A new tier system for local lockdowns, ‘the rule of six’, and complex discussions around the ‘R’ number for the rate of infection. For many, the new language and guidance has been a lot to take in, but it has been even more confusing for disabled people.
On Tuesday afternoon, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham stands in front of a microphone and delivers a statement to the media at his latest press conference. As he does so, a man comes forward and shows him something on his phone. Another one, Sir Richard Leese of Manchester City Council, follows, and reads out the details of new Government measures for the region.
The Mayor receiving news of a local lockdown and a move to tier three – news which affects the area which he represents – on a mobile phone was rightly criticised by some on social media. In 2020, a political leader learning about key Governmental decisions via a medium as informal as a smartphone is, to many, unfathomable.
Yet, this isn’t the first communication breakdown during this pandemic. More than 100 daily briefings later, the UK Government has failed to provide its own, in-person British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter. The one on the BBC News Channel is provided by the broadcaster, while the subtitles are in English – a second language for many Deaf, BSL signers.
Mark Woodall, from Manchester Deaf Centre, tells me more in a statement over email. “Unfortunately, the Deaf community can struggle to find up to date news as there is no BSL interpreter on the live BBC news channel,” he writes. “Deaf people who use BSL to communicate are left to trawl the TV channels to locate the interpreted news.
“Unfortunately, the Deaf community can struggle to find up to date news as there is no BSL interpreter on the live BBC news channel.”
“Even when there is an interpreter available information can still be misunderstood or misinterpreted, this depends on the individual’s method of communication.
“In addition, as BSL is a visual language and has no written format, English can be problematic for a Deaf person therefore subtitles are not always appropriate,” he adds. “This understandably leaves the Deaf community extremely frustrated and at a higher risk of getting/spreading the virus.”
While Burnham was flanked by other political leaders from Greater Manchester, he was not joined by a BSL interpreter, and so his press conference on Tuesday was also inaccessible to Deaf people.
Lack of access has consequences, with a recent survey by the Deaf health charity SignHealth – who have also provided BSL summary of the Government’s coronavirus briefings – revealing that just over 75% of deaf people polled found Downing Street’s information on COVID-19 either partly or completely inaccessible.
“We are calling on government to provide an in-person BSL Interpreter at Coronavirus briefings,” says SignHealth’s Director of Communications and Fundraising, Rebecca Mansell, “and we appeal to all providers of health services to meet their obligations under the Accessible Information Standard and the Equality Act.”
With local deaf clubs already having to contend with a shift online during this crisis, a second type of lockdown for Deaf communities based in some of the hardest-hit areas of the country could once again have a detrimental impact on their mental health. What were previously hotspots for socialising and sharing information are now online or closed altogether, making the distribution of Deaf-friendly news and guidance all the more difficult.
Things became worse a day later, with the inaccessibility extending to blind and visually impaired individuals. On Saturday, the Government announced, South Yorkshire would become a Very High area for coronavirus and join Greater Manchester in tier three.
“We are calling on government to provide an in-person BSL Interpreter at Coronavirus briefings, and we appeal to all providers of health services to meet their obligations under the Accessible Information Standard and the Equality Act.”
The issue, however, was that the graphics announcing this news on Twitter were far from appropriate.
“The alt attribute should typically […] NOT be redundant or provide the same information as text within the context of the image,” the web accessibility organisation WebAIM writes in its guidance for alt text, which helps blind users with image descriptions.
The UK Government failed to take notice of this, however, in tweeting out its graphic showing the heat map for South Yorkshire. Both the alt text and tweet itself read: “South Yorkshire: COVID-19 positive case heat maps by age group and local authority”. Details on the graphs and their meaning were completely non-existent.
BSL access hadn’t improved either, with the House of Commons falling foul of providing a British Sign Language interpreter for its livestream of a statement on South Yorkshire in Parliament from Minister of State for Health, Edward Argar.
Another day, another local Deaf community – as well as potentially other disabled groups – left anxious, isolated and confused by political leaders failing to make public health information accessible. Lives are at risk, and this must not continue any longer.
Photo: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street/Flickr.