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UK Politics

We're being left out of the big society, say the deaf


Thousands of deaf people are socially excluded because of a lack of adequate services for sign language users, campaigners say.

Up to 70,000 people, many of whom cannot lip-read or have poor English skills, use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language. But half of them leave doctors’ appointments feeling confused because of the poor quality, or absence, of interpreters, research suggests.

Action on Hearing Loss has called for improvements in healthcare access and standards for the hearing impaired. A survey by the charity, formerly the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, found that half of BSL users left medical appointments confused. “We are talking about vital information on medication or even traumatic diagnoses,” said Helen Arber, the charity’s head of capacity development.

It also wants the Government to set a minimum standard for communication for deaf people throughout society. Of the 10 million Britons who have some form of hearing loss, more than 800,000 are severely or profoundly deaf. “There is still a huge way to go to ensure any kind of level playing field for them,” Ms Arber added.

“We are proud citizens but we are treated as lesser citizens,” said Jeff McWhinney, a former head of the British Deaf Association, who campaigned for the formal recognition of BSL as a language.

Activists have also complained to the BBC that sign language interpreters were not shown on screen during big events such as the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee and Barack Obama’s election victory speech. Television broadcasters are legally required to provide subtitles for 80 per cent of programmes and sign language in 5 per cent of programmes.

Caroline Hurley, an IT manager who is deaf, said subtitles were often inadequate: “They are, on average, seven seconds slow and frequently stop when live speakers talk too fast, so we miss important information.”