I’ve seen many people of my generation bemoan the fact that we have lived through so many historic events in such a short space of time – the vote to pull the UK out of the European Union (a.k.a. Brexit), a deadly pandemic, war in Europe, the passing of Her Majesty The Queen and a cost of living crisis.
I sympathise with that sentiment, but for Deaf people in need of British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation at moments of such significance, the exhaustion is compounded by a lack of access.
The coronavirus pandemic is a high-profile example, when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his government ministers and medical experts, hosted Downing Street briefings on the development of the COVID-19 crisis.
Not once did No 10 choose to provide their own BSL interpreter, instead relying on the BBC to do the work for them and provide one on-screen on their news channel. They argued against an in-person signer due to social distancing rules and the limitations of the briefing room, despite other countries managing to provide access just fine, and the officials later moving into a fancy new broadcast studio which cost more than £2 million.
They would pay the consequence for their inaction, as a judge ruled last year that the UK Government had breached the Equality Act on two occasions where scientists held data briefings and no interpreters were provided – not even the ones overlaid on the BBC.
The case continues in September 2022, as a private claim concerning 276 Deaf people now seeks to secure compensation from the government as a result of this inaccessibility during a major public health crisis. The hearing, funnily enough, takes place this week – during International Week of the Deaf.
One of the daily themes for the week couldn’t be more timely, either, as today’s topic focusses on “safeguarding deaf people in times of crisis”. Evidently, the UK Government has demonstrated it can’t do that effectively – not just on Covid, either, but also at COP26 late last year when political leaders were discussing the relatively small and by no means concerning issue of climate change.
More recently, our new PM’s first statement on the steps of Downing Street earlier this month could have marked a new beginning by having an in-person interpreter present as she talked about her plans for supporting the public through the ongoing cost of living crisis. Liz Truss failed, just like her predecessor.
Let us not forget that crises can also concern issues with mental health or physical health, and discussing NHS inaccessibility – in conjunction with the UK Government’s failings – gets to the heart of the problem: current legislation and regulations designed to uphold the rights of Deaf people simply isn’t strong enough.
Look no further than the work the Deaf health charity SignHealth has been doing around NHS access, calling for improvements to be made to their Accessible Information Standard guidance.
More broadly, the Equality Act 2010 has proven itself so ineffective that many disabled people have opted instead for social media shaming, knowing that the threat of a PR disaster is more alarming to businesses these days and pursuing the issue in court is far too expensive and taxing. Unfortunately, in the case of the government, the campaign around inaccessible Covid briefings – Where Is The Interpreter – has demonstrated that such a costly approach is the only option.
The British Sign Language Act, which passed earlier this year and was supported by Signature, may go some way to cement our rights, but it won’t go far enough.
There’s a pretty big reason why all of this matters, too, because all of these major crises – Covid, the cost of living, climate change and so on – have a disproportionate impact on disabled people. When the next crisis hits, decision makers will no doubt prioritise speed over access, and given how many times they’ve messed up, you have to wonder when these ‘regrettable mistakes’ are actually deliberate.
The solution is mountainous, but not impossible. We need to put pressure on politicians to further strengthen our rights in law, and support those like Lynn Stewart-Taylor who are going through the courts to protect them there, too. We must do all of this like our lives depend on it, because in moments of crisis, they very often do.