Nothing could dampen the excitement of the two-week journey that we were about to embark on as we met at Newark International Airport for our flight to Belfast, Northern Ireland (“Norn Iron,” as the locals say). We were about to start the inaugural trip for our international human and disability rights consultancy organization – Tangata Group, a reality Michael and I had only dreamed of since we started talking about our vision nearly two years ago. Our trek to Northern Ireland was funded by two grants from Syracuse University: 1) the Small Scale Funds Award, and 2) the Burstyn Endowed Fund for Collaborative Research Competition Award. This project, which focuses on increasing Deaf access to the justice system in Northern Ireland, grew out of Michael’s Fulbright project the previous year when he investigated Deaf access to the health care system, also in Northern Ireland. During that inquiry, he found that Deaf people in Northern Ireland had limited access to the justice system as well. Limited access to justice implicates Article 13 (Access to Justice) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which the United Kingdom, which includes Northern Ireland along with England, Scotland and Wales, ratified in 2009.
Though tempted by imbibing silky pints of Guinness, exploring the banks of the River Lagan, and roaming the basalt columns of Giant’s Causeway, a World Heritage site, our schedule required us to get to work. Our first order of business was a meeting with Ciaran White, a Senior Lecturer in Law and Clinic Director of the Ulster University Law Clinic, and Dr. Bronagh Byrne, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast in the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work. We discussed the importance of aligning the need for more British Sign Language interpreters in the justice system with the non-contested need for spoken language interpreters for non-English speakers (e.g., refugees, English language learners). We also explored the notion of creating a central pot of funding solicitors (lawyers) can access when interacting with Deaf clients. Michael and I took these suggestions to the Right Honorable Lord Justice Gillen two days later.
Walking through the halls of the Royal Courts of Justice was almost as enthralling as the reality that we were about to meet with Lord Justice Gillen, whose rank in the Northern Irish judicial system would roughly equate to the rank of a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The dark wood walls were opulently sculpted and highlighted with grand oil paintings of justices past replete with their wigs and gowns. The power and influence within the building was palpable. Note of historical significance: during the Troubles, the building was a target of bomb and gun attacks by the Irish Republican Army.
Our court escort guided us to Justice Gillen’s door and we were promptly welcomed by His Honor. For such a powerful man, he exuded warmth and genuine interest in us as his guests. This warmth, we quickly learned, stems from his passion to create a more accessible justice system for people with disabilities in Northern Ireland. He began the meeting by explaining that he has engaged various groups of people with disabilities in dialogue about their experiences with accessing the justice system. He turned the meeting over to Michael and me asking for specifics as to how we thought the justice system could become more accessible for Deaf people. We responded with two points: one, there needs to be a training regimen provided to solicitors, barristers, and judges that encourages them to think of Deaf people as part of a linguistic minority with their own language and culture, and two, there needs to be a central funding source that legal professionals could access to reimburse interpreter costs. Recognizing that Deaf people are not the only people who could benefit from greater access to justice, we suggested that any changes made to the system be universally designed as to promote access for many marginalized groups of people including people with visual, physical, psychological, and intellectual disabilities.
Throughout the meeting, Justice Gillen took copious handwritten notes, and even taped our business cards into his notebook. He promised to follow up with our suggestions and get back to our regarding the next actionable steps. While Justice Gillen had work to do on his end, next up for us was to schedule interviews with Deaf people to identify the gaps in accessing the justice system in Northern Ireland.