Wendy Anderson: Social work: a new journey? Part 1 (BSL)

Posted on May 8, 2017

Wendy Anderson calls for a joined up multi-agency deaf specialist approach in the first of a two-part article on the complexities of social work with Deaf people, shared here with kind permission of British Deaf News.

To watch this article in BSL, click here.

Social Work is always in the news. Much work is being done to try to improve the media’s knowledge and understanding of what social work is about.

But what about Social Workers who have never met Deaf people before or even know what the role of a Deaf specialist social worker is? How do we support all parties to understand the Deaf Community, Deaf Culture, and Deaf way of life?

Is there a difference in responses between Deaf parents with hearing children and deaf children with hearing parents? Let’s take a look…

My Story 

I’ve grown up with deaf parents whose first and only language is British Sign Language. Both my parents attended schools for the Deaf. I am also Deaf and have other Deaf family members too.

I qualified as a Social Worker in 1997. I worked independently until setting up Deaf Independent in 2012. My parents hid from Social Workers for 5 years worried that their children would be removed because one of their children was not speaking. Such interventions were negative and negative about us. There were no BSL Interpreters back then.

My parents were asked why other hearing children of Deaf parents had better English than we did. We didn’t know anything about the differences in signed communication such as SSE and BSL – back then we just signed ‘sign language’. We didn’t know that children of deaf parents already had a language.

Social Work Today: What’s changed? 

In some areas, Social Work with Deaf People is being reduced and merged into the work of sensory teams. In some places it has gone altogether. But some areas still have a fantastic Social Work Service for Deaf People with additional specialisms such as Best Interest Assessor, Deaf/Blind assessor, Child Protection Social Worker and so on.

Today there is much debate about developing areas of practice further into accreditation schemes to practice, such as Social Work with Children and Families.

While this rumbles on in mainstream services, what about Social Work with Deaf People? Is it evolving or moving with the times? How does Commissioning see Social Work and Deafness? Do Social Workers in hearing teams need someone who can sign and that’s it?

Until there is more information shared about Social Work practice and deafness, I fear some poor practice could emerge and if it affects you, who do you turn to?  Usually the Social Worker with Deaf People but maybe there is no deaf specialist social worker. Local deaf specialist experts need funding but who approves the funding? Let’s be open and discuss this – together we can make a difference.


Social Work is now a registered protected title and there is much focus on Social Work.

Currently Deaf people are supported by a Social Worker for the Deaf (if they have one). The majority are based in Adult Teams and not Children and Families.

Times have changed, people are more risk averse and referrals to Children and Families have increased particularly since Baby P. Safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility but is the process fair to Deaf parents compared to Hearing parents of deaf children?

Decision to go to Court 

Once a decision is made to go to Court by the Children and Family Team with the Solicitor’s agreement, challenges at that stage from the same local authority should not emerge (unless of course new evidence becomes available).

For Deaf parent(s) they may find at this stage, that their Social Worker with Deaf People who has been involved supporting them throughout the process can still support them through the legal process but might not be asked to give their opinion at Court stage.

What then for the Deaf Parents?

What can go wrong? 

Take the case of a Social Worker with Deaf People working with a non-deaf specialist Social Worker, a positive move yet equally boundaries, roles and responsibilities can become blurred; for example:

Who is doing the voice-over for when hearing people are present and talk to each other? Who is assessing what? 

In one situation, I found an able deaf parent trying to explain to the local authority the good practice guidance of working with and assessing Deaf people. At times this person was being labelled as resistant and uncooperative.

In fact, the deaf people were able and intelligent enough to articulate and express their own thoughts. How could this be avoided in the future? Who would you turn to for support? Who is out there for support, and importantly who with the power will ‘listen’?

Other examples include a Social Worker with Deaf people expecting to comment on their own observations and assessments as well as inform the Deaf parents about what is happening and the concerns of the Children and Families Social Worker. Some Social Workers with Deaf People insist on having a BSL Interpreter present with a Children and Families Social Worker – this is positive.

