The politics of deafness: Andy Palmer interviews Sir Malcolm Bruce MP

Posted on July 18, 2013

Sir Malcolm Bruce’s office in Portcullis House looks out across the River Thames toward the London Eye. The London skyline has changed markedly since Sir Malcolm came to London when he was elected as MP for the Scottish constituency of Gordon in 1983. At the time, his profoundly deaf daughter, Caroline, was just six years old and provided the motivation for Sir Malcolm to become a champion for deaf people within the corridors of power.

A vice president of two national deafness charities as well as Chair of the All Party Group on Deafness, Sir Malcolm has held many high profile jobs for the Liberal Democrats and is the current Chair of the International Development Committee. Now, thanks to being selected in a ballot of MPs to put forward a Private Members Bill, Sir Malcolm finds himself, not for the first time, at the centre of the deaf campaigning world.

We meet at time of both disillusionment and hope for deaf people. Disillusionment, despair even, at the persistent inequalities facing the deaf. Despair that being deaf can still consign people to life as some kind of second class citizen. Hope that things will change if people are prepared to stand up and be counted.

Back in February, Sir Malcolm tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) to call for better rights for sign language users. Tabling that EDM launched a campaign that got the support of over 200 MPs. Now he has an opportunity to introduce a Private Members Bill and has decided to choose deaf people’s communication rights as its focus.

“What I want to do is focus on is the fact that the thing that cuts deaf people off is communication.” Sir Malcolm said. “The thing that would do most to integrate deaf people is communication support. We want to use technology and rights. We want more interpreters, more situations where people can use them and more fully incorporate them into society.”

“So I am seeking a meeting with Esther McVey (Minister for Disabled People). I have had a conversation with her and she seems quite keen to help but for a variety of different reasons the meeting hasn’t happened. I’m not quite sure when I will meet her but hopefully sooner rather than later. I want to talk to her about all the cross-cutting government issues that need to be resolved.”

But what are the chances of progress? Of the Bill becoming a new law designed for deaf people?

“The chances of this Bill becoming law are not good, in fact they really not there. But it [the Bill] can be a focus for campaigning. We will set out a Bill and point out the things we want. I will take it to ministers to say ‘If I can’t get this Bill through, is there anything in this you can take forward?’”

Before the Bill is due in October, Sir Malcolm will chair a meeting with representatives from the UK’s major deafness, hearing loss and sign language organisations, including relative newcomers, the ‘Spit the Dummy’ Facebook campaign group, who played a leading role in the success of the EDM earlier in the year.

“We’re working to find a way to try and set up some kind of short Bill that will set out the aspirations.” He said.

“But I also want people to understand that there is not much point in me producing a wonderful great long Bill that is never going to get into law, so I would much rather it just focuses and says ‘we want to set up an organisation that can focus on delivering these kind of rights for deaf people.’ Set up a body, representative of deaf people, that would promote the rights of deaf people.”

Sir-Malcolm-Bruce-2“They (The Government) could run with this if they wanted to. If I was a minister I would say that I’m not going to set up a great statutory body but I will set up an advisory group and I will ask them to produce reports which will be public and we will consider them. I would like to find ways of improving the lot of deaf people that are affordable and ways that meet the needs through proper consultation with the deaf community.”

Sir Malcolm has intentionally not specified the rights of sign language users over those who choose to use lipreading or other communication methods. It will be September before more is revealed and October before the Bill is due before the House of Commons (if it gets there).

Of the last 30 thirty years in Parliament, Sir Malcolm has spent only the last three as an MP for a party in government and he has come under some intense criticism on internet forums and on Twitter for voting with the coalition on welfare reform. Pleasing everyone in British deaf society is also likely to be a challenge but Sir Malcolm seems determined.

In his time he has seen many deaf-related campaigns come and go while the overall picture for deaf people, in his view, has remained the same or got worse; while in other parts of the world, deaf people have advanced.

“It’s very frustrating because I feel every time we start a campaign we have to start from square minus-one and go through it all again and educate everybody all over again about why its justified.” He reflected.

“I look back over thirty years and at times I feel that we have made remarkably little progress, the number of interpreters has gone up but not by anything like enough, there have been initiatives in the Welsh assembly and one or two other things.”

“It’s also about trying to get deaf people not to have too many campaigns going at the same time, we need to follow things through and get some unity and that’s really difficult. America has a very militant deaf community who fight for their rights in lots of ways and the impression I get is that the deaf community in America do better, they’re more visible, they get more support.”

“It’s also about having practical schemes, something to focus on and saying ‘let’s go for this’. I really thought VRS (Video Relay Services) could be a big breakthrough.”

Sir Malcolm talked a lot about VRS. VRS is a service that allows sign language users to make and receive calls using a relay interpreter. To his disappointment, VRS is not something that looks likely to be established in the UK, despite his efforts and enthusiasm for the idea.

30 years ago, when Sir Malcolm won his seat and began to spend most of his days in London, VRS would have seemed too futuristic to contemplate but he says the relationship with his daughter has suffered because of the difficulties in communication and distance between them.

“My signing is very poor and she gets very frustrated with that. I’m away a lot of the time and of course she’s grown up now, she’s 36.”

“She’s been hugely disadvantaged. She’s not been denied things but she’s betwixt and between. She doesn’t want to live her life among the deaf community, which in Aberdeen is quite small anyway, but she really struggles to cope in the hearing community, including with her own family because her speech is not good. The comprehension and lip reading is not there although she works hard at it. She gets very frustrated and I feel bad about that.”

These days, its not a lack of technology that holds people back or cuts them off;  it is the access to that technology or the way deaf people say they are not protected or empowered by the law. Many will be keeping a keen interest in how the campaign around Sir Malcolm’s Bill develops and hope that it doesn’t fizzle out, when inevitably, the Bill itself doesn’t deliver the goods.  But from my hour with Sir Malcolm, it seems he believes that the unity and focus of deaf people themselves will be the eventual deciding factor in making the progress he wants. He knows he can’t do this on his own.

By Andy Palmer, The Limping Chicken’s Editor-at-Large.

Andy volunteers for the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society on their website, deaf football coaching and other events as well as working for a hearing loss charity. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP  (views expressed are his own).

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