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What, are you deaf or something?! Part 3

I am delighted that my blog series is being so well received. If you need to catch up, you’ll find post 1 here and last weeks’ post here. As always, please share. In order to get more people talking about deaf awareness, we need to get the word out there. 

So, welcome back! This week I’ll be writing about barriers facing deaf and hard of hearing people generally, and then specifically in the legal field. I’ll look at what needs to be done to make society and the legal industry more inclusive. I’ll also cover more about what employers can do to support their staff and clients.

Broadly speaking, the barriers facing deaf and hard of hearing people can be organised into three categories: Lack of access to technology/support, social attitudes, and lack of awareness. For me personally, my biggest barrier is lack of access to technology/support.

Lack of access to technology/support

Cost is a major reason for lack of access to technology. A hearing aid is not just a hearing aid. There are different brands, different makes, different technology, and different costs. Top of the range hearing aids can cost more than £5,000 per pair. Cochlear implant surgery in the UK (for those who can have it) for both ears can cost upwards of £37k. It could be argued that a cochlear implant surgery is more cost effective in the long run, because the average life span of an implant is 20-30 years whereas hearing aids need to be replaced every 6-10 years but there are risks associated with such surgery and acclimatisation can be difficult from what I’ve read.

Generally, hearing aid manufacturers approach private clinics and audiologists first and then go to the NHS. When I had my last experience with the NHS in getting hearing aids, the aids that they offered me were the ones that I had at the time. Obsolete by that point. I ended up having to go private because the NHS could not (at the time) offer me the powerful hearing aids that I needed for the level of my deafness. The technology is changing so quickly and getting better all the time, that by the time the new set of hearing aids is due, they’ve moved on 3 or 4 platforms. It’s quite astonishing!

This of course, has a knock-on effect on everything else. Access to technology is not equal. Loop systems require hearing aids to be set to the “t” (telecoil) switch. Not all hearing aids have this function. The newer hearing aid technology is digital and requires the audiologist to turn on that function, it can’t be done by the user. Once the audiologist turns the function on, the user can use it when needed either via through a smart phone, remote control, or manually through the switch on the hearing aid. I don’t know if Loop systems are updated, I’ll need to do some research!

British Sign Language (BSL) is another big area. BSL was recognised as an official language in Scotland in 2015, and last year in England through the BSL Act 2022. Access to BSL classes is not where it should be, and it’s also expensive. For someone to be able to have fluent, conversational BSL, they need to have level 6 training. That takes time and money. So far as I know, and I’m happy to be corrected on this, there is no funding for deaf or hard of hearing people to access BSL classes. I would love to learn BSL, but cost is an issue.

Video calls are amazing for deaf and hard of hearing people – so long as the wi-fi connection is stable and strong. Microsoft Teams has a built-in captions function which can be turned on by the individual but Zoom requires the meeting organiser to turn it on. Not great for two reasons: 1) you shouldn’t have to disclose that you require that function, and 2) even if you tell the meeting organiser it needs to be turned on, certainly for me – 90% of the time they don’t. The wi-fi connection has to be strong and stable for BSL users in particular. It’s not great if the screen freezes when someone is trying to sign, or a BSL interpreter can’t pick up what the BSL user is saying. The justice system in Scotland is working really hard to be more inclusive and the Courts are taking steps to be more inclusive to court users and jurors; as well as those who are neuro-divergent and require technology. For this to be done, the wi-fi has to be updated across the whole system.

Deaf and hard of hearing people – sign up to Adult Disability Payment if you can, and there is also the Access to Work scheme. I have just gone through the ADP process and the irony was not lost on me that it was likely an able-bodied person who was making judgement calls on my quality of life and what level of support they thought I required. I am currently going through the Access to Work process, but I find it lacking in terms of communication and what I will actually get out of it. If you are reading this and have gone through the process, please do get in touch because I would love to talk to you about it!

There is a lot more I could say on this subject but will leave that for a future post ;).

Social Attitudes

RNID have covered the topic of the barriers that hard of hearing and deaf people face in employment. You can read about it here: Working for Change. In order for deaf and hard of hearing people to feel that they can approach employers for support, there needs to be an environment that encourages them to do so. More often than not, we are just seen as a “box ticking” exercise and no one actually wants to be the facilitator of change. Attitudes, cost, and time. That is being turned on its head now with those of us coming into the legal profession pushing for this change. We are speaking up, and people need to listen.

