Richard Turner: Deaf people and politics – how I saw the big deaf debate

Posted on March 23, 2015

I find it sad that so many of us feel disengaged, mistrustful and disillusioned with our politicians. People feel that they are too professional, too detached and they don’t represent the people who voted them in.

This is especially the case for many people in the deaf and hard of hearing community, who feel so frustrated and disconnected to the political establishment. It’s hardly surprising that with many of us personally affected by austerity measures and cuts some don’t see the point in voting at all.

I can identify with this, but I believe that we can all make a difference by engaging with MPs. Last week I attended Action on Hearing Loss’s Deafness and Hearing Loss Hustings debate at Westminster.

This represented a great opportunity for deaf and hard of hearing people to redress the balance by quizzing politicians about the issues we really care about in the run-up to the general election and trying to get some answers.

There were about two hundred people in the audience, from Deaf BSL users, deafened cochlear implant and hearing aid users, all with different perspectives and different communication support needs.

It was made fully accessible to us all through the use of lipspeakers, BSL interpreters and speech-to-text reporters, as well as a hearing loop.

The MPs on the panel included Mark Harper, the Conservative Minister of State for Disabled People, Lord German, the former Deputy First Minister for Wales and Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee for Work and Pensions and Kate Green, the Labour Shadow Minister for Disabled People.

Denis Campbell, who writes for the Guardian and the Observer, chaired the event. He wears hearing aids and understands the barriers we face. Kate Green also seemed to have an understanding of the problems deaf people face. She said that things are getting tougher for deaf people “as a result of cuts to public services and welfare reforms in a climate of hostility and suspicion being created against disabled people”.

Mark Harper, on the other hand, seemed more detached. In his opening speech he reiterated the government’s usual statements about how he wanted to “give disabled people greater access to employment in a more inclusive society.”

All well and good, I thought, if those who were able to work were getting the support that they needed to get them back into work and weren’t feeling the brunt of the cuts.

Lord German, on the other hand, spoke of “dignity, consideration, understanding, self-esteem and inclusion” when talking about disabled people. He said he was Welsh and could understand the need to have British Sign Language recognised as an official UK language, just like Welsh. He said he understood the need for a cultural heritage and identity within the Deaf BSL community.

The questions asked by the audience were wide-ranging, and included the Access to Work 30-hour “guidance” review, the problems deaf and hard of hearing people face accessing the NHS due to communication barriers and lack of deaf awareness in the NHS.

There were also questions about cuts to hearing aid provision by CCGs around the country and changes to welfare reforms, which are all having a detrimental effect on people with hearing loss.

There were questions about improving subtitling, and increasing the provision of lip-reading classes. These are all issues that I feel very passionate about. I have regularly had major communication barriers in accessing doctors and hospitals, and experience the lack of subtitling provision and poor quality on a daily basis.

Someone in the audience asked why the fundamental principle of providing free hearing aids to those who need them was being challenged by NHS Trusts in reducing provision to people with mild or moderate hearing loss (following the recent decision by the CCG in North Staffordshire).

I know from my own personal experience how difficult it is to access NHS healthcare when you cannot communicate well with your doctor or healthcare professional due to your hearing loss and you cannot understand what they are telling you about your own health or treatment.

Mark Harper explained that the NHS would publish a new Information Standard report in the spring, which would provide guidance on the “reasonable adjustments” outlined in the Equality Act 2010 and would “make it better”. Kate Green said that we needed an Enforcement Act to make it work because public bodies like the NHS thought they were now “off the hook”.

An audience member asked whether the government would provide regulation to compel high quality subtitles on TV, on-demand services and the cinema. Kate Green mentioned the possibility of looking at EU legislation, but said that the UK government was resistant to this.

The Chair Dennis Campbell then put a motion to the audience to ask whether they thought we needed legislation to make subtitling work better. The audience responded with their unanimous support for enforcing legislation, showing how strongly people with hearing loss feel about this.

In his closing statement Mark Harper said that that he had realised that the “reasonable adjustments” stated in the Equalities Act were not always working in practice.

Kate Green, on the other hand, said that the government was increasingly making constraints on people with hearing loss, who “needed to start using the language of rights to address those constraints”. She also said that she had gained some useful insights about what really concerns people with hearing loss.

Lord German talked about “reducing the stigma of disability and getting more disabled people back into work”.

I found this event really interesting and insightful. Even though MPS often don’t provide us with the right answers and reassurances we want to hear, they did listen and it was important that the right questions were asked.

The audience managed to surprise the MPs with their questions and made them think. This in itself raised awareness of the issues that are affecting the lives of deaf and hard of hearing people today among those MPs. These politicians can influence future government policy decisions.

I hope there will be more debates like this in the future. I think that engaging with politicians and other decision-makers is essential if we want to campaign for change and achieve better equality and inclusion in our society.

We all need to vote in the upcoming general election. Politics is all about people and we can all make a difference at a local and national level. Doing nothing is not an option.

You can watch highlights of the debate here and find out more about BDA’s forthcoming hustings here.

By Richard Turner

Richard blogs at his own blog, Good Vibrations and is a volunteer for Action on Hearing Loss

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