I have been asked so many questions it is difficult to remember them all. We would like to have a full week to answer them all properly but I will try my best to do so. On special schools and setting up centres of excellence, for many years we have been trying to explain the differences between deaf education and mainstream education. Special schools and centres of excellence are most important. The Bill, however, is mainly supportive of mainstream education. This option is already largely available for deaf children, 90% of whom attend mainstream schools. We are very concerned about these children because deaf children recognise themselves as a different entity. Our concern for deaf children in mainstream schools relates to their socialisation, sign language skills and cultural identity as deaf people and how these factors will affect them psychologically and socially.
Deaf people have a different idea about the nature of our identity. Having one deaf person in a school of 200 children can be extremely difficult. Their speech will not be as skilful and understandable as that of their peers and this can, unfortunately, have a detrimental effect on them as they get older. When one has children in a special school who are all signing and equal, one has educational competition and socialisation and their language - Irish sign language - is in use all the time.
We are not recommending segregation but equal opportunity, which is the way forward. While I am aware that the philosophy is one of integration and mainstreaming, our focus is on deaf children and the optimum choice for them. We recommend that centres of excellence employ deaf teachers who become role models for deaf students. We are not against mainstream education but successful mainstreaming of deaf children requires that many more conditions are met instead of dumping them in hearing schools.
A question was asked about the 1998 Education Act. That legislation marked the first time Irish sign language was legally acknowledged. No further action has been taken on the issue in the five years since then. No further teachers or staff have been appointed and no other children have been given the right to access Irish sign language.
On the suggestion that a separate Bill should be introduced on deaf education, we have had some preliminary discussions on this issue. As members will be aware from personal experience, however, these are long drawn-out procedures. The big picture for us and our work is the national recognition of Irish sign language as the third national language. For now, we need to use all available opportunities to gain acknowledgement of the language. With the ratio of deaf children to hearing children about 1 to 1,000, we do not, unfortunately, have the necessary numerical strength, which means we need to take each opportunity that comes our way.
Some remedies are required regarding third level education. At present deaf students going to third level use an ad hoc service. They are in need of sign language interpreters and note takers, but they have to look for these services themselves. A very high drop-out rate of deaf students is evident at third level. The support services for deaf people in third level education need to be consolidated. The buck is being passed from Department to Department and deaf students are being left out.
Early intervention is extremely important for deaf children. For hearing children, language acquisition is immediate, because the language of the family is accessible. They hear it from their parents, on TV, radio, etc. By the time they arrive in school at four or five they have already acquired language. That is not the case with deaf children because the language at home is not an accessible language. It is of vital importance that they have pre-school education that gives them the chance to acquire Irish Sign Language - the native and only fully accessible language for them.
The National Council for the Blind of Ireland mentioned the visiting teacher service. We support its recommendation that the visiting teacher service needs to be examined and, possibly, set up in a different way. The deaf community shares the concerns of the visually impaired with regard to the visiting teacher service.
In response to Deputy O'Sullivan's questions, we would like to have a separate Bill on the recognition of ISL. That would be the optimum approach. The Northern Ireland Office has set up a working group to examine the possibility of gaining recognition for British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language, which are both used in Northern Ireland. The process there is ongoing and we are looking for something similar here. In Finland, for example, a sign language board has been set up which looks at the recognition of its native sign language and how that will influence educational provision and other such services.
I hope I have answered all the questions. I accept that time has been limited. I have tried to provide as much information as possible in the short time available.