Some Deaf parents are not asked why they feel anxious about which organisation or which BSL Interpreter is being booked. Instead, they could be seen as being difficult, and wanting to be ‘in control’. Yet, are Deaf parents ever told who the interpreter will be? More often than not, they aren’t. We know BSL Interpreters adhere to the strictest confidence rules but Deaf parents tell me it’s about their privacy and dignity. They would rather have someone unknown to them from a different area.

One family had their children placed in care and did not know that they could seek legal advice.

How the case can build up against a deaf parent is multi-faceted such as:

  • Poor English/not doing well at school
  • Homework not done
  • Parents have been informed of the issues at parents evening (no interpreter provided)
  • How can deaf parents parent as a result of their “disability”?
  • Parents did not understand questions about boundaries, stability and development
  • Parents did not know about safeguarding issues
  • The concerns have already been explained to the parents even with a BSL interpreter present and still no changes
  • Observation of contact between parents and children showed parents did not engage (the hearing children were chatting to the hearing contact supervisor), Deaf parents did not know they could complain and request the contact supervisor to encourage children to focus on their parents
  • A Deaf parent’s hearing sibling (CODA) complained that an Interpreter was not relaying the full communication including non-verbal communication vital when demonstrating reciprocity and love.
  • When a child is placed in care, if they are of an age, they can express their own views and feelings about having a deaf parent
  • Deaf parents unaware that the Supervisor is making notes of your parenting which can be used in Court
  • Lack of feedback to Deaf parents and where feedback is given it’s in writing as the Interpreter has to go. Local Authorities do not book Interpreters for longer than the contact session to go through with the parents their feedback of how it went.
  • Depression becomes ‘invisible’
  • How are hearing children of deaf parents perceived generally in society? If this was a family where another language and not English was their primary communication, would Social Services become involved in the above examples? Possibly not.

What if the children are just hearing from hearing parents and the child did not attend school or did not do well in education. Would Social Workers become involved? – Unlikely, unless there are concerns about harm or risk of significant harm to the child. Access is already available from service providers in their own language. This is not the same for some Deaf parents – where is their local deaf specialist Children and Family access?

Until recently Deaf parents were not aware that they can have access to an Independent Deaf Specialist Children and Families Social Worker.

Some Professionals in mainstream services are also not aware of positive examples of able deaf adults/parents/professionals.

What’s changed? 

Knowledge is lacking thus disempowerment follows. A more joined up multi-agency deaf specialist approach is required in Social Work Practice with Deaf People and their families. Even better, a County-wide Specialist Sensory Children and Families Social Work team separate to the Adult Deaf Services Team, with experience in deafness and fluency in BSL. Without this, poor practice is likely to continue and the human cost is too high….

Policies and Practices: 

We ensure we have considered and referred to a range of policies and practices, such as:

  • British Deaf Association BSL Charter
  • Prominent researchers in the field of deafness
  • Mental Capacity Act 2005
  • Best Interest Assessor/Deprivation of Liberty
  • Children’s Act 1989 and 2014
  • Care Act 2014
  • Achieving Best Evidence (interviewing vulnerable adult/children)
  • How to work with young people and gain their views and wishes
  • Deaf Children: Education Health and Care Plan (old SEN)

Please share your stories in confidence through the BDA, whether you are a parent, Social Worker mainstream or Deaf specialist and anyone in contact with statutory Children and Family Social Work, as we want to collect more evidence as part of our research to submit to Government to improve awareness of Deaf Parents and the needs of Deaf children.

In Part 2 (posted tomorrow) we look at Social Work practice with Hearing parents of Deaf Children.

Wendy Anderson is Deaf and a qualified Deaf Specialist Social Worker, Specialist Sensory Children and Families Social Worker, Mental Health Social Worker, Practice Educator (Reflective Practice) and previously a Team Manager. She is also the founder of Deaf Independent.

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