MP Catherine demands better access to NHS services for BSL users

Catherine McKinnell MP has today demanded better access to healthcare services, treatment and information for users of British Sign Language (BSL).

Speaking during a Parliamentary debate she secured on ‘access to NHS Services for BSL users’, the Newcastle North MP shared the wide range of concerns that have been raised with her by constituents and local deaf organisations, including Deaflink North East, about the challenges BSL users still face in trying to make use of everyday public services because their communication needs simply aren’t being met.

Catherine raised examples of deaf people frequently having to rely on family and friends in order to make medical appointments, because they have to be made over the phone.

She told the Health Minister about BSL users regularly being provided with a telephone number in order to book a BSL interpreter, or finding that when a BSL interpreter has been booked, they are not always fully qualified or the appointment is just not long enough for BSL interpretation to take place. Of particular concern is that these scenarios happen time and time again – with BSL users repeatedly having to make their communication needs clear.

According to the British Deaf Association, there are around 151,000 users of British Sign Language in the UK, of which 87,000 are deaf.  But, whilst the British Government recognised BSL as the official language of deaf people in the UK back in 2003, BSL still has no legal or protected status in this country. So, Catherine also challenged the Minister on whether the existing legislation – including the 2010 Equality Act – is sufficient to protect the rights of BSL users – or whether a BSL Act, such as that introduced in Scotland in 2015, is now required across the UK.

Catherine concluded her speech by commenting:

‘I would like to ask the Minister whether she really thinks it is appropriate to expect adult BSL users to have to continually rely on family and friends – and often their parents – in order to access healthcare and treatment, or discuss private medical information?

‘It is really acceptable for BSL users to have to continually challenge, demand and fight for access to NHS services that most of us take for granted? Or to face potential delays to their treatment because their communication needs simply have not been recognised and met?

‘This is not a situation that any one of us would tolerate, so why on earth should deaf people have to do so in 2019 – almost a decade after the Equality Act became law?’

Speaking after the debate – which featured live BSL interpretation as well as online simultaneous translation and subtitling – the Newcastle North MP said:

‘Whilst the Minister appeared to take on board the concerns I and other colleagues raised this afternoon, we need to see concrete action on this issue not more warm words.

‘I remain unconvinced the existing legislation is sufficient, and the Government needs to think very carefully about how it protects and promotes the rights of BSL users – as the recognised language of the British deaf community given the seriousness of the concerns I raised today.’

Catherine’s Westminster Hall debate this afternoon took place a matter of days after Deaf Awareness Week (6th-12th May), which is held to raise awareness, and challenge perceptions, of hearing loss and deafness; to promote the positive aspects of deafness and to promote social inclusion; as well as to raise awareness of the huge range of organisations across the country that support deaf people and their family and friends.

Last year, Catherine launched a BSL section on her website with the help of Deaflink North East, in order to make herself more accessible to her Newcastle North constituents who use BSL.

Ahead of this afternoon’s Westminster Hall debate, Catherine also had this article published on PoliticsHome about the concerns she would raise.

A transcript of Catherine’s speech and the full debate can be read here.  The debate can also  be watched online – with BSL interpretation and subtitling – here.