Avoid having to say: “til debt do us part. .”

It may be the biggest day of your life, but you don’t have to splurge for that dream wedding, says John Cradden

By John Cradden

Thursday May 19 2011

The Windsors may have spent millions on Kate and Will’s royal wedding but there is no sign that the days of big, extravagant nuptials are about to return to Ireland.

There are no up-to-date estimates of the average cost of a wedding in Ireland, but most industry experts still pitch the figure at between €20k and €25k.

Whatever the true figure, the pressure to splash out tens of thousands on your big day has been replaced by an appreciation for smaller, leaner and more resourceful affairs that many say can make for a more memorable day than you might expect.

Indeed, you can now reasonably spend as little as you want on a wedding.

For example, some people might just get married in a registry office in the afternoon, and then walk around the corner to a pre-booked restaurant for a meal and some wine with a small number of guests for less than €1,000.

But if, like most of us, you want a traditional wedding with all or most of the trimmings, but without you and your partner promising “till debt do us part”, then you can easily save up to €5,000 on the cost of the average wedding by doing a lot yourself.

So, just how can you save all that dosh?

1 Email or DIY wedding invites and church missals

First of all, do the invites yourself. Sending email wedding invites instead of paper ones is a decision that can save huge amounts of money and time. Websites such as Paperlesspost.com can send out 100 wedding invites for as little as €10. However, it may be a cost-cutting step too far for some.

“Things like replacing Champagne with Prosecco are all very well and make a lot of sense, but emailing invites instead of old-fashioned post definitely takes away a certain sense of romance and old-fashioned decorum to the occasion,” says Ciara Elliot, editor of Confetti magazine.

If you insist on paper invites, 100 professionally-produced invites can easily cost up to €500, so the DIY route is an obvious money-saver.

“They are a fun, creative project; there are loads of templates available online. Even invitation-makers do DIY kits,” says Ciara Crossan of wedding venues website WeddingDates.com.

“You can also save money on stamps by hand-delivering as many as you can.”

For church missals, choose the music, choose the readings and download a simple design from the web. Get a tech-savvy pal to format the whole thing and get it printed at a print shop for less than €20. Buy strips of ribbon and a harder cover for a nice touch.

SAVING: Up to €500

2 Save a blooming fortune by doing the flowers and decorations myself

“You could save over €500 by DIYing your flowers,” says Crossan. “Make sure you rope in your mum or some other green-fingered family friend to do it if you don’t have a clue.”

Elliot suggests doing a course on flower arranging yourself and getting the flowers yourself too.

SAVING: At least €500

3 Do your own make-up. Risky? Not a bit of it….

In terms of make-up, Crossan says DIY make-up is going to be the trend for this year and next. “Kate Middleton did her own make-up for the royal wedding and there were two million people watching,” she says.

Many professional make-up artists often over-do things anyway, she adds.

SAVING: Up to €250 (for bride and two others)

4 Buy your own wine

According to a very recent survey by Weddingdates.com, three out of four couples say ‘I don’t’ to overpriced hotel wine, preferring to bring their own wine and pay for corkage.

Corkage charges have also fallen. Compared to a similar survey two years ago, when more than half said they paid more than €8 corkage, less than three in 10 do today, while one in six claimed they got free corkage.

“Buying wine in bulk from Ireland is the way to go nowadays,” says Crossan. “It’s not worth the trip to France.”

Just in case you don’t fancy this route, many venues, for example Markree Castle in Co Sligo, now offer wine with the dinner (as well as all the flowers) — included in the wedding package.

SAVING: At least €500

5 Get me to the church on time — but don’t hire a car

You needn’t worry about having a particularly classy car for bridal transport. “Your guests are going to be inside the church when you arrive, who cares if the car isn’t a Bentley!” says Crossan.

SAVING: Up to €400

6 Photos — use friends and favours

Asking friends and family to help with photography and video can also save hundreds of euro. There’s always someone you know who fancies themselves as an amateur photographer. Check out their albums and get them to do it.

SAVING: Up to €1,000 +

7 Let them eat cake: but not an expensive shop-bought or specially-made one.

Plenty of people these days find it a nice touch to get mums, sisters, aunts or friends to make a special cake for the big day, be it the traditional fruit and iced variety of the ever-popular cup cakes done into a display

SAVING: Up to €500

8 Finally, keep an open mind about your venue and date

Probably the biggest expense of any wedding day, the choice of reception venue, represents the biggest single opportunity to save.

“Think about booking your wedding on a weekday rather than at the weekend,” says Elliot. “So if you can save 10% on this, that’s up to €1,500,” she says.

Monday is cheaper than Saturday. Also, haggle over the price of the extras, like the evening snacks. See if the hotel will throw in rooms for parents, the best man or bridesmaids.

Having a smaller wedding and organising a party afterwards can open doors to other venues, such as restaurants, members’ clubs and boutique hotels, she adds. “It doesn’t look like you’re scrimping, just doing something else.”

“Having a buffet-style wedding reception instead of the traditional sit-down meal can be much cheaper,” says Collette O’Loughlin of SimplyWeddings.com.

Above all, drive a bargain and at least feel you tried to get value for yourselves. And good luck!

SAVING: Up to €2,000 +

– John Cradden

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

We’re not afraid to drive a hard bargain for our big day

Thursday May 19 2011

Bob Quinn and Steph Tao are not getting married for another 16 months, but there was a good reason for setting a distant date.

“As I set up in business recently, I expect some of the initial start-up costs to reduce over the coming months, so our savings and disposable income should increase by the time August 2012 comes round,” says Bob, a financial adviser who has set up a new firm called Money Adviser in Naas, Co Kildare.

But the couple reckon they’ve saved at least €3,500 to date on the total cost of their roughly 170-guest nuptials, which will take place in Cong, Co Mayo.

“We really approached the cost of the wedding from the perspective that it’s a buyer’s market and we could drive a hard bargain,” says Bob.

The couple looked at no less than 12 venues, but to their surprise, some of them had no desire to negotiate whatsoever.

Armed with the knowledge that venues would typically offer a 10pc discount for having a wedding on a weekday, they opted for a Thursday at their chosen venue.

They also opted to source their own wine and pay €10 corkage, as the hotel house wine prices started at €24 a bottle.

