This week's Spotlight on Research is with Dr Elizabeth Mathews Lecturer in DCU School of Inclusive & Special Education
Your research looks at deaf education in Ireland. What inspired your interest in that?
“It's a professional interest, I have no one in my family who is deaf. I think it started when my teacher in school in Monaghan showed us the film The Miracle Worker about Helen Keller, and I became intrigued by sign language.
Then that evolved and developed into an interest in deaf education.”
You are one of the few people in the higher education system in Ireland who researches deaf education. What was your path to here?
“I studied arts in NUI Galway and during my third year I studied abroad at Boston College, where I did courses on American Sign Language and special education.
After my degree, I got a Fulbright scholarship to Gallaudet University in Washington DC, which is a university for the education of people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
I did a Masters in Deaf Education there and then came home to Ireland do a PhD at Maynooth University on the mainstreaming of deaf education in Ireland.
I worked at the Deaf Education Centre in Cabra and the Institute of Technology, Tallaght for a few years before moving to DCU.”
What are the big challenges for the deaf education sector in Ireland at the moment?
There are a few challenges facing the deaf education sector at the moment. One problem is that children who use Irish Sign Language to access the curriculum often don't have access to teachers who use that language fluently.
This can create problems for those children in acquiring that language and in accessing the curriculum fully.
Secondly, while we have made great progress in recent years with newborn screening and early identification, we still have a long way to go in providing an early intervention service that is fit for purpose and equitable across the whole country.
Many deaf children who go on to mainstream schools will need good audiology and speech and language therapy services through their early years, and that's not always available across the country.
All in all, having enough specialised staff in the country and having that staff spread across the country is a constant problem."
What research projects are you working on?
“I’m in the middle of a project that is looking at literacy or reading ability of deaf children in mainstream schools in Ireland. I worked on it with a co-researcher Dr Margaret O’Donnell and it was funded by the Education Partnership Group.
We tested reading ability in 40 deaf children and we spoke to teachers about their experience of assessing literacy in deaf children. We have just finished fieldwork and are starting to analyse the data, so I'm looking forward to seeing what the results show.
I’m also starting another project to look at the experience of deaf children enrolled in Gaelscoileanna (Irish-speaking schools), funded by the St. Patrick's College Research Committee.
This is an area of interest because traditionally many deaf children would have taken an exemption from Irish in school.”
What steps are you taking to improve the quality of and access to deaf education in Ireland?
“I am working on a project supported by the Higher Education Authority and DCU to provide access to the Bachelor in Education here in DCU to deaf people who are fluent in ISL.
As I mentioned, many deaf students take an exemption from Irish in school and that inadvertently excludes them from going on to become primary teachers here.
If we can get a group of deaf students to qualify as teachers through the B. Ed. in DCU, they can work in the deaf education sector in Ireland.
This will help address the problem I mentioned earlier about having access to teachers with fluent ISL.
I’m also working on a new project to develop post-graduate education for teachers who have an interest in deaf education.”
What do you find most challenging about the research?
“I think there is so little research being done in deaf education here the temptation is to try and research everything! Obviously each project has to have a very precise focus which means there are lots of questions left unanswered.
I'm also conscious of not wasting the time of research participants. The population of deaf children in Ireland is small, so it's important not to cause research fatigue with schools, children and parents.”
And the most rewarding?
“I love meeting parents and children and finding out about their stories. And sometimes, with their permission, you can put families with children of similar ages or experiences in contact, which can provide a lot of support for them.
I also like being able to identify the problems that are out there and coming up with ways to tackle them.”