There was a gang of us

Group photo of eight members of the Deaf Community Together for Yes group

Caroline McGrotty

I’m not sure when I ‘became’ pro-choice, I think I have always been this way. I don’t remember ever NOT being pro-choice. My first experience of protesting or rallying I should say for abortion rights was back in 2013 outside the headquarters of Youth Defence which was in response to their campaign and parking an anti-choice billboard trick outside the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. That same year, I attended a number of smaller protests outside a clinic in Dublin which gave false and misleading information to women and attended the annual March for Choice, which was in its 2nd year. 

Fast forward to 2017 and it was nearly coming up to the annual March for Choice. I somehow felt a little alone at these marches, even though I was amongst many others who shared the same view I did. Perhaps this was because I am part of the Deaf community and abortion rights was very rarely discussed amongst the community, often I was at marches and rallies with just maybe one or two other deaf people who actually were men! 

At the beginning of September 2017, I decided to email the National Deaf Women of Ireland (NDWI), to ask them to whether they were following National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI)’s mandate and for them to disseminate information in Irish Sign Language on this topic amongst their members and the wider Deaf community. ARC were incredibly inclusive by having ISL interpreters present at their marches but more members within the Deaf community needed to see this for themselves. I chatted with a number of my Deaf friends encouraging them to attend the March for Choice and the Chair (at the time) of the NDWI arrived! I was delighted! For the first time, I felt I wasn’t alone; there was a gang of us! After the march, all of us gathered in a pub and discussed how we could share and educate the Deaf community on the issue of abortion rights in a way that would be accessible, particularly because information had not been made available in their language before. 

I think it’s important for the audience reading this to remember that hearing people (people who have hearing) have access every day to talk shows on the radio, on the television (which often are poorly subtitled as they are usually live), podcasts, hearing people talking on the streets, in coffee shops etc. all of this is incidental learning, you are learning news without realising you are! For Deaf people who use ISL, they have to actively seek information out in ISL and often this comes in the form of presentations by Deaf organisations or vlogs on social media. 

Between eight of us, a mixture of deaf women and men, we came together and devised a plan of action with the support from the NDWI. Our first presentation was in October 2017 and it was just a general information session on the 8th Amendment and was attended by over 70 people in Deaf Village Ireland. A similar presentation was also delivered by the anti-choice side to ensure Deaf people had access to both sides in ISL.  

The Citizens’ Assembly was widely discussed and talked about in the news at the time as they were discussing the issue of abortion rights. We then decided, why not have a Deaf Citizens’ Assembly in February 2018 and put the same questions with the same options they asked in the main Citizens’ Assembly. This event really was an eye-opener for us, we could really gauge what the Deaf community’s thoughts about legalising abortion. I think also at that meeting, a lot of Deaf people themselves recognised for the first time that they were in favour of legalising abortion laws in Ireland and hadn’t realised it until that point!  

Shortly after this, we set up “Deaf Community Together for Yes” Facebook page. We knew that Deaf people do not all live in Dublin, but rather are geographically dispersed all over Ireland and we needed a way to reach out to these people. With this page we could actively educate and inform the Deaf Community about the impact of the 8th Amendment through vlogs in ISL, share accessible materials and also live stream in-person events. However, by the end of the campaign, we actually found ourselves unintentionally educating the hearing community about Irish Sign Language and the issues of how the 8th Amendment affected Deaf women in Ireland!

I could go on forever about all the ins and out of what we did, but in the 6 weeks from setting up the Facebook page to the day of the referendum, we made a total of 35 videos into ISL, hosted 3 more workshops with TMFR, Amnesty International, Catholics for Choice, two “Ask – A – “ sessions with Lawyers for Choice and AIMS which were all live-streamed, held 10 ISL Chats for Choice across Ireland and also presented at other TFY groups, took over pro-choice Twitter accounts for a day, wrote an article on the Impact of the 8th Amendment on Deaf Women (please read!) AND we made and distributed over 800 ISL TFY badges! We also secured an amazing group of volunteer ISL/English interpreters who willingly donated their valuable time to us so that we could run our events and attend workshops. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to host our workshops and attend events like we did. 

On our Facebook page alone, we had over 1,300 followers, over HALF A MILLION unique post engagements and people spent over 8,200 hours viewing our videos! Our videos were definitely a key player in making it a success – we translated and explained the meaning of keywords in ISL such as “fatal-foetal abnormality ”, “bodily autonomy” etc. We translated myths from ARC’s, we translated In Her Shoes stories and made videos in ISL on registering to vote. And for the unexpected following of hearing people on our page, we even shared how to sign key phrases such as ‘Repeal’ in ISL! 

It wasn’t all happy times though. Getting closer to the referendum date, Deaf people were discussing the issues within Facebook groups for the Irish Deaf community and there were times when it got heated. A number of people within the Deaf community blocked me on Facebook, friends became acquaintances, and some even turned away from me when I turned up at a bingo fundraiser in the Deaf Village wearing my Repeal jumper! I was referred to as “a nuisance” to the Deaf community and was called an “aggressive feminist” (which I’m very proud of by the way! I’ve even put it in my Twitter bio!). 

All in all, it was so worth it. The hours we put in, the dedication to campaigning for repeal and educating Deaf people. For the first time, the subject of abortion rights was being discussed, a year previous, there had been nothing!

I am so proud of what we did to repeal the 8th amendment. I am so thankful for the amazing group who led this campaign alongside me. We were all equals. 

I want to thank my peers, Aidan McArdle, Carmel Duggan, Grainne Meehan, Joanne Chester, Michael Kelliher, Nora Duggan and Ronan Lowry. I also want to thank all of the amazing ISL/English interpreters who are too many to name individually. And I want to also thank NDWI, for supporting the fight for repeal and allowing this discussion to get started. 

Tattoo showing the word "Yes" spelled in Irish Sign Language, with the date underneath in roman numerals

Last year, in the lead up to the first anniversary of the referendum, I got my first and only tattoo. It is the word ‘YES’ finger spelled in Irish Sign Language with the date 25th May 2018. 

Forever embedded on my body as a reminder of what we did.