‘Coming Through it Together’ – Kim Wood
Deaf Awareness Week aims to promote the positive aspects of deafness, promote social inclusion and raise awareness of the huge range of local organisations that support deaf people and their family and friends. ‘Coming Through it Together’ is the theme for 2021.
There are approximately 151,000 Deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users in the UK
Some 11 million people are ‘Hard of Hearing’ in the UK – 1 in 6 people are affected by some kind of hearing loss, this number is increasing, (previously 1 in 7). The majority of hard of hearing people are over 60. Hearing loss is increasing with the use of personal devices with headphones, which if used at a high volume can damage hearing.
British Sign Language
BSL Users have a distinct culture, and refer to themselves as Big D (Deaf), this is defined by their language and politics, in general they don’t see themselves as having a disability within themselves but are disabled by society. This means they follow the social model of disability, and if everyone could use BSL there would be no barriers for them.
Historically the use of BSL was discouraged by the hearing population. Deaf children had their hands tied in schools to prevent them from using BSL and ‘encourage’ them to be oral. This is a trend that comes and goes, currently with the closure of Deaf schools, and cochlear implants, the use of BSL is again in decline.
BSL is a rich and diverse language, and like other languages continues to develop and change. BSL has a very different structure from English, for example, In English we would say ‘What is your name?’ In BSL it would be signed ‘your name what?’ For most BSL users, English is a second language. BSL users have a varying degrees of fluency. Many Deaf people have an impaired understanding of English in it’s written form because it so different in construction from BSL.
The Equalities Act
Under the Equality act, services, have a duty to make reasonable adjustments and to provide BSL interpreters. This is frequently ignored, instead relying on writing things down, which is slow, laborious and ineffective. Or using unqualified family or support workers.
Surveys have reported, BSL users are more likely to be unemployed, have poorer health, and less qualifications compared to hearing counterparts. This could be attributed to lack of access and discrimination Deaf people encounter.
People often underestimate the impact of losing some or all of their hearing. Given the choice, if asked, most people would prefer to lose their hearing than their sight. Perhaps because it is easier to imagine the impact of losing one’s sight.
‘if you go blind you lose things (i.e. you can’t find them, you can’t access them) if you go deaf, you lose people. (i.e. you lose relationships because you can no longer communicate with others).
Communication is essential to human beings, one of the worst punishments in prison is to be put into isolation. If you have ever been ‘sent to Coventry’ you might remember the impact this has. Losing your hearing is like this, you can be surrounded by people, but don’t know what they are saying, when you express yourself, you don’t get the reassurance/feedback leading to isolation. Information is power, and both D/deaf people frequently don’t have access to information the rest of us take for granted. BSL users have a unique sign which translates to ‘never knew’ which perhaps reflects this. D/deaf people also have sign that translates ‘pretend to understand’ this is something they have in common with their hard of hearing counterparts, as it is often easier to smile and nod, than to ask people to repeat themselves again and again.
Another myth is around lip reading – the hearing population often assume that lip reading can ‘make up’ for loss of hearing. This is not the case. Even in the best circumstances, where someone has a good lip pattern, no accent, is well lit and in a one to one situation, it is estimated that only 45% of what is said is lip readable. (Other estimates have this as low at 33%) This is because many words look the same on the lips. It is particularly hard in group situations, because you need to know who is speaking, and who is about to speak. If people move about, cover their faces with their hands or stand with the light behind them, (which throws their faces into shadow) it is not possible to lip read.
On a positive note, technology has improved the lives of BSL users, who can now use a variety of platforms to communicate. These include facetime, Skype, and other video calls. Interpreters are available and can be used this way. If the Covid lockdown has shown us anything, it is that you should never have problem booking a BSL interpreter again, with many companies having access to technology to provide quick and simple access.
Technology has also improved the lives of hard of hearing people perhaps to a lesser extent. Subtitles are available on most if not all modern TV’s, voice recognition software can transcribe the oral word to text (although not always successfully) and there are a number of other devices that can give some assistance from the latest hearing aids, to phones with higher volumes, and TV listeners. Although none of these devices can truly replace a person’s hearing, and if hearing loss is severe may have little use.
So the next time you are with someone who is hard of hearing, be patient, and put yourself in their shoes. Don’t shout, speak loudly and clearly, at a measured pace (not too slow, not too fast). Being hard of hearing can be exhausting, it requires a lot of concentration to try to pick up what is being said.
Many young deaf people brought up to be oral, will often choose to learn BSL when they are older and this becomes their preferred method of communication perhaps for these reasons. For anybody who wants to learn BSL, it can be fun and rewarding, and many organizations run taster courses. It is a beautiful and rich language, but like learning any language it takes time and commitment.
And always book a qualified BSL interpreter for meetings to ensure the person has understood. Remember English is not always D/ deaf persons first language… 😊