BSL users must be able to access the healthcare they need

This article was originally published on PoliticsHome, ahead of a Westminster Hall debate Catherine secured on ‘Access to NHS services for BSL users’.

Shortly before the 2015 General Election I attended a hustings for Newcastle’s deaf community organised by the charity, Deaflink North East. This followed a previous discussion hosted by another local organisation, Becoming Visible, about the daily barriers far too many deaf people continue to face.

The overwhelming sense of frustration amongst the deaf community about continually having to demand, to challenge, or fight to access services that most us take for granted was absolutely palpable at both of those powerful events. I therefore resolved to do what I could to try and improve this unacceptable situation.

With the help of Deaflink I have, for example, launched a British Sign Language (BSL) section on my website which includes a subtitled video of a person using BSL to explain, in accessible language, my role as an MP, including the types of issues I can help my constituents with. Perhaps most importantly, it also makes clear that, should any BSL-user from Newcastle North wish to attend one of my advice surgeries, Parliament can fund a BSL interpreter to facilitate this.

This sounds like a pretty basic requirement – but the stark reality is that far too many deaf people are still unable to fully engage with vital public services, because their communication needs are simply not being met. And it’s particularly serious when that communication gap potentially prevents BSL users from being able to access timely and appropriate healthcare, treatment and information, given this could quite literally be a matter of life or death.

So, my Westminster Hall debate on access to NHS services for BSL users – taking place a few days after this year’s Deaf Awareness Week – is an opportunity to raise the wide number of concerns that have been shared with me by local deaf organisations and constituents, but more importantly to ask the Minister what urgent steps she intends to take to ensure BSL users can access the healthcare they need.

Because I just don’t think it’s acceptable that adult BSL users still have to rely on family and friends – often their parents – in order to make medical appointments. It’s not right that BSL users are still provided with a telephone number in order to book a BSL interpreter in the first place – or that, when an interpreter is booked, they are not always fully qualified, or the appointment is just not long enough for BSL interpretation to take place. And it’s particularly frustrating that, for many BSL users, this happens time and time again.

This is not a situation that any hearing person would tolerate, so why on earth should deaf people still have to do so in 2019 – almost a decade after the Equality Act became law? I will be challenging the Minister today on whether she thinks the current legislation is sufficient to protect the rights of BSL users within the NHS – and elsewhere – or whether a BSL Act, such as that introduced in Scotland back in 2015, is something the UK Government will now consider. I certainly hope so, and will continue to raise these concerns until we see much needed change.