Barriers to understanding

“You’ve missed your appointment.”

You’re sitting in your GP’s surgery and your name is
called out over the tannoy system. Unaware, you continue flicking
through a magazine. After waiting for some time, you approach the
receptionist to ask whether the doctor is running late, only to be
told that you’ve missed your appointment as your name was
called 15 minutes earlier. The receptionist had forgotten you were
deaf and would not have heard the announcement.

This is the kind of experience many deaf and hard-of-hearing people
encounter when trying to access health services.
With one in seven people in the UK having some form of hearing
loss, the average GP sees up to four patients with impaired hearing
in their surgery every day.

Let down by health services

Despite this, a report out this week from hard-of-hearing
people’s charity the RNID reveals that they are often let
down by health services. It says that the NHS could
soon be breaching the Disability Discri-mination Act 1995 because
by October service providers will need to have made all
“reasonable adjustments” to ensure services are fully
accessible to disabled people.

Lack of communication technology and deaf awareness training for
staff as well as a national shortage of British Sign Language
interpreters exacerbate the communication problems for deaf

Paul Redfern, head of community development at the British Deaf
Association (BDA), says: “In one incident, a deaf woman went
to hospital to see a gynaecologist. She had her seven-year-old son
with her. Because there was no interpreter the gynaecologist wanted
to use her son as the interpreter. The woman, naturally,

Redfern draws a parallel between deaf people’s experiences
and those of adult asylum seekers who are often expected to use
their children as interpreters, even when dealing with sensitive or
medical information. “It’s not about deafness as a
disability, it’s about using a different language –
like asylum seekers,” he says.

“The situation can be improved”

The BDA has a project in Wales called Visible Voices which has set
up local groups of deaf people who negotiate with social services
and health authorities about what they need. As a result, all
health trusts and 50 per cent of doctors’ surgeries will pay
for an interpreter if asked.

It shows that the situation can be improved, says Redfern, but
takes regular talks between service providers and users.
“Otherwise, providers can put in services or equipment that
don’t meet users’ needs and then they feel they have
wasted their money, and users need to be aware that the budgets are
limited so they ask for what is realistic. That way we can achieve

He claims the structure of primary care trusts discriminates
against deaf people. PCTs are responsible for the local community
but the number of deaf people within that community are sometimes
so few that trusts are deterred from investing in interpreters or
staff training.

Redfern says: “Deaf people don’t go to the doctor
because they can’t communicate and doctors say they
don’t need training because they don’t see enough deaf

If the issue was looked at on a regional basis, PCTs in one region
could pool resources and work with a greater number of deaf people
in one area, he adds.

Deafness is invisible

Wendy Trent, team manager at Surrey Deaf Services and Sign Language
Interpreting Team at Surrey social services department, experienced
difficulties first-hand when she went into early labour. Trent is
deaf herself and no sign language interpreters were available at
such short notice, particularly as the birth was sooner than the
usual four-week standby arrangement in place with the interpreting
team. This meant a poor communication standard in terms of her and
her baby’s health, she says.

In her professional capacity, Trent often comes into contact with
clients who have found it difficult to access health services for
help with making a complaint. The result is that some deaf people
who cannot advocate for themselves end up contacting a social
worker in Trent’s team for a non-social work related issue,
because they are all BSL users. “As deafness is invisible and
their views therefore unheard, deaf people are not receiving equal
access to information and services as their hearing

To address this, Trent is linking up with local health services by
participating in primary care trusts’ training forums held
with GPs and their practice managers. She hopes to do the same with
access to hospitals.

The RNID wants to see a widening use of existing technology,
including visual alert displays and loop systems to avoid
communication problems. This is commendable, says Redfern, but he
warns: “The problem with any kind of equipment is that people
get enthusiastic about installing it and then six months later
someone asks what it is and nobody knows, because the one person
who knew how to use it has left.”

Another recommendation in the report – the NHS to instigate
training seminars to ensure all GP surgeries and hospitals have at
least one front-line member of staff who has been formally trained
in deaf awareness and practical communication skills –
isn’t enough, he says.

“The Disability Discrimination Act talks about
‘reasonable adjustments’, but one hospital could employ
5,000 people. I would not say that one person is a reasonable

Survey results

The RNID and UK Council on Deafness surveyed 866 people.
Findings include:

* More than one-third had been left unclear about their condition
because of communication problems with their GP or a nurse.

* One-third of British Sign Language users were either unsure of
the correct dosage of medication to take or had taken too much or
too little because of communication problems.

* 24 per cent had missed at least one appointment because of poor
communication. This had happened more than five times for 19 per

* 42 per cent who visited hospital, but not for an emergency, found
it difficult to communicate with NHS staff. This rose to 66 per
for BSL users.

* 70 per cent of BSL users who went to A&E units were not
provided with a sign language interpreter.

“I felt humiliated”

Anne Wilson* was born profoundly deaf. She uses British Sign
Language, but can lip-read and speak. Her first two children were
born in hospital but she had a home birth for her third.

“Pregnancy gives you the biggest confrontation with being
deaf. You see so many different professionals, so there are
communication issues, but also everybody asks you about being deaf,
why you are deaf, and even how you’ll look after the

“When the baby is born, everyone asks whether the baby is
deaf. I’ve found it degrading and humiliating. At home we
only saw one midwife, and it was very relaxed.”

Wilson has often been ignored by health professionals who choose to
talk to her husband, Mark,* who is not deaf. She recalls:
“Once I was with a nurse who kept talking to him. I could
lip-read her, so I just answered the questions she was asking him
about me. Then she asked what the first day of my last period was.
I said that I didn’t know, and she said ‘I am asking
your husband’. My husband said I was the best person to ask,
not him. She got angry with us and said we were being

*Not their real names

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