Charlie Swinbourne: Thanks to Facebook, deaf people are more engaged with mainstream politics than ever before

Posted on June 12, 2017



It’s been a rocky few days in British politics since the General Election results came through in the early hours of Friday morning.

The vote has thrown Theresa May’s future as Prime Minister into serious doubt, while the entire campaign and final result means that many people are now taking Jeremy Corbyn seriously – having previously dismissed him. 

The upcoming Brexit negotiations are now severely compromised, and no-one really knows what’s going to happen next.
Hundreds, maybe thousands of articles and blogs have come out between then and now, all looking at reasons for the sudden, unprecedented turn-around in our politics from where we were two months ago.

There’s little doubt that young people were energised and voted in higher numbers than before. Many commentators (and many non-commentators) agree that Teresa May’s campaign was nothing short of a disaster. 

Others are talking about the diminishing power of the tabloids. Then there’s austerity, and the perspective that the electorate have now had enough of it, that the cost of the cuts in human terms is simply too high. We could talk about the NHS, education system and police numbers to boot.

In short, there’s a lot of angles on all this. But forget all that. What’s really stood out for me, is just how engaged deaf people are with mainstream politics right now.

There’s no doubt that this is enabled by social media, and one social network in particular. It’s obvious which one I’m talking about – Facebook.

I’ve written before about Facebook filling the role of a traditional Deaf club (read my article for BBC news here), and I said this:

Last year, [2015] the importance of Facebook as an outlet for the sign language community was acknowledged at a high level when the Scottish Parliament set up a group on the site to gain supporting evidence for the groundbreaking British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, which was passed in September, and aims to promote usage of the language.

Having four major elections in the last four years (the General Election of 2015, the Scottish Referendum in 2014, EU Referendum in 2016, and now with this year’s vote) has only accelerated the amount of online engagement as deaf people have become used to regularly having a major political decision to make.

What really stood out for me in this general election was what two deaf men said just before the vote.

One was a deaf man on Facebook who said he was previously going to vote for one party, just because he always did, but having joined politics groups (such as the Deaf UK and European Politics Forum) he’d learned what each of the parties was offering and had changed his mind. (You can probably guess which two parties I’m referring to!)

Another was a well-known Deaf man, who is a very prominent figure in our community, intelligent and well-connected, now in his 40s, who said he had never voted before, until now. He explained in a Facebook video that he’d never had the information before, he’d never understood enough to be able to vote. His video showed him walking away from the polling booth having finally cast his vote.

They key to this is the online discussions that deaf people are having both on their own Facebook pages and in specific politics groups they’ve joined.

This is what politics is supposed to be all about – debate. Arguing for your views, taking in other people’s perspectives and deciding if you agree or not. And until recently, deaf people have had their access to debate seriously limited.

Think about all the opportunities a hearing person might have to hear political viewpoints being shared. On the radio perhaps, as they drive their car. On the TV through programmes such as Question Time or Newsnight, or the news, which are still spoiled for deaf people today by the delays and mistakes in live subtitling.

Then of course, in person, a deaf person can’t easily overhear a discussion in the pub or at a family meal, or easily go and hear a speech (without asking for access first), or meet their local candidates. Reading information in newspapers or on official campaign material is also problematic for some.

It’s through Facebook discussions that people are gaining a greater understanding of each party’s policies, and through sharing their feelings and opinions that they figure out what’s important to them and who they want to vote for.

That’s what’s been so lovely to see and take part in – conversations – even if some of them got heated once in a while! (and what’s wrong with that?)

Here I should probably talk a bit about the direction all this went in politically. Basically, my Facebook feed went red, and fanatically so. Nearly everyone was voting Labour and Jeremy Corbyn in the end. Perhaps that wasn’t a surprise, as Labour offered a pledge to fully recognise BSL, and also seemed much more aware of deafness and disability (and to see it as important) compared to the Conservatives.

But it struck me that without all this swapping of information and opinion, many of the people on my feed might not have a strong view on either party at all. And when I saw that Labour won some votes (such as in Kensington, London) by just 20 or so votes, I even wondered if Deaf people voting in a specific area might have made the difference between which party won the seat.

Who knows exactly where Britain’s political system is headed right now. Things are likely to get rockier before they become more ‘strong and stable.’ But at least deaf people are more a part of all this now, saying who they want to see in power, which policies are important to them, and feeling politically engaged.

There’s a lot more that could be done to give deaf people access. The political parties should be releasing BSL manifestos and summaries simultaneously along with their main manifestos. Interpreters and speech-to-text reporters should be at every large event and should also be provided on-request at smaller ones. TV programmes need better live subtitles. We need more specific deaf programmes covering the vote (snap elections make this more difficult). I would love to see more deaf people actually standing for Parliament as Ben Fletcher did, and they should have the access and support they need reinstated to enable them to campaign on an equal platform.

But hey. At least we’ve made a start.

Read more of Charlie’s articles here.

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter and filmmaker. Both episodes of his new sketch comedy in BSL, Deaf Funny, can be seen on the BSL Zone website

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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