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Ways to make a difference to Deaf people in Sheffield

In Deaf Awareness Week, Philippa Willitts looks at how individuals and organisations can make life easier for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

BSL graffiti

#BSL: British Sign Language graffiti

Jeremy Segrott

When Susan Kelly shared the story of her husband Ronnie’s poor experience of being treated for terminal cancer as a Deaf person in Sheffield, the world was shocked. Susan and her family had received support from Citizens Advice Sheffield’s Deaf Advice Team, who are keen to show now that it doesn’t have to be like this. There are many ways that individuals and organisations can support Deaf people, and plenty of examples of good practice.

Kate Bushen, Service Supervisor at Citizens Advice Sheffield, told me that doctors, dentists or hospital wards should book interpreters to enable Deaf patients to communicate clearly with healthcare staff. While many people might take communicating with doctors and nurses for granted, being informed of everything from the potential side effects of a flu jab to vital information about surgery you are about to have is not always easy for members of the Deaf community.

It's especially tricky during Covid because most people are wearing face masks, which not only inhibits lip reading but also gets in the way of British Sign Language (BSL), which uses facial expressions to convey meaning.

Good practice, though, is out there. Recently one patient struggled to communicate with a hospital receptionist, who refused to remove their face mask. But they were taken aside by a nurse, who had seen what was happening and, keeping a safe distance away, allowed the patient to lip read, a small step that made a significant difference.

Sharon Hirshman, who is a profoundly Deaf BSL user, says that provision of BSL interpreters varies across Sheffield. Her GP surgery knows she is Deaf and always books an interpreter when she has an appointment. David Hutchinson, a BSL interpreter with ten years’ experience, who mainly works in healthcare settings, agrees.

Sheffield the circle building rockingham lane

The Circle building, Rockingham Lane.

Juan Sisinni (Unsplash)

“Some GPs are fine. They set up a mobile phone so appointments can be texted, because if you're relying on phoning through, that's a barrier for some. So that's great, and hospitals outpatients are used to booking interpreters.”

Hospital wards are often less familiar with booking interpreters, however, and can be wary of doing so, despite the funding for BSL interpreters coming from a central fund rather than their own budgets. Susan and Ronnie’s story seems to have made a noticeable difference with that locally though, and Hutchinson has found that he is being booked more to interpret on wards in Sheffield, as well as other doctor and dentist appointments.

This is important not just because delivering sensitive or intimate health information is best done in person, but also because there can be regional variations in British Sign Language, so local interpreters can be easier to communicate with.

But while it's best practice to book live BSL interpreters, it's not always possible. In emergency situations, for example, a service called SignLive can be used on an iPad or Android device to provide interpreter over video call.

Hirshman also praises similar services called Interpreter Now and BSL Health Access, though funding has been cut and BSL Health Access is no longer available. Given that, due to pandemic precautions, many people now have to use intercom systems to get into buildings, she uses Interpreter Now on her phone to communicate with the person inside. It has also enabled her father, who is also Deaf, to access healthcare support.

Richard Maxted from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals said that the hospitals have been trialling a new approach to supporting Deaf patients who are attending for surgery. After establishing their communication needs, the hospitals aim to establish when a live BSL interpreter is needed for a patient and when an 'interpreter on wheels' - BSL provided via an app - would be sufficient. They have also been trialling the use of see-through surgical masks to assist communication.

Even if things are not perfect, demonstrating a commitment to improving access makes a big difference. When a Deaf patient at a GP surgery in Sheffield complained about accessing the intercom to get in, dealing with a clinician wearing a face mask and having to rely on a partner to communicate, the centre responded with a letter that addressed each of these points. They have promised to look into getting clear face masks and setting up a dedicated mobile phone so that Deaf patients can text them.

The patient, who wants to remain anonymous, while initially disappointed with the experience, is really pleased to have received such proactive feedback.

Hirshman, an advocate for the Deaf community, is keen to point out that being welcoming and accessible to Deaf people is not only important in healthcare settings. In her local Co-op the staff, who realise she is Deaf, make efforts to communicate with her despite not knowing BSL themselves.

When she inserts her Co-op membership card into the machine, she can’t hear the beep that tells her that the card is working, so the staff give her a thumbs up to let her know. Similarly, they will sign numbers with their fingers when it comes to telling her how much she owes, and they wave goodbye as she leaves.

“They’ve accommodated me. They’re lowering their masks and smiling and just behaving really nicely. That’s a really good example of good practice, for me.”

Another local woman called Sharon recently reported that getting advice from the national Pension Wise service about a complex pension situation was a positive experience. When she couldn’t ring for information about her pension, Pension Wise liaised with the Deaf Advice Service. As a result, Pension Wise thought about how Deaf people could access their service in the future, suggesting online video calls with an interpreter. They also asked for Sharon’s advice on improving the service in the future.

Woman putting in a hearing aid
Chona Kasinger for Disabled And Here

Bushen from the Deaf Advice Service at Citizens Advice pointed out to me that learning a bit of BSL is not only the right thing to do, but it can also be great for business.

“If a deaf person walks into your shop and you can do a little bit of basic signing, you've got a customer for life, I'm telling you, because people will go there and word will get around the community that's an accessible place to go. I mean, not that that's the only reason for doing it, but don't underestimate how much difference it could make.”

Hirshman agrees that having her needs taken into account makes a real difference to her.

“Even if it's a small sign, they perhaps don't know how to use sign language, but just a small thing like lowering their mask or nodding 'yes' or giving a thumbs up. It just makes me feel really good.

"They’re caring for me. You know, some people just try and talk through the mask and I don't know if they're happy or sad, I can't tell the intonation, but by lowering the mask it just makes me feel really good. And then if I go to the Co-op, I leave skipping. I feel really good.”

So what can we do, as individuals or organisations, to improve communication with Deaf people and ensure services are accessible?

  1. Ask Deaf and hard-of-hearing people what they need, rather than assuming what is best for them.
  2. Attend Deaf Awareness sessions or get the staff at your organisation to attend some. Having even basic knowledge of Deaf culture and the barriers Deaf people can face can help you to improve somebody’s day.
  3. Always maintain eye contact with a Deaf person, which helps with communication.
  4. Learn some basic sign language. You could start by going to the Deaf Advice Service’s British Sign Language taster session at the Festival of Debate on 7 May.
  5. Use see-through face masks or remove your mask while communicating with a Deaf person.
  6. Don’t cover your face with your hands when you talk because anything blocking sight of your mouth and your facial expressions can limit communication. Even beards can inhibit understanding!
  7. Don’t be afraid of communicating with a Deaf person. Using gestures, even when they are not BSL signs, can assist with interactions.
  8. Consider the light in a room. If you stand directly in front of a bright sunny window, your face may not be visible.
  9. Don’t use complicated language, even in written form. For many BSL users, English is a second language and BSL has an entirely different grammatical structure.
  10. If you work in healthcare, put on somebody’s records that they need an interpreter, so this is done automatically when they make an appointment.

Making an effort can make all the difference. Bushen first started to learn to sign at 15 when she had a partner who was Deaf. She remembers interacting with a Deaf woman in Graves Park, realising she was Deaf and using some of the sign language she knew.

“Her whole face just lit up. So don’t be nervous about trying to communicate with somebody because generally, even if you can only sign, ‘Hello, how are you?’ it makes a massive difference to that person’s life, and to their day.”

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