Growing up in the West Kerry Gaeltacht was tough for Micheál Kelliher. He was the only deaf person in a very large area. And while his Irish-speaking mother and sisters learned Irish sign language, it was still isolating for him as a child.
When he moved to Dublin aged 12 to attend the school for the deaf in Cabra, he discovered a strong deaf community (5,000 in Ireland in total) which was a step-change. But he still had a sense of being isolated, but on a wider level.
The deaf community was still often marginalised and its needs ignored. For one, Irish Sign Language, was not recognised by the State. Deaf people also tended to be pigeonholed, although society’s understanding of that was evolving.
As he grew older, Kelliher started thinking that something needed to be done and he got involved with campaigns, firstly for deaf rights, and then on wider issues.
Kelliher will be an Independents4Change candidate in next summer’s local elections in Cabra and Glasnevin in Dublin. In doing so, he will be the first deaf person, and user of Irish Sign Language, to stand for election.
It is part of a trend that has seen an increasing number of people with a disability become involved with electoral politics, campaigning for disability rights, but also on mainstream issues.
Senator John Dolan, the chief executive of the Disability Federation of Ireland, says people with disabilities are still vastly underrepresented in Irish politics.
“In all, about 13 per cent of the population have a disability. We remain somewhat invisible. The cultural attitudes to disabled people have been a little the same as they have been to women,” he says.
Kelliher visited The Irish Times office and we hooked up a Skype video connection to the Irish Remote Interpreting Service.
Questions are posed to Sarah, the interpreter online, who signs to Micheál, who signs to her, and she then says what he has signed.
It sounds complicated but it works smoothly – besides Kelliher is also a good lip reader and has good verbal skills. This is the kind of service that really removes barriers.
Kelliher first got involved in politics in the sign language and “Right to Water” campaigns. There was also the Together for Yes campaign, and continuing efforts to get more visible language signing on RTÉ.
There was a time that deaf people were confined to a very limited choice of career. That has changed, but not totally. He is a software engineer and has found that some employers did not want to know when they found out he was deaf.
“There is discrimination. A lot of hearing people think deaf people are not able to do different kinds work and can’t communicate.”
Politically, his biggest concerns surround the state of public services.
“There are many services that are a basic human right. It should not come from your pocket. Many people can’t afford them. They find themselves deprived of them”
So he made the big decision to go from volunteer to candidate for the left-leaning Independents4Change. It is a little daunting, he says, and a little nerve-wracking but he is determined.
“I am the first deaf person and sign language user. It is a challenge but I have a good team and a lot of volunteers,” he says. “I will help bring down the barriers.”
His volunteers include sign language interpreters who will accompany him on canvasses, on radio debates, or at town hall meetings.
“It is important for people with a disability to have a voice in politics. These local elections will make our deaf community visible. There has been funding since 2012 to help pay for interpreters, personal assistants and guides. But the fund was cut in 2015,” he points out.
Technology has also been a bit of a game-changer. He can produce videos with subtitles, and also use social media to put out his message and to communicate directly with people.
Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway, who is from Ennistymon, Co Clare, is legally blind – he can read very large print.
“In a way blindness is incidental to my career as a politician, which is a good thing in a way. I am known on issues not associated with sight.”
But there are big obstacles.
“I cannot drive,” he says. “In a rural community that is very challenging. The traditional Irish politician must know everybody. I don’t have facial recognition but, that said, my hearing is very sharp.”
Conway first stood for election in 1999 and barely missed out.
“People did not have that confidence in you that you could do that job. Then I got elected in 2004 and people could see the job I did. I am now in the Seanad, want to get into the Dáil and have ambitions to become a minister.”
He sees former British home secretary David Blunkett as a great leader for the blind community.
Conway says there is little overt prejudice but some covert examples: “There a a dismissive attitude, where does that fellow think he is going?”
Patrick Murphy, from Bantry, Co Cork, has been in a wheelchair since his early 20s following a car accident. His subsequent career in electoral politics had less to do with his disability than as a volunteer in the community.
A Fianna Fáil councillor since 2009, he is currently the Mayor of Cork County, but says there are difficulties.
“Around election time, canvassing is difficult, especially getting round house-to-house in a rural area.”
He thinks his election as mayor has really changed perceptions. “It’s not the reason I am mayor. It’s an added benefit. When they see that I can perform all the duties, people say it’s great to see you there raising consciousness about disability. It does put a positive spin on disability in general.”
Miriam Murphy has been a wheelchair user for most of her life. She is now the chairwoman of Wicklow County Council. Her first involvement was when she became irate the council did not take the needs into consideration when putting in steps, or kerbs or in buildings.
“I felt that somebody needed to be at the top table to put our voice across.”
Have things improved? “Yes on the one hand, they are more inclusive, but no on the other other hand. People with a disability need to speak up more on their own behalf and built up relationships with the powers-that-be.”
Dolan says there is still a long way to go.
“Remember when Brian Crowley was first elected in 1992, there were no facilities in the Oireachtas for wheelchair users. It was inaccessible,” he said.
“People with disabilities, be they mobility, or hearing or visual impairment. They face a daunting task compared to the generality of people. There is extra effort in time needed and it is draining on energy. We need to exert far more to do what others do.
“We can do it of course but some others don’t think we can.”