievement in anyone’s book. After all, there are a whole range of challenges involved in trying to undertake a deep energy retrofit on a building like this — and some building conservation experts would argue that you shouldn’t even try to. So, how did the team behind the project — which included Maxwell Pierce Architects, Mesh Architects, and leading low energy builder Pat Doran Construction — manage to do it?

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Part of the answer comes as the driveway sweeps to the far left side of the house, where a large, ultra-modern and multi-angled extension at the back gradually comes into view over the long and high rubble wall that fences off the rear of the property.

It’s not the type of modern extension that is common on other historic buildings, which often feature a glassy tunnel-type link connecting the old building with what is essentially a brand new structure. This is a proper extension — it’s all of one piece.

(above) The house is ventilated via Lunos decentralised mechanical ventilation systems with heat recovery.
(above) The house is ventilated via Lunos decentralised mechanical ventilation systems with heat recovery.

Looking at the technical specs, it’s clear the new extension could probably achieve passive house certification on its own with its passive slab foundations, triple-glazed windows, airtightness, and a highly angled design and orientation that seeks to maximise solar gain.

But while it turns out that a high BER rating was achievable for the whole building, striving for passive house certification would have made no sense because of the physical marriage between a modern high-performance extension envelope and an old-style, solid masonry, minimally insulated structure with traditional sash windows and a four-storey construction that is just one room deep, resulting in all the main rooms having three or four external walls (meaning there is a high surface-to-volume area from which heat can escape).

Architect Bill Maxwell of Enniskillen-based Maxwell Pierce has worked on plenty of historic buildings with extensions, but making such dwellings work as single, seamless entities from an energy and comfort point of view can be difficult — unless you also have the opportunity to strip the older building back to its bare bones and start again from scratch, as was the case here.

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If this is not possible, he actively discourages adding modern extensions to historic buildings because of the propensity of the older buildings to devour heat. If the homeowners cannot make serious improvements to insulation and airtightness in the original building, they will have to continue spending huge amounts just to keep the temperature of the old, leaky house somewhere near that of the new, well-insulated extension.

“The wee pieces that we have added on as extensions umpteen times for listed buildings don’t have any huge positive impact on the overall property. The difference with the Jordans was that the extension became so much part and parcel of the house and we didn’t want to have that division between the old bit and the new bit.”

But what added a further difficulty to the deep retrofit of this particular near-300 year-old building was the zeal with which Kildare County Council required homeowners Patrick and Anne Jordan to preserve as far as possible its essential character and salvageable features. It turns out the local authority is more active in this regard compared with many others around the country, because so few historic buildings of any kind remain in the county.

“On the cold-but-sunny morning I visit, it feels nicely warm everywhere in this house, without a hint of stuffiness.”
“On the cold-but-sunny morning I visit, it feels nicely warm everywhere in this house, without a hint of stuffiness.”

When Patrick and Anne Jordan first spotted the house in 2009 (the couple and their five children were living just a few hundred yards away), it was in a bit of a mess, having been abandoned by its elderly owner a few years previously, and subsequently subjected to a period of continuous vandalism by students from a nearby secondary school before the windows were blocked up and the property made reasonably secure.

The couple bought the house and sat on it for a while before investigating the possibility of renovating it and adding a glassy extension. The house already had an ugly rear extension made out of pre-cast concrete that was grafted on in the 1920s, providing a plumbed toilet, kitchen and utility.

To this end, they consulted with a number of different architects, including one who had close links to Kildare County Council, and who persuaded them that the original structure was definitely worth preserving. But when they went to hire her services, she was all booked up — much to their disappointment. So they decided to knock the whole edifice down in favour of a new house of similar character.

“When we did that, Kildare County Council pounced and put a preservation order on it, despite there being no historical reference to or record of the building anywhere,” said Anne Jordan.

Although the couple conceded to KCC’s demand that they go back to their original plan to preserve and extend, Anne doesn’t hide her exasperation at the exacting and sometimes tedious demands of the building conservation procedure that followed, which included continuous consultations with the local authority as the project rolled along.

(Above) the house is heated by an Ochsner 18kW air source heat pump, with features a separate horizontal split evaporator that sits outside the house. The system includes an 800 litre buffer tank and a 300 litre hot water cylinder with exhaust heat recovery from the bathrooms. Heat is distributed via underfloor heating circuits throughout all three floors of the house.
(Above) the house is heated by an Ochsner 18kW air source heat pump, with features a separate horizontal split evaporator that sits outside the house. The system includes an 800 litre buffer tank and a 300 litre hot water cylinder with exhaust heat recovery from the bathrooms. Heat is distributed via underfloor heating circuits throughout all three floors of the house.

“We were told this house had to be tended to carefully, and that it needed a grade one architect, which is a load of whallop because it’s just a farmhouse, it’s not government buildings…Conservation is important, but we were trying to embrace new ways as well,” she added.

Sunni Goodson — an architectural conservation specialist with grade one architects Mesh — was appointed to be the main intermediary between the Jordans and the council. She readily concedes that the house is not a protected structure and that much of its historic fabric had been compromised, but says it was “still just a gem of a house”.

“The vaulted brick ceiling at basement level and a portion of the original staircase survived, as well as floor structures, chimney breasts and the 19th century front porch,” she said.

Before Kildare County Council intervened, the Jordans had hired Bill Maxwell to oversee a new build project, but his historic building experience would make him an even better choice when it became clear that a complete new build wasn’t going to happen. “One of the biggest challenges was getting an underfloor heating system into the fabric of the existing old building without completely destroying the historic fabric,” said Maxwell.

Apparently this caused more than a few issues — joists were too narrow for the relevant pipes and had to be adjusted, and there were parts of the floor where joists needed steel reinforcements, lest the pipes should break because of excess movement.

“But we managed it,” said Maxwell. “It was well worth it. Because without that it would have been a bit of an imbalanced arrangement.”

