Having Our Voices Heard – the Official Languages Act foreshadowing the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill

by Gearoidin McEvoy.

Ireland is no stranger to language rights. Language has, since the birth of the Free State, been an integral part of national identity. Many will be aware of the curious position of Irish held in the 1937 Constitution, as the first official language of the state, having preference legally over English. The position of Irish, perhaps initially as an indicator of separatism between our former colonial power has gone on to protect a person’s right to use their first language.

Language services are essential to realising one’s right to use their mother tongue. For the vast majority of Irish speakers, Irish is an option and not a necessity. If a situation warrants the use of English, however, it is more than likely that an Irish speaker will be completely competent and capable. In many cases it is a necessity for Irish speakers to use English because the services provided are slow, ineffective or unobtainable. Irish speakers are repeatedly forced to speak English, or to accept diluted versions of rights and procedures, regardless of the constitutional protections in place since the foundation of the state. And while this constitutes a violation of the rights granted to Irish speakers under the Constitution, Irish speakers are indeed left with English as an alternative.

However consider if a person cannot speak English. How can they access public service such as the courts or education? In all likelihood, this may occur every day in Ireland in respect of migrants who have not learned English. However, consider now a person who cannot speak at all, or lacks the capacity to speak English, Irish or any other spoken language, for that matter. The Deaf community in Ireland face this problem every day. And their struggle to have their voices heard, their language recognised acts as a barrier to some of their most basic rights.

On a European level, only four states have provided for constitutional recognition of sign language, with other states offering varying degrees of provision for sign language legislatively. Under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the first document of its kind specifically dedicated to acknowledging and protecting minority languages, no states have opted to protect any form or sign language and the dedication to protecting “spoken” languages may very well pose an obstacle for any attempts to do so. In fact, it is only the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that provides any concrete international requirement for states to recognise and protect speakers of sign language.

However, the importance of recognising sigh language cannot be understated. Language is the medium through which we access our human rights – without understanding a trial, a custodial hearing or a police officer, can it really be said that a person has been given a fair trial? Without understanding a doctor before an emergency medical procedure, can a person be said to have given their consent? These may be dramatic examples, but if, for example, a Deaf person cannot take a driving test because there is no instructor or examiner capable of training or testing them, then surely this would amount to discrimination on the basis of a disability, or perhaps, language. As the Justice and Equality Committee itself has stated

The current experience of the Irish deaf community is one of extreme marginalisation due to the lack of sign language recognition and provision. This manifests itself not just in their personal lives but in their interactions with the organs of the State, including the education system, the health service, the courts system and the national parliament itself.

In the past few weeks there has been great advances in the possibility of recognition of Irish Sign Language as an official language in Ireland. The provisions of the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill, 2013 (the Bill) go a long way towards minimising the discrimination and lack of services available to the Deaf community in Ireland, and the move towards the Bill becoming law is generally met with great optimism.

However, there is little evidence to suggest that these new provisions, however positive they may seem, will be realised in actuality. Irish speakers have been screaming into the void for recognition and equality for almost a century and there is repeated failure to provide proper services to them. For example, the recent state introduction of postal codes resulted in more complaints to the office of the Coimisinéir Teanga than ever before since it came into being in 2004. This was largely due to the translation of people’s names and addresses to English when the Irish versions had largely only ever been in use and demonstrated an example of the difficulty faced by individuals while merely attempting to use their own name when dealing with public authorities. This is not the first time the Coimisinéir Teanga has encountered such problems. In fact, in the 2014 Annual Report from the office of the Coimisinéir Teanga, misspelling of names in Irish was considered a problem “occurring on a daily basis”. This may even constitute a violation of Article 8 – the right to private and family life – of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) pursuant to the case of Bulgakov v. Ukraine. The case involved a man who, after Ukrainian independence in 1991, had his passport issued with the Ukrainian version of his name, despite his name being Russian. Although the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found no violation of Article 8, this was due to the fact that there were procedures in place nationally that would have allowed him to change his passport name. However, in Ireland there is no statutory requirement to correct the Irish spelling of a persons name and a local authority may refuses to correct it without national consequence. The State continues to disregard such basic rights of Irish speakers despite the introduction of legislation in 2003, painting an ominous prospect for the hopes of remediating the “extreme marginalisation” experienced by the Deaf community.

The lax attitude to enforcing language rights for the Irish language is evident not only from the annual reports from the Coimisinéir Teanga, but also from the high profile resignation of the first Coimisinéir in 2014. The Irish Sign Languages Bill contains extremely positive articles and it appears as though it will greatly impact the lives of the Deaf community. However, when compared with the Official Languages Act 2003, the Bill appears to be less detailed and imposes vague requirements on public bodies.1 The Bill does not give constitutional status to Irish Sign Language. In respect of Irish, it has often been only the Constitution that has provided a saving grace for language rights. With only a legislative backing, it seems unlikely that Irish Sign Language would fare better than its minority language counter-part of Irish. Whether or not the Bill will come into law as it is currently drafted remains to be seen, but the real question is whether or not the Bill will make any difference. The Official Languages Act 2003 has had little effect on the manner in which Irish is treated by government authorities and the provision of Irish language services remains sporadic at best. This is in the face of a population who, for the most part, have English to fall back on if needs be. The Deaf community may not be so lucky, however, and although there are those who have residual hearing and those who can communicate aurally, there are those in the community who cannot and for whom Irish Sign Language is a necessity. Considering the difficulty experienced by Irish speakers to even use their names with official state bodies, it does not bode well for the expectation of a linguistic utopia for the Deaf community on the implementation of the Irish Sign Language Bill.

1 Compare, for example, Article 9 of the Official Languages Act 2003 with Article 8 of theRecognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2013

Having Our Voices Heard – the Official Languages Act foreshadowing the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill

2 thoughts on “Having Our Voices Heard – the Official Languages Act foreshadowing the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill

  1. Cathal says:

    You may wish to know that the links in the post are to an email server at an ‘bham.ac.uk’ and are not accessible to readers of humanrights.ie

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