The impact of coronavirus on the deaf and hard of hearing has been significant, according to some charities who support them. The lack of support isn’t just in getting vital information, but difficulties in accessing mental health support, and consideration for those who rely on lip reading when it comes to the introduction of face masks in shops, on public transport and in healthcare settings.
Charities have stepped in to bridge the gap and ensure there is extensive support available where the shortfalls of government support have been frustrating. SignHealth, an organisation that focuses on the health and wellbeing of the profoundly deaf and hard of hearing, have services ranging from a domestic abuse team, to social care and a mental health crisis text service, all delivered by deaf people, to deaf people, via sign language.
Inaccessibility within healthcare is a huge concern, particularly during the pandemic where feelings of uncertainty and fear have been so prominent. From the move to a telephone-based service to speak to GPs to the introduction of face masks in hospitals where the ability to communicate effectively is crucial; the adjustments made, whilst made in good faith, was seen as a lack of consideration in terms of accessibility for the deaf.
James Watson-O’Neill, CEO of SignHealth, says that too often deaf people are left out of the conversation: “I think if we’re being kind, and I think we should be, that people are trying hard to think of the safest way to continue to provide access, but they’re forgetting deaf people. And so often that is the end of the sentence: ‘but they’re forgetting deaf people’.”Deafness isn’t a disability, he explains: “I come at it from a social model of disability. I’m deaf and I identify as a disabled person and what that means to me is that I am disabled when society can’t work with me as a deaf person. On a railway platform when a change of platform is announced over audio, that is not accessible to me and that is disabling me. So, my identity as a deaf person isn’t a disability, I’m disabled when society does things that are not accessible to me.”
Boris Johnson’s Downing Street briefings, formally daily but now sporadic, have consistently failed in providing an in-person interpreter whilst addressing the nation with vital updates. Lynn Stewart-Taylors’ #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign, is calling on Downing Street to provide a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter alongside the briefings, and has now spread across social media, and the conversation as to why Boris Johnson can’t provide a BSL interpreter, while Scotland and New Zealand have, is about it being more of a lack of consideration rather than an impossibility.
“We always wanted to make it clear that we want an interpreter in the same room so they can’t be physically removed from the clip,” says James Watson-O’Neill who, alongside SignHealth, backed the campaign. “I use subtitles every day on TV, but my first language is English. For many deaf people whose first language is BSL, it’s not an appropriate or reasonable adjustment, to expect people to follow quite complicated information in a second language.”
SignHealth have produced their own videos following the briefings in BSL, trying to ensure that those who are profoundly deaf and hard of hearing have access to the same information as everybody else on the same day. “We’ve been producing a daily BSL summary video for each briefing. My colleagues who deliver that work, work very hard into the night to make sure they happen on the same day and they drop two or three hours after the briefings”.
The introduction of face masks has been yet another hurdle: “It’s impossible to lip read people in face masks of course. As deaf people we spend a lot of our lives trying to guess what hearing people are saying. And deaf people use sign language; it may look like it’s all about someone’s hands but actually your face is a very important part of communicating sign language. Not just your lip pattern but also your facial expression, I think one of the first places that became a requirement was in hospitals so very early on we saw real barriers put in health settings.”
A recent study by SignHealth saw that 78% of respondents found that government-produced information was inaccessible. Government communication throughout the pandemic in general has been poor, but improving accessibility is about starting from a place of wanting to be inclusive and ensuring providing information in sign language is set as a minimum standard.
Watson-O’Neill stresses the importance of simply putting in the effort: “We recognise that some people kind of go ‘Well I don’t know how to do that, help!’ That’s cool. We can help you, we can explain that, we can put you in touch with fantastic deaf companies who can record information in sign language for you; we’re lucky to be well connected to lots and lots of people who can help. It’s about being open to the question, it’s about taking the time to do things properly and fully.”
“We deserve access to everything, not what hearing people in British government think we need.”
For the young and hard of hearing, life has become difficult in a way that creates further feelings of isolation and depression in a society that has become even more inaccessible than it was prior.
