My name is Joanne; I am Deaf and come from Waterford. I am extremely proud of being who I am and where I come from. My upbringing has not exactly been plain sailing and weathering storms is a familiar way of life.
I was in mainstream school for one year at the age of five. I was a lost child that could not fit in with the Institutionalised mainstream system. I was barely educated. I remember just sitting down in the front of the classroom staring at the teacher and her mouth moving aimlessly – understanding nothing. I also clearly recall biting the girls in the class because I was so frustrated and bored.
It was decided that it was best for me to be sent to a Deaf boarding school in Dublin. I was able to come home every weekend and during school holidays. I was six and recall my first day vividly – entering into the classroom where the Deaf girls were sitting doing colouring. One of the girls gestured me to join her with others to do the colouring. I don’t remember how I was able to communicate with them as I did not have Irish Sign Language (ISL) when I arrived, I also don’t remember learning ISL – I absorbed the language instantly. I was fitted in. Those girls are still my lifelong friends. I have to say it was the best decision my parents ever made, I am very thankful to them because I would not be who I am without my friends today.
Growing up I faced many barriers especially in the areas of education and employment largely due to insufficient language supports and inadequate guidance. I did my Leaving Certificate but did not get enough points for university – I managed to obtain just under 300 points. I am intelligent, smart and capable of doing things better but why did I not do well in my Leaving Certificate…?
The fundamental difficulty for me lies with the lack of vision and belief among those charged with the education of young Deaf people. There was no real commitment to our passions and capacity to advance our preferred career paths. I wanted to do journalism but my confidence and motivation was withered by an incessant negativity centred on the perceived limitations of ‘being deaf’.
My fondest memories were being with my friends and doing extracurricular activities such as the Dublin Deaf Scouts, engagement with the Student Union and being a manager of a mini-company for the “Get Up and Go” competition during Transition Year. These were the only times when I really experienced being my natural, curious and creative self – and when I was most productive.
Sadly I left school very uncertain and with depleted ambitions. My sense of orientation and confidence had been knocked back so. I ended up doing post-leaving certificate courses three times in the first 3 years after leaving school because I was always unsure of what I wanted to do and of what I was capable of doing. This happened due to the inadequacy of the formal schooling I received and its inherent attitudinal flaws.
Then, a wonderful opportunity arose when there was a position of Chairperson of Irish Deaf Youth Association. I was thinking about going for it and got elected! When I was elected Chairperson of the Irish Deaf Youth Association in 2013. This position of responsibility springboarded me into a direct, critical engagement with my peers and the Deaf Community and through which I developed a keen understanding of the various societal challenges we are faced with in looking to establish equal opportunity.
I am now a full time degree student in Community and Youth Work in Maynooth University. I have managed to recover much of the spark and self confidence I had, which is necessary to undertake a real journey into the challenging world of working for social justice in Ireland. These instincts, skills and aptitudes, I realise, were always a part of me – just unseen and ignored by a conservative and largely unthinking education system which identify with Deafness before the individuals themselves.
As time goes on, I realise more and more about how important it is that every child / young person – regardless of disability – to be recognised, enabled to grow and become a strong human being and equal citizen of this country.
The Deaf community has been and still is severely marginalised in so many facets of life, facing daily discriminations and neglect in education, employment, healthcare, social services and in the daily life due to a lack of public awareness and access to Deaf culture and language that is Irish Sign Language. This is why the Deaf Community is campaigning politically for the recognition of Irish Sign Language.
Current unemployment rates among the Deaf Community are very high and many are dependent on the welfare system with little prospects. The persistent problems of being under educated result in high drop outs in universities and the continued discriminatory practices of employers towards Deaf people. A lot hinges on the official recognition of Irish Sign Language if we are to effectively redress the systemic inequality that comes with being Deaf.
So my simple call – in the context of the Disable Inequality Campaign – leading into this week’s General Election is to sanction the recognition of Irish Sign Language in the next programme for Government that is long overdue. Take that step be emancipating the Deaf Community in new and energetic ways to work for a more equitable and just society for all.