Listen up

Philip HuntPhil Hunt on ensuring deaf people get access to quality public services

I am leading a debate in the Lords today on promoting the needs of deaf people in the provision of public services. I’m doing this to bring to light an issue which receives too little focus but could, with some determined governmental action, improve the lives of millions of people. One in six Britons are affected by deafness or loss of hearing, with as many as 45,000 deaf children. 

The lack of provision for deaf people permeates every aspect of public life, and it is still all too easy for a deaf person to struggle to cope. Imagine, for example, a tannoy announcement of a platform change in a train station. 

Education is another area in which the deaf can suffer disadvantage. It is unacceptable that only 37% of deaf children received 5 or more GCSEs between A*- C last year. That figure is made more worrying by the fact that an estimated 75% of these children do not have a statement of Special Educational Needs, precluding them from the help available from local authorities. It is possible such statements would be rendered useless anyway. Due to the Coalition’s cuts to council budgets, almost a third of local authorities plan a reduced provision of services for deaf children this year, whilst a further third will consult on the issue in the near future. 

One answer here could be to ask Ofsted to inspect specialist education services for deaf children. Unlike schools and early year providers, these services are subject to on formal scrutiny despite their vital importance. Perhaps most alarming however, are the difficulties facing the deaf in our hospitals and healthcare centres. 70% of British Sign Language users were not afforded an interpreter when in A&E last year. Meanwhile, 41% of deaf people left an appointment with their GP feeling confused or unsure about their condition, owing to the poor skills of the interpreter present.

There are some possible solutions to these problems, including having more registered sign interpreters and support for family sign language classes. Plus ‘deaf awareness training’ for all working on the frontline of our public services, to inform them of how to properly engage with members of the deaf community. Indeed, Health Ministers must recognise that ineffective communications with deaf patients is a patient safety issue. 

A number of deaf organisations would like a named Minister responsible for driving a cross government approach towards supporting British Sign Language. But either way we must have a much stronger focus on deaf issues in the heart of government if deaf people are to get good quality services.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is a Shadow Health Minister and Labour’s Deputy Leader in the Lords

Published 24th October 2013

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