Transforming Deaf people’s experiences through the COVID-19 outbreak

Deaf woman using sign language - Getty Images

Getty Images

As we mark Deaf Awareness Week in the middle of a lock-down amid a global pandemic, the issues that Deaf people experience in everyday life have never been as stark, says Dr Rob Wilks.

With the increase in face mask wearing, people are removing the main method of communication for most Deaf people; lipreading.  

The Government is insisting that they cannot provide British Sign Language/English Interpreters for its daily briefings, even though the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Governments are doing so without any fuss.

Hospitals and GP surgeries are insisting that all contact with surgeries should be via telephone rather than face to face, and many utility companies have closed down their live chat features, telling their customers to contact them via telephone, and yet the telephone lines are too busy dealing with vulnerable customers.

Dr Rob Wilks gives a BSL version of this article

Deaf children are not necessarily receiving home schooling materials in an accessible format, which means that they are expected to watch YouTube videos without subtitles and attend virtual class assemblies without subtitles or interpretation.

Supermarkets are not allowing Deaf people into their stores accompanied by relatives and friends that can relay information for them, and they’re not considered vulnerable enough to be on the Government’s Vulnerable Lists to get priority access to home deliveries.

Deaf people are certainly the forgotten people of the Covid-19 crisis.  

My research

My research has focused on why equality law is not working for Deaf people.  The above examples clearly illustrate this quandary.  

I argue that the framing of Deaf people as disabled is problematic, giving rise to what is termed the ‘Deaf Legal Dilemma,’ whereby Deaf people are faced with a stark choice: accept the disability label, or have no access to any rights at all.  As a result, the focus is on the medical aspects of being deaf, rather than recognising Deaf people’s language and cultural differences.

This quandary gives rise to the questions: 

  • What is the status of Deaf people as a culturo-linguistic minority in international, European and domestic equality law?  
  • How effective are such laws in addressing their inequality?  
  • What impact does or would sign language recognition have in achieving equality for deaf people?

By way of conclusion of a definition of Deaf identity, it would appear that Deaf discourse is gravitating in a direction that considers that Deaf identity is one of a multitude of identities that exist within any single deaf individual.  

To reiterate this point, I identify myself as being Deaf, deaf, disabled, White British, Welsh, a Newportonian, a husband, a father, a lawyer, a lecturer and an academic.  To all extents and purposes, the majority of these identities are protected to some degree or other.  For instance, the deaf, disabled, White British, Welsh and marital status identities are covered as protected characteristics by the Equality Act 2010, and the father, lawyer, lecturer and academic identities are protected under the auspices of employment law.  What is missing, is legal protection as a Deaf person.

It is this identity that creates the Deaf Legal Dilemma, as Deaf individuals who consider themselves to be part of the Deaf community, a culturo-linguistic minority and/or sign language person are not currently recognised as such by equality law, at least in the UK.  Thus, in order to seek legal protections or benefits, Deaf individuals have to adhere to a disability label, with all it entails and with its associated meanings, which are often anathema to what makes up Deaf identity.

So what is the answer? 

When carrying out my research, a wide range of concepts of equality were narrowed down according to which are more prevalent within Deaf discourse as well as equality discourse, resulting in the development of three precepts of equality: formal, substantive and transformative.  The following graphic illustrates the difference between the three precepts of equality:

Dr Rob Wilks - Precepts of Equality

While there is ample evidence of formal and substantive equality in international, European and UK law, it is concluded that transformative equality is not as prevalent in equality law as formal and substantive equality is.  However, I consider that there is scope within the EqA 2010 by way of its public sector equality duty, and in the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, for a transformative approach to be taken in order to reduce or eradicate inequalities, particularly for deaf people.

I therefore argue that if the UK adopted a transformative approach to equality for Deaf people, the issues that Deaf people currently experience would disappear to a great extent.  At present, the most obvious solution would be the legal recognition of BSL as a language.  

In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament passed the BSL (Scotland) Act in 2015, and we see daily briefings by the Scottish First Minster, Nicola Sturgeon, accompanied by a BSL/English Interpreter.  This is in stark contrast to the Downing Street briefings.  It is argued that the more visible BSL is, the more likely transformative equality for deaf people will be achieved.  Thus, a UK-wide BSL Act is vital.

It is not all doom or gloom for Deaf people in the current climate, however.  As is often the case, in difficult times, the Deaf community reaches out to each other and provides much needed support.  

The#WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign has gained momentum, leading to a class action against the UK Government for the lack of BSL/English Interpreters at the daily Downing Street briefings; new websites such as Deaf UK Coronavirus are being set up to provide information to the Deaf community; various Deaf organisations are providing regular updates about the COVID-19 outbreak in BSL, and extending current services to ensure that all Deaf people have access to a wide range of services, including mental health and well-being and welfare benefits advice services.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

About the author

Dr Rob Wilks

Dr Rob Wilks is a Deaf British Sign Language (BSL) user and teaches undergraduate and postgraduate Law through the medium of BSL. 

A qualified solicitor and alumnus of USW, Rob specialises in employment and discrimination law. His research interests include sign language recognition and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

Rob is also responsible for the Deaf Law website which aims to provide accessible information about the law to d/Deaf people, and the Deaf Lawyers UK Facebook group which aims to bring together d/Deaf solicitors, barristers, legal executives, paralegals and law students in the UK.