Deaf people continue to be shut out of Britain’s healthcare system with more sign language training needed for emergency services staff, a leading paramedic has said.
Britain has around 70,000 profoundly deaf people and with an ageing population that number is expected to rise in the coming years.
Government figures suggest as many as 11 million people in the UK suffer some form of hearing loss making it the second most common disability in the UK.
But deaf people have been historically poorly catered for when it comes to health services with one survey finding three-quarters of them have struggled to communicate in hospital. The same study found British Sign Language interpreters were available for only seven per cent of A&E visits.
Pressure for change is growing after a tragic incident in Derby last year in which paramedics were unable to tell a deaf woman her husband had died.
Elizabeth Corbett eventually learned her husband David, 51, had passed away via a videocall from her employer.
On Thursday, Strictly Come Dancing star Rose Ayling-Ellis, who is deaf, backed Mrs Corbett’s calls for all paramedics to learn basic sign language and have a fully-charged iPad that can connect to an interpreter.
The former EastEnders actor wrote on Twitter that paramedics “should have been given the right tools [and] support to be able to communicate with this lady”.
Such incidents come as no surprise to Richard Webb-Stevens, who has served as a paramedic with the London Ambulance Service for 24 years.
Mr Webb-Stevens was born deaf as a result of complications during birth and has been able to offer much-needed support for deaf people when he has encountered them during incidents, but says he is a rarity.
“It’s common, you could be out in the street, someone’s collapsed and you don’t realise they’re deaf, and then someone else in the street calls 999, but that person’s deaf so if you’re lucky I turn up and you can communicate… but that’s not the way of the world,” he told i.
“The deaf community have been really poorly served trying to access the emergency services for years.”
A lack of interpreters or sign language skills often means that healthcare staff rely on loved ones, including children, to communicate, something that Mr Webb-Stevens says has to stop.
“It is so difficult when you have children involved,” he said.
“The last thing that child needs to do is to have a communication with somebody, trying to translate or interpret serious information about their parents which they may not have any understanding of.
“It’s really important we do everything we can to enable the services to communicate with the patient, not the patient’s child.
“Traditionally, people have thought ‘great idea, let’s ask the child’, but you could be asking all sorts of really personal questions, you could be talking about cancer illness or death, and that is really not appropriate for children.
“It’s really important by having this service you can eliminate that, without traumatising a young child.”
The risk of using children or loved ones as interpreters is not only inflicting further trauma on them, but also contributing to poorer health outcomes, Mr Webb-Stevens says.
“When [deaf people] go to appointments… the service – the hospital or the GP – has a responsibility to provide an interpreter,” he said.
“Sometimes it doesn’t happen… and then the doctor will say, ‘Yes, the cancer has spread, it is terminal, there’s no treatment’, and then you’ve got this child being relied upon to pass on that information.
“And you might have a parent that doesn’t even realise it’s been terminal for six months.
“Deaf people have much worse health outcomes than hearing people – simply because the information is just completely lost without an interpreter.”
This week, Mr Webb-Stevens, who was honoured by the Queen last year for his service including responding to the 2017 terror attack at Westminster, was in Manchester as part of efforts to improve the situation.
Greater Manchester Combined Authority is working with training provider Seetec to ensure front-line staff in ‘blue light’ services – police, fire and ambulance – have British Sign Language skills.
This will complement a new 999 British Sign Language service which launched last summer following successful trials.
Mr Webb-Stevens, whose wife works as an interpreter for the service, described it as a “game-changer” but called for more promotion to increase awareness in the deaf community.
“It’s almost England’s best-kept secret,” he said.
“Previously we had emergency SMS – you could text 999 to all the emergency services around the UK.
“It was good… but it could be quite a slow process, the new 999 BSL service is fantastic.
“This is where someone outside in the street or the home, can pick up their phone, press an app, press 999 and they will be contacted to an online interpreter.
“My wife is a BSL interpreter, and she’s actually joined them.
“She does three or four shifts every single month. She will work from home, some people will be in an office.
“She will wait and wait and then as soon as there’s a call, the computer screen flips, informs her it’s an emergency call, so she has to answer within a couple of seconds, which is the same as if a hearing person called 999.”
Mr Webb-Stevens says early feedback suggests the 999 BSL service is being used “a lot” and control room staff find it “remarkably quick.”
It is also making better use of precious resource in the emergency services.
Previously, a lot of requests for help from deaf people using the SMS service would be graded as the highest risk because only a very limited amount of information was able to be communicated.
Now interpreters are quickly able to provide more details and ensure the calls are graded appropriately.
Beyond making better use of resource and saving lives, Mr Webb-Stevens said having equal access to healthcare is a basic right that many hearing people take for granted.
“I think the average hearing person won’t know [about deaf people’s problems accessing healthcare],” he added.
“It’s not ignorance out of arrogance, it’s ignorance because they’ve not had the exposure to a deaf person, it is the simple things.
“Calling 999, making an appointment with the GP, things we take for granted, they’re the things they really struggle with.
“So by doing this, it’s a start and there’s a long way to go, but it’s a massive opportunity to improve people’s healthcare and mental health and everything in between.”