Exploring Language Preference within the Deaf Community of Northern Ireland
This ongoing research is establishing, original, reliable data on the population size, location and distribution of the Northern Irish deaf community. Documenting prevalence of BSL, ISL and English, and communication preferences within the linguistic minority group
Historically understanding of the demographics of this community has been based largely on assumptions, broad generalisations and widely accepted crude figures. These figures, 5,000 BSL users and 2-3,000 ISL users in Northern Ireland, were published by RNID without explanation or clarification. It is not stated whether these refer only to deaf sign language users, as one might assume, or whether these figures are intended to include all residents of Northern Ireland that have BSL/ ISL as a functional language and yet, they have remained the accepted statistics and remained unchallenged for many years. In addition to this, RNID (now Action on Hearing Loss) have updated the facts sheet which now states, “At the moment there are no reliable current figures on how many people… in Northern Ireland use Irish Sign Language (ISL).”
There is no explanation of rationale of these figures, which is also true of the second commonly held statistic that 2/3 of sign language users in Northern Ireland use British Sign Language and 1/3 use ISL, which is unpublished yet remains a commonly accepted statistic within the Deaf community.
This ongoing research project aims to establish reliable information with regards to the demographics of the deaf community, including language preference and the prevalence of bilingualism within the community. Although initially using a wider definition of the deaf community, focus is then drawn to the signing deaf community. If successful, this will be the largest project of its kind in the UK, aiming to document details of an entire countries deaf, signing community. Similar work has been completed in Sweden by Werngren-Elgström et al. (2003) to establish greater understanding of the Swedish deaf signing community. Similarly to the approach used by Werngren-Elgström et al., a number of different measures are explored and compared in this research to create a more reliable figure than could be reached by any individual approach. A combination of primary research and carefully selected secondary research are used to generate an understanding of this largely undocumented community.
This limited understanding of the community in turn limits meaningful evaluation of resources and services to which the minority is entitled. Beyond the basic understanding of the number of sign language users in the country, there is no understanding of the dispersion or location of these individuals, therefore further complicating the provision of appropriate services. Establishing reliable statistics will also act as a framework for future research within the field, contributing particularly to the overarching project I am currently undertaking evaluating the resources, demographics and deficit of opportunity afforded the Deaf community in Northern Ireland. Beyond this, the research will support justification of investment in the community, highlight the right and requirements to offer such services to the minority and potentially create an exportable model of research for other national Deaf communities.