In the UK there are approximately 9m people who are deaf or have hearing difficulties and, with government cut backs to funding for treatments and therapies, they are amongst the disabled groups hit hardest by austerity. Recent welfare reforms, with Personal Independence Payments (PIP) replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA), have left many deaf people increasingly concerned for their financial future as the government acts tough on the benefit system.
Emma Robinson is a Community Development Worker for the charity POhWER (People Of Hertfordshire With Equal Rights) who specifically aim to help vulnerable people over the age of 18 with any issues they may have.
Emma has helped to run a series of drop in sessions for deaf people in the Bedford area and has seen the impact that the advocacy programme has on people’s lives. “We run two deaf drop in sessions a month at our Bedford office. We invite guest speakers who come and give talks to deaf people. The audience are proactive in choosing who they want to speak and we chase up relevant people and organisations. For example, a lot of people were having trouble at banks so we arranged a guest speaker from a bank to come in and talk about what they could do for deaf people and how high street branches cater for them”
The average Briton’s response when confronted by an awkward language barrier on holiday is to gesticulate wildly and speak very loudly directly into a person’s face. This is the kind of action that deaf people face on a daily basis. Whilst lip reading and body language are guides for the deaf to appreciate what someone is saying, if they are not able to be understood through sign language, communication can be a helpless and frustrating experience. British Sign Language (BSL) which since 2003 has been recognised as an official minority language by the government is used by of over 100,000 people in the UK. However it has only been in the last 20 years that it has been taken seriously as a language and children with hearing difficulties have had the opportunity to have specialised teaching.
There are numerous issues with accessing public services that Emma and Pohwer can help deaf people with using their advocacy programme and by having interpreters to help. “We have two BSL interpreters on site and we will, for example, send them and an advocate to the job centre with a deaf person so they can communicate with the job centre staff and identify jobs that someone with their disabilities could do. Interpreters are important, sometimes people expect the deaf to have interpreters with them at all times but it really isn’t practical. We work very closely with Citizens Advice who do a lot for deaf people. They have access to a BSL interpreter and can offer support via webcam. We are quite joined up with them, they help with a lot of the everyday bureaucracy and form filling that people may take for granted.”
‘Word of mouth’ is, ironically, one of the best ways of tapping into the deaf community and spreading news. As with any other group, through connections with each other news of services and events can pass quickly between people with hearing loss. “Word of mouth is important, we do a lot of marketing to promote our services but what we find is that, like any community, the network is crucial and when people find out about us, they tell other people and that’s how they find out about us.”
Like all third sector services in a recession, funding is crucial but increasingly hard to come by. “A lot of people who require disability benefit or support with travel costs are very concerned about welfare reforms,” Emma says. “It is important that we show what we are doing which is to help the most vulnerable and to empower people. Our aim is to help and signpost people in the right direction, to help people get across the barriers that are encountered in everyday life, to cut through some of the red tape that most people can deal with.”
Deafness is no barrier to success, some of Beethoven’s most famous works were composed long after his hearing deteriorated. The boundaries that deaf people face are mainly down to other people’s reluctance to communicate effectively and see the deaf as inferior. Deaf people have made their mark in fields such as acting, writing and sport yet society can still treat them as vastly different. If people just took fingers out of their ears then we might find out that deaf people actually have something to say.