“These two measures alone should save us anything in the region of €2,300,” says Steph.

They also got rooms for both sets of parents thrown in with the venue package, saving €320.

Having the ceremony on site has virtually cancelled out the costs of hiring wedding cars and transport, as well as flowers for the church, which are being provided on-site by the venue, saving another €1,000.

With the date still quite far off, they haven’t considered other ancillary costs yet.

“We’ll pick them off one by one. One thing we are in agreement on is that our wed-ding should not put us in debt for the next five years,” says Bob.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Golf on the cheap

And she’s buying a fairway to Heaven: a golf club — even a posh one. John Cradden reports on how to tee up a bargain golf deal

Thursday May 05 2011

WHEN the Celtic Tiger roared, so did the fees to join golf clubs. Just three or four years ago, if you wanted to play at one of the top private courses in the country, it would have cost you a pretty penny.

Also, the image wasn’t much of a draw; for some “joining the club” meant watching endless ranks of slightly overweight middle-aged men.

But really, golf clubs are more fun than that.

Huge numbers of women and younger people have signed up, lured by the fresh air and the chance to get a bit of exercise.

Also, with many clubs battling the recession, bargains are popping up everywhere. With the collapse in fees, there’s never been a better time to find a clubhouse deal.

In many cases, that means paying an annual subscription, many of which are now at rock bottom prices. One estimate says 70% of clubs have reduced their green fees recently, some by as much as 50%.

At The Heritage golf club in Co Laois, for instance, the ‘green fee’, ie the charge to non-members for playing a round of golf, was once €135. Now it’s as little as €40.

At the Moyvalley golf club in Co Kildare, based on a 550-acre course designed by Darren Clarke, you would have had to pay a joining fee of €75,000 when that course first opened in 2006. Now it’s a big fat zero.

It’s the same story at Druids Glen in Co Wicklow, which once charged a €45,000 fee for membership, while Tulfarris golf club in Co Wicklow used to set its charge at €15,000.

In one west-of-Ireland club, eager golfers once paid up to €12,000 for a “share membership” which could be sold back to a club for a premium after five years. Now the shares are virtually worthless and new members can join by paying an annual sub of just €600.

Of course you can always pay to play at one of the country’s 100 local-authority courses for green fees starting at €20, but joining a private club is still the most popular choice for a serious golfer, offering familiar surroundings and social facilities.

So just how do you avoid the big joining fees and negotiate a reasonable annual rate?

1. I’d like to pay a reasonable annual sub, but not the big ‘hello’ money

As we have seen, fees are dropping significantly. Moyvalley no longer has a joining fee, just an €850 annual sub, while Tulfarris now offers memberships for an annual sub of €1,155.

The annual subs themselves have also been slashed too — at Dublin’s Citywest golf club, the annual fee used to be €1,600, but this has been reduced €1,100, while it has a pay-as-you-play option starting at €500. In Co Cavan, the Slieve Russell club no longer has a joining fee, just a €1,250 annual sub.

Be aware, though, that older, more prestigious courses are still charging to join, based in the first place on reputation, sound financial footing and their strong memberships.

2. How many clubs are out there?

There are about 400 clubs in Ireland. In the mid-Noughties, the Irish golfing world was riding high on the hype generated by the hosting of the Ryder Cup in 2006. Today, thanks to the recession, there are a good number of ‘zombie’ or ghost golf courses that are struggling to keep afloat.

Excluding local authority courses, according to a recent report on the Irish golfing industry by financial consultants FGS, 100 brand new courses were built between 1995 and 2010. There are now too many courses, and up to 50 need to close to make the industry more sustainable.

3. The club I am interested in is in receivership.

Despite being in receivership, most of the new courses across Ireland remain open and have been directed to keep revenues coming in by slashing prices and creating special offers, which in turn has put price pressure on other longer-established and traditional clubs.

That means there are great bargains to be had in almost every county. Kevin Markham, a keen golfer and author of Hooked: An Amateur’s Guide to the Golf Courses of Ireland, says: “For instance, Moyvalley started their membership rate (joining fee) at €75,000, reduced it to €40,000 then €10,000, €4,000, €1,250, €850 and now it’s zero.” It’s the same story in other places.

4. Should I do research and talk to existing members before committing?

Why not? While there may be a financial risk to joining a club that might end up closing, you can easily lessen the risk by checking out the club’s situation and financial standing.

The risk of closure could be higher with newer clubs. “The newer courses, without such a strong membership base, have to pursue more financially focused tactics, such as removing fees altogether, or offering an annual rate,” adds Markham.

5. Can you take out a five- day subscription, rather than a full membership?

Absolutely. Patricia Green, from Lusk, Co Dublin, has been playing golf since she was 18. Originally from California, she came to Ireland in 1969 and despite intending to join a golf club here, she was shocked at the prices of entry and gave up playing as a result.

“Golf in America was a sport that could be played by anyone. In Ireland this was not so until only about two years ago,” she says.

Patricia took up golf again in 2004 after she retired and moved to Lusk, Co Dublin, where she joined the public course in Corballis.

After five years, she was advised by her doctor to find a non-links course because of problems with her feet, so in 2009, she looked around for an affordable club in Co Fingal, where there were about 27 to choose from, she says.

After playing nearly 15 courses and reviewing prices, she joined one course on a five-day membership for €1,400 a year, which included membership of the Irish Ladies Golf Union (ILGU) and bar fees.

A year later, local competition had seen prices at the nearby Balcarrick become too attractive. “I paid €750 for five-day membership in Balcarrick which includes ILGU membership and there are no bar fees.”

“There is no joining fee and that is true as well for Donabate. Unfortunately, it is not true for other clubs in Fingal yet.

“I think seeing the receivership and for sale signs at some clubs might put the wind up other clubs to do away with these joining fees.”

6. I know about the private clubs and the fall in charges — but I still want the cheapest option

That’s a public-run course, operated by a local authority. An excellent example is Corballis Golf Links in north county Dublin.

Situated on a pristine stretch of links land, it offers the experience of playing on a top quality links course at more affordable prices. Fingal County Council invited Nicklaus Design Services to redesign the course, which re-opened in 2009, and you can pay as you play with green fees starting at just €20.