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It also meant that the Jordans could have the modern heating technology that they wanted. The system they chose is based on underfloor heating all throughout, driven by an Ochsner 18kW air source heat pump that features a separate horizontal split evaporator that sits outside the house. From a distance it looks like a large DJ twin turntable, and it was designed by Monaghan-based firm Eurotech in conjunction with Ochsner, with a view to taking advantage of the mild humid Irish climate. It boasts a co-efficient of performance of over 400%.

One advantage of a horizontally mounted evaporator, according to Eurotech’s Gerry Duffy, is that at times of higher humidity, any excess water generated just runs off the table and onto the ground.

“Using floor heating in the existing structure allowed us design a system with very low-flow temperatures which is critical in dealing with old fabrics and heritage structures,” said Duffy.

“The very low design temperature of 30C flow max is enough to allow the entire structure to heat up and dry out without causing any damage, and at the same time repelling moisture and lowering humidity to a desirable level, perfect for comfortable living.”

The system, which includes an 800 litre buffer tank and a 300 litre hot water cylinder with exhaust heat recovery from the bathrooms, is designed to ensure that the base temperature of the house never falls below 16C. The Eurosmart system has room-by-room heating controls, and features smart sensors that learn how each part of the building behaves (with their differences in building fabric, insulation, orientation etc) and adjusts the input of heat accordingly to achieve a consistent temperature throughout the building. Meanwhile, ventilation duties for both the new and old buildings are courtesy of a decentralised Lunos heat recovery ventilation system – a solution that enables low energy ventilation without running ductwork. The large house requires a dozen Lunos E2 decentralised heat recovery ventilation units, a Lunos Ego HRV unit and thee low energy extract fans.

Although the Jordans are only in the house a matter of weeks, Anne is delighted with the comfort levels throughout — particularly as the bedrooms of her five children are all in the old part of the building. Gerry Duffy estimates heating bills will amount to €700 a year for this 400 square metre property, which will be hugely impressive if he is proved right.

Of course, the upgrade to the fabric of the old building — and the new high performance cavity wallextension — are both vital for keeping energy costs down too. The old rubble limestone walls are thick but fairly porous, so it was essential to insulate them in a sensitive manner, using products that allowed them to “breathe” — in other words, that allow water vapour to pass through unimpeded.

The shell of the old house that the Jordans purchased prior to the retrofit; a vaulted brick ceiling is one of the original architectural features incorporated into the renovated property.
The shell of the old house that the Jordans purchased prior to the retrofit; a vaulted brick ceiling is one of the original architectural features incorporated into the renovated property.

“Fortunately there are wonderful new products on the market which can be used in a historic context, such as Gutex and Calsitherm, depending on the wall construction material and external finish. They are breathable products that significantly increase the building’s thermal efficiency and the occupants’ comfort, but they can also be finished with lime plaster,” said Sunni Goodson.

The exact choice of insulation materials was determined by an analysis carried out by Joseph Little of the Building Life Consultancy. The 600mm-thick rubble walls were all boarded internally with 40mm of Gutex Thermoroom, with internal lime plaster as an airtight layer (the roofing throughout the building features Pro Clima membranes for airtightness and vapour diffusion). The whole house scored an airtightness result of 1.3 air changes per hour — an exceptional result for such an old dwelling, and such a complex project.

The work of project manager and contractor Paul Doran and his father Pat (both of Pat Doran Construction), was clearly crucial in meeting such remarkable levels, particularly when faced with the prospect of a building that Maxwell described as “an awful looking kind of haunted house ruin of a thing” — and making it airtight.

“Even with that starting point I was wondering could we achieve it,” Bill Maxwell said. “And it was then down to getting the builder involved, and making sure that they were interested in it, and the Dorans were more than interested. So it was a good bit of teamwork.”

Paul Doran said: “I think we did things the right way. We were very lucky in that the architect was committed and the quantity surveyor [Michael Broe] took a big interest and put a lot of time and effort and energy into it. And Anne put in an enormous amount into the project every day.” The Dorans were undoubtedly helped by their experience on other challenging projects, drawing from a well of experience picked up on certified passive house and Enerphit projects, including a complex retrofit on Zion Road, Rathgar featured in issue 12 of Passive House Plus.

As part of the conservation tick-box, the sliding sash windows of course had to stay, although most were replaced. The Jordans were keen on double-glazed sash windows, but these would not fit into the narrow depth of the historic glazing bars. An expensive solution was Slimlite glazing, which is essentially two panes of glass held very close together.

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At first glance, some might say the design of the roof looks unnecessarily complex. Maxwell said: “There’s a reason that happens, which is just trying to get the line of the roof that abuts the back of the old house [to] tuck in between window sills, so that we didn’t actually alter the openings in the back of the old house. Then that generated one angle, which led to another.”

This is also the reason the extension is angled at around 45 degrees to the old building, which gives the light-filled space inside, including the kitchen and the mezzanine gallery above it, a peculiar triangular shape that works very well. You can also see the back of the old house very clearly from here too.

On the cold-but-sunny morning I visit, it feels nicely warm everywhere in this house, without a hint of stuffiness. It’s something that clearly delights Anne and her family and allows them to enjoy the old and the new in equal measure, because it’s all been done so well.

“What’s actually rewarding about the building is the angles, because when you’re inside, no matter where you stand, there are views everywhere,” she said.

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Standing in the utility room in the basement of the old building, I ask Anne if all the conservation rigmarole was really worth it. “Oh god it was worth it, jeepers yes. This makes the new part. It is so rewarding that it is warm and comfortable. I think if you’re going to do it, it’s important to do it right.”

This article first appeared in Passive House Plus magazine

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Hit the road to cheap motoring by switching to an electric car

Ditching traditional diesel and petrol vehicles and charging your electric car at home could wind up saving you thousands


If you’re in the market for a new or nearly new car and low running costs are a priority, the chances are you’ll probably plump for a diesel. However, the image of diesel has come in for a bit of a hammering in recent times thanks to concerns about its contribution to toxic air pollution in urban areas, not to mention the VW ‘dieselgate’ controversy.

