REMARKS BY PRESIDENT McALEESE AT THE OPENING OF THE ROYAL NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR THE DEAF CONFERENCE
REMARKS BY PRESIDENT McALEESE AT THE OPENING OF THE ROYAL NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR THE DEAF “MAKING AN IMPACT” CONFERENCE
Good morning everybody,
May I first thank Brian Symington for his kind invitation to be here and thank you all for your warm welcome. It was with great personal pleasure that I accepted Brian’s invitation to come to this conference which addresses the important issue of achieving full social inclusion for deaf citizens. It is an issue which has been at the heart of the work carried out at Wilton House in the hundred years since it first opened, to carry forward the work of that great Cork man and champion of the deaf – Francis Maginn. Every family which has faced the fact and consequences of deafness, and mine was one of them, will know just how central a role Wilton House and the RNID has played in their lives as a friend, a teacher, an advocate and a guide.
If anyone wonders why the issue of social inclusion is so high on the deaf agenda we only need to look at some of the statistics, for the deaf are over-represented among the unemployed, the educationally underachieving, the mentally ill, the socially isolated, and the bullied. To give a simple example of the enormous obstacles that stand in the way of the deaf, and the deaf alone, precisely because of their deafness – let’s say you are interested in taking an evening class over the winter, the course of ten classes costs you a hundred pounds. But if you are deaf and need the help of a signed interpreter, now your accessible, one hundred pound course, becomes an inaccessible one thousand pound course.
Access to so many everyday things, so much that fills out and enriches life, is made smooth and possible by virtue of easy communication skills. The deaf person who opens his or her front door each day, and enters the fray of community life, knows with moral certainty that each day is likely to be fraught with hassle caused by communication problems, for ninety-nine people out of a hundred that he or she will meet will have no idea how to communicate effectively with the deaf, and that goes for his doctor, lawyer, accountant, local shop assistant, district nurse, the bus driver, the taxi driver, the work colleague, even perhaps members of his own family.
The wear and tear on a person’s self-confidence of such a daily grind cannot be overstated, nor can the impact on social isolation. In fact those who manage to transcend such adversity, as so many do, are people of incomparable ability as well as incomparable courage. When one thinks of the historical context, with its cruel and outrageously incorrect stereotyping of the deaf as intellectually inferior, the consigning of them to unhappy cul-de-sacs educationally and socially, it is clear that there is still a long way to go before a conference like this will become unnecessary.
But a new generation of determined, organised and focussed deaf are ringing the changes and making it very clear that the future is going to be their’s in a way the past never was.
Last month it was my privilege to launch the innovative All-Ireland Mental Health and Deafness Service committed to the provision of an accessible service for those living with both deafness and mental illness. It is the very first time such a service has been available and it brings great hope to men and women who have suffered a level of human isolation which comes closer to desolation.
The educational chasm faced by the deaf is beginning to close and it was pure magic to me to see the first profoundly deaf student to enter Queen’s University, just a few years ago, obtain, not just a First Class degree in English, but receive a Student of the Year Award. But the deaf are still hugely under-represented in all the professions and in third-level education, a sure sign of the systemic barriers they face and the systems that have failed them.
For years sign language was disregarded as the beautiful language it is, and it is thanks to huge lobbying that its status at national and European level is being enhanced all the time. I remember the efforts of Irish MEP Eileen Lemass back in 1988 when the EU Parliament unanimously passed a resolution recognising the sign languages of member states as official languages. The power and the impact of changes like these are immense for the vindication they give to the deaf and the education they give to hearing community.
They are patient people, the deaf. They have had to be, but their patience is now metamorphosing into a righteous impatience as they push for much faster lowering of the barriers that stand in the way of their full, comprehensive and fluent social inclusion. Deafness is enough of a daily battle in itself without every other small, middle-sized and big thing in life being a hurdle to be jumped over or a hoop to be jumped through.
I tell over and over again the story of my deaf brother, John, living in a family with eight brothers and sisters, who so often had to resort to tugging our elbows to remind us to include him in the conversations. The ideal world, the world of true equality is one where no-one needs to have their elbows tugged to remember to include the deaf but rather where social inclusion for the deaf has been so profoundly mainstreamed, as both a value and an ambition, that it is second nature to all those systems we human beings construct around our lives to make us function as community, as civic society, as an economy and as genuine egalitarian democracies.
We are still a long way from achieving a world in which the needs of the deaf are automatically taken into account in policy-making, decision-making, in social activities, education – in every sphere of life that those of us who are able-bodied take for granted and find are designed with us primarily in mind.
The focus needs to widen if the longstanding culture of exclusion evident throughout these islands is to change, is in fact to crumble and give way to a truly disability sensitive world. That is why the work of the RNID and its sister organisations across the border are unlikely to find themselves redundant any time soon, though the new technologies are offering unprecedented choices at last to the deaf and they augur well for the future. The deaf need to be sure that in these times of prosperity and technological transformation they will not be overlooked or left behind in the prescribed straitjackets of old and not of their making. They need to be reassured that the society we are constructing for tomorrow is one where the talents and genius of the deaf will be able flourish and make their fullest contribution to every sphere of life. There has already been too much waste of that talent and genius, too many lives only half-lived.
Conferences like this help shorten the journey to the new landscape of hope and opportunity that we want to get to, and which the deaf are entitled to. I wish each of you every success in your discussions and the future work you will do; to make sure that the deaf child, the deaf teenager, the deaf adult, the deaf senior citizen feels included, feels valued and feels the contentment that comes from a life truly fulfilled.
I would like to finish by warmly congratulating you on your work.
I wish all of you the very best of success in your future endeavours.