PhD Research

Linguistic Demographics, Resources and Deficit of Opportunity: Deaf Signed Language Users in Northern Ireland

PhD Translation.

Passed by Queen’s University Belfast, in 2017, on examination by Dr Bronagh Byrne and Prof. Michael Schwartz


The term ‘deaf signed language users’ encompasses a diverse population, defined not only by an invisible disability but also, more practically, considered as a silent minority. This silence is effectively reflected in the ways in which the needs and aspirations of this minority group are regarded or disregarded, recognised or misrecognised, by the wider population. In the specific case of Northern Ireland, the lack of resources to support deaf signed languages users has been a lived reality for decades; and yet the silence remains largely unacknowledged. The fact that there is little evidence that actually confirms the resulting deficit of opportunity1 and inequality of access has become, in its own way, an instrument of perpetuation and, in many cases, of acceptance of this as the truth of an unchallengeable status quo. This research, accordingly, is conceived as a springboard for tackling this social exclusion and isolation. The topics addressed by this thesis are, therefore, intentionally wide-reaching in order to provide a reliable baseline for further research, and, as its title suggests, it is concerned with the following three broad issues; the linguistic demographics of deaf signed language users, the availability of resources to support this linguistic minority, and the inequality in terms of the lived experience of this minority, and how this impacts on individuals, considered through the framework of the Politics of Recognition2. To do this, I have utilised multiple research methodologies, each of which has been identified as the most appropriate method for addressing the various research questions that underpin each part of the thesis. In some ways, perhaps the most surprising of these methodologies is the importance attached to geographical information systems (GIS), a method that may be thought of as more obviously belonging to the social sciences, specifically geography. But in the context of this thesis, GIS provides a unique vehicle for collating, considering and understanding the sparse, piecemeal data currently held about this population.

What the discussion illustrates and demonstrates is clear evidence of a deficit of opportunity afforded to deaf signed language users that derives from and is perpetuated by a lack of information about the deaf community itself, and by an ingrained lack of understanding as to even their most pressing needs. Unsurprisingly, in the absence of any clear understanding of the needs of this population, the resources available to them are also underdeveloped, and the failure to understand the complexities of their lived experience translates itself into mis- and non-recognition on the part of the majority population in Northern Ireland.

This thesis cannot begin to answer all the questions that must be considered if we are to achieve true inclusion and parity of lived experience between deaf and hearing people in Northern Ireland. But it begins to raise the issues and, in its own way, highlights the need for reparative action.


1 This term is used to consider any disparity of opportunities or experience between deaf signed language users and hearing peers, to the detriment of the former.

2 This concept is considered largely through the works of Taylor, and Fraser and discussed in detail in section 4.1