This week marks Deaf Awareness Week.
It is estimated by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID) that 12 million adults (one in five) and at least 50,000 children are affected by hearing loss. Furthermore, the RNID has estimated that the hearing loss community could surpass 14 million people by 2035. Hearing loss can occur at birth or indeed be ‘acquired’ throughout life.
This year’s theme is Deaf Inclusion. RNID research shows that hearing loss can lead to withdrawal from social situations and can even lead to depression. This issue has been made worse by the COVID pandemic in recent months. It is vital to increase awareness in order to help ensure inclusion for all.
Sign Language exists in many guises, including British Sign Language, Sign Supported English, Makaton and more. It is estimated that over 100,000 children and adults use Makaton symbols and signs, either as their main method of communication, or as a way to support underdeveloped speech. Sign language can be used by people with a range of communication difficulties, not just hearing impairment.
British Sign Language (BSL) is the most widely used form of sign language in the UK, although is not used worldwide. BSL is not a direct replacement for spoken English, it has its own vocabulary and sentence structure and involves fingerspelling to construct words. According to the British Deaf Association, of the 151,000 BSL users in the UK, just 87,000 are considered deaf.
Interest in learning BSL is growing, partly due to Rose Ellis Ayling’s ground-breaking victory on Strictly Come Dancing as the first deaf contestant on the show. Rose using an interpreter has contributed to participation in BSL courses skyrocketing.
Despite being used for several decades beforehand, BSL was only recognised as an official minority language as late as 2003. Despite its minority language status, vital services were not obligated to provide interpreters.
While many aspects of life have adapted, including subtitles on TV, films and public information screens, deaf people may still face challenges in their daily routines. For example, not all transport operators consider deaf people when announcing platform changes, final calls for boarding and so on.
Also, despite increased awareness, BSL is still not used widely by the general population, which could mean frustration for somebody who is reliant on BSL or lip-reading, especially in recent times where masks have been mandatory in public for long periods. Maintaining privacy when attending medical appointments may cause additional distress as somebody may need to bring a relative with them to help to communicate. Moreover a Hidden Disadvantage report published by the RNID indicated that 70% of people surveyed said that hearing loss sometimes prevented them from fulfilling their potential at work.
In June 2021, Labour MP Rosie Cooper introduced the British Sign Language Bill to Parliament. It is widely expected to become law and has recently passed its final reading stage. The bill will recognise BSL as an official language of England, Wales and Scotland and will require government departments to follow guidance on how the use of BSL can be put in place across vital public services.