But even if your environmental conscience plays second fiddle to running costs, switching to a plug-in electric car could save you thousands a year if you can make it work.

According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), based on doing the national average mileage of 16,000km a year, you would save nearly €900 a year in fuel costs over an equivalent diesel car. This calculation assumes that charging your EV over the course of a year to cover this distance would add just over €200 to your annual electricity bill, while the diesel car (56 mpg or 5L/100km) would cost nearly €1,100 a year to fuel.

The cost comparison calculator on the ESB ecars website produces similar figures. The average diesel car doing 23,000km a year would cost €1,800 a year to fuel, while the EV would merely inflate your electricity bill by just €300.

Add to this cheap tax and the likelihood of lower servicing costs for an EV because there are few moving parts to worry about.

Needless to say, pure EVs won’t suit everyone,. However, huge improvements in battery range, the number of public charging points as well as model availability has seen the Irish EV population grow faster in the last three years, albeit from a low base.

There are now 1,200 charging points around the country, and given the still tiny numbers of EVs around, there have been relatively few reports of difficulties in accessing them.

While the sales trend is upwards, it’s still steady rather than dramatic, according to figures from the Society of the Motor Industry (SIMI). So far this year, 434 (298 electric, 136 plug-in hybrids) have been sold, which seems well on track to beat last year’s figure of 690 (392 electric, 298 plug-in hybrids).

More choice

There are also many more makes and models now available. While the Nissan Leaf is by some way the most popular EV, you can also choose from cars like the Renault Zoe, BMW i3, Hyundai Ioniq, VW e-Golf, and Audi e-tron A3. There’s even a people carrier in the form of the Nissan E-NV200.

There’s also probably the coolest electric car brand of the moment, Tesla, which opened its first Irish showroom this week

Mind you, you’ll need deep pockets for those. A Model S saloon will set you back over €80,000, while prices for the new Model X SUV arriving this year will start at over €110k.

Indeed, even the more open-minded motorists among us are likely to have been put off by the high prices of electric cars relative to comparable petrol or diesel versions, even with the SEAI grant and VRT rebate that electric cars qualify for.

For instance, the full price of a VW e-Golf is nearly €45,000, but thanks to the SEAI electric car grant of €5,000 along with a further €5,000 in VRT relief, the on-the-road price is slashed to just over €35,000. However, even the highest-spec diesel Golfs are priced at just over €30,000.

But if the trade-off between the higher upfront cost and the long-term savings in running costs seems reasonable, how do the economics of running a pure electric car stack up in the real world? We got in touch with a number of members of the Irish Electric Vehicle Owners Association (IEVOA) to ask them how the sums were working out for them.

Contrary to the popular perception that current EVs only make sense for shorter journeys, not only are many doing quite high mileages with the help of the public charging infrastructure, their pockets are considerably better off.

Many reported they had been previously spending anything up to €250 a month on fuel but are instead now paying up to €40 a month extra on their electricity bill (and often less if they used free public charging points).

Dave McCabe, an committee member of the IEVOA, which has 800 owners in its Facebook group, says the vast majority of owners seem to be happy with their decision to switch to EVs.

He says the key to serious EV cost savings is down to mileage; the more you do, within reason, the more you save. “Because we have free public charging, there is no situation at the moment where a EV is dearer to run then a petrol or diesel car,” he said. “What you find is that low mileage EV users might only make small savings, simply because the alternative amounts of petrol or diesel they would buy are not significant anyway.”

Charging for charging

ESB ecars, the division responsible for rolling out and maintaining the public charging points network, did propose to introduce charges late in 2015 only to postpone the decision following a bit of an uproar, and followed by talks with the Commission for Energy Regulation. Customers would have been charged €16.99 a month for unlimited access to low-speed one-phase charging points nationally along with a extra 30c a minute if you use one of the fast charging points.

Denis O’Leary, head of smart energy technologies at ESB, says charging will be introduced “at some point in time”, although what those charges would be is the subject of a consultation and review by the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) that is due to be completed shortly. However, Declan Meally, head of emerging sectors at the SEAI, says that even when charging is introduced, it is unlikely to affect the running costs for the estimated 90-95pc of owners who charge their EVs at home. He adds that the Government may consider a range of further incentives to boost EV take-up.

But there is also a concern over the higher long-term depreciation of EVs compared to conventional cars. Analysis by car-history -checking website MotorCheck, which monitors the residual values of the car market for banks and manufacturers in Ireland, shows that the average ‘C Segment’ car (Ford Focus, VW Golf) will be worth 42pc-47pc of its value over three years with an average mileage, while EVs are averaging between 28pc-34pc.

“One of the issues affecting the used values of EVs is that the technology is still pretty much in its infancy, and that means it is moving forward at a fast pace, with the result is that an EV purchased today could be obsolete in terms of technology within two or three years,” says MotorCheck managing director Michael Rochford.

These factors didn’t stop John and Lisa Carey from Dublin from opting for a new Nissan Leaf (a 30kwh version) last year, and they later replaced their second car with a second-hand 2011 Leaf (24kwh version). John Carey, who does about 20,000km a year, calculated that the total cost of ownership of the new Leaf over the first five years – including finance, electricity, tax, insurance and servicing – worked out at €7,500 compared to €9,050 for a comparable diesel car (in this case a Ford Ecosport).

But it was the total per annum cost after five years (once the car was paid off) that is the biggest eye-opener, with the Leaf working out at €1,030 a year to run vs €3,470 a year for the Ford. The difference, besides the fuel vs electricity costs, is the cheaper motor tax of the Leaf and the assumption that the Ford is more expensive to service as it gets older (fewer moving parts in an EV, or so the argument goes).