Patricia Green adds: “I also know a lot of people, men and women, who get their handicaps from country golf clubs and now only play on open or council courses so they pay no yearly fees or subs to any club.”

7. It all looks a bit posh and formal. Do I need to have all the expensive, fancy gear?

Not at all. Most clubs have a smart casual dress code but it’s easily adhered to and usually involves not wearing jeans. And, shock horror, some supermarkets have occasional offers for starter golf sets.

Aldi last year offered a set of clubs for €150, so keep an eye out for special offers and the small ads for second-hand sets.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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How to beat the budget airlines

Hefty charges from the likes of Michael O’Leary’s Ryanair can be avoided with these steps

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary. Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP

By John Cradden

Thursday April 28 2011

So you fancy a family holiday in Spain and think the budget airline is the quickest option? Well, it can be, but if you dither and fail to organise yourselves, the impact on your wallet can be catastrophic.

That’s assuming you go the whole hog and book on the basis of bringing suitcases and paying all the fees such as travel insurance as well as forking out for things like priority boarding (in the case of Ryanair) and the like.

It’s amazing how many people do incur almost all the charges simply by not paying attention or ignoring the small print.

Let’s look at how it can all go wrong before we come to a novel, cheaper approach to a budget holiday where you can save up to €500 when applied to a family of four.

1 How not to book a flight online

Book a non-promotional flight departing between June to September. Over-pack two large suitcases and check them in. Pay for ‘priority boarding’. Opt for the airline’s travel insurance. Pay by credit or debit card. Forget to print your boarding passes.

By doing all of the above, a family of four (both children under 16) travelling to Europe in mid-June for a week (booked in mid-April), could see the total cost of their return flight rise to nearly €1,000 even if the basic one-way fare was about €38 per person.

2 How it’s made up on a Ryanair booking

As well as the return fare of €310, this sum is made up of the taxes and charges (€135), the new €2 ‘delay’ levy (€16 in total), online check-in (€48), two checked-in bags weighing 21kg and 16kg each (€120), priority boarding (€28), travel insurance (€58), and the credit/debit card surcharge (€48).

Then there is the penalty for packing too much, which means another €40 for our unfortunate family with the two bags being 1 kg over the weight limit (€20 per 1kg). There is also the €40 charge for forgetting to print out your boarding passes (for a family of four, that means another €160).

Although a Spanish court ruled this charge illegal in January this year, Ryanair is appealing the decision and until the appeal is heard, will continue to apply this charge.

3 How it’s made up on an Aer Lingus booking

An Aer Lingus ‘low-fares’ flight on the same date to the same destination would cost our family €837, including taxes and charges (€394) and an administration fee of €48.

But that price doesn’t include the cost of two checked-in bags at €15 each and another €15 for both of the bags being 1kg over the 20kg weight limit (€60), and travel insurance (€48), bringing the total to €945.

4 So, how do you beat the budget airlines?

While Ryanair has many detractors, they also have plenty of supporters who point out that as long as you take a little time to understand exactly how it and any other low-fares airlines work, you can still benefit from very cheap flights.

Indeed, if you scrupulously compare the Ryanair and Aer Lingus flights, it’s possible to bring the cost of the Ryanair flights in our example to around €500 (still based on an ordinary, non-promotional fare).

5 For a week, take a backpack, it’s do-able

The most effective (not to mention the most obvious) cheat is to book only the promotional flights and, where possible, fly with hand-baggage only.

Ryanair, Aer Lingus and most other low-fares airlines will allow a hand-baggage allowance of up to 10kg per person.

This will save you between €15 and €40 per flight for each checked-in bag. There are a plethora of tips available about how to bring as much as you can with hand baggage.

Some of the more common hand-baggage tricks include wearing your heaviest clothes, jamming your pockets with heavy items, and rolling up your clothes instead of folding them. You can also use the money you save to buy toothpaste, soap and other bathroom stuff at your destination.

6 Book only promotional flights/seat sales

You may not be able to go exactly where you fancy, but particularly in the case of Ryanair, seat sales really are the cheapest offers going.

These sales usually include all taxes and charges, which also includes the online check-in fee of €6 (per person, per flight).

7 Don’t choose the airline’s travel insurance

Depending on which airline you are flying with, make sure that your booking does not include travel insurance. You can get far cheaper travel insurance elsewhere.

8 Don’t choose priority boarding

It’s one of the most criticised extras they’ve devised, but many flyers really do prefer to board first on Ryanair to get the seats they want (usually at the front for a quick getaway).

Be prepared to pay €8 per person on a return flight.

9 Pay for free

This only applies to Ryanair, but buying a pre-paid Mastercard will allow you to avoid the €6 credit or debit card surcharge (per person, per flight) that, for a family of four, will add up to €48 to the cost of the flight.

You can’t avoid the payment surcharge with Aer Lingus, unfortunately.

– John Cradden

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Make your own Easter Eggs

Smart Consumer: An egg-cellent idea! make your own fun this easter

A kitchen eggs-travaganza: John Cradden and his daughter Ana, hard at work making their own Easter eggs. Photo by Ronan Lang

By John Cradden

Thursday April 21 2011

Easter means eggs and nothing is guaranteed to cause as much excitement among children (and many adults!) as a good old fashioned chocolate blow-out on Easter Sunday.

As tempting as many of the special offers are on Easter eggs this year, there’s also money to be saved by making your own. If you have the time and the energy, it can be fun doing the job yourself.

1 Moulds

The first step is a visit your local treasure trove of a shop where you find all kinds of cooking and baking equipment, to purchase a a set of Easter-egg moulds equivalent to a small or medium size.

Some people will already have them, bringing down the cost, and don’t forget that once you have them it’s a one-off cost.

In my case it was dropping into Kitchen Complements in Grantham Street, Dublin, where I bought two, for €3.25 each.

You could just as easily use one, but it would take twice the time to make your confections.

2 The chocolate

Deciding what kind of chocolate to use was much more of a head-scratcher.

Cheaper cooking chocolate (2 x 500g bars of Scotbar or Homecook for less than €4) produced 10 eggs for the price of two purchased ones at just 40c per egg.

With the price of the smallest shop egg at around €1.50, that’s a potential saving of €11.

