“We would like to see BSL for all, we would like everyone to have some sign language and to be able to communicate in a range of ways."
deafscotland is a national umbrella body that works with its members to improve access and participation. Integration changes lives and opportunities for people that are affected by deafness. The organisation’s main values include promoting equality and citizenship for people across the various communication barriers created by the impact of deafness. It describes a spectrum of deafness with four key pillars: Deaf/Deaf Sign Language users; Deafened; Deafblind and Hard of Hearing.
COVID-19 has had particular effects on those with deafness, having multiple impacts in various ways. For those being treated by medical professionals face masks and visors are worsening what are already challenging communication interactions. People who lip read can no longer do so and without being able to clearly read facial expressions much of the context of conversation is lost putting up further barriers when people are already in a vulnerable position. In addition, social distancing is having an adverse effect on those who rely on hearing aids which are generally designed to amplify noise at a distance of around one metre. Given the two metre social distancing measure in place, many people are finding it much harder to communicate with others which is making day to day life difficult.
deafscotland has also identified issues relating to COVID-19 information dissemination that are causing particular issues. UK Government briefings have not included sign language interpreters leaving those who rely on this language completely out of the loop when it comes to crucial updates. The Scottish Government does however provide BSL interpreters although anxiety exists around whether the camera will always capture them on screen. Further to this for those who need access to information in English, subtitling during the updates is not mandatory so many people relying on them are missing out.
deafscotland has tried to mitigate the effects of these challenges. The organisation has put a focus on information sharing to ensure people are signposted to places where they can easily access crucial updates on COVID-19 and services. This includes liaising nationally with the NHS 24/Inform teams and other organisations like the ALLIANCE to share information as widely as possible among audiences. It also advises on improvements to the accessibility of information seeking to ensure that British Sign Language (BSL), subtitles and voice over are available wherever possible. Keeping people abreast of what is available in their local areas is a crucial service provided and knowledge sharing in BSL and around hearing aid battery and repair provision are elements of this.
The way all of us are communicating has changed with a huge shift to online methods and deafscotland is providing support to people to help them navigate services and packages such as Zoom. For many people with hearing impairments, managing zoom meetings alongside methods of accessibility such as electronic note takers and BSL/English translators adds an additional layer to what many of us are grappling with in order to work online.
One group of people that has been particularly adversely affected by COVID-19 are those who are deafblind and who rely on tactile communication. With social distancing measures in place this has become almost impossible for many, meaning people are experiencing greater risk, worsening levels of isolation and negative impacts on their mental health.
Janis McDonald, Chief Officer at deafscotland, points out that the pandemic is giving many of us experiences of communication barriers which are routinely experienced by those affected by deafness: “In many ways we think it gives people who wouldn’t normally have problems with communication an idea of what the barriers we experience every day would be…it gives some insight to what some people have to deal with every day.”
It is Janis’ hope that these experiences highlight the everyday challenges faced by those with hearing impairment and will contribute to a more positive recovery: “We would like to see BSL for all, we would like everyone to have some sign language and to be able to communicate in a range of ways that currently we can’t. I think that it’s getting it into the school curriculum and just being more flexible with our language and communication.”
Looking to the future deafscotland will continue to campaign for greater access to information and services for those affected by deafness with a focus on inclusion for all towards integrated communities. The organisation’s COVID-19 response is essential to those affected by deafness in working with its membership, enabling people to navigate the pandemic safely and in an informed manner.