Real-world range

Carey’s 161 Leaf has a realistic range of 160km, while the older 2011 Leaf can do about 90km, which he says “is perfect for a local runabout with occasional airport runs, etc, while 160km can get me anywhere in the country with only one 30-minute stop, which is good enough for me as I would like a break by then anyway”.

Carey said they did wonder before buying the new car if they should hang on until battery ranges improved. (The Nissan Leaf’s claimed range is 250km, but many owners also urge would-be buyers to take manufacturers’ range claims with a large pinch of salt).

“There will always be better on the horizon but we decided that we could either wait for more than we needed regarding range, or accept that what is available now is perfect for our motoring needs. The small sacrifice of the odd 30-minute charging stop is justified by the cost saving.”

He’s also not concerned about depreciation because they tend to hang onto their cars rather than trade them in every few years.

However, the higher levels of depreciation of EVs, including in Britain, have allowed others to get into nearly new EVs for a lot less than they would have paid new.

Last August, Pat Rabbitte from Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo imported a 2014 Nissan Leaf from England for the all-in cost of €9,300. Furthermore, he was spending €160 a month for diesel on his previous Ford Fiesta, and now estimates that he has saved nearly €1,300 in just over seven months of owning and driving the Leaf to work in Galway.

“In my case, my motivations were purely financial – and I did so knowing that I was going to have to compromise in terms of having to use the public charging system, and having to be patient with long-range journeys. It doesn’t stop me from doing them but they can be arduous.”

This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent

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Overcoming disability as a barrier to college education

University may be daunting if you have a disability but there are plenty of services there to support you

If you have a disability and want to pursue third-level education, it’s widely acknowledged there are fewer barriers in your way than there would have been 10 or 20 years ago.

College choices for would-be students with disabilities today are much wider, as more institutions acknowledge they deserve the same opportunities as their peers.

Universities and colleges have been developing disability support services to cater for a wide range of special needs, and there are also schemes to make it easier for disabled students to get to third-level in the first place.

One obvious measure of that progress has been the rise in participation rates. According to the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (Ahead), students with disabilities make up more than 5 per cent of the total student population in Ireland across 27 institutions, a far cry from 20 years ago, when the figure was less than 1 per cent.

However, the organisation, which surveys participation rates annually, says that while the overall picture is positive, there are a “number of persistent trends and barriers which raise questions for the education sector”.

In a nutshell, the main concerns are that students with disabilities are more likely to study humanities and arts subjects than other students, that they are very under-represented on part-time courses, and that they are not progressing onto postgraduate study at the same rate as non-disabled graduates.

“Unfortunately, there is still a trend to steer people with disabilities towards the more generic degrees like arts and general business,” says Lorraine Gallagher of Ahead. “It’s changing, but rather slowly.”

Career guidance

Not surprisingly, the organisation believes there are some issues with the career guidance that students with disabilities receive, particularly with what looks like a failure to inform and encourage them to look at industries and occupational areas where the employment opportunities may be greater, such as Stem, ICT, financial services, manufacturing and leisure industries.

However, Gallagher says Ahead is working with such bodies as the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, Engineers Ireland, healthcare sciences and the Teaching Council of Ireland to try and redress this.

Naturally, many will start their college choice research online, and Ahead’s website (https://www.ahead.ie/) is one of the first ones to visit. This highly accessible multimedia portal is filled with independent information and advice on all aspects of college, including accessing college.

Naturally, your college choices are likely to be influenced primarily by subject choice and location (including whether or not you will living at home), but if you reach a stage where other factors become more significant, like the quality of an institution’s disability support services, the accessibility of its campus or the availability of accessible on-campus accommodation, then you’ll need to take your research a step further.

There’s a lot of information online, but there’s no substitute for visiting a campus to get a proper sense of a college and its atmosphere and ethos, not to mention the opportunity to talk to relevant staff face-to-face. Of course, all prospective students will be keen to do exactly that, but those with disabilities may need to ask more questions.

TCD’s Disability Service website (https://www.tcd.ie/disability/) contains information not just about the number of staff and the types of support services it offers, it also details a five-year strategic plan for 2015-2020 to help achieve its “ambition of being the number one choice for disabled students in Ireland”.

Such a statement certainly hints at a strong culture of inclusion and access, although it may well reflect another dimension to the growing competition among the top institutions for a cohort of students who, after all, make up more than 5 per cent of the student population.

“The impetus behind the five-year plan was to create a more student-centred and student-focused service where the student is encouraged to take an active role in their own journey through college,” says Declan Treanor, director of TCD’s Disability Service.

One of the planks of this student-centred plan is the ‘Ambassador Programme’, which was launched in 2015. Under this programme, students with disabilities at Trinity volunteer to represent and showcase the college’s disability service by giving talks or presentations or making themselves available to chat about their experiences of college life.

‘Positive role models’

“The ambassadors act as positive role models for incoming students whilst also honing their own communication, presentation, and leadership skills through involvement in the programme,” says Treanor.

Cork Institute of Technology also puts many of its students with disabilities in contact with prospective students, according to its disability support officer Laura O’Rourke.

“We also ask student speakers to be present at most outreach and pre-entry events that we have, as well as post-entry events and this gives prospective students a real insight into college life and they have opportunities to engage with these speakers over the course of the events. We strongly believe that the student voice is the one that resonates most when it comes to hosting events for prospective students.”

The college recently published a 35-page publication entitled Access -– The Student Voice, featuring 12 feature-length case studies of CIT students with disabilities.

In visiting campuses and speaking to current students, you should also be able to see better the spirit of the social as well as academic inclusion at any one institution.

“One of the resources we offer is the ‘Thursday Club’ – aimed at students who are on the autism spectrum, students with mental-health conditions, and of course any other student who wishes to attend,” says Bob O Mhurcu, head of DIT’s Disability Support Service.

“It’s a weekly club for students who find social interaction challenging, and its goal is to help students to interact, work together and improve their social skills with their peers. As part of the club, we offer workshops in areas such as teamwork and idea-sharing, and also in things like reading body language, telling jokes and so on. Our students have found the club very useful as a resource.”

