Deafblind Scotland has quickly adapted services to continue to support the deafblind community during this particularly challenging period.
For over 25 years Deafblind Scotland has been serving the deafblind community, sustaining deafblind people’s personal and professional support networks and influencing statutory services and policy.
We provide many services such as guide communicators, activities in and outside of our Learning and Development Centre, welfare rights support, training in British Sign Language (BSL) and other areas as well as fundraising and a charity shop.
Our priority since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to keep all of our vulnerable and extremely vulnerable deafblind service users well. As we use a tactile form of BSL for communication and also provide guiding, we began using masks and gloves early in our response to the pandemic and sourcing PPE has been a full-time effort.
Our members all have deafblindness to varying degrees, and therefore accessing information can be incredibly difficult. Some can access news through TV, radio or from someone they live with, though for many their dual sensory loss means this is not possible. To combat this, we have produced four briefings, one per week during lockdown. We have reached around 500 people each time in a range of formats including Braille, XXXL print, Moon (another tactile form of print) and audio CD. Communications have included a translation of both the UK Government and First Minister’s letter and one briefing focused on protecting your mental health, with contact information for gaining support such as breathing space and SAMH etc.
We have taken every opportunity to share the key messages around staying home, as well as information on social distancing and hygiene. Most recently we shared information on wearing face coverings in shops and how to wash them, as well as other important messages such as the continued availability of the NHS and other general health concerns.
Deafblindness can lead to profound levels of isolation, loneliness, boredom, frustration, and depression. A recent Deafblind UK study established that mental distress is three times more common among people with deafblindness than in the general adult population. The study found that 50% of people surveyed reported high levels of anxiety, depression, physical and somatic symptoms, and/or social impairment. Respondents reported experiences of social isolation, a loss of independence, and the impact of other people’s negative attitudes. Through our ongoing consultation and service delivery in supporting deafblind people, we know it is an unusually isolating condition and can cause profound loneliness, even within more usual times. One of our members described her life as “like living in a cupboard with the door closed”.
During this pandemic, these feelings have obviously greatly increased. To address this and to support our service users we have therefore created a phone line, which members can call or text for a chat whilst our centre is closed.
The welfare rights team have also produced information on how the benefits system has changed and they are still accepting referrals and are offering support by telephone or email. Working in this way has been a challenge for the team as they usually carry out home visits in order to assist service users with the completion of forms and support them in their benefit assessments.
We have managed to swiftly adapt to meet the changing needs of deafblind people through the exceptional commitment of our staff team. We have specialist guide communicators, programme and office staff who deeply understand the support needs of our deafblind members and are committed to doing whatever it takes to protect their well-being and prevent any further loneliness for some of society’s most profoundly isolated individuals.
Frontline staff immediately adapted to wearing PPE, allowing them to continue enabling deafblind people to maintain their place in society through tactile communication and guiding services. Staff are also providing emotional and social support to people who often have heightened stress levels even in their own homes. Our work has been supported by quick government and funding body decisions which have enabled us to rapidly scale up our outreach support.
Deafblind Scotland are uniquely positioned to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, because of our understanding of and work with both the individual and their wider family and community context. As a charity we are able to quickly redistribute our resources in the direction that will make the biggest difference to people, and are also able to gain wide public awareness and support in ways that can be more challenging for public sector colleagues.