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Deaf Awareness Training

– in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 1st April 1998.

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Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak 12:30 pm, 1st April 1998

I first met a profoundly deaf sign language-using person 12 years ago. It is unusual that I should have gone for so long without doing so, since one in 1,000 people in this country have sign language as their first or only functional language. That experience was very moving—although not quite as moving as my speech, judging by the number of hon. Members leaving the Chamber, which I hope is not an indication of their interest in the issue. As a district councillor, I vowed from then on to promote the political cause of deaf people's access to services and information. I studied British sign language and I wrote a charter for local government. In collaboration with the—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) should not stand in front of an hon. Member who is addressing the House.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

In collaboration with the British Deaf Association, I went freelance and became a research consultant on access issues for people with sensory impairment. I even went so far as to write a book on the issue for the Local Government Management Board, and to deliver deaf awareness training courses.

Some 8.7 million people in this country are hearing impaired—one person in every seven, or one in every six adults, which reflects the high incidence of deafness among older people. Some are profoundly deaf; others are deafened; others are hard of hearing. Some are partially deaf; some have one-sided deafness; some are deaf in both ears. Some are pre-lingually deaf; others acquire their deafness as they get older, for one reason or another. Some have tinnitus with their deafness; others do not. For some, deafness is of genetic origin; for some it is caused by war, industrial damage, loud noise, loud music or accident. Some people's deafness is caused by diseases such as meningitis or rubella. Some deaf people are visually impaired as well. Others use sign language. Some lip-read. Some cope with their everyday life, but many do not, and effectively opt out of what we would regard as the mainstream. One could almost say that no two deaf people have the same communications requirements, yet we, the hearing majority, tend to bundle them together.

We talk about being deaf and dumb, which is an insult if one takes the pejorative meaning of the word dumb as stupid. We talk of being "deaf as a post" or use the phrase, "Are you deaf?" as an insult. We assume that deaf people are inadequate, suffer from their deafness or are alienated from the mainstream. Those are all self-fulfilling prophecies: the attitudes of the hearing majority often cause them to come true.

Such attitudes are born of ignorance—often among service providers, be they the Government, local government officers or the private sector. I suspect that such attitudes may even be shared by some hon. Members, although I hope that that is not true. I hope to use this debate—this dialogue with the Minister—to help Members and the nation to give people who are deaf, deafened and hard of hearing the respect and dignity that they deserve. I hope to return to related issues in later Adjournment debates.

There are many ways in which the communication needs of people with hearing impairments can be supported: sign language interpreters, text telephones or minicoms, loop systems to aid the use of hearing aids and lip-reading classes. I hope to talk about them on other occasions. None of those ways of assisting communication for deaf people addresses the problems of all deaf people. Each of them is only of partial assistance or a partial solution for a particular group. Only one thing helps all deaf people: increased awareness of their communication needs among the hearing majority. I shall give some examples of how communication problems can arise.

A common case occurs in the hospital waiting room. The name of the next patient is called out, but because he or she is deaf, the appointment is missed. No one checks; it is just assumed that the person is not present, and the staff move to the next patient. A deaf friend of mine is frequently affected when it is announced over the Tannoy on a railway station platform that the train that he is expecting will depart from a different platform: because he cannot hear the announcement, he misses his train.

I was at a party a little while ago, where I got talking to a building society manager. When he heard what I did, he said, "Oh yes, we have one of those purple signs with the ear and the bar across it on the door of the building society." It had been there for many years; unfortunately, the manager did not know what it meant. That clearly shows that the deaf awareness training that some of his staff had had was not appreciated, and had therefore probably not been used.

There are instances of loop systems failing to operate for months or years before somebody notices and can put them right. Deaf people are not renowned for coming forward to complain when things are not as they would wish them to be. Even background music in supermarkets, which may be pleasant for some, makes it very difficult for people who have a hearing impairment to hear what is being said to them and to conduct a normal conversation.

Hearing aids do not confer perfect hearing. There is an assumption among hearing people that hearing aids confer brilliant, pristine hearing—but they do not. Most hearing aids do not produce the high-quality audio signal that we as hearing people hope and expect to receive. If they are damp, dirty or ill-fitting, for example, hearing aids can be less than perfect. At best they assist some deaf people with their communication needs; they cannot be regarded as solving the problem.

