Anne Hailes: Dr Sally Gillespie a big noise in terms of sign language in the north

Dr Sally Gillespie at her graduation with a PhD in Translation in British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language

WE SIT over coffee for an hour talking about the deaf community. During this time Sally Gillespie has 10 messages on her phone, each one looking for an interpreter to assist a deaf sign language user in their communications. She's in demand on so many levels.

“It's cradle to grave – I could be at the birth of a baby or at a funeral and every aspect of life between.”

Two weeks ago today this dedicated young woman graduated from Queen's University. Professionally she's Dr Sally Gillespie PhD in Translation in British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language; to her friends she's Mrs Adam Glover.

The first of her kind in Northern Ireland, Sally not only works with the public but is also involved in advising and planning, especially at a time when health trusts are looking at standardising services for those living with deafness.

She brings her expertise from her studies around the world – in the UK, Brazil, America and Lebanon, where she was lecturing in academic English to students learning to translate and interpret.

Sally reckons that there could be 10 years between someone noticing a change in their hearing and taking action, often with other people noticing first. It can begin as a frustration when background noise dominates and it's hard to make sense of what is being said, not helped when there's exasperation experienced by the hearing person.

When this develops into deafness an interpreter comes into the picture. In some cases this can be a NHS booking or a privately paid-for arrangement.

In June 2018 the figure stood at 28 fully qualified translators, one translator and eight trainees. Fully qualify means having recognised qualifications, professional registration and insurance.

Some will focus on areas like conferences and the court service; there's the constant need for community-based work; others are in demand for their performance skills.

I remember a signed performance of the Grand Opera House pantomime where the gentleman signing was more entertaining than the cast. At one stage when it came to interpreting May McFettridge and her local jokes, to the delight of May and the audience, he just threw up his hands and gave in!

Obviously Sally finds funerals sad. “But I find it especially emotional working with terminally ill patients when it come to the stage where I can't be of any more use.”

The happiest is being at a birth. “When the baby is born the mother can't hear the first cry so I pat out the heart beat on her hand to reassure her all is well. And I get great satisfaction when I see people living with deafness overcome their setbacks and, for instance, being able to help them into employment by interpreting at job interviews.”

There's a big difference between signing and interpretation. The latter involves being bilingual, appreciating the specific grammar, not signing verbatim but restructuring the message into a 3D conversation by building a visual frame of reference using hands, facial expression and lips.

What support is there for the deaf community? British and Irish Sign Languages were given official status as minority languages in Northern Ireland in 2004 and at one time all major political parties backed establishing a sign language act. But, like so many other important things, because these same people withdrew from the assembly, it became an empty promise.

What difference it would make?

Better access to medical care, nursing homes required to communicate by signing, being able to access interpreters more readily and above all, safeguarding equality. Lighting in shops and commercial buildings to give a visual warning at times of emergency; during the height of the Troubles, people were left in evacuated buildings because they were unable to hear an alert when using a toilet.

Sign language might even be included in schools, so breaking down barriers and stigma between deaf and hearing children and resulting in communication becoming natural and easy.

Interesting that a young man in Suffolk is campaigning to have BSL made a GSCE subject. He has put forward the case that the curriculum requires anyone studying a foreign language to do a listening and speaking test – obviously this is impossible for him.

One of the biggest components of an act would be a requirement for Stormont to provide free signing classes for families of deaf children. It's thought that 90 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents so there's a need for those parents to learn to sign and that's an expensive business.

At the moment valuable time has been and is being wasted as there's no-one to take this legislation forward, especially from a linguist viewpoint rather than a disability.

I wonder how many of these politicians suffer the frustration of being deaf or hard of hearing?

Runs In The Family

Interestingly Sally, whose father Gary was well versed in communication as a journalist working in the busy newsroom at Ulster Television, is the third generation to graduate from Queen's, her grandmother in languages, her mum in marine biology and now Dr Sally.

“I tried French and Spanish but I gave up the spoken languages when I found I'd a natural aptitude for signing when I went to classes at Bangor Tec.”

This led to a degree in Wolverhampton and so on to Queen's and a PhD. And to think, her careers teacher advised her to get a ‘proper' degree.

Originally she honed her skills in Edinburgh with Deaf Action from trainee status to qualified practical worker, working in doctors' surgeries, police cells, schools and for the Scottish government taking visitors on tours of the building. This she also does at Stormont, which means she must have all the details of architecture, history and current affairs.

As Sally points out, disability isn't all about ramps and we all need to take time to understand the difficulties hearing loss causes to an individual. Remember, if not already, it could be you some day.

Blindness cuts you off from things, Deafness cuts you off from people.

Sally's details:

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