Pushing the disability ministry to take disabled access seriously

A minor little campaign victory achieved at NDCS the other week: the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) accepted that deaf people should not be forced to use the phone to make a claim for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) benefit. Usually, I do a little jig and get the Bucks Fizz out when a campaign victory has been achieved. But this was a very small, unsettling one and which left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

How come? Because the only real concession is that deaf people have been given a postal address that they can write to to ask for a paper form instead.

And why is it an unsettling one? Because it was such a small issue that should absolutely never have been an issue at all. And because it’s revealed some rather interesting things about how the Department for Work and Pensions, which has responsibility for disability issues across Whitehall, seem to approach issues around access for disabled people.

For example, who at DWP thought it was OK to propose that the only way that a disabled person could make a claim was via a telephone?

If an online system is being created, why not wait until this is developed before rolling out the new benefit so that more people can access?

And, the worse one of all for me, who on earth thought it was acceptable to suggest that if a deaf person couldn’t use the phone, it didn’t matter too much because they could ask a family member to call DWP for them?

Something has gone very horribly wrong when the Minister and officials responsible for disability have to be hectored at some length and for some time to take a tiny step to improve access.

Official were seemingly operating in ignorance of the Equality Act 2010 and its central tenets to remove discrimination and promote access for disabled people. Throughout the whole exchange with DWP, it was abundantly clear that the needs and the convenience of their ‘system’ was far more important than the physical access needs of disabled people.

And this is before we’ve got to the raft of spending and welfare cuts that are going to impact on disabled people (and which the Government refuses to assess the impact of – another legal requirement). This was a small issue. But it said big things about the Government’s wider attitude towards disabled people.

I despair. It makes me angry and depressed. But equally it makes me more determined to keep challenging the Government. And I hope others do too.

P.S. If you’re not sure what this new PIP benefit is all about, both the National Deaf Children’s Society and Action on Hearing Loss have recently produced some information resources on PIP for deaf young people, parents and deaf adults.

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Deaf access fail at the Department for Work and Pensions

Imagine someone telling a wheelchair user that the disabled toilets are just up the stairs. You’d think it bonkers. Well, the Department with overall responsibility on disability policy seem to be on well on their way to pulling a similar trick with deaf people.

There’s been lots of discussions about how the process for claiming the new Personal Independence Payments benefit will work in practice. In a nutshell, you have to make a pre-claim before you’re given a personalised form for your proper claim.

And how do you get a pre-claim form? Easy, you give the benefits team a call and they will do a short interview over the phone. And if you have problems using the phone? No worries, you’ll get a paper form to complete. And how do you get a paper form? You give the benefits team a call.

Frankly, it’s more than just a little disconcerting that the people looking after benefits for disabled people haven’t quite twigged that not every disabled person can use a telephone or have a textphone. So much for the new digital age and for the Government leading by example when it comes to access for disabled people… Am told that Department officials are working on trying to get an online form set up for the new PIP benefit… but it may not be ready in time when the new benefit launches in April next year.

They’d better get a move on. It’s not only just bonkers and ludicrous, but discriminatory.

Rubbish subtitles: an update

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself unexpectedly in the Daily Mail, the Metro, Digital Spy and the Sun. Sadly, it wasn’t due to scandal or celebrity mayhem. Instead, with my NDCS hat on, I had put my name to a quote lambasting ITV for their rubbish live subtitles for Dancing on Ice. Some of the worse examples included Philip Schofield suggesting the contestants would be “toasted to their limits.” Live subtitles are never perfect. These subtitles were appalling though and suggested a real lack of thought and prep by the production team. If live subtitles of reasonable quality can be done on the X Factor, it can be done on Dancing on Ice.

The only thing worse that rubbish live subtitles on live programmes are rubbish live subtitles on pre-recorded programmes. Which brings me to the Young Apprentice over on the BBC.

