Signing up to new options for the deaf

A Skype-like system is helping deaf people to communicate more easily. Jonathan deBurca Butler reports

EDDIE Redmond waves at me through the camera on his computer. Eddie is deaf, and while his interpreter Amanda Cogan positions the computer screen properly, Eddie and I exchange the one thing we can without her help — greetings, smiles and the occasional thumbs up.

We are about to conduct an interview through a new system called Irish Remote Interpreting Service. IRIS has been made possible by the invention of such technologies like Skype and Ovo which have brought the visual as well as the aural into houses throughout the world. For the deaf community, the benefits of Skype and its ilk are immeasurable.

“The Irish deaf community’s first language is of course Irish sign language,” explains Eddie, who is the head of human resources at the Irish Deaf Society. “So we communicate in this manual, visual sign mode and, of course, the video camera is instrumental in making that accessible. Email is fabulous but it’s written English, so you can’t be as fluent as you would be in sign language. I find [with Skype] I’m able to express myself more. Sign language isn’t only about hand gestures, it’s also about your facial movements and your body language, so there’s an awful lot more contained in the visual aspect of sign language; it’s actually part of the grammar. In written English tone of voice is hard to express, so when you see someone signing you get more of what their saying and how they’re saying it.”

The origins of IRIS stem from a 2006 report on sign language service requirements in Ireland. The report found that there were only 44 full- and part-time interpreters in the country working for a community of over 5,000. It also discovered that there was a major problem with access to those few interpreters, particularly rural communities.

“Before IRIS came along we’d have to book an interpreter,” says Eddie. “And there aren’t that many, so you’d have to book one two weeks in advance. As a result, a lot of people just went into public services and tried to communicate themselves and that led to other problems; communication broke down, or things weren’t understood properly and it could be very frustrating.”

The programme was launched in January of 2011 by DeafHear, the Irish Deaf Society and the Sign Language Interpreting Service (SLIS). It is still in its pilot stage, but those involved with the project say it has made life much easier for the deaf community. The idea of IRIS is quite simple. A deaf person in Donegal, for instance, who has to visit a social welfare office or some other public service no longer has to book an interpreter weeks in advance. Now all that is required is a few days’ notice and a computer screen. The customer then goes to the required office and communicates with the public servant through their remote interpreter who is watching on the screen in whatever part of the country he/she happens to be in.

Interpreters are also seeing the benefits of IRIS.

“For us there was a lot of waste of resources because we’d have to go here, there and everywhere,” says Cogan. “So now you don’t have to go all the way down to Cork to sign [interpret] a form. If it’s something that takes a couple of minutes, you can do it through the remote interpreter. It’s still only rolling out, but it’s a great step forward for the deaf community. I suppose it’s like what the introduction of the phone was. If you can imagine what it must have been like to make an appointment through snail mail in the past. This now also gives them access to services through their first language.”

The system is now quite common in public service offices but Eddie is keen to see more places making IRIS available.

“There’s a big push now to have it in doctors’ offices ” says Eddie.

“But it could also be used for interviews and things like parent-teacher meetings. Parent-teacher meetings are critical for deaf parents of hearing children. They want to get involved, but most schools cannot afford to get an interpreter to come to the school. Costs can be a great barrier.

So this is a really affordable way for deaf people to keep up with the hearing world.”

As Eddie points out, IRIS should not be considered just for deaf people.

In fact what it is doing is allowing two communities who had difficulty communicating into each other’s worlds.

“Our aim really is that the language of the deaf person and the hearing person will be matched by the interpreter,” he says.

Picture: Amanda Coogan of the Sign Language Interpreting Service watches as Eddie Redmond, office manager with the Irish Deaf Society, signs with Jonathan deBurca on Skype. The origins of the IRIS stem from a 2006 report on sign language service requirements. Picture: Maura Hickey


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