In 1880, after just over a century of sign language being used successfully in Deaf education, the International Conference of Teachers of Deaf-Mutes was convened in Milan, Italy; only two Deaf teachers (not from Ireland) were in attendance.
They agreed almost unanimously to endorse 'the Pure Oral Method' of communication in education, in which Sign Language was ousted in favour of teaching deaf children to speak and educating them exclusively by oral methods.
The Cabra schools for the deaf, which were established in the mid-1800s for Catholic boys and girls, started with signing systems but changed to the oral system in the mid-1900s. Deaf people were not involved with this conference and had no input to this radical change of education for Deaf people.
Although reform is taking place, the oral ideology is very much alive today. However, as of today, the end product of the current education system is 80% of the Deaf community have a reading/writing literacy level of 8-9 years of age.
The fact that the oral system was produced by organisations that had no Deaf input, prompted the Irish Deaf Society to start lobbying for changes.
The IDS stresses the importance of intra-community relations for Deaf people, as this provides identity and cultural support. An estimated 90% of Deaf people 'inter-marry' within the community and even those who marry hearing partners and cut off ties with the community have often 'come back' when their children are grown or if they separate from their spouses. Many Deaf people often undergo a late realisation of what it means to be Deaf and to have a Deaf identity.
Deaf people do not see the term ‘deaf’ applied to them as an 'impairing' trait and do not describe themselves as ‘hearing impaired’, but see the term ‘Deaf’ as a defining characteristic of their identity.
It is vital to remember that this is a trait not shared by other groups of disabled people, and it is the trait that marks the Deaf community as a linguistic and cultural minority rather than a sub-group of disabled as a whole.
To be Deaf in mainstream society is no easy feat, with our community dominated by hearing society. We encounter challenges on a daily basis, which can affect our identity and our cultural outlook. Life in the Deaf community is, in a way, similar to life in a fishing village. We know that the ‘ocean’ of mainstream society can be dangerous and oblivious to our needs - but life dictates that we need the ocean to survive. Life within the village is safe and familiar, but we are wise enough to know that we cannot stay in the village all the time. Thus, integration into mainstream society - without losing our identities as a Deaf community - is not only a desired objective but also a necessity.
A survey carried out by the National Rehabilitation Board (NRB) in 1991, showed that 80% of Deaf adults have a literacy equivalent of average 8 or 9 year olds. Literacy difficulties occur within 25% of the national population (OECD adult literacy survey 1998). It represents a serious imbalance and inequality for the Deaf community in Ireland.
The DES White Paper in 2000, acknowledged the shortcomings in education for the Deaf. In addressing the literacy problems among Deaf adults, the IDS established the national Deaf adult literacy services in 1998 as a compensatory education for the Deaf adults who did not have an adequate education. It was another chance for Deaf adults, as part of their lifelong learning through ISL.
The DES White Paper in 2000 identified the importance of continuing education among adults, especially to give another chance to those who may have missed out. It was a reflection on the socio-economic and socio-political disparities within Irish society.
The IDS established the Linkup Project in 1998, under the Women’s Education Initiative. Initially, it was aimed at providing literacy classes for Deaf women so they could access the printed word and empower themselves within society. In 2000, this project was extended for another five years under the Government’s National Development Plan. Linkup offered literacy education to both Deaf women and Deaf men, on a national basis.
The Linkup Project is now being replaced by the Deaf Adult Literacy Services. The Irish Deaf Society is the parent of the DALS as it was of Linkup. The IDS is integrating DALS into their long-term development plan to provide accessible and equal services to members of the Deaf community in Ireland through their preferred language. DALS is also an advocacy service as it advocates learning that creates independent decision making without having to depend on others for help.
The IDS is the only agency in Ireland that provides Irish Sign Language services to the nation’s 5,000 Deaf people. Which also benefits a further 40,000 people who are hard of hearing, children of Deaf adults, parents and friends of the Deaf, who are all users of ISL. The IDS approaches the model of Deaf adult education from a cultural and linguistic perspective, arising from a significant social change within the Deaf Community in the last five years. The experience of LINKUP and DALS has empowered Deaf people in the community.
This is part of the IDS’ overall philosophy of reducing marginalisation of Deaf people in Irish society. It empowers members of the Deaf Community to gain the knowledge to lead and participate, not only in the Deaf community but also in general society.
The development of DALS is consistent with the DES Learning for Life White Paper on Adult Education, published in 2000. It is essential to capitalise on the success of Linkup and to positively develop it as part of the empowerment process. This will lead to the lasting sustainable liberation of Deaf adults, not only in education but also in the general society. The DALS is a nationwide organisation based at the Irish Deaf Society in Dublin.
Newspaper article from the Irish Examiner regarding Deaf children and schooling (July 2007)
Newspaper article from the Irish Examiner regarding the education of Deaf children (July 2007)