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We must invest in communication for all


Janis McDonald says we need to treat deafness through a new inclusive communication strategy

The thirst for news on the health of the nation, the welfare of NHS and social care staff, and the funding available for economically hard-pressed families in Scotland has never been greater. However, for those affected by deafness and traditionally excluded from many routine decision-making processes, they remain unable to influence the design of services and secure the changes in mainstream practice that would improve the quality of their lives. Despite this challenging environment, Deafscotland sees opportunities.

Before lockdown, everyday over 1,000,000 Scots were economically, socially and culturally isolated because of their communication barriers. Imagine how their isolation is amplified during this emergency and the problems they face in accessing services designed for hearing people such as telephone helplines. The necessity of staff and people wearing face masks or a perspex shield or at a 2m distance increases anxiety for those who lip-read. Being unable to understand what is being said in already difficult circumstances creates additional problems such as increasing reliance on social media and online information which is swamped with fake news.

Deafscotland is helping to deal with the here and now but sees an opportunity for Scotland to ‘recover better’ and capitalise on the willingness of public services to think and operate creatively to solve problems. This gateway to secure change longer-term in service design and delivery must be seized so the huge spend of public money as a reaction to misery becomes an investment in making Scotland sensory respectful and communication inclusive.

I am often asked how many people in Scotland have hearing issues. The answer of ‘over one million’ usually shocks but people easily relate to the four distinct groups we call the key pillars: the smallest in number but huge in sensory loss is the 4,000 deafblind people. The most high-profile group is the 12,500 Deaf/Deaf Sign Language (BSL) users whose communication needs prompted the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015. As the interpreter stands beside the First Minister as she and her team deliver reports, there is real time information delivery with no filter, however, it is not all on screen.

There are 355,000 people who are deafened, and 700,000 people who are hard of hearing. All ages are affected: 40% of over 40s; 60% of over 60s; and 95% of over 75s, have a hearing loss. We would like to see compulsory subtitles for emergency announcements as well as voice-over. We all know someone with hearing loss although many cover it up; some successfully; some just seem distant and unresponsive; others feel they annoy family members with their constant requests to speak up, to repeat themselves, or to speak clearly.

I believe we should stop focusing on the impairment and invest in communication ror all

Many people believe hearing loss is a sign of getting older, to be expected and tolerated. There are so many reasons for hearing loss, there is no single ‘cure’, but there are a range of solutions for all of us and for society. Generally, conversations are rooted in the view that hearing loss is a ‘disability’ but people are less aware that we all need to take ownership of the solution - society disables people by failing to meet their communication needs.

I believe we should stop focusing on the impairment and invest in communication ror all. It’s the big solution which works across the four pillars of deafness. This social and economic lockdown is enabling technology to be used successfully in so many more ways with no loss to business success and staff engagement. It is keeping family and friends together and in touch. Technology is just one of the ways to address the negative impact the barriers experienced by people have on access to economic, social and cultural opportunities and to help achieve equality and inclusive participation. The benefits are rich: building people’s confidence and resilience as well as allowing them to thrive as citizens in Scottish society.

In these extraordinary circumstances, in these extraordinary times, we want Scotland to recover better, to be a sensory inclusive nation.

Janis McDonald is CEO of Deafscotland



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