Opinion

2020 was a rollback for deaf people’s rights – here’s why

While everyone else was looking forward this year, no doubt out of necessity, rights for deaf people like me went backwards.

Make no mistake, I, like everyone else, won’t miss this year. The scale of injustice, disaster, tragedy and loss has been inconceivable, and in many instances, this has reversed progress made over the course of several years – or worse, decades. By far one of the most prominent instances of this, highlighted by the lack of accessible public health information during the coronavirus crisis, has been the rights of deaf people.

Where Is The Interpreter?

Ever since the first national lockdown in the UK, Deaf people have called for a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter to be provided, in person, at the Government’s coronavirus briefings. Downing Street has repeatedly shifted its responsibility onto the BBC News Channel to provide access, not only failing to recognise that this is only one broadcaster, but also that the duty to make their briefings accessible lies with them, under the Equality Act 2010.

The ongoing campaign has now led to an application for a judicial review being filed against the Government – the latest development in months of reporting from me for the deaf news website, The Limping Chicken.

As other examples listed in this article will also demonstrate, the underlying issue is attitudinal. One exclusive from me revealed that the UK Government did not carry out an Equalities Impact Assessment in relation to the coronavirus briefings – despite telling lawyers that releasing such a (non-existent) document would be inappropriate.

It’s also worth mentioning that across the pond in the United States, the White House was sued by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) for not providing an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, so while this article has a UK problem, the issue – and its impact on deaf people’s rights – is not exclusive to this country.

Clear masks

With coronavirus also came the introduction of face coverings, a protective measure which was undoubtedly important in terms of public safety, but posed problems for deaf people reliant on lipreading. A solution soon emerged in the form of ‘clear’ masks, with transparent windows around the mouth.

While it took the UK Government until September to procure 250,000 single use clear masks for NHS and social care workers, ‘opaque’ masks were becoming more and more common. The isolation experienced by deaf people this year was immense, and will no doubt worsen with the current tiered system and a staggered vaccination plan.

 

One of the most devastating issues caused by masks was seen in education, particularly in Scotland where masks were advised in communal areas and school corridors, and later in the classroom (despite the Scottish Government previously saying it “can have an impact on teaching and learning”).

Granted, there was an exemption introduced to allow for people to remove their masks for the benefit of lipreading, but hearing people shouldn’t have to take off protection (or risk contaminating it by lowering it to their chin or neck) in order to communicate. Conversations should be both clear and safe, and transparent masks allow for that.

It’s disappointing that the UK Government’s procurement came so late, and little awareness was raised around purchasing clear masks, alongside the general communications around removing face masks for lipreading (whether you agree with that policy or not).

Inaccessible tech and the rise of audio

As explored in my report for TechRadar earlier this month, there has been a growing rise in audio features on social media.

The biggest furore came in June, when Twitter introduced voice tweets without adding a transcription tool for deaf and disabled users. They apologised, repeated the “accessibility should not be an afterthought” line, then rolled the inaccessible feature out further to more accounts. In a piece published in response, I remarked that the platform hadn’t learned its lesson on accessibility, by failing to listen to deaf users. Now, we’re concerned that Spaces will be just as inaccessible.

Ignoring deaf people’s concerns wasn’t exclusive to Twitter, either. In the early months of 2020, YouTube revealed that it planned to deprecate its community captions tool, which enabled viewers to submit subtitles to a channel’s videos. It’s no surprise that the feature was incredibly valuable to deaf people, who were no longer denied access to content which came without captions. It was, as I told one publication, a “safety net” if a creator failed to add subtitles themselves.

In July, it was finalised, with the feature being scrapped on 28 September. What followed was months of users calling for the decision to be reversed. There were petitions, trending hashtags and international news coverage – deaf people were, of course, one of the main groups leading the charge against the plans. Despite all of this, community contributions were still removed from the platform at the end of September.

Even one of the biggest winners of the year, Zoom, came under fire for making its live subtitles tool a paid-only feature. Earlier this month a lawsuit was filed in the US over the issue.

A BSL GCSE

It took a nudge by Conservative MP Peter Aldous in Parliament in September to find out more about the work on developing a GCSE qualification in BSL, with School Standards Minister Nick Gibb MP responding to say that progress which had been paused due to the COVID pandemic has now resumed.

Considering, however, that the issue was raised all the way back in 2018, it’s baffling that we are yet to see any significant developments since then, other than being told to wait for a public consultation which still hasn’t arrived.

As campaigner Daniel Jillings told The Limping Chicken: “The most important thing left to do is to carry on reminding the Department for Education (DfE) that Deaf children are waiting for a GCSE in BSL.” Although, that shouldn’t be necessary – especially if there was a timetable setting out the steps towards finalising a draft GCSE. However, there isn’t one, with the Department for Education telling me it would go out to public consultation “in due course”.

***

As 2021 approaches, I am hopeful that progress can be made towards improving the lives of deaf people. In the new year, we’re expected to receive an update on the judicial review application, and if the legal challenge is successful, then I feel it will set a pretty strong precedent for accessible communications from the Government in the future. It could also go as far as to strengthen calls for a BSL Act, for which there still isn’t one in the UK, only Scotland.

Elsewhere, we need to see specific details on the timeframe for the BSL GCSE, to aid accountability. It has gone on for far enough. As for social media, these platforms need to do a whole lot better to make their sites accessible.

We’ve heard a lot about ‘building back equal’ after this pandemic, but in the case of the deaf community, this cannot be overstated. Whatever we come back to following this crisis, it has to be accessible to us all.

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