Lorraine Leeson: Going Against the Current

Lorraine Leeson

Lorraine Leeson, Julian and Virginia Cornell Distinguished Visiting Professor, discusses language rights for the Irish deaf community.

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According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are an estimated 72 million deaf people in the world today, but only 17 percent access education. Of these, some three percent have access to bilingual education: that is, an education where the local signed language is a language of the curriculum. This talk considers the impact that lack of access to an education in a signed language has had for members of one particular Deaf community - the Irish Deaf community. (Unintended) outcomes of Irish educational policy have included the evolution of gendered and generational variants of Irish Sign Language, and for many, functional illiteracy in English, limited access to higher education, underemployment, poor access to public services and relative poverty. These are not natural outcomes of being Deaf, but rather outcomes emerging from a societal response that sees "deafness" as a deficit, as "problem", as a medical condition requiring mitigation or cure. Against this rather bleak backdrop we consider how the Irish Deaf community attempts to swim against the tide of policy that impacts negatively on their linguistic position and we ask what the future may hold for Irish Sign Language users.

Lorraine Leeson is the Julian and Virginia Cornell Distinguished Visiting Professor of Linguistics. Her doctoral work was the first to examine aspects of the morphosyntax of Irish Sign Language, and subsequent to this, she has published and lectured widely on aspects of the grammar of Irish Sign Language and in the area of signed language/spoken language interpreting. Lorraine was a member of the first cohort of professionally trained Irish Sign Language/English interpreters in Ireland, and she continues to interpret occasionally. She is editor of the Centre for Deaf Studies monograph series, and was editor of the journal, 'The Sign Language Translator and Interpreter' from 2007-2009. Recent publications include a co-edited volume on interpreting (with Dr. Svenja Wurm and Dr. Myriam Vermeerbergen) (2011), a cognitive linguistic driven account of Irish Sign Language with John Saeed (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), and an edited volume on interpreting, education and mental health co-edited with Myriam Vermeerbergen (2012). She is currently working on a volume on applied sign linguistics with Jemina Napier. Lorraine was named a European Commission Language Ambassador in 2008 for her work on Irish Sign Language. She chairs the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters' Expert Group and is a member of the AIIC UK/Ireland Network on Sign Language Interpreting.