However, Vivian Rath – who is doing a PhD in Trinity on the social and sense-of-belonging experiences of students with disabilities at third level – says that while he has seen a “huge improvement” generally in disability services across the board since his first days as a student at UCD back in 2003, there is still some way to go.

“There are still a lot of students like myself with significant physical disabilities or those who are deaf or hard or hearing or visually impaired, who are not going to college in the same numbers, so there’s a lot of work to be done.”

The Ahead figures for 2014/2015 shows the single largest group of students with disabilities is those with specific learning disabilities (46.9 per cent) such as dyslexia, but that the numbers in this group have been falling. Among the factors that may be contributing to this is the mainstreaming of services like learning support and technology, according to Gallagher.

“For example, specialist software available across campus on all college computers, coupled with developments in the actual teaching and learning environment means less of this cohort are relying on the disability services,” she says.

At the same time, last year saw a rise in the numbers of deaf and hard of hearing students, reversing a downward trend from previous years, although it’s too early to say if this indicates a steady upward trend.

Case study: ‘Be your own advocate, take charge of your situation

Vivian Rath, from Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford, first went to UCD in 2003 to start a science degree programme before graduating in pharmacology, and followed that with a masters in business from the Smurfit School. He subsequently worked in a number of roles at UCD before beginning his PhD at Trinity College in 2014, which is about the social and sense-of-belonging experiences of students with disabilities at third level.

When he first applied to the CAO, he had opted to complete a local PLC science course to help decide between studying business or science.

“It gave me a great chance to mature, to become more independent but also, the important thing for me, it gave me the opportunity to look at the options available and to identify what my needs were before I went to college.”

He also attended one of the earliest ‘Better Options’ college fairs organised by Ahead, and recalls how much benefit he got from it. “I even remember attending it, all those years ago. At the time, I was worried about supports and that was discussed at that event, and that would have been one of the events that gave me great relief in the sense that I knew I would be supported when I went to third level.

“I chose UCD because of its academic reputation, social opportunities, and the disability support service, but one of the major factors for me at the time was having access to campus accommodation.”

He also visited a number of campuses, including WIT, CIT and UCD, “but looking back, I’m sorry I didn’t visit more of them and talk to disability support staff”.

“I know from my perspective, having a physical disability, understanding the environment of the college is really important. For instance, if you want to do science in Trinity, UCD or DCU, from my perspective I would want to know where is the science building in relation to the on-campus accommodation, how far will I have to travel, what are the facilities like in terms of disabled toilets, and how do they all relate to the social aspects of college? You’ll only get a really clear insight into that by visiting the college. “

As a disability campaigner, he has seen disability support services develop considerably since his first day as an undergraduate student.

He says prospective students with disabilities today also have a significant advantage in that they have greater opportunities to talk to current students with disabilities.

“There are two ways you can do it,” he adds. “One is to link in with the colleges through their disability support services, talk to students on ambassadorship programmes. They are college students so they will be forthright and honest, and they will give you a real insight into what they experienced there.

“The other way is to talk to ex-students with disabilities who are out and about in the jobs market, so talking to them gives you another dimension to your research.”

All the same, students need to make sure they identify their personal needs and directly ask the college if they can support them. “It’s really important to ask questions, because a lot of people are afraid to ask questions. Everyone’s needs are different. “

He also urges applicants to disclose their disability on the CAO application form, as it won’t prejudice their chances of a place. “It will ensure you receive your supports from day one.

“Be your own advocate, take charge of your situation. This is your choice. Know your rights and don’t be afraid to include your family.”

Above all, he says, don’t put yourself under too much pressure, and be aware there are multiple routes to third-level. “Go easy on yourself. I think it’s important not to be too hard on yourself – it’s a really busy time, and I think just remember to take advice and guidance and ask for help if you need it.”

Funding for students with disabilities

As well as funding schemes that are open to all students at third level, there are a number of sources of funding specifically for students with disabilities.

The main one is the Fund for Students with Disabilities, which provides funding under three categories: assistive technology equipment and software, personal and academic support (sign language interpreter, note-taker, personal assistant), and transport (taxis or mileage allowance). The funding is allocated to the college rather than the student, and is not means-tested.

However, only full-time students are eligible; those on part-time courses cannot apply. This is a bone of contention for disability advocates, including Ahead, and is almost certainly to blame for the very low proportion of students with disabilities studying on a part-time basis.

There are a number of scholarships aimed at students with disabilities, including the CRC Ciaran Barry Graduate Scholarship, the NUI Award Scheme for Students with Disabilities, and the Google Europe Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. DCU also has a scholarship scheme for students with disabilities who wish to combine their academic course with their sporting interests.

Dare scheme

Of all the supports available to prospective students with disabilities, the Dare scheme probably ranks as one of the most significant.

The Disability Access Route to Education (Dare) offers reduced points places to school-leavers whose disabilities are judged to have had a “negative impact” on their second-level education.

While most colleges participate in the Dare scheme, not all do. However, colleges outside of these schemes still offer a wide range of supports, including disability support services.

Whether you get a place through Dare or not, you are still entitled to avail of disability-related supports once you have a verified disability.

The criteria for participation in the Dare scheme used to be exclusively medical, but has since broadened to include educational impact, which involves both an applicant and a school statement.

This article was first published in the Irish Times 

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Irish Sign Language in schools for deaf children


The following article is a longer-form version of the one that appeared in the Irish Times on Oct 9/10, 2017. It was supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund 


In 1901, when Cornelius Geary was filling out the census form for that year, he wrote the words ‘deaf and dumb’ next to his name among the details of his family household on Harpur’s Lane in Cork city.

It’s clear that the 56-year old fisherman and coal porter had filled in the form because, as well as being the only deaf person in his family of three, he was the only one who could read and write.  But little did he know how significant his census entry would be some 115 years later to his great, great grandson, Calum Geary, and his parents, Andrew and Helen.