At the other end of the scale, one could use expensive posh chocolate with masses of cocoa in it, but I wasn’t sure my four-year old would like it.

I could also have plumped for Belgian milk chocolate buttons from Kitchen Complements (54% cocoa solids), specially made to be suitable for moulding and pouring. Not bad at €2.95 for 200g.

Two 230g bars of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk (made in Ireland using FairTrade cocoa) were on sale for an offer price of €3.50 from Superquinn.

3 Making them

Making the eggs was simple enough, if a little messy. The trick, it seems, is not to overheat the chocolate when melting it.

Once done, it’s a case of just filling the moulds, sticking it in the fridge to set and it tastes great.

Unlike the Scotbar eggs (five for just €2 or 40c each) we managed to make three small/medium-sized eggs of reasonable thickness for a total of €3.50 — or about €1.16 each.

A good bit cheaper than the Cadbury’s/Mars small (160-180g) eggs for €1.50 each in Tesco, and the feel-good factor is priceless: having fun with your kids, adding any decoration you like, chocolatey fingers and, of course, the satisfaction of having made it yourself.

4 Buy your own

Of course, if this is all too much effort, you could buy your own.

A survey by UK grocery shopping website mySupermarket revealed that prices there were up by an average of 21% compared to last year — and as much as 141% in one case. Manufacturers and retailers blamed the increases on the rising costs of cocoa, among other things.

But while the basic price of confectionary may have risen, it doesn’t appear to have affected prices in the Irish Easter egg market.

In fact, the main supermarkets, including Superquinn, Tesco, Supervalu and Dunnes Stores, have been waging something of a price war on these seasonal chocolate items.

For instance, in Tesco, a small Maltesers egg (158g) costs €1.50 — down from €3.29. In Superquinn, that same egg is €1.99, down from €3.99.

Dunnes has large Cadbury eggs (around 300g) cut from €10 to €5, while Supervalu is offering three Cadbury’s/Nestle medium eggs (177-187g) for just €5.

Even the upmarket brands are getting the discount treatment, although not by quite as much as the popular or cheaper ones.

Lily O’Brien’s Crispy Hearts egg (370g) is being sold for €12 in Dunnes, down from €15, while Tesco is offering two Green and Black’s Milk eggs (180g) for €10 — they cost €7.99 each.

You are also likely to find similar deals in the convenience store chains too, including Centra, Spar, and Mace.

5 Finding deals

The grocery trade is expecting extra sales this year because of Easter falling so late. Clearly, the best advice to pay as little as possible for your easter eggs is to look for the special deals and multi-buys.

But for some consumers, this particular price war may smell a little of the strategy of pricing them high to begin with, then slashing them in the last few weeks before Easter in order to make them seem like incredible value.

Indeed, several posters on online discussion forum Boards.ie angrily reported buying their easter eggs early in March at full price at their local supermarkets, only to discover that the same eggs had halved in price weeks later.

Ruddy agrees that the easter egg market has become very “offer-centric”.

“It’s a market which became so competitive and so price-focused, that many small guys stopped stocking a large range of eggs because consumers were only buying them on promotion in the big retailers.”

As a result, Ruddy says easter eggs have now almost become what the retail trade calls a “KVI” (known value item) — an item that everyone knows the price of, such as milk or bread, and can easily compare prices.

“Shoppers will now know what a ‘standard’ egg costs, or what it costs when it’s on promotion, and will reject it at the high price and only buy at the low or promotional price.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Lost for words at speech therapy delays

Parents are worried that the time lost in getting help with their children’s speech and language difficulties could risk making them worse, writes JOHN CRADDEN

ACCESS TO speech therapy clearly wasn’t an issue for King George VI, whose story about how he overcame a serious stammer through a close working relationship with a speech therapist has been turned into a film tipped to sweep the Oscars at the weekend.

The King’s Speech shows speech therapists in a hugely positive light, and few would argue about how important their services are to thousands of children and adults around the country.

But, as of December last year, there were an estimated 23,000 children on the waiting list for public speech and language therapy (SLT) services, according to the HSE’s own figures. This includes those waiting for initial assessments as well as treatment.

Furthermore, nearly 4,000 of the children have been queuing for between one and two years.

The reasons for the long waiting times to see public speech therapists have been the subject of much debate, while a separate row about how public services are delivered has formed the backdrop to a recent High Court case between the HSE and Release, a voluntary speech therapy organisation.

While long waiting lists exist for all kinds of public health services, parents worry that excessive delays in seeing about their children’s speech and language issues could risk making them permanent or untreatable.

One obvious option is to seek out private therapists, but the cost can be prohibitive for many families, particularly if you want an initial assessment.

A typical one-hour therapy session can cost up to €100, while a full assessment with written report can set you back €300-€400.

Mixing public and private SLT services is one cost-effective option, but some parents have reportedly claimed that the HSE will boot children off the waiting lists if they pay for private treatment.

“Sometimes there is a misunderstanding in that most HSE services won’t see a child at the same time that they are seeing another service,” says Celine Lenihan of the Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Private Practice (IASLTPP).

She says doing this could be potentially confusing and disruptive for the child, but the HSE would have no problem with the child attending a private service outside of the times that they are attending the HSE one.

“It does vary, however, and there have been cases where parents report being told that if they go privately, they won’t be able to avail of the HSE service,” says Lenihan.

When asked about this, a spokesman for the HSE confirmed that clients are entitled to use both public and private services and that, far from adversely affecting their progression through HSE services, “it can complement it”.

HSE therapy is usually offered in blocks of six to eight sessions, but parents may be advised not to attend two different services simultaneously to avoid potential confusion or conflict in treatment approaches.

“In practice, availing of private services in between HSE blocks of therapy is often more conducive to therapy gains,” the spokesman said.

Therapists involved in “dual service provision” are advised by IASLT (Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists) to make sure that they work together with other therapists to provide the best service to the child – something that it acknowledges doesn’t always happen.

It is tempting to believe that you could avoid the high cost of a private assessment by just asking the private therapist to work on the basis of one conducted by a public one.

But, according to Lenihan, most public and private therapists will usually insist on doing their own assessment before treating a client. This is regarded as best practice, but there is also a legal rationale, she says.

“If, as the second therapist, you worked your treatment programme off another therapist’s assessment and some aspect of diagnosis had been missed, you could be open to litigation for not treating the difficulty appropriately.”

