U.K. Government Must Pay Greater Attention To The Deaf Experience Of The COVID-19 Pandemic

The charity Action on Hearing Loss (AOHL) has warned the U.K. government that 900,000 people in Britain who are profoundly D/deaf face a drastic loss of communicative ability if face masks are made compulsory due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The British government has repeatedly failed to take into account the needs of hundreds of thousands of D/deaf people living in the U.K., refusing to use British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters alongside ministers at Coronavirus press briefings throughout the pandemic. Charities such as AOHL are worried, therefore, that their concerns will remain unaddressed.

“This has the potential to create further isolation amongst an already marginalized community of people,” warns Karen Robson of AOHL. The charity has previously found that 12 million people in Britain suffer from some form of hearing loss, with 7.5% of them being profoundly or completely D/deaf. Evidence shows that its impacts are profound: “hearing loss can lead to withdrawal from social situations, emotional distress and depression,” according to AOHL. The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on societal social norms have, therefore, had an extreme impact upon this already vulnerable societal group, with support networks such as deaf centres no longer open.

The plight of the D/deaf community has been worsened considerably by the lack of attention paid to it by the U.K. government. Millions of British citizens sat listening to the speeches made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on March 23rd and April 27th, one announcing a nationwide lockdown and the other revealing a ‘conditional’ plan on easing it. Each time, however, hundreds of thousands of D/deaf people were left scrambling to find written information on the new measures, due to a lack of any BSL interpreters accompanying Johnson.

Though the BBC News channel now provides BSL interpreters for some Coronavirus press briefings, the Deaf community has been forced to launch both a legal case and a parliamentary petition to attempt to force the U.K. government to adhere to the 2010 Equality Act, which it argues has been breached. While the Conservative peer Lord Bethelle has stated that D/deaf people deserve “special treatment,” his remarks have been widely criticized. “Making reasonable adjustments,” writes deaf journalist Liam O’Dell in the Metro, “isn’t special treatment – it’s basic equality.”

While the rights of the D/deaf community are viewed as tangential and not as principles of equality that should be protected and strengthened, the hardships it faces are likely to continue. One deaf man interviewed by The i revealed his traumatic experience of using the NHS while suffering from COVID-19. When Pete (who did not wish to disclose his real name) arrived in hospital, he found it did not have any remote video interpreting or type-talk capabilities. Because his wife is also deaf, he was unable to remotely use a family member to communicate with doctors. Eventually, he was forced to communicate with his doctor via pen and paper, able only to ask, “will I die?”. The doctor replied, “I don’t know.”

Pete’s story is one that is undoubtedly being repeated up and down the country. Even for those who do not end up in hospital, the future of face masks poses immense challenges to D/deaf people. Lip reading for D/deaf people is a crucial lifeline, Robson from AOHL argues. “Being able to see lip patterns and facial expressions is also vital for those who communicate through British Sign Language.” For BSL users whose grasp of the English Language is limited (sign language being non-English), even communication via reading and writing will be difficult.

Though charities such as AOHL are raising emergency funds to ensure further equipment is provided to help D/deaf people communicate with hospital staff, it will take a coordinated government effort to tackle the communication issues they will face in wider society. Aside from communication issues due to face masks, discrimination against D/deaf people is already a massive societal problem. 35% of employers already feel uncomfortable in hiring severely deaf people. With instructions on health matters set to become ever more important in workplaces, there is a danger this discrimination will worsen if employers fear there will be misunderstandings in relaying these instructions to D/deaf employees. It is the duty of the U.K. government to prevent this from happening, as this already marginalized community faces further alienation from wider society.

‘Deaf’ in capitalized form refers to people who have been deaf since birth – they are pre-lingually deaf. The Deaf community is distinct in that it relies on BSL as a first language. 

‘deaf’ in non-capitalised form refers to people who have become deaf at a later stage in their lives.

Louis Platts-Dunn