“When we found him I was delighted,” said Helen, talking about the moment when she and her sister uncovered the entry late last year. “I know it is very un-PC to write down ‘deaf and dumb’ now, obviously, but at that time, I am glad that you had to write it down because now I know that he would have been profoundly deaf as Calum is, and that he made a success of his life. I think that his strong work ethic has passed down through the Gearys.”

They also found out shortly afterwards that Cornelius attended the famous St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra, Dublin. Andrew says Calum is “so happy” to know that there was a deaf person in his family. But it’s clear that his great, great grandfather has already become a role model, not least because Calum could attend the same school (now called the Holy Family School for the Deaf) at secondary level in a few years time.

But his father openly worries about whether his son will grow up to be as literate as his ancestor.

The story of Calum and his family and the journey they have so far taken together to try and ensure that he has the same access to opportunity as his three siblings is fascinating and inspiring.

But it also highlights starkly a number of long-standing issues regarding the status, use and teaching of Irish Sign Language.

Calum, 8, has two older brothers, Matthew and Barry, but also an identical twin brother, Donnacha.  The family live in Ballyhooley in north Cork, where Donnacha, Matthew and Barry attend local schools, while Calum travels 80km a day by taxi to and from St Columba’s National School with Facility for Deaf Children in Douglas.

Calum was born with Cochlear Nerve Aplasia, which means he is without the vital auditory nerves that transmit sound information from his middle ear to his brain.  When he was three, his parents got him selected for a rare procedure in the UK called an auditory brainstem implant, but it didn’t work as anticipated.

This makes him one of a handful of deaf children in Ireland who cannot benefit from any kind of cochlear implant or hearing aid technology.  So naturally the family switched their focus squarely to learning Irish Sign Language (ISL). ISL, like other sign languages such as British Sign Language, American Sign Language or French Sign Language, has its own complex linguistic structure, grammar, rules and features.

It takes years to reach anything approaching full fluency in any language, and while Helen’s signing today is competent, Andrew admits he is struggling a little because shift work as a Garda sergeant prevents him from attending as many ISL classes as he would like or even being at home when the family’s ISL home tutor calls over.

But by the time he reached first class in St Columbas, it became clear to Andrew and Helen that Calum was falling behind his twin brother in terms of literacy.

A couple of years before that, Andrew had come across a book by Dr Marc Marschark, a US professor and well-known deaf education expert, called “Raising and Educating a Deaf Child”, which espoused the ‘quality and quantity’ model of language acquisition.  The theory is that to acquire any language, whether it’s a signed or spoken language, children must have exposure to the highest quality and quantity of language input “via meaningful interactions with others who are already capable users of the language”.

“When I read it, it just blew me away,” said Andrew.  But it also gave him a sinking feeling. “I should have known this, but no-one had ever told me about it.”

With that, Andrew had realised that although they were very happy with Calum’s teachers and that they had learnt some sign language, their competency in the language not at a high enough level to be a strong ISL model for him.

It wasn’t until later that he learned that Marschark did some work for the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) a few years ago that heavily informed the agency’s 2011 policy advice paper on deaf education. The paper also strongly underlines the importance of the quality and quantity language model.  “I was a bit upset, to be honest…. I was like, why did nobody tell us this? Why did I have to find this? I was a bit thick with myself.”

In the absence of what he felt was any clear effort to implement a key recommendation in the NCSE policy paper, which is that teachers in specialist settings should have a “minimum standard of competence in the use and teaching of ISL” (although it doesn’t specify to what level), Andrew decided to lobby for an interim solution: to make an application to the Department of Education and Skills (DES) for a grant for the school to employ a qualified ISL classroom interpreter with a QQI Level 8 qualification – a degree.

“I had been on to Marc Marschark who had been very helpful and Lorraine Leeson and John Bosco Conama [both of the Trinity College Centre for Deaf Studies] and other people, and they all agreed that sign language is the only language in this State that you can teach without a qualification. If I’m going to teach French, German, Italian, any other language, I have to have a Level 8 degree.”

He acknowledges while that a lot of teachers of the deaf have specialist qualifications, for Calum “to reach his academic potential he needs someone that’s at one with Irish Sign Language, and luckily enough there were people in the Department who understood that”.

When he got the school and the local SENO (Special Educational Needs Organiser) on board, he put together a document as part of their application that was peppered with relevant references to national and international academic research on a whole range of areas linked to deaf education, as well as the NCSE policy advice paper.

In his document, he noted that the work done by the Trinity College Centre for Deaf Studies over the last 15 years had produced a body of graduates with a Level 8 qualification in ISL who specialise in either teaching or interpreting.  “Every sign-dependent Deaf child should have access to one of these graduates to support their access to the curriculum,” he wrote.

All the same, Andrew still had the uneasy sense that the DES would reject their application, so they engaged in a round of political and media lobbying with the help of the Irish Deaf Society and the Cork Deaf Association over a number of weeks before finally “the letter came in the post, one Monday morning to the school”.

Andrew and Helen are not by any means the first set of parents who sought to compel the State to fulfil its obligations to provide an education through fluent ISL. During the mid to late noughties, a number of parents had taken the Department of Education to the High Court and the Equality Tribunal.

It’s understood that all of these cases were settled. We tried to contact some of these parents to ask for a comment. The only one who responded said they were not allowed to discuss their case publicly. “In fact to the best of my knowledge all parties are also barred from discussing or disclosing any matters relating to same.”

We understand, however, that the outcome of one court settlement was that two teachers from the Cabra deaf schools would be given time off to upskill in ISL at the TCD Centre for Deaf Studies.

According to the Centre’s director, Lorraine Leeson, the outcome of another case taken by the Equality Tribunal was an agreement that the DES would put out a call to tender for a postgraduate diploma for teachers of the deaf to upskill, particularly in relation to ISL competency.  The centre submitted a proposal, won the tender and began work on a programme, only for the DES to later withdraw their commitment on economic grounds. “So the PG Diploma/ Masters went on ice, but we are always open to thawing it out and revisiting it,” she said.