You can seek out a private therapist through the IASLTPP’s website, which lists its members throughout the State. Waiting times for private therapy are usually no more than a few weeks, although that may be longer if you are looking for a particular specialty.

According to Lenihan, the cost of each therapist may depend on their training and expertise and the types of therapy techniques that they can offer.

“Therapy is not always required on a weekly basis,” she says. “Some families attend once a fortnight or once every three weeks depending on the nature of the difficulty, while other children may come more often depending on need.”

She adds that most therapists will offer 30-minute or 45-minute sessions as well as hour-long ones, while some clinics offer a discount if you book a block of sessions in advance.

If you have health insurance, you might assume that your plan would offer some level of cover, but the reality is that it’s very limited, according to broker Dermot Goode, of health insurancesavings.ie.

“Basically, the only real cover that’s provided by the insurers is part of your day-to-day cover on either the lifestyle or corporate plans, where they will allow you include a certain amount of expenses for speech therapy along with your other expenses for GP, physio, etc.”

He cites one such corporate plan that includes up to eight visits per year per person insured and which covers half the cost up to maximum of €30 per visit, while other plans will cover an initial assessment to a maximum refund of €60.

You would need to have specific level of cover for a child, which would typically cost between €230 and €262 per annum depending on the plan, says Goode.

You can claim back the tax on SLT for children under the MED1 medical expenses scheme. But while you don’t need a doctor’s referral to use private SLT, the tax office will require one to accompany the claim.

The outgoing Government pledged that any child under five waiting more than three months for speech therapy would be dealt with by the National Treatment Purchase Fund.

However, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said that it had not been possible to extend the remit of the fund to include speech therapy during the lifetime of the Government.

iaslt.ie (Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists)

iasltpp.com (Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Private Practice)


If you are concerned about your childs speech and language skills, the Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists (iaslt.ie) has a factsheet on what helps children in the home environment, such as:

Use daily routines as a way of teaching new vocabulary, for example, talk to your child while dressing them and name all the clothes. Kids learn through repetition and daily routines such as bath time and meal times, which are repeated over and over.

Limit the amount of time your child spends watching TV, and increase the amount of time spent playing together.

Introduce books at an early age and have daily reading opportunities.

If your child is developing a stammer, it is a good idea to NOT correct their speech or to ask your child to slow down. Instead give them lots of time in conversations, with no pressure.

This article first appeared in the Irish Times.

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Decline of the landline

Smart Consumer: Why going mobile is the best way to save on your phone bill

Connected: Emma Louise Ryan left Eircom for a line-free broadband cable provider. Photo by Dave Meehan

By John Cradden

Thursday February 17 2011

If you really want to save money on your telecom bills, it’s time to cut the cord.In these difficult times, more households in Ireland are heeding this advice and dropping their telephone lines in favour of going ‘mobile-only’.

The rationale is simple. Ireland‘s telephone line-rental cost remains among the highest in Europe. At an average monthly charge of €25, line rental is more than three times that of Finland, according to the European Commission.

Another spur to ditch the landline may be because you are an Eircom customer seething with rage at the company’s new decision to hike call charges by up to 60%.

Call connection fees for calls made outside Eircom packages will rise from 5.95c to 9.5c from March 11.

In addition, in moves the Consumers Association of Ireland described as sneaky, the charges per call will also be rounded up to the nearest cent, while the evening start time for making cheaper off-peak calls has been moved to 7pm from 6pm.

So it’s really no surprise that many users are now figuring that a mobile phone is a perfectly OK substitute for a landline and that paying for the two services is an unnecessary duplication of costs.

Indeed, the decline in landline use, which has been under way for several years, has been picking up speed.

A 2009 EU ‘barometer’ survey showed that the proportion of mobile-only households in Ireland rose sharply from 20% in late 2007 to 28% in late 2009.

‘It’s likely that this has gone up by a few percentage points over the last year,” said Tom Butler, spokesman for the telecoms regulator ComReg.

In addition, the rate at which telephone lines are being ditched is accelerating, according to figures from ComReg.

In the year to September 2010, the number of active landline connections fell by over 4% — more than in the previous four years combined. Roughly 75% of these lines are residential.

It might not surprise you to learn that — as with a lot of consumer technology — a bit of an age gap is opening up in this area.

According to the EU study, folk over the age of 55 are far less likely to be living in a mobile-only household than those under 55, especially those living alone.

Indeed, for many young people, the idea of paying for a landline telephone is positively old-school.

“The idea of a phone ringing in an empty house is amusing,” says Jack McDermot (27), who has never paid for a fixed-line telephone service. McDermot lives alone and uses cable firm UPC for his broadband and TV service.

“Most of my friends are similar to me in that they never had a fixed line since they moved away from home.”

“I actually feel that there’s a generational issue here. People from their late thirties upwards have probably had a landline for years and are reluctant, or perhaps haven’t even thought, to give it up.”

One of the most cited problems with relying on a mobile phone is the high cost of making international calls, but that’s not an issue for Jack and his friends.

“My twenty-something friends know that their friends and family abroad are easily contactable — for free — over the web, with the added bonus of video as well as voice.”

But there is plenty of evidence that older citizens are becoming wise to the cheaper alternatives to using landlines.

One of the six winners of Age Action’s Silver Surfer Awards last year was Daniel Hoare, a 102-year-old man from Cork who uses Skype to regularly call up his son in Fiji.

Eircom still holds by far the biggest market share in fixed line telephony because of its status as the former state TELCO, says Niall Kitson, editor of digital media magazine PC Live!.

But of course, fixed line telephony is no longer where it’s at in the consumer telecommunications market, he says.

“As the population ages this will change and broadband will become the primary factor in choosing a service provider. The variation between service providers has created a really open market.”

“It will be the battle of the broadband connection speeds and services, not fixed lines, that will define the future of telecommunications,” says Kitson.

“Assuming you have the freedom of choice in the first place.”

But most broadband services are delivered via ‘DSL’ technology, which is piped through a traditional telephone line. And for that, you still need to pay the €25 a month line rental, even if you have no intention of using it to make telephone calls.