Youtuber Kirsty Jade, who makes online content centred around deafness and accessibility under ThatDeafGirlKJ, echos the worries of many regarding the lack of government support throughout the pandemic.
“I am a student, so most of my classes have moved online now. That’s taken, and is still taking, some time to get adjusted to. Especially as a Deaf student, I find that many online resources aren’t accessible i.e. no captions or BSL translations, so that means I spend extra time scouring for accessible resources to complete my assignments which is time consuming and drains a lot of my energy, a privilege check there for hearing students.”Frustrated at the ignorance and lack of awareness amongst hearing people, Kirsty Jade took it upon herself to home make clear face masks to sell using a sewing machine with her mum’s help. “When I first heard that face masks would be mandatory in the UK, I did initially worry about accessibility for Deaf people who lip-read, and I made the masks because I wanted them to be able to lip-read through masks.”
Sharing the work she was doing, Kirsty Jade attracted a lot of attention on Twitter with thousands of people sharing her masks. This helped in spreading awareness for those who may have found the introduction of face masks difficult.
“The public reaction was amazing, it went viral on Twitter and many orders came in. Looking back now, I do feel like yes, clear face masks are good and a tool that we can use to communicate,’’ she told us, but like many, she feels as though there should be a real effort to find further ways to communicate: “There should also be emphasis placed on learning sign language instead of thinking that reading lips is the only way to provide access.”
While social media has been a great tool in spreading awareness, content created by hearing people often isn’t captioned or sign language translated which creates a barrier in involvement of conversation about societal issues
“When there is content about LGBTQ+, gender, race, religion and more and it isn’t captioned; that is further pushing Deaf people with intersectional identities out of discussions that we should be involved in and aware of.”
Kirsty Jade fears that the priorities of the British government are solely based on the economy, putting mental health and accessibility at the bottom of their list: “I mean all we have to do is look at the current accessibility provision for Deaf people on England’s Covid briefings, the subtitles are beyond awful and the lack of interpreters?
“Deaf people are going to go through some real struggles throughout Covid especially when it comes to mental health services. I want to see more captioned content online, more BSL interpreters on Covid-related news, and even on non-Covid related news, we deserve access to everything, not what hearing people in British government think we need.”
“Don’t generalise Deaf people. Don’t assume that we all lip-read, we all use sign language or that we all can and can’t speak. Ask us, ask us what we need you to do. Don’t assume that you know what we want, ask first and then provide,” says Kirsty Jade, who feels as though the government, and the British public in general are slow to change.
“My identity as a deaf person isn’t a disability, I’m disabled when society does things that are not accessible to me.”
“If you don’t know how to ask, try asking in different ways, write down on paper, use your phone to type, use gestures, or learn some basic sign language, stop putting the responsibilities on us to provide access, you should provide the access.”
Her advice is simple: “Get subscribing and follow Deaf creators online, we all have content that you need to watch especially when it comes to accessibility online and offline. Also, don’t assume that all Deaf creators are activists though, some of us are just living our lives.”
The responsibility being put on the deaf to accommodate for their needs has been a disheartening factor throughout the pandemic. SignHealth’s work has proved that the responsibility of providing access is being left to charities and individuals rather than acknowledging the larger issue in society when it comes to ignorance towards those with differences.
“I really encourage everyone to learn sign language and make sure you learn sign language from a deaf person,” Watson-O’Neill said. “There are lots of online resources available, there are a number of people who are offering free sign language classes, introductory classes. It’s really important that people make an effort to understand the deaf community. But demonstrating an interest and willingness to learn is a really important first step.”
Coronavirus saw a surge in online resources delivering great content. BSL Zone for one, contains a wide range of TV shows around deaf people and is a fantastic tool to learn about the rich culture.
“I encourage people to look at organisation, charities, companies that are led by deaf people and delivering great content. And of course not all of that stuff is about being deaf, it’s deaf people just doing what they do best, cooking, or whatever it might be- but there is a richness to deaf culture that I would encourage people to experience,” Watson-O’Neill said.