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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