At this point, there had been no opportunity for a number of years for teachers of the deaf to obtain specialist qualifications in deaf education within Ireland. UCD had run a teacher of the deaf postgraduate diploma course for many years but this was closed down in 2002 due to the lack of numbers applying.

There is also no formal requirement on teachers who teach deaf children in specialist settings to have a teacher of the deaf qualification – although most apparently do at this stage. This is a standard requirement in the UK.

But rather than commit to developing postgraduate programmes for teachers of the deaf at an institution like TCD, the only option offered by the DES to younger teachers of the deaf was to acquire their specialist qualifications at the University of Birmingham or the University of Manchester by distance learning and occasional trips to the campuses for lectures.

All four teachers at the Midwest School for the Deaf in Limerick (which only opened in 2001) have trained in Birmingham, while “a large number” of the younger teachers at the Holy Family School have done the same.

Many have questioned the logic of this on pure economic grounds. As well as paying for flights, accommodation and other expenses, they had to pay for ISL interpreters to accompany the teachers who are deaf and fluent ISL users.  But others are angry because it means that those teachers of the deaf who don’t have fluent ISL will not have gotten any opportunity to upskill to anything close to a Level 8 qualification in ISL by going to an English university.

Dr John Bosco Conama, who has been leading a campaign for the official recognition of ISL and teaches at the CDS, said of those teachers who trained at English universities over the last few years: “It is obvious from their return that ISL was not taught there or taken seriously.”

The Department of Education told us that “special schools for the deaf have been encouraged in relation to the use of sign language in class” but between 2012-2016 only five teachers from these schools availed of funding from the Special Education Support Service to improve their ISL.

For advocates of ISL in education, one very positive development has been a proposal for a new Bachelor of Education Irish Sign Language entry route, which is being designed by Dr Elizabeth Mathews, a lecturer in the DCU School of Inclusive and Special Education.  The idea is to provide a way into teacher education for deaf students who have been exempt from Irish, but who are fluent users of ISL.

“For those deaf children using Irish Sign Language to access the curriculum, it is extremely important that those working with that child in school have a level of Irish Sign Language sufficient to allow them to communicate with, assess and teach that child.

“One of the unique barriers in Ireland in this regard is the absence of primary teachers who are Deaf and fluent users of Irish Sign Language.  This is the main impetus behind the design of the Bachelor of Education Irish Sign Language Entry Route.”

Andrew also strongly welcomes this. “What does it say to a deaf person, like Calum, that there’s no deaf teachers in his school?” At Holy Family, out of a teaching staff of 59, just six of the teachers and seven of the SNAs are deaf. The six deaf teachers are secondary teachers; there are none at primary level because of the Irish language requirement.

Dr Conama believes that the lack of access to fluent ISL teaching is also due to the ways in which children who might qualify for it are assessed.  “The problem with this assessment process is that ISL is still viewed as a compensatory tool rather than a language in its own right,” he said.  “Hence the decision to allow access to ISL is often arbitrary.”

Like Cornelius Geary, Dr Conama is an ex-boarder student of St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys.  His sign ‘name’ in ISL denotes a hearing aid, as the Roscommon man was one of the first deaf students in the country to get a hearing aid back in the 1960s. He hasn’t worn one for years, but his time at the school was firmly within the era when ‘oralism’ was the predominant approach, whereby students would be taught exclusively through listening and speaking and with the help of audio technology, and without any sign language in the classroom.

Evidence in Ireland and elsewhere has emphatically proven the failure of that approach, which was only abandoned here in the early 1990s. It clearly damaged the reputation of the Cabra schools not just in the eyes of the deaf community, but also of wider society, with far too many of Dr Conama’s generation today still struggling with basic English literacy, never mind a Leaving Certificate to their name.

Historians have noted with some irony the archival evidence to show that those who were educated before the 1950s, like Cornelius Geary, tended to have far better literacy than those who endured the oralism era.

Dr Conama was one of many who gave presentations at a conference on deaf education organised by Andrew last year in Portlaoise, for which he talked about how deaf people, including children, could gain social capital in the wider community through ISL.  Right now, he told the conference, “ISL is not celebrated, it’s just tolerated. But ISL is for everyone. ISL is enjoyable and can benefit every one of us. There’s huge social capital in there.”

That conference also heard from Marc Marcshark, the US professor known for promoting the quantity and quality language model and who advised the NCSE. He said that parents and teachers’ concerns about the lack of support services for deaf children appeared to be well understood by government, but on the other hand there was a shortage of evidence-based practice taking place here.

“Individual stories were motivating, and reports of diversity among deaf and hard-of-hearing were important,” he said. “But, I was surprised that researchers and educators still were not addressing interventions and evaluating alternative approaches to deaf education. There was an underlying ‘drumbeat’ that sign language was ‘the answer’, but no obvious efforts that I recall to determine for whom it was the answer, when, and where.”

While Andrew generally supports Marschark’s overriding belief in an evidence-based approach that supports the huge diversity of needs among deaf children (many of whom have additional needs), he believes that there ought to be room for some common approaches to the teaching of deaf children who use sign, such as the creation and funding for the position of a ‘communication support worker’, similar to what they have in the UK in some schools.

This role is based on that of an SNA, but would specify a minimum qualification in ISL and, naturally, Andrew thinks this should be set at QQI Level 8. The possible creation of such a role is part of the terms of reference for the NCSE’s current review of the SNA scheme, part of which involved a public consultation.

In the meantime, starting last September Calum has had what he terms an ‘educational interpreter’ in his classroom, Yelena McLennon, and they’ve already noticed a big increase in his confidence.