This means that to avoid paying expensive line rental, you’ll need to switch to a non-DSL provider, such as cable firm UPC, a fixed wireless provider like Digiweb, or use a 3G mobile broadband service, such as those offered by the mobile operators.

Cable is probably the most reliable and fastest choice, but of course, its availability throughout the country is limited, so what about the other alternatives?

‘The anecdotal evidence so far is that fixed-line (DSL) broadband remains a superior solution to wireless services,” says Kitson. “Mobile may be, well, mobile, but the kind of connection speeds advertised are optimistic.”

“Dongles (the 3G modems that you plug into your PC) are fine for students, road warriors or single-PC households in urban areas,” he says.

If moving to a reliable non-DSL provider is not possible, you could always see about switching DSL providers in your area.

“There are plenty of alternatives for just-voice service, such as Vodafone, O2, UTV and a number of other resellers,” says Eamon Wallace of broadband lobby group IrelandOffline.

But the savings made possible may not be as good as ditching the landline. “Price reductions are restricted by the insanely high line rental of €25, which is certainly the highest in the EU, if not the world,” says Wallace.

Maria Maguire from Cavan recently switched from Eircom to Vodafone at Home for her landline service. She is on a ‘Talk Anytime’ package bundled with a basic broadband service.

As well as finding it a very easy switch, Maria says she is saving between 10% and 15% on her telecom bills. “Because I’m also a Vodafone mobile customer, I get a discount on my Vodafone at Home package and I also get free UK landline calls,” she says.

Vodafone is offering VAH services at half price for the first two months until March 11, although only if you already have a modem from your previous provider.

– John Cradden

THis article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Got a motoring-related question?

There’s a hilarious thread running on the popular online forum boards.ie called “Boards.ie guide to stereotyping cars”.

It’s a great piss-take on the kinds of silly questions that are frequently posted on the Motors section, but also how those who respond frequently give away how little they actually know about cars or motoring.

“I know absolutely nothing about cars (or any mechanical or electrical device) but I regularly give advice on the boards.ie motors forum,” quipped one poster.

On the one hand, it’s reassuring to know that the frequent posters on this forum don’t take themselves too seriously (it’s very entertaining, after all).

But on the other hand, if you have a serious question that needs a correct answer, this may not be the best place to go. The more obscure the question, the more likely you are to get answers of wildly varying veracity.

In fairness, you may at least get a steer or a lead that will help you find a definitive answer to your question, but if you don’t have the time to mess around or lack the confidence to know if you’ve found your answer, there is a great, free service that can help.

It’s called Completecar.ie, and its run by two of the most reputable and experienced motoring journalists in Ireland: Paddy Comyn and Shane O’Donoghue. It has a section where you can post any motoring-related question at all.

“On CompleteCar.ie there is no such thing as a silly question. No matter how small or complicated an issue seems, we’ll help.”

I recently posted them one of those obscure motoring questions that even the motoring-obsessives in my social circle couldn’t answer with any confidence.

Q: What were the first diesel cars on the Irish market to come with diesel particulate filters as standard or even as an option?

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a bit of a fan of ‘Bangernomics’, which is the art of buying and running an older used car for next to nothing.

Diesels now represent a good choice for banger motoring because they started to get really good from about 10 years ago, according to the motoring press. Not only is the fuel consumption better, but it has lower emissions and can do higher mileages. Diesel is cheaper too, as well.

A diesel seems a no-brainer for our next banger, but if we do, my wife is insisting on one with a DPF because she has asthma and strong environmental conscience. (she also wants it to be less than 140g/km co2 emissions, three 3-point rear seat belts, do 50mpg and not be too MPV-ish. Oh, and cost less than €3k).

No amount of online research could help me come up with a definite list of diesel cars that would fit the bill.

A day after I posted my question, the answer arrived neatly into my email inbox.

“This one took a little bit of research, but according to Peugeot, it was the first to market a car with a diesel particulate filter in Ireland with the 607 saloon,” said Paddy. “Then in 2002 Peugeot introduced the DPF on its 307 2.0-litre HDi model. They came into general use around 2005 onwards. Ford told us that its cars came with DPFs from then on. I am not sure of your budget, but perhaps a Ford Focus C-Max diesel would make sense? This car would be a top choice for you.”

The good news is we’ve now found our ideal car, thanks to Completecar.ie. The bad news is they are popular, so we’ll have to wait for a year or two before we can afford the earliest one.

Ah well.

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Volume advice falls on deaf ears

High volume levels in MP3 players are causing hearing problems for people in their 30s, writes JOHN CRADDEN

IF YOU have an Apple iPod, you may be among those owners who find the highest volume level for listening through your earbuds is not quite high enough.

If so, just type in the words “Apple iPod European volume limit” into a Google search and you will be presented with hundreds of entries that reveal ways to get around the lower 100dB (decibel) volume limit that is set for iPods (and all other makes of MP3 player) sold in the European market.

This open defiance of efforts by the EU to set safe listening limits is the sort of attitude that exasperates deafness campaigners. After all, the limits are there to protect our hearing, they say.

Niall Keane, chief executive of Deafhear, says its efforts to combat internal noise pollution caused by loud music at concerts and listening to MP3 players are often derided as attempts to ruin people’s enjoyment.

He cites a proposal his organisation made to Dublin City Council (DCC) to fit power cut-off devices on speakers used for open-air concerts in the city in a bid to stop bands soaring over the 75 decibel noise level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

There was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea when it was first floated around, but then it quickly “died a death”, he says. “I think it came to be looked at as a bit of a party pooper.”

Last year, U2 were fined just €36,000 by DCC for breaking this noise rule no less than 12 times during their concerts at Croke Park.

“If you suffer lightheadedness, ringing or dizziness after a loud gig, then damage has already been done,” says Keane.

Keane’s concern about MP3 players centres on the use of earbuds. “The issue with using earbuds isn’t so much the noise but the sound pressure going into your ears,” he says.

“With speakers and headphones, the bones around your ear and jaw can absorb some of the pressure, but with earbuds, the pressure has nowhere to go except straight into your inner ear.”

Recent research by private hearing aid providers Hidden Hearing found that 51 per cent of MP3 users are listening to their players at above 80dB for up to two hours a day, while one in five has the volume at 100dB or more.