Last November, the BBC found itself on the deaf naughty step by showing the final of the Young Apprentice with live subtitles. Which would have been fine except it wasn’t a live programme, it was evidently filmed several months before. Charlie Swinbourne’s blog set out the case against the BBC.

I made a formal complaint to the BBC. I had a cursory reply back then referring to “technical problems”. I politely replied asking what exactly these technical problems were. Three months later, they finally got round to coming up with another excuse. The gist of their reply:

“The technical problems to which we refer is that many programmes are only completed close to transmission or have to be re-edited just before broadcast for countless possible reasons thus the reality is that sometimes there just isn’t time for our subtitlers to step in between when a programme has been finished or edited and the time of broadcast… We genuinely do our utmost to have full subtitles on absolutely all programmes because we are committed to providing a great service to all audiences and it is as disappointing for us as it is to you when we’re not able to for reasons beyond our direct control.”

On reading this, my face was full of such scorn as to put Margaret’s raised eyebrows and Nick’s pursed lips to shame. I wouldn’t mind a late reply, if it bothered to address my concerns properly.

Namely, how exactly is this outside of their direct control? Who commissions these programmes and sets out expectations for what the end product will look like? The BBC surely don’t accept any old rubbish. So why do they accept programmes that arrive too late for subtitles to be added?

And secondly, how exactly is completing programmes close to transmission and re-editing them at last minute a “technical problem.” It isn’t a technical problem. It’s poor planning. It’s some guy in the production team deciding not to leave enough time in the schedule to allow subtitles be ready in time. It’s some guy deciding that access for deaf people is a lesser priority.

I’ve sent my complaint straight back to the BBC and asked them to look again. With a new series of the Apprentice starting soon, I’m determined to toast the BBC complaints team to their limits until they deal with this properly.

Love film but hate lack of online access for deaf people?

I got an email the other day at work about Lovefilm and the lack of subtitles for deaf people who sign up to their online film streaming service. A father of a deaf daughter was angry that she wasn’t able to watch any films online with subtitles. It quickly became apparent via Twitter that this wasn’t an isolated issue and that loads of other similar companies are equally poor. Another example of access failing to keep pace with technology and incredibly frustrating.

I would say that Lovefilm and other companies that fail to provide full access to deaf people are acting unlawfully under the Equality Act 2010. Their defence? Lovefilm would probably use the get-out clause that it would be an “unreasonable burden” on them to provide access. Ultimately, someone would have to take Lovefilm to court so that a judge could decide who was right.

In the meantime, there are a few things that can be done to make a fuss about this.

1) Complain. If your beef is with Lovefilm, you can contact them via their website. You could ask them to justify why they don’t provide access and whether they think they are acting lawfully under the Equality Act 2010. Other companies should have a “contact us” page on their website tucked away somewhere. If lots of people complain, this will start to get noticed internally.

2) You could also raise with the Equality and Human Rights Commission – who can look into companies that are not complying with the Equality Act.

3) Ofcom are responsible for regulating telecommunication companies and setting access requirements. For example, they require mainstream TV companies to provide a certain level of access according to their size. Currently, they don’t (I think) regulate online TV or media access. But you should certainly feel free to tell them you think they should.

4) Finally, tell the Government to sort it. The relevant Ministry is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. A new Communications Bill is expected soon-ish and this offers an opportunity to get the law changed on things like online access, if enough people say it’s needed.

Be really interested to hear any other nightmare stories or how others have got on when making complaints like this. Or of any solutions that people have stumbled across.

What an ill chicken tells us about deaf access to universities and colleges


Sorry, I didn’t do a blog yesterday, my chicken was ill.

If you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, then clearly you haven’t yet watched the BBC3 documentary, Deaf Teens: Hearing World, nor been aware of how a sequence involving a notetaker explaining she couldn’t support a deaf student for a whole 2 hours because her chicken was ill exploded onto the deaf community’s consciousness. Charlie Swinbourne’s blog explains how this quickly went viral, with a Facebook group attracting 1000 members in less than 24 hours and tweets abound using the #deafteens hashtag.