I am sure that all hon. Members have been guilty at some time of taking deaf people for granted or ignoring them. We may have talked on the doorstep to a constituent and found that his or her hearing impairment made conversation difficult and tried our patience. We may have ignored the one in the group of constituents who says nothing—perhaps because they cannot hear what is going on.

We have all been taken aback when an apparently normal-looking person starts to speak in a funny voice— as we would define it, because we do not understand that, if a deaf person cannot hear his or her voice, it cannot sound like a hearing person's voice. We may all have dismissed sign language as mere mime and gesture, which is a major mistake. British sign language is a wonderfully expressive and rich language, and it is the first or only functional language of 50,000 people in this country. That makes it the second most widely used endemic first language among inhabitants of these islands.

Recent research by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People exposes far too many examples of communication needs of deaf people going unmet.

As public figures, hon. Members need to be aware of the communication needs of their constituents. Shop assistants need to be aware of the needs of their customers. Waiters, council officers, swimming pool attendants, nurses, doctors and people in the voluntary service all need such awareness. Everyone who comes across members of the public in his or her work needs deaf awareness training to be able to break down the communication barriers that exist between themselves and those with hearing impairment.

We can start here. I am sure that whenever a deaf person is trying to communicate with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you are aware of five simple rules to follow that will make it easier for the deaf person to lip-read. If you face the deaf person, about 1.5 m away in a quiet place, he or she will get the best view of your face. If you keep your face still and in the light, the deaf person will be able to lip-read more effectively, and if you do not chew or smoke, do not shout, and do not have a beard—the Minister might pass that advice on to his boss, the Secretary of State—you diminish the possibility of misunderstanding even more. You must also be prepared to repeat yourself and write down phrases when necessary.

Above all, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the secret of assisting deaf or hard-of-hearing people to understand you through lip reading is to be patient. Those five simple rules, which are easy to understand, are all that is needed to assist communication with most, or at least very many, people who are deaf or hard of hearing and rely to some extent on lip reading.

Last year about 5,000 people took the brief experience of deaf awareness training that I have outlined rather further, and achieved a certificate of deaf awareness under the auspices of the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People. The number of those who do so has been doubling year on year recently, as employers, especially in the public sector, add that training to the portfolio of training opportunities available to their staff.

I have taught that course to voluntary workers in citizens advice bureaux, and I have never had a student fail. Deaf awareness training is an excellent course, which I recommend to all those who come into contact with the public in their work. I hope that the Government will continue to give the CACDP practical encouragement in making its work available to the widest possible audience.

In the House, many of our Committee Rooms, and the Chamber, have loop systems to help hearing aid users, but there is not a system in every Committee Room, and it is not clear to passers-by which Rooms have them and which do not. There are no signs, as one would expect, to let it be known that a loop facility is available.

I understand that should a profoundly deaf, sign language-using member of the public wish to use a sign language interpreter in this place, one can be provided for the Strangers Gallery—but I do not know how, or even whether, the service is publicised, and I do not know how one goes about booking an interpreter. I am sure that deaf people who require sign language interpreters do not, by and large, know that the facility exists.

Finally, there is no access to parliamentary information using the text telephone or minicom—the deaf person's equivalent of using the telephone.

I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take up the recent generous offer by British Telecom to provide 100 minicoms for their constituency offices, to enable them to get in touch with some of their deaf constituents. I also hope that they will sign early-day motion 888, which congratulates BT and the RNID on their initiative and calls for minicom access to the House. I hope that Members will actively make contact with their deaf constituents, rather than simply assuming that social services will look after all their needs.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for coming to reply to the debate. However, I am sure that the presence of a Health Minister does not suggest that the Government believe that deaf issues are merely health issues. They are not. It is essential that we approach all disability questions according to the social model of disability rather than relying on medical definitions. Deaf people have a right to access all the services that the hearing majority take for granted.

I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us that the national health service intends to lead the way in making its services accessible to deaf people. I believe that, as yet, there is no concerted strategy to do so. A profoundly deaf woman who had been injured in a car crash once told me that she found the casualty department more frightening than the accident, because she did not know what was going on.

