British Deaf community doesn’t work as well with other disabled groups as they could, says World Federation of the Deaf President

Posted on May 2, 2014



The President of the World Federation of the Deaf, Colin Allen, has told The Limping Chicken that the British Deaf community ‘don’t work as well with other disabled groups as they could.’

Allen, on the UK leg of a seven week international tour, is concerned that the absence of a united voice for deaf people and not enough cooperation between deaf organisations is hampering deaf people claiming their rights under international law.

“I have my opinions. The [British] deaf community don’t work as well with other disabled groups as they could. They could build more alliances to campaign on issues stronger together” he said.

“The deaf community has lots of different groups with lots of different voices but they don’t form alliances. They need to work together to achieve their goals but that’s the same problem I have seen in other countries too.”

The UK Government has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; which is a wide-ranging agreement to enshrine fundamental rights of disabled people into law. It must submit a report in October to the UN detailing its progress in the implementation of the convention.

UK organisations representing people with a range of disabilities, including the BDA (British Deaf Association), will submit a parallel report to give their side of the story.

“People tell ten different stories to the government and that’s the same with hearing people too,” Allen said.

“But you need to work together to achieve common goals in the UK. In the past, people worked together well but there was no real lobbying in the past. Now that’s changed with improved education. Deaf people have their own ideas, opinions and their own groups, small and large. That is great for diversity but it’s also a problem because we need them to work together.”

The World Federation of the Deaf is an international organisation that represents to United Nations the views of the 70 million people in 133 countries that use sign language. If all those people lived in one place, it would be the 18th most populous country on the planet with a population twice that of Canada and ten-times that of Israel.

Colin Allen

Colin Allen

The challenges are different in every country but Allen says that the same principles of equality and access unite deaf organisations and campaigners around the world.

But comparing Western-world campaigners to those from the developing world, Allen, an Australian, says deaf people in the West can learn from their poorer counterparts.

“85% of our members are from developing countries so that’s many millions of people.” He continued.

“The challenges are different but in developing counties deaf people don’t take anything for granted.

“For many people in developing countries, their knowledge is very limited. Knowledgeable people in the West just want to complain and demand their rights.

“But people in the developing world don’t just complain. They work hard and quietly to improve their lives. People in the West are quick to complain but don’t do the work. It’s not the same in developing countries because people there have to work together to achieve their rights. They are better campaigners and we have to learn from them.”

While much of Allen’s focus is on the developing world, the potential for improvement in campaigning for deaf people here in the UK hasn’t escaped his attention. He says part of the problem is that deaf people in the UK simply aren’t aware of their international human rights.

“I do know about the UK groups that focus on campaigning for language rights of deaf people. I have seen the BSL Act Spit the Dummy group and I know that BSL (British Sign Language) has been officially recognised in the UK but there has been no implementation of this recognition in law.

“It’s difficult for national deaf associations to understand what that convention (on rights of Persons with Disabilities) means and that’s one big problem. People don’t understand the convention, why we have it or what it means to have that protection of people’s rights.

“I went to Scotland two years ago for the BDA annual general meeting and I was shocked to find that only about 5% of the audience knew what the convention was; but that’s a problem I see around the world.  So although the BDA have the convention translated in BSL, a more aggressive message about the convention is necessary.

“For example, your issues about Access to Work (a government scheme to provide support for disabled people at work) are a big thing. That will have to go in the parallel report to the UN as deaf people have a right to support in work. That’s detailed in Article 27 of the convention.

“We have to educate people to make sure that they campaign and lobby to point out that that government is violating the human rights of disabled people and has violated the UN convention that it ratified.”

The UK’s compliance with the UN Convention on Rights for People with Disabilities will be scrutinised by an international committee in October. According to Allen, the challenge for deaf people in the UK now, is to learn more about their rights and work together in order to properly represent deaf issues to the UN, who will in turn force the government’s hand.

One of Allen’s proudest moments was in 2006 when the UN voted unanimously to give sign language equal status to spoken languages. Eight years later and the job of educating the world’s deaf people about their human rights continues, and in the UK at least, there still seems a long way to go.

President Allen will be speaking about human rights at Green Lanes Deaf Club in London tonight (Friday). More details and tickets here

By Andy Palmer, Deputy Editor. Andy also volunteers for the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society on their website, deaf football coaching and other events. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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