Andy Palmer: BSL interpreted events are vital (even if sometimes, no-one turns up)

Posted on April 27, 2015

Deaf people were left frustrated in Ilford last week after no sign language interpreter was present at charity-organised hustings event.

Although speech-to-text meant the questions from the audience and the responses from the politicians were shown on screen to be read, those who rely on BSL rather than English, felt excluded. And rightly so.

The Ilford Recorder reported on Tuesday how a signing employee of the local authority stepped in to provide interpretation but the damage was done. The deaf people that attended this ill-fated event won’t be voting in the general election, such was their annoyance.

At the same time, 40 miles up the M11, two sign language interpreters, at a very similar hustings event, signed to nobody. Not one deaf person was in attendance.

The Papworth Trust, a charity for disabled people, had arranged four hustings events across the eastern region, each with two BSL interpreters and speech-to-text. This means that deaf people of all creeds can access the words of the politicians to decide for themselves who is the real future of this country. There are over 60,000 deaf or hard of hearing people in Cambridgeshire but not a deaf soul was there.

Credit to The Papworth Trust for the work and expense they have put into the events. They have been fully committed to deaf people’s right to attend as full participants.

The problem has been though, that at two of those election events, the one in Cambridge and another in Braintree in Essex, despite a decent amount of promotion, deaf people didn’t attend. Not one.

(The video used to promote the hustings events)

It would be easy to see why Papworth Trust could feel as though they wasted their money and effort.

No questions about deaf education, none of the deaf activism that we see online, no call for a BSL Act. No questions from deaf people about the economy or health. Nothing.

At next week’s fourth and final hustings in Papworth, the village that lends its name to the charity, are likely to be much better attended by deaf people, probably due to its rural location and accessibility. Cambridge, by comparison, is a traffic nightmare.

That’ll be rewarding for the organisers to know that their expense and effort wasn’t wasted, but just because an event is made accessible, it doesn’t mean deaf people ought to be going to it.

To make a comparison, just because there was the Leader’s Debate on TV, doesn’t mean that I should watch it. It’s a free country. Some people didn’t even watch the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee on TV and that’s fine.

Events like political hustings are made accessible because of the basic right of equality; and that has nothing to do with attendance or cost. It’s done on the principle of equality.

The financial cost of equality and accessibility for deaf people will be only be incorporated into NHS, council, police or any budget if local organisations like the Cambridgeshire Deaf Association push for it consistently.

It’s only through persistent application of the principle of equality for deaf people that accessible events will become more like the norm, then we will see attendances and engagement from the deaf community on the rise. Not just through keyboards and smartphones – but in person.

But there will be times when no one turns up. That may be disappointing and feel a little wasteful but we can take the rough with the smooth if it means, on the whole, deaf people’s opinions are going to be counted.

Andy Palmer is the hearing father of a Deaf son, and is also a child of Deaf parents. He is Managing Director of the Cambridgeshire Deaf Association, Chairman of the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society and teaches sign language in primary schools. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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