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There is no script, therefore there is no standardized orthography.
Irish Sign Language (ISL) is used scattered throughout the Republic of Ireland but also in parts of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland both Irish Sign Language and British sign Language are used. 5) 6) Gender-based dialectal differences existed as a result of separate schools for boys and girls. It is not certain to which extent this gendered differentation is used today, though Ethnologue claims this difference has lessened over time. 7) 8)
There are several estimations of speaker numbers according to different sources:
In 1816, the first school for the deaf in Ireland was founded by Dr. Charles Orpen. 12) Orpen also established the National Institution for the Education of the Deaf in Ireland. In the period of 1816 to 1849, nine institutes for the education of the deaf were established, even though two of them closed down in a short period of time. 13) Most of these Deaf institutions were divided per gender, meaning there were boys-only and girls-only schools, and this resulted in a gendered sign language. 14) As a result of the established deaf institutes, more Deaf people were brought together. They mostly communicated through the use of sign language, and because of this the Deaf community and the use of Irish Sign Language grew in Ireland. 15)
All Irish institutions used a manual system of instruction. 16) However, from 1887 the Claremont Institute changed to an oral system of instruction. From 1940, more oralist approaches were used in Deaf education in Ireland following the oralist policies used in Deaf instutions in the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Oral instruction was not seen as a problem by the Deaf community. However, with the implementation of oralist approaches the use of sign language was forbidden and as a result Irish Sign Language became suppressed and frowned upon. 17)
In 1972, the Advisory Committee on the “Education of Children who are Handicapped by Impaired Hearing” ratified the philosophy of strict segregation and oralist approaches. 18) Families were advised to not sign in their home and because of this a few generations who could not effectively communicate were generated. 19) From 1990, the Irish government policy recommends bilingual education of English and Irish Sign Language and Irish Sign Language is now seen as the language to educational success for deaf people. 20) 21)
On June 17, 1988, the European Parliament signed the Resolution on Sign Languages 1988 in which it asks member countries to recognize their national sign languages as official languages. 22) 23). Ten years later in 1998, the Resolution on Sign Languages 1998 followed.
Irish Sign Language is not protected by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1992), as Ireland has not signed nor ratified the Charter. Moreover, sign languages are not explicitly protected by the Charter.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) is the first international human rights convention that explicitly considers sign languages to be languages (Article 21)24). This Convention is signed (2007) and ratified (2018) by Ireland 25) One of the results of the UN Convention is that the learning of sign languages should be facilitated by state parties. Next to this, sign languages should also be recognized and supported by state parties.
Irish Sign Language was officially recognized in 2017 with the Irish Sign Language Act of 2017. The Act (section 3) states:
For education (section 5), the Act provides provision for ISL classes, ISL support, ISL teacher training and educational support services.
In the Education Act 1998 it is stated that support services for persons with a disability or other special educational needs include the use of Irish Sign Language or other sign languages and interpreting services. How these support services are to be fulfilled is not specified in the act. It is also not explicitly mentioned that using Irish Sign Language is compulsory.
The Catholic Institute for Deaf People (CIPD) is a non-profit organisation enabling services to the Deaf community. This organisation is associated with two Deaf schools (St. Joseph's Residence for Deaf Boys and St. Mary's Residence for Deaf Girls, both in Cabra, Dublin), also associated with a residential house (St. Joseph's House for Adult Deaf and Deaf Blind. In 2015, the CIPD merged the schools for the boys and the girls into the Holy Family School for the Deaf starting from primary level. 28) They offer the same classes that are available in mainstream schools but with Irish Sign Language to support language acquisition. These are boarding schools, students stay here during the week and visit their parents during weekends and vacations.
The Mid-West School for the Deaf in Limerick offers primary and post-primary education through sign language or orally. They offer the same classes that are available in mainstream schools but with Irish Sign Language to support language acquisition. This is not a boarding school, students travel daily to follow classes here.
In these three Deaf schools Irish Sign Language is prevalent and used throughout pre-school to secondary education. Next to Irish Sign Language they also learn English and the oral method is also used. The schools get subsidized by the Irish government. The children enrolled in these schools are likely to use Irish Sign Language outside school. 29) 30) 31)
Parents also have the option to send their children to a mainstream school. In any mainstream school, resources are provided based on the individual needs of the child. 32) There are also mainstream schools where there are more classes or resources for Deaf or Hard of Hearing Children. 33) In these situations, Irish Sign Language classes are limited and the amount differs per school.
Trinity College Dublin offers a Bachelor in Deaf Studies which focuses on the Deaf community and the Irish Sign Language. Later on in the programme there is a focus on Irish Sign Language teaching or Irish Sign Language interpreting. For this programme, no prior knowledge of Irish Sign Language is needed. The Bachelor in Deaf Studies “strongly encourage[s] applications from Deaf and hard of hearing students”. 34)
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