‘Communication barriers must not get in the way of protecting deaf children’

Opinion: Shirley Wilson on why deaf children and their families, and professionals who work with them, need the skills to identify abuse

Child on swing
Picture credit: Gary Brigden

by Shirley Wilson, NSPCC development consultant

Listening to children is at the heart of keeping them safe. Child protection professionals are well aware of this and, though we see too many cases where it hasn’t happened, there are many more examples – unreported in the media – where children have been listened to and helped.

But the cases of deaf children – who we know are more vulnerable to abuse than their hearing peers – are less likely to feature in that number. One study showed that deaf girls experienced childhood sexual abuse with physical contact more than twice as often as hearing females, and deaf males more than three times as often. It also revealed 45.8 per cent of deaf girls and 42.4 per cent of deaf boys had been exposed to unwanted sexual experiences.

This must change. Creating a culture of communicating with and ‘listening’ to deaf children (anyone with permanent or temporary hearing loss) is crucial if we’re to protect them.

Communication barriers and vulnerability

Communication barriers are the key reason for this. Aside from the obvious communication gaps, deaf children can’t pick up information by following or overhearing everyday conversations in the same way as hearing children. Media may also be inaccessible – YouTube videos and DVDs, for example, often don’t have subtitles. Consequently deaf children may not understand what abuse is. They’re also less likely to have the vocabulary to communicate it and so are less able to protect themselves.

For the same reasons, deaf children may be targeted. Concerns about a hearing child’s behaviour could highlight child protection issues – and they may well report the abuse. But perpetrators know a deaf child is often less able to communicate what is happening to them – and that even where children do disclose abuse they may not be listened to or believed.

It can be harder to identify abuse in relation to a deaf child, particularly if social workers or key workers lack the specialist skills to communicate directly with them, or there are not robust systems to respond to deaf children at risk.

Adult exclusion matters too

Another reason deaf children may be less likely to be helped is because they don’t know where to turn to – but this also applies to deaf adults with concerns about a child. We know deaf adults can feel excluded from services if they’ve not been made aware of what is on offer or they are simply not accessible.

This is why the NSPCC is running a survey with deaf news website Limping Chicken to find out if deaf adults know they can report concerns to us anonymously online, by text or through SignVideo. Currently we receive very few contacts from deaf adults, so as well as raising awareness of the service we want to know how we can improve it to ensure they feel comfortable getting in touch. We know anonymity is likely to be important: the Deaf community is small and there can be fears of reprisals or negative consequences if deaf children or adults disclose abuse, particularly if the perpetrator is also deaf.

Protecting deaf children
We believe giving the Deaf community a place to report concerns is one way to help. But more needs to be done to ensure deaf children have the protection they’re entitled to.

There needs to be wider awareness, training and support for professionals in relation to child protection and deaf children to prevent harm and promote the well-being and ensure that every deaf child matters. Safeguarding deaf children involves the intersection of issues that arise around disability and in respect of their cultural identity – awareness of this is important.

A culture of communicating with and ‘listening’ to deaf children in the child protection system must be developed further. There are few specialist social workers with deaf children in the UK, because the number of sensory teams in local authorities has reduced over time. This means deaf children are not always consulted, or specific attention is not given to their needs and those of their families. Lack of funding at times means British Sign Language interpreters are not provided denying them the right to communicate their own views in their own language. This is not acceptable.

Protecting deaf children is about education: they need to be provided with the skills to know how to seek help and be given personal safety training, including a vocabulary for describing abuse. In using these skills they become more resilient and can access help when they need it.

By taking these actions we will make a start in giving deaf children the protection they’re entitled to and deserve.

Shirley Wilson is a registered social worker who works as a development consultant for deaf and disabled children and young people at the NSPCC

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2 Responses to ‘Communication barriers must not get in the way of protecting deaf children’

  1. AMLTaylor June 9, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    It is great to see issues (and that are many more) for children whose first language is signed communication being highlighted. The difficulties however do not necessarily start from the point of reporting, they start at the point where children are not provided with systems that develop ‘their’ first and chosen language; language that would enable them to form and develop thought. Education and access to language is the starting point for change and the culture of oral education as a generalised approach is often what fails these children

    Let’s keep the conversation going given its significance


  2. Martin Peagam June 9, 2014 at 11:19 pm #

    I would be interested to know which study it is that is the basis for this article.
    You do not provide details of the study and it would be really helpful to see the details of the study.