Continued struggle for equality

In my previous article I reminisced over the differences of experiences that my wife Zana had encountered over her formative years and modern day. It hopefully gave some insight into how life for a disabled person has vastly improved (and continues to do so) over the years.

Accepted practice over what is acceptable continues to change for the better. An example of this was it being suggested that I write an article for Black Country Housing Group (BCHG) about our experiences with disability. The fact that this is my second one also demonstrates BCHG’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. I cannot imagine such an occurrence decades ago. However, to perhaps illustrate how fragile this can be even now, I thought I would share some recent experiences.

Zana has learnt to lip-read incredibly well and relies upon this in the absence of signed/interpreted communication. I’m immensely proud and continually amazed of her ability and how much of a conversation she understands from simply looking at somebody’s lip pattern. Try it yourself by muting the TV and see how much you can understand of anything that’s said.

This links to a current instance where an alarm triggering a fire suppression system at Channel 4’s media services company (Red Bee Media) led to all subtitling and audio descriptive services for the hearing and visually impaired going down. This happened in September and was not resolved until the end of October. This was bad news for Zana as she was unable to follow some of her favourite shows (Bake Off, Location, Location, Location and Grand Designs). I sent an email of complaint and requested an explanation as to why this was not immediately resolved, especially as Channel 5 also uses the same facility. I have yet to receive a response. I do wonder if Channel 4 stopped transmitting visual images, how quick their resolution would be from the outcry this would cause. The small responses that have been given were all from a written perspective (rather than signed), making it totally inaccessible to the Deaf community. This incidence highlights how there’s still a lack of understanding around the issue.

I’ve previously mentioned that what little sound Zana can hear is reliant upon the hearing aid she has in her one ear. These have improved over the years, and the free digital one that’s provided by the NHS is much stronger than those of years ago. However, they’re still prone to failure - a constant bending of the plastic tube over time or from water (sweat or condensation) getting inside it can prevent it from working and enabling her to hear. With the move to either remote working or reduced hours as a result from COVID-19, has meant she’s had to wait weeks for an audiology appointment to simply change a 10cm or so piece of plastic tubing; resulting in a very temperamental and intermittent ability to hear over such weeks.

The onset of COVID-19 created numerous new and fresh challenges for disabled individuals, thus often increasing their sense of isolation. Doctors were not frequently seeing people face to face and providing remote access, which for Zana meant relying upon me to act as an interpreter between herself and the doctor. For us it was not an issue (as we have no secrets), but for others less fortunate this could increase their anxiety or dependency. However, even when she was fortunate to be able to have face to face interactions, she then had to contend with everyone wearing masks – thus rendering lip-reading redundant!

Even modern adaptions, such as Teams or Zoom which made our lives easier, proved difficult for her as it constantly raised the issue of sending interpreters links to meetings or not being able to see the individual’s lip pattern if they were making presentations.

Even access to vital information on the pandemic; its ever-changing restrictions and guidelines treated her unequally. Not wishing to make any political comment, but it is still to my continued shame to look around the globe and see in-person Sign Language interpreters present and correct at every country’s briefings except our own! It became my constant moan that if Scotland, Wales and Ireland recognised this basic need of inclusion why didn’t England? Even now, after the government was found guilty of breaching the Equality Act over this matter, there remains a conspicuous absence of such basic in-person provision.

This unfortunately leaves me with a lingering impression that deafness and hearing impairment still largely remains an ‘invisible disability’ to this day. I’m certain that there are other disabilities – some of which will be close to your heart – that are largely unheard of or talked about.

It’s so easy to take our lives for granted without thinking of others who might face inequality or restriction of access. Nobody is immune from this. My case in point; despite all the above and knowing every challenge Zana has (and continues) to face I often get frustrated at people loitering in the middle of a road or pavement, only for her to remind me ‘they might not be able to hear you.’

The journey towards full equality and access will be a long (and likely bumpy one). However, it’s one that’s vital for the improvement of all society. I’m proud to work at BCHG whose leadership team fully recognise and embrace this through their EDI strategy.

Stuart Collins, Financial Accountant at Black Country Housing Group

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