Disability and I: Gearóidín McEvoy

I love few things more than I love the Irish language. There isn’t as much Irish language media out there as there should be. Last year, I came across the podcast Motherfocloir, and my love for Irish was reignited. The podcast featured Gearóidín McEvoy, a gaeilgeoir (Irish enthusiast) and a dyslexic PhD student.

I met McEvoy the other week in Bewleys in Dublin for the most Irish thing: a cuppa tae and a chat.  McEvoy was just on her way back from DCU where she is focusing on human rights law for minority language users.

McEvoy grew up unaware of her dyslexia, only being diagnosed in her first year at University College Cork, describing it as ”a real revelation” that helped her to understand why she struggled at times in school. McEvoy described her dyslexia as “mild”, and so, because of this, she was often dismissed by her guidance counsellor who seemed to think that she was fine and was just being lazy or struggling with the workload.

Secondary and primary school are not as fun and manageable as they should be for students with dyslexia – not to mention the cases that go undiagnosed. McEvoy spoke at length about her annoyance of how dyslexic students are treated in schools, put down and are told that they can’t do something. Dyslexia often goes undiagnosed, and teachers berate students for being lazy or unintelligent, instead of finding what’s at the root of the problem.

This encourages an apathy within such students towards the education system, and they tend to just give up. Without proper support and encouragement, how are students with dyslexia and different learning difficulties meant to succeed?

McEvoy’s father also deals with dyslexia, and so she was aware of the implications of the condition throughout her life. Although McEvoy says she deals with a “less severe” case of dyslexia than her father, there are still few things she struggles with. It is estimated that 15% of the world’s population is impacted by dyslexia, at all sorts of different levels – not everyone with dyslexia struggles with the same thing.

On her love for Irish, McEvoy told me that she’s the only one in her family who speaks Irish. The love for Irish is usually passed down from generation to generation, so I found it especially interesting that McEvoy’s love and devotion to the Irish language was born out of pure interest and passion.

Before reaching out to McEvoy on Twitter about writing about her on this blog, I read Craic Baby by Darach Ó Séaghdha following his first book Motherfocloir. In Craic Baby, Ó Séaghdha writes about the Irish languages and different disabilities.  Ó Séaghdha mentioned his friend Gearóidín and her previous appearances on his podcast when she spoke candidly about her diagnosis of dyslexia, and explained the depth perception of languages. I found this so interesting, and really wanted to learn more.

    “This condition [dyslexia] would have entitled her to an exemption from studying Irish in secondary school if she had asked for it. However, she told me that while she struggled with English spelling and pronunciation forms (why don’t ‘hood’ and ‘moon’ rhyme, for example), she never struggled this way with Irish. It was, she said, the first language that didn’t I’m try to trick her.

    This is because Irish is shallow and English is deep in terms of orthography. In a nutshell, orthographic depth measures how likely speakers are to be able to pronounce a word they haven’t seen before, based on a language’s conventions.”

As McEvoy mentioned, students who are dyslexic are offered an exemption from Irish and other foreign languages in school. Most accept this offer. McEvoy wonders if dyslexic students were properly supported and not just given an easy way out of studying Irish, would they be able to succeed?

Students with disabilities have a higher school drop-out rate than their able bodied counterparts. Because of this, the rate of those with disabilities pursuing a third level education is low. Albeit, the world is changing and improving with a wider understanding of disability and things like assistive technology, but disabled students are still at a disadvantage.

McEvoy graduated from UCC having studied Law and Irish. A strange, but surprisingly relative combination, this led McEvoy to become a contributor on the podcast Motherfocloir  and also working as a translator with tearma.ie.

Currently, McEvoy is a PhD student in DCU and is making palpable change in the Irish-speaking community and the Irish society as a whole. McEvoy is also focusing on Irish Sign Language as a part of her studies on minority languages.

McEvoy also touches on the current issue surrounding Irish Sign Language (ISL) and the National Anthem. ISL is recognised as one of the three official languages, but totally lacks visibility in the country. A recent campaign led by ISL users saw a huge push-back against RTE when they refused to air the Irish Sign Language version of the national anthem before the televised All-Ireland final.

Right as we finish our tea and our chat, McEvoy received a text from a friend informing her that Michael D. Higgins, the Irish President had officially signed the 8th amendment out of Irish law. Close to tears, McEvoy recalls her involvement in helping to repeal the eighth amendment with other women and fellow law students in the group Lawyers for Choice: “We did it! Change is always possible”. Can similar change happen for ISL usage?

My personal take-away from this interview is that representation is important. ISL representation. Irish language representation. And, of course, representation of people with disabilities in academia.

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You can follow Gearóidín on Twitter here!

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