The mother of a profoundly deaf boy has told of her joy at watching him head off for his first day at mainstream school.

Little Eoghan Freeman, nine, from Co Mayo, was born deaf and his mother Orla has had to fight for equal education for him.

She said the day he headed off to St Aidan’s National School with his two brothers was “the best feeling in the world”.

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The mother-of-three opens up in a new RTE documentary Deaf Not Dumb about the struggle to get him into school.

The doc highlights the educational challenges faced by deaf people in Ireland and historical injustices they suffered in the classroom.

Now Orla is calling on the Government to do more to give deaf children the education they are entitled to. She says of Eoghan: “He was the first deaf person we ever knew and we ever met. When your little baby’s hand talks back to you, it’s powerful.”

In the film, we meet a break-dancing, skateboarding, GAA-playing Eoghan at home in Kiltimagh.

Thanks to Orla’s advocacy and his special needs assistant Tara, an Irish Sign Language and deaf studies graduate, Eoghan is now thriving at school.

Orla continued: “Just to see the three boys walking off into school together, that was everything. It’s about being part of your community.”

Eoghan’s classmates are also learning ISL.

Orla reveals how one bedtime, when Eoghan was six, he signed her the question: “Mam, when did the doctors tell you I was deaf?

“Were you sad, did you cry, cry cry? Or were you happy or were you worried?

“If I didn’t have that sign language how would I have ever known that he worried about me being sad when he was born?”

Students from the Deaf Class in Geashill National School.
Students from the Deaf Class in Geashill National School.

Older deaf people reflect on growing up in an educational system determined to ignore their hearing impairment and make them fit into the same school system as everyone else.

Senan Dunne, Assistant Professor in Deaf Education at DCU and RTE signer on News for the Deaf, was just three when his parents drove him from his hometown of Carlow to St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra.

Deaf schools were the only options for kids at the time.

Senan learned sign language from other boys but if teachers caught him signing they slapped him and tied his hands behind his back.

He speaks of his frustration as a boy whose intellectual curiosities were sidelined and a focus placed on his ability to make sounds or lipread instead.

Pensioners Josephine O’Leary and her lifelong friends Breda Redmond and Edwina Murray all attended St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls in Cabra.

Up until the 1950s, Irish Sign Language was used in deaf schools but it was banned in 1952 when Oralism was introduced.

Josephine recalls: “They tried to stop us signing and make us speak. So we felt a bit lost, we weren’t able to sign anymore.”

Despite ISL being recognised as the third official language of the State in 2017, many deaf children still do not receive ISL support that would allow them to reach their academic potential.

Orla said: “It just sounds crazy. You go to third level and there’s an access programme and interpreters, but how are you going to get your children to third level if they’re not getting support in first and second level?”

*Deaf Not Dumb airs on RTE One and RTE Player tonight (Thursday) at 10.15pm.

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