“Even his spelling has improved a lot. Before, he was learning it and it was totally rote learning, whereas now he’s taking a more active role,” said Andrew. “He’s getting out a book and he’s starting to read it, whereas before he wouldn’t – he would be afraid of it.”

“And he has a great teacher, they’re a great team,” he adds.

Helen also says she has noticed something that Dr Conama might describe as the blossoming of ‘social capital’ as a result of the new fluent ISL staff member: the other deaf children in the class, who have hearing aids, cochlear implants and other technologies, are signing more. “He’s able to play more and interact more with the children in the playground.” The teachers were very positive about it from the start as it’s making their lives easier, as are the deaf SNAs who work for the facility, she said.

However, Yelena’s role is funded through a grant, so there is no guarantee he will have it forever. “Calum will have his interpreter for up to four years,” said Andrew. “What’s going to happen in 2020? Will I have to start campaigning again?

“I feel that for him to reach his academic potential he’s going to need an interpreter alongside him forever, unless a teacher comes into the field that has a Level 8 qualification.  Because I don’t feel anyone with any less than that could access the secondary school curriculum when you are dealing with subjects as technical as physics, biology, history.”

Now living in a firmly bilingual household, Andrew is set to transfer to a new role with regular working hours at the Garda college in Templemore, which will allow him to devote more spare time to improving his ISL.

“The siblings are very deaf-aware obviously. They don’t see Calum as a disabled brother.  They see him as a brother who has a different language.  That’s the way they look at him.  And they would say that to me. And they give out to us if we treat him any different.”


Case study: Midwest school for the Deaf

The Midwest School for the Deaf in Limerick is one of the two deaf special schools in the country. It opened in 1979 by parents as regional alternative to the two main deaf schools in Cabra, Dublin (which are now amalgamated). Initially just a primary school, it began to provide secondary education leading to some exams some 20 years later

“Our ethos is open and welcoming for all deaf children, whether they have a mild hearing loss and are oral students, or if they are profoundly deaf students who use sign language,” said principal Maria Allen. “We respect the rights of the parents, and its up to them what language they use.”

In 2002, sensing the importance of early intervention, it opened the first pre-school specifically for deaf and hard of hearing children, and which was financed entirely by fundraising for some 13 years until the ECCE scheme and the HSE came on board.

It is currently engaged in two projects that it hopes will have a lasting impact on deaf education in Ireland.  The first is a curriculum for Irish Sign Language based on the Irish curriculum, which was suggested by the school’s inspector, Johnny Murphy. The school employed a teacher, Ruairi who helped to further develop it.

“What we did was we took the Gaelge curriculum and translated it into English, and onto that we mapped the vocabulary that should be achievable at different levels into sign language.”

The document, which includes visual aids for each word, and online videos in ISL, is now called Functional Language Communication Aid. “It’s being used by the SESS now, not just for ISL, but all language and communication for children with special needs.”

The second project is a trial of an ISL curriculum for Junior Cert level 2 with a local secondary school, as well as at Midwest. The tutor is John Patrick Doherty, who trained at the Trinity College Centre for Deaf Studies.  “They love it,” Allen said of the Midwest students who are doing the course. “We use sign language every day to communicate but this is a very structured curriculum.”

However, Maria fully appreciates the limits of what they can do, whether it’s because of their very limited budget as a small school or the inherent flaws in the deaf education system when it comes to the teaching of Irish Sign Language.

“We would love to have a qualified interpreter working in the school, and I think it’s something that we should have access to. It costs the BOM a lot of money any time we need an interpreter in the school. Obviously we can do a lot ourselves, but there are occasions when you need an interpreter, and that is a financial burden that is placed on the board of management to cover. ”

They are also not in a position yet to provide a bilingual education through ISL because of the teachers’ current proficiency levels. Technically the method they use is called Total Communication, where the teachers sign and speak at the same time.  However, the school has four SNAs who are deaf and fluent ISL users who provide a critical bridge for the children who use sign as their first language.

“If I’m trying to explain something, even though I’m signing it, when one of the deaf SNAs works on that and explains it through pure ISL, the children understand it, they grasp it so much faster. Even though we would say we would have a good level of sign language, I would be very competent, but still the difference it makes when you have somebody who has pure ISL working with them; it makes such a difference. It makes our jobs much easier as teachers because it isn’t taking as long to explain something.”

“And then I can go back and then I can map that onto English, where I say this is the grammar, this is the structure, etc. For example, if you were teaching them something…about geography and about river erosion, they have the concept in ISL, now they can put English to it.”



The campaign for American Sign Language (ASL) in the USA’s education system

If you’re a regular viewer of shows like RTE’s Dancing with the Stars or the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, you might have heard about the deaf man who sensationally won the US version of the show last year.  Nyle DiMarco, who had won America’s Top Model in 2015, has been using his new-found celebrity status to promote his charitable foundation, which seeks to improve access to “accurate, research-based information about early language acquisition for deaf children, specifically the bilingual education approach”.

It is also a backer of a movement called Lead-K, which aims end early language deprivation among very young deaf children by encouraging US states to pass a “language acquisition milestones accountability law” to ensure that each deaf child has a language foundation based on either or both ASL and English.

Three states, including California, have already passed these laws and legislators in 23 more states are aiming to do the same in 2017 and 2018. The laws require state departments of education to select benchmarks that track the language and literacy development of deaf and hard of hearing kids up to age five.

Attitudes to ASL seem to be more positive within the US education system than in Ireland.  In the US, of the 76pc of deaf students who attend fully mainstream schools, 51pc use sign language interpreters. (source) This is practically unheard of here.

However, unhappy at the lack of high ISL fluency among many teachers of the deaf in specialist settings, it’s understood that a number of parents here are actively considering applications for a grant to provide a fully qualified ISL interpreter for their deaf children in a fully mainstream school on the same terms as Andrew Geary did for his son Calum in Cork.



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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] johncradden.ie




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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, helix.ie 



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 Spunout.ie, 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: ahead.ie, accesscollege.ie, qualifax.ie


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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