A couple of years ago, the British Deaf Association and I tried to find independent funding to conduct research into deaf people's access to services and information within the NHS, but none was available. That is why I welcome this week's publication of the "Deaf Women's Health Project", produced by the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, whose message is that all is not well with deaf access within the NHS. There is an example on page 7, where we read that when in-patients were interviewed on a hospital ward, more than one deaf woman did not know why she had had surgery, as information and communication support were not available. One said: Ward rounds can be awful. Sometimes nurses will give information, but we never get full information like hearing people. The doctors shout at us, and all the ward hears about our problems, but we don't know what is wrong. Shouting does not help us.

Deaf awareness training is already being provided for the Employment Service officers dealing with young deaf people as part of the new deal. That is welcome, and I look forward to the same caring and positive approach being applied to the benefit integrity project and other aspects of the Government's front-line benefit and other services.

I understand that the RNID is contemplating offering deaf awareness training directly to hon. Members later this year. I know that the Government are committed to implementing part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and that, too, is welcome. We are also committed to establishing a disability rights commission, amid much evidence that deaf people at work continue to suffer discrimination in recruitment, retention and promotion.

None the less, deaf people are growing anxious. They expect great things from the people's Government—and they are right to do so. It would be good news indeed if the Minister could give us today some idea of the timetable according to which progress towards those two aims will be made, and an assurance that the NHS will be in the forefront of that progress.

The Minister should rest assured that the experience of the Americans with Disabilities Act clearly demonstrates that reasonable access for deaf people, and disabled people generally, to services and information is not expensive. I have, I hope, demonstrated today how a little awareness goes a long way.

There are hearing-impaired Members of the House of Commons and of the other place. Those are the ones who can cope; nevertheless they know what I have been talking about. Too many others find that they cannot cope, and our awareness is literally their greatest opportunity for emancipation.

May I use British sign language to accompany my final comments,Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that I can address my friends who use it as their first language? Deaf people are people first and deaf second. Their communication needs are very important, and our awareness needs to be improved to help them.

Photo of Alan Milburn Alan Milburn Minister of State, Department of Health 12:48 pm, 1st April 1998

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) deserves the congratulations of the whole House on having secured time to debate this important issue on behalf of deaf people, and on the way in which he has raised the issue, which is profoundly significant to many millions of people in our country.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People has confirmed that, in Britain, one person in seven has a form of hearing impairment. Some were born deaf, some became deaf in later childhood and others were deafened or became deaf or hard of hearing in later life.

We all have personal experience of having aging relatives who are becoming increasingly hard of hearing and increasingly frustrated by our inability to communicate with them. Each hearing-impaired person will have developed his or her own specific communication, and we in the hearing community must learn to adapt our responses to them.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more to raise general awareness among the public of the difficulties faced by deaf and hard-of-hearing people. The important principle is that the initiative lies with the hearing world, not with people who are hard of hearing.

The Government regard disabled people—including those with hearing impairments—very much as full and productive members of society. We want people, regardless of their disability, to contribute to their local communities, to the wider society and, where possible, to the wider economy. All too often—we must be frank about this—they are hampered in their efforts by the barriers that the rest of society erects against them. Whether we do that deliberately or inadvertently, it is discrimination, which the Government are committed to tackling.

In addition to our overarching commitment to combat social exclusion, our manifesto promised, as my hon. Friend will recall, comprehensive and enforceable civil rights to protect disabled people from discrimination. Last October, the Government set out their three-part strategy for meeting that commitment. First, we established a disability rights task force, which is chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), who is responsible for equal opportunities. The task force met for the first time in December. Half its members are drawn from disability organisations, and 12 members are themselves disabled. Its task is to report, by July next year, on how best to secure the comprehensive and enforceable civil rights that the Government have promised. Its early meetings have been extremely productive—so much so that it is now ready to make recommendations.