The National Deaf Centre in the United States published a resource on social attitudes, and I’m sharing part of it here (with American spelling):

How is audism a barrier to attitudinal change?

Negative attitudes toward deaf people are created and perpetuated by societal beliefs and behaviors that assume the superiority of hearing over deaf people. This belief structure is known as audism, which has been defined in several ways:

  • The idea that superiority comes from the ability to hear or from acting like a person who hears
  • A societal system of advantage based on hearing ability
  • An orientation that links human identity with speech

Examples of how audism manifests in the United States:

  • Efforts to make deaf children more like hearing children
  • The idea that deafness is a deficiency and should be “fixed”
  • Systems of power, especially in education and medicine, that favor hearing over deafness, and speech over signing

There is much to be done to change attitudes, but it is happening.

Lack of Awareness

I deal with lack of awareness on a daily basis, and it usually comes down to poor communication techniques. Here’s a list of some of the ways lack of awareness presents itself to me:

  • Covering your mouth while talking
  • Walking away/facing away from me while talking
  • Speaking quietly
  • Not turning captions on in a Zoom call
  • Not removing your face mask if you are wearing one, when speaking to me
  • Mumbling on the phone, or in general
  • Inconsistent captioning on television programmes (on that subject – a deaf person (as in having never heard sound) will not know what Morgan Freeman sounds like so there’s no point in putting in the subtitles “person speaks like Morgan Freeman.”)
  • Leaving a tv or music on at loud levels while trying to have a conversation
  • If a seat at the front at an event is requested in advance but not actioned
  • Crossing the street at the pedestrian crossings – I often cannot hear the prompt to cross, so look for the green man, or a green light. I do not know how red/green colourblind people navigate this.

I’ve lived with this my whole life, so I position myself automatically. I do try to challenge this but…sometimes I am exhausted from listening and my tinnitus in the background, and I don’t have the energy for that. If you recognise yourself in the above list – stop!

The legal industry and supporting staff

So what are we facing in the legal industry?

Open plan offices

Open plan offices are becoming the norm. I have had fellow professionals ask me how these types of environments can be deaf friendly.

Sound proofing walls, lots of plants, office furniture such as bookcases, carpets and blinds can all help make the environment quieter. A colleague mentioned to me last week that a previous firm she worked at had pods where people can sit for a time out or to have a conversation. This is a great idea and provides deaf/hard of hearing people a place to go if they need to have a break or some quiet time.

If your meeting room has floor to ceiling windows, make sure you have blinds for them and watch where you are positioning the podium for speaking. I was at an event recently where the meeting room had a whole wall of windows and there were no blinds. It was very difficult to see the speaker for lip reading because the sun was right on their face. Be mindful of lights and make sure the room is well lit.

Technology

Captions or a transcription service for meetings are very helpful. Captions can only be as good as the speaker so make sure you are speaking clearly and at a decent volume for the room that you are in.

Telephones should have decent volume controls, or headsets that can accommodate a deaf/hard of hearing individual. There is blue tooth technology which allows calls to come straight through to hearing aids (but again, going back to the access to those hearing aids in the first place).

Wi-Fi should be strong and stable for those video calls and other technology that may require it. Where possible use Teams instead of Zoom for the captions.

If your office does not have a loop system, look into this. Make sure you’ve got visual fire alarms in public areas and especially where the deaf/hard of hearing staff sit.

I understand that the online court hearing system Webex does not have captions. I would be grateful if someone could drop me a line and confirm if that is indeed the case. If there aren’t captions there should be, otherwise captioning software should be provided to the deaf/hard of hearing individual that would run over the platform. This is where Access to Work comes in, I hope!

The future

There is a lot of work being done by the Scottish Government, the Law Society and SCTS to increase inclusivity but change does not happen overnight and will take money, time, and participation by everyone. Law firms can do their bit in their own ways. Encourage communication and cross-working. I would love to work with other law firms and agencies as to how to best create environments for the deaf/hard of hearing and others with sensory disabilities. Get in touch with your ideas!

They say that everyone has equal access to justice. This is not the case, but we can change that. Let’s start now.

Next week I will write about deaf awareness and communication tips. There will also be a special contribution by my husband who will write about what living with a deaf person is like and how he navigates that.

I hope you found this week’s post insightful and helpful. Please do get in touch with your comments, questions, and feedback. I would love to hear from you!

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