“This is the equivalent of hearing a pneumatic drill 10 feet away,” says the company’s medical liaison officer, Dr Nina Byrnes, who also presents RTÉ’s Health of the Nation.

“As a result of years of listening to personal music players at loud volumes, Hidden Hearing is seeing a big increase in the number of people, sometimes as young as 30, suffering from hearing loss that would be typical of a 70 year old.”

The European Commission now wants personal music players to default to a “safe” sound level of 80dB and to warn users if they turn up the volume too high.

The proposal was made following a report by the EU’s scientific committee on emerging health risks, which said that 5-10 per cent of people who use personal music players habitually set the volumes higher than 89dB, levels the World Health Organisation says are high enough to cause permanent damage if listened to for more than an hour a day for five years.

However, Niall Kitson, editor of digital media magazine PC Live!, is sceptical about the link between the use of personal media players and hearing loss, arguing that there is no hard evidence yet of long-term detrimental effects.

“As no upward trend has been definitively identified, you’ll see all sides claiming victory. The EU for ‘preventing a catastrophe’, manufacturers saying their products aren’t harmful in the first place but are happy to play ball because ‘they care’, and kids who will listen to whatever they want at whatever volume they damn well please,” he says.

It’s almost a cliché to hear about DJs slowly going deaf, but for Adrian Dussart (28), the side effect of a relatively short period spent DJ-ing isn’t hearing loss, but a condition that has almost the opposite effect.

Dussart suffers from hyperacusis, which means he finds everyday sounds almost too much to bear, and has to wear earplugs regularly. “Everything I hear and is considered normal to others is for me loud and painful,” he says. “In some situations, it’s almost impossible to stay more than 10 seconds because of the noise.”

Dussart, who also has bad tinnitus, believes the onset of his two conditions is clearly linked to his time spent working as a DJ, but also a 12-hour long party he once attended in a dome in Paris, during which he wore no earplugs.

He blames no one else but himself for the damage done to his hearing. “It is everyone’s responsibility. We have two ears and they are fragile, and we can’t replace them.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Times

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A grand car for a €1,000

How you can bag a bargain when buying a banger. . .

Drives a hard bargain: John Cradden puts the finishing touches to his ‘new’ family car. Picture Ronan Lang

By John Cradden

Thursday January 06 2011

It might sound like the type of challenge those three idiots on BBC’s Top Gear would relish, but for me it was a serious matter.

Buying any used car can be full of pitfalls, but the prospect of trying to find a reliable family car for about €1,000 would probably drive most people to drink.

After all, there are far more heaps of rubbish at this price point than decent motors you can depend on.

However, I was hugely inspired by reading a book called The Bangernomics Bible; a superb, no-nonsense guide to buying a ‘good’ banger.

Bangernomics ‘advocates’ say that for a budget like mine, condition — not age — is everything. So a 15-year-old car that has been well looked after will almost always be a better buy than a 10-year-old one that hasn’t.

Dealers rarely have anything less than €2,000, so my only realistic option was private sellers advertising on websites such as Donedeal, Gumtree, Autotrader and BuyandSell.

In my initial enthusiasm, I was prepared to travel all the way to the midlands to see a sleek-looking BMW which was more than a decade old with 110,000 miles.

Two things stopped me. The first thing was a friend reasoning that keeping the search to local areas made far more sense. After all, why waste time and money travelling halfway across the country looking at old wrecks when you can do it on your doorstep?

The second thing was a look up on a car history-checking website (in this case, Motorcheck.ie). For a small fee, you can enter in the reg number of the car you are thinking of buying and it will reveal what is on file about when the car was first registered, number of previous owners, previous NCTs, any accident damage reported, etc. It can also tell you if a used car is a UK import.

It revealed that the Beemer, a UK import, was ‘clocked’ — ie tampering with a car’s mileometer to reduce the mileage displayed — to within an inch of its life. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

The first car I actually saw was a ’99 Ford Focus with just 60,000 miles on the clock. The ad description didn’t give much away, but the price and low mileage were tempting.

My first inkling that something was amiss was that the NCT was up the following month. It also emerged that, other than the vehicle registration cert, the owner had no paperwork whatsoever; no previous NCT certs to confirm the low mileage, and no receipts for any of the apparently recent work, including the clutch, timing belt and a new exhaust.

A look underneath told me the exhaust seemed relatively new, but there was no way to prove the other work.

Still, I went through my inspection checklist: the oil and water were both clean; the tyres were new-ish; the interior was spotless and unworn; and it drove very well, except for a brake pedal that went almost all the way to the floor before biting.

In the absence of any paperwork, I quickly convinced myself I was missing some potentially expensive NCT failure point — most likely those brakes. As The Bangernomics Bible advises: “If in doubt, walk away.” I did.

Next up was an ’01 Seat Leon (based on a VW Golf) with 100,000 miles and a year’s NCT that might normally have been outside my budget. But the asking price in this case wasn’t too far out, and the ad had the standout phrases, ‘full Seat dealer service history,’ ‘price drop’ and ‘quick sale needed’.

In my haste to get there first, I agreed to the seller’s request to see the car when he got home from work that evening which, in November, meant seeing it in the dark.

That was a serious mistake. In the dimly-lit street outside his house, I could barely see anything.

But what I could see inside the car immediately made me very uncomfortable. The centre console, the side pockets, the glovebox, every possible orifice or storage space was stuffed to the gills with empty energy drink cans, baby bottles, various child toys, smelly socks, newspapers, tissues, CDs. . .

Was it too much to expect that he could have cleaned it out? Sitting in this total stranger’s car, I felt I was intruding into his personal family space.

Maybe that was part of his selling strategy, to put me off nosing around and finding more horrors.

But a quick look around the outside and a test drive quickly brought out evidence of serious neglect: several dash warning lights that wouldn’t go out after starting the car; an engine that kept cutting out at low speeds; and four dangerously bald tyres.

The engine oil was black and sludgy, the water was orange (should be green or blue-ish) and the road tax had been out since July (but it was still being driven around).

He showed me the so-called ‘full Seat dealer service history’, but the last stamp was in 2006 — four years ago.

Then I found that not only were the dip lights not working, but just one headlight worked on full beam. “The other one was working 10 minutes ago,” he said. I made my excuses. “Best of luck with the sale,” I said. You’ll need it.