The task force's most urgent priority has been to consider the role and functions of a disability rights commission, which is the second part of our approach. We have always maintained that anti-discrimination legislation for disabled people needs to be supported by an enforcement body. A disability rights commission will help to make anti-discrimination legislation more effective; it will ensure that disabled people receive the protection to which they are entitled. It will also ensure that everyone—disabled people, people in business and their advisers and so on—can receive the guidance that they need.

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot be specific about the final shape of the disability rights commission or exactly when it will be set up—that will depend on the parliamentary timetable—but he will know that it is a matter to which we attach great importance and on which we are determined to deliver as soon as possible.

The task force's next job will be to consider the wider framework of rights for disabled people. That is the third part of the Government's strategy, which may take longer to deliver than the commission. In the meantime, however, we are committed to implementing the outstanding duties created by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Although the Act is flawed—it is neither comprehensive nor easily enforceable—it offers some worthwhile additional protection for disabled people.

The remaining duties will require service providers to make reasonable adjustments to help disabled people to use their services. For example, they must take reasonable steps to provide auxiliary aids and services which would enable disabled people to use a service, such as installing minicoms and induction loops or providing British sign language interpreters. We hope to announce the timetable for implementation shortly. In the interim, it will make sense for many service providers to invest in deaf awareness training in preparation for their new duties.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about the lack of a comprehensive approach to deaf awareness, but he will realise that there is much good local practice on which to build. I note with interest that there have been several exciting initiatives in his constituency to raise the awareness of hearing people to the needs of hearing-impaired people. Deaf awareness training for staff is currently a key focus in North Derbyshire health authority's hearing impairment strategy, and the authority is working jointly with the local social services to develop training programmes for staff throughout the district. The training is intended for key staff—such as those in the ear, nose and throat ward at the acute trust and those in general practice—precisely to address the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised on behalf of deaf people, who have had a far from happy experience of contact with front-line service staff.

I want other parts of the country to follow suit in implementing the good practice that exists in my hon. Friend's area. That is why a good practice guide, called "Equality for Disabled People in the New NHS", will shortly be produced, as well as a video about deaf and hard-of-hearing people's use of hospital and health care services and about how good practice can be achieved.

It is not only in the national health service that progress needs to be made. The social services inspectorate, for example, recently inspected local authority services for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. The inspections revealed inequalities of service and highlighted a need for more deaf awareness training.

To follow up that report, the Department of Health intends to produce positive practice guidelines on services for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. The social services inspectorate has produced its first video to inform deaf and hard-of-hearing people, who have additional difficulties, about current social service policies.

Our efforts will be targeted at front-line staff. For many people, the first port of call for support and information is the reception area of a general practitioner's surgery or of their local social services department. Those front-line staff are the initial service providers, and their reactions to hearing-impaired people can prejudice future relationships. That is why we attach importance to one of the most widely used mechanisms for encouraging training in deaf awareness for all front-line staff, both specialist and non-specialist, in local authorities—the training support programme, which is also used to support the development of national vocational qualifications for care staff.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People, which receives support from the Department of Health in its role as an examiner and validator of training courses in deaf awareness and in interpreting, including British sign language. In a bid to raise awareness of training courses, the council has published, with Department of Health support, a directory of training opportunities and material for staff working with deaf people in the personal social services in England.

As my hon. Friend said, deaf awareness is not only relevant to health and social services but has implications for all walks of life and for all Government Departments. I understand that in the transport industries, for example, increasing emphasis has been placed over recent years on the need for disability awareness training for staff who work directly with the public. A number of videos have been produced, including one by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and intensive training programmes are now used by rail and bus operators. All those programmes include material on deaf awareness.

All those steps are important; they signify a growing realisation by the Government and in public services generally that if public services are genuinely to serve all the public, they need to have greater awareness of those who are deaf or have hearing problems. The Government are committed to taking seriously deaf awareness training and the wider question of services for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Much progress has been made, with the help of hearing-impaired people, their voluntary organisations and service providers, but we realise, of course, that we still have much to do to ensure that hearing-impaired people live their lives to the full and as independently as possible.

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend's comments will have concentrated minds in the public service, in Government Departments and in the House on the steps that need to be taken to make that vision a reality. I think that he has done a service both to the House and to the large community of people who are deaf or who have hearing problems. I very much hope that, jointly, we can make progress in the future.