Twins Calum and Donnacha were born in November 2008, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the twins’ parents found out that Calum was deaf. Dad Andrew Geary spoke to Ryan Tubridy about Calum and how it’s been, raising a deaf child in 21st-century Ireland. One thing that’s changed since Calum was born is that all babies are now screened. Calum, Andrew told Ryan, passed a few tests at home, but his parents knew something wasn’t right.
“He passed hearing tests, believe it or not, even though he’s no auditory nerve, so he’s never heard a sound in his life. But he has vision in the back of his head.”
The fact that Calum had no auditory nerve meant that a cochlear implant wasn’t an option. The family travelled the world to try to give Calum some experience of environmental sound through a different implant known as an auditory brainstem implant, but it turned out to be ineffectual.
“All throughout that journey, we, Helen and I, and our kids, we would have been learning sign language and we’ve been welcomed with open arms into the Deaf sign language community.”
Dealing with the news that your child is deaf can’t be easy. Andrew says that he and his wife Helen went through grieving stages, from anger to acceptance and then you “grow to love it”. Every parent tends to have what Andrew calls “wants and dreams” for their child and when those wants and dreams are challenged or threatened by a diagnosis, anger is often one of the first emotions we have. We are. Andrew says, “defined by what we’ve seen before”, so when Calum was diagnosed as deaf, his family had no experience to call on.
“The deaf live in a total island on our island and until you come in to that island, you have no idea what type of life it is, and it’s the same for any parent with any special needs or different needs or different ability child.”
Calum is 12 now and Ryan wondered how he’s getting on, given that he’s on the road to adulthood. Andrew told him about something that happened a few weeks ago: Calum told his Mum and Dad that he was never going to have a job. When they asked why, he said, “It’s because I’m deaf.” Andrew described it as earth-shattering and, despite all the work he’s put in, there’s so much more to be done, because, according to Andrew, Calum is right. And Andrew feels that there’s a lot of pain in the deaf community in Ireland:
“They’re living in an island, in a bubble, not wanted. My son is so wanted inside the front door of my house, but when he steps outside that front door, this country, that I love with my heart, my soul, my being, doesn’t want my son.”
Andrew’s main issue with how Ireland treats his son is how the education system has let Calum down. His twin brother Donnacha is reading The Lord of the Rings while Calum is reading Roald Dahl. His teachers have done their best, but they’re not fully-fledged sign language interpreters, so Calum’s education suffers. He’s had teachers that were, Andrew says:
“Brilliant people, brilliant professionals who have given their heart and soul, but Calum needs more. He needs a bridge – that bridge to his potential – because there’s a fire in his eyes. And I just need to set fire to that, to open that, to its full flowing – It hurts him. He sees the books his brothers can pick up. He’s just as bright. And he works very hard.”
In order for Calum to reach his potential, Andrew believes he needs to have an interpreter standing next to the teacher. He says that we have a Sign Language act, we’ve the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the state uses lovely phrases like reasonable access, but Calum is, Andrew says, years behind his twin brother.
You can hear the full conversation between Ryan and Andrew by going here. And Calum himself will be making an appearance – along with Andrew – on The Late Late Show this Friday.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
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