Later that week, I arranged two viewings for bright and early on a Saturday morning. The first was a ’00 Seat Cordoba estate with a fresh NCT that was okay for the money, but it was so slow an electric milk float could have shown it a clean pair of tail lights.

The second was a ’00 Opel Astra hatchback that was far more promising, albeit more expensive. It had just one owner from new who had it serviced at his main dealer for the first seven years of its life. And only 80,000 miles on the clock.

My now well-memorised military inspection procedure revealed a car that was as clean as a whistle and drove as tight as a drum. It felt more like a five year-old car than a 10 year-old one. It had four new tyres, a new NCT, and an unworn interior.

When it came to the haggling, I was caught out by one of the oldest tricks in the book: the car was being sold by a friend who said he couldn’t bargain on the owner’s behalf.

Of course, I could have walked away, but I was seriously fed up with looking at old heaps in the freezing cold. Plus he seemed a nice, genuine fellow. So I agreed to go a bit above my strict budget.

A deal was done and a deposit was handed over. I felt practically delirious with relief on the way home.

So, why do you see me in the picture with a nice old BMW? Later that afternoon, and purely by chance, a good friend offered to sell me his much-cherished and well-looked after 1993 BMW 3 Series Touring for well under my original budget. It’s a car I had lusted after for some time, and came with a massive service history file.

I didn’t hesitate. A phone call and some swear words from the Astra seller ensued, but he was able to sell the car again the following Monday without any problem and graciously returned my deposit, less €20 for his trouble.

– John Cradden

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Interview with TV3’s Sinead Desmond

I may speak five languages, but only sign will bring me closer to my brother

TV star Sinead Desmond tells John Cradden why she’s taking up a new challenge

Two of a kind: Sinead Desmond always understood her brother Conor, who is deaf, but is learning sign to be more involved in his life

By John Cradden

Wednesday December 08 2010

Some people are natural linguists, continuously learning new languages even as the rest of us struggle to master our native ones.

Sinead Desmond, presenter of TV3‘s Ireland AM, is one of them. She speaks no fewer than five languages, including Irish, Italian, German, French and “a little bit” of Spanish.

Now she is taking on another one. But while she might have learnt German or French purely out of fun or interest, she has a particularly strong incentive to learn Irish Sign Language (ISL). She wants to communicate better with her brother Conor, who is deaf.

Not that they seem to have difficulty communicating. Like any pair of siblings who enjoy a close relationship, they often finished each other’s sentences during our chat in a café bar in Dun Laoghaire.

As you might expect, Conor, who is 35 and two years younger than Sinead, is fluent in ISL having attended St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra and has lots of deaf friends.

Irish Sign Language is the language spoken by the deaf community in the Republic of Ireland, and which has been passed down through many generations.

Although he also speaks, ISL is his preferred language. So why has Sinead never learnt it until now?

“I never needed it to communicate with Conor,” she says. “We could always speak. I could understand him. He could understand me. There was never a problem, no confusion.”

Sinead can fingerspell words, which helps if they get stuck on the odd word while chatting.

But Sinead has another incentive to learn ISL. She was nominated by Conor to be one of the participants in a TV reality-style challenge organised by the RTE television magazine programme for the deaf, Hands On.

The producers, MindTheGap Films, embarked on a search for family and friends of deaf people who were willing to learn ISL but had never attended any formal lessons.

The producers arranged for them to attend ISL classes organised by the Irish Deaf Society once a week for four months, and to follow their progress on the current series of Hands On, which began last month.

The participants hope to obtain a FETAC qualification in ISL equivalent to Junior Cert level.

Sinead should certainly find many opportunities to practise with Conor. He works as a hairdresser in Kilkenny three days a week but now shares a flat in Dun Laoghaire with Sinead and her husband David. Even before that, they would see each other at least once every couple of weeks. Their parents now live in Crete so it’s just the two of them in Ireland.

So while there is nothing lacking in their relationship, Sinead is discovering just how important Irish Sign Language is to Conor.

“It was really to be a bigger part of Conor’s life, because when I go out with him and his friends, they wouldn’t have as good speech as Conor, and so I would be trying to talk to them with my own crappy, makey-uppy sign language.”

They can manage by lip-reading but Sinead often finds it unsatisfying. “They can understand me, but still, it’s not having a conversation, it’s not natural.”

So far Sinead has only attended three classes (recently interrupted by a short spell in hospital), but is already finding it fascinating.

One common misconception about ISL is that it is based on English.

‘It’s been very interesting, because I thought ‘OK, it’s just going to be English signing, we are just going to be speaking English but signing it’. But it’s not. It’s a completely separate language in its own right. And I love languages. I speak five languages.”

Irish Sign Language has its own specific grammar that is conveyed by using a combination of hands, face and body.

It develops within deaf communities, which means that ISL is different from British Sign Language or even American Sign Language.

It took many years of linguistic research to prove it, but few language academics would now dispute that sign languages, including ISL, have all the defining characteristics of a language. They’re just not spoken.

“Conor was telling me this and Wendy (Murray, the teacher) was telling me this, that you use your face a lot more when using ISL,” says Sinead. “So you are really expressive.

“Wendy was almost laughing at us because we were telling stories but our faces were almost set in stone because we were concentrating so hard on signing. She was like, ‘if you are happy, if you are sad, if you are confused, then show it on your face’.”

“Your facial expression conveys your tone of voice,” adds Conor.

There are estimated to be about 5,000 ‘native’ deaf ISL users and another 50,000 (friends, family, interpreters) who use it regularly. It is also understood the CSO is considering including a question about ISL in the forthcoming Census.

The other participants in the RTE Hands On ISL Challenge include a man whose wife is deaf and doesn’t want to be left out of the interaction in ISL between her and their young daughter, and a woman who wants to communicate better with her deaf sister-in-law.

“At the heart of every person’s reason is someone they love,” says Sinead.

“Somebody in their world, their family, friends, mother, brother, sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law. They want to be able to communicate better with them.

“But we are all realising that it’s more about respecting that person’s world as well, and saying ‘I want to be able to communicate with you on your terms’.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

The next installment of RTE’s Hands On ISL challenge is on Sunday 12th December, RTE1 at 12pm.

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