Edwin Poots, MLA, Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, presented certificates at a ceremony in Wilton House, College Square, in Belfast, on Wednesday evening to this year's group of second year medical students who have successfully completed the RNID/Queen's University specialised module on deafness.
The organisers strongly believe that this training on British Sign Language, deaf culture and related issues, will help these future doctors to communicate more effectively with their deaf patients.
Lisburn deaf man Bobby Bailie has been teaching the classes for the past four years, and Dr Keiran McGlade, assistant director, Medical Education Unit at the university, told us how popular they are and the job they have restricting the number to the maximum 40 each year.
RNID director Brian Symington introduced me to the Minister and I was impressed by his attitude and grasp of the situation. He had obviously been well briefed and surprised me with his knowledge of deaf history and the current state of affairs in the deaf community. Brian told me it's the first time we have had one of our own people in a position of direct responsibility and it will be wonderful if we can gain extra funding in important areas such as sign language and interpreter training.
Several people have been telling me recently that deaf awareness training is more important than sign language training and I spoke to Claire Laverty, the RNID campaigns co-ordinator, about it. She said they invest a lot of time and resources into deaf awareness training and feel it can ease communication across the spectrum of deaf and hard of hearing people, whereas sign language training benefits about 5,000 users in the province. She feels it is not a question of which is better than the other and is pleased with the Minister's obvious commitment to all aspects of the problem.
The young medical students are learning a little of both and I tried to explain the difference when asked to speak at one of their classes. "As you will see when watching a rugby referee," I told them, "body language is all important and it's essential for you to understand the need to take the initiative when you eventually finish your medical training and qualify as doctors.
"Immediate rapport can be made with a deaf patient and you gain his or her confidence with simple signs of welcome such as 'Good morning', 'Hello' or 'What's your problem?' Bobby will teach these signs and they are the first steps in deaf awareness and making the deaf patient feel at ease by showing you're prepared to co-operate in communication. It helps immensely to create immediate eye contact and not make the mistake of sitting staring at the computer screen as the deaf patient enters the surgery."
It's unlikely that any of the potential doctors will have the time or energy to become proficient at the higher levels of sign language and they must never - and I must repeat this as it is absolutely crucial - they must never try to diagnose a serious illness if their signing ability is no better than stage 1 or 2.
The ability to sign is not always complemented with the skill to read back the response from the deaf person and mistakes can be serious. We now have 11 fully qualified interpreters in Northern Ireland with more under training ? and the training is long and arduous.
But it's wonderful to see these fresh-faced and bright young students learning basic communication skills and gaining insight into the world of the deaf. And it's great too that the venture has the whole-hearted support of our new government.