How did it pick up so much attention? Well, frankly it’s the most ridiculous (and hilarious) excuse I’ve ever come across for communication support failing to come through. Secondly, behind every brilliant joke is a regrettable knowing truth. In this case, that knowing truth is that deaf young people are rarely in control of their communication support at college and universities and too often are left to fend for themselves. The sequence hit a real nerve.

On the programme, this was the deaf teen’s first day at university and somehow they still managed to cock up (no pun intended) her communication support by not checking whether her notetaker could stay for the full 2 hours. Not exactly an auspicious start. In a further epic fail, another student on the programme at a different university on her first week was forced to lipread a lecturer in a dark room. My own experiences at university weren’t much better – I had to arrange my own provision and my “communication support” were often other students trying to make a quick buck. It also took around 9 months for my council to sort out my Disabled Students Allowance.

I’m sure there are a lot of good intentions out there. But a lot needs to change before deaf young people can be confident they’ll get the help they need at colleges and universities, without having to rely on the good health of chickens or other random occurrences.

The documentary, by the way, was brilliant and must-see viewing for anyone wanting to understand the experiences of deaf young people.

Celebrity DJ calls subtitled films at cinema “daft”

Today gave me a whopping reminder of the power of Twitter in campaigns when “celebrity” DJ, Sara Cox managed to unite the deaf community in anger at some fairly idiotic tweets last night.

It’s a hard life being Sara. She’s goes to the cinema on a date and then, shock horror of horrors, finds the film is showing with SUBTITLES! Frankly, I would tweeted in amazement that she managed to chance upon a film that was accessible to deaf people. Instead, she describes this on Twitter as “daft”. A few people point out that actually the subtitles are there to help deaf people access films. She dismisses them with what I can only describe as a naughty Northern swear word. A huge outcry later, still going the last time I looked on Twitter, said offensive tweets were deleted and an apology issued. Apparently, she thought the subtitles were for foreigners. Daft, indeed (here’s a screengrab of her nonsense – courtesy of @Deaf on Twitter) and the story has been picked up in a couple of news outlets including the Telegraph.

Is this enough? She’s said she’s mortified at the offence caused, should we tweeters get some perspective and all move onto something else? Maybe. But I’m still pretty annoyed and disappointed by the whole thing.

Subtitled films are few and far inbetween. Deaf people can’t just turn up to watch a subtitled film. We have to plan our social lives around the few showings around and then sit with our fingers crossed through some rubbish adverts in the hope that the man in the projector box doesn’t screw up the subtitles. Deaf journalist, Charlie Swinbourne, hit the nail on the head in his article for the Guardian a while back. Deaf children and grown ups need more access, not less.

As has been powerfully pointed out by fellow deaf tweeters, thanks to an ill-informed tweet, a celebrity, with lots of followers who seem rather keen and willing to defend her views, has now helped make it legitimate and OK to complain about access for deaf people and made it harder for deaf campaigners to persuade cinema to show more subtitled films. A lot of valuable work, potentially undone. Very frustrating indeed.

I’m sure Sara is genuine in her apology. But the damage has been done and there are no naughty Northern swear words that can take it back.

Stuck in the 80s – deaf access to telecomms

Image courtesy of http://www.geekalerts.com

Imagine that it’s still 1981 and all technological progress has just stopped. So no i-phones – everyone is still walking around with a brick-like phone looking like a muppet. No 3D cinemas. Just 4 channels on the telly. Subtitles only available on Blue Peter and Eastenders. Deaf children still wearing a box around their waist as a hearing aid.

Well, in terms of how deaf people use the phone, you don’t have to imagine, because it really is still 1981.

I can’t hear on the phone so if I want to communicate with the hearing world – *shudder* – I need someone , a 3rd party, to relay or type to me what the hearing person is saying. I need a relay service.

Currently, there’s only one show in town – text relay where I have to type what I want to see and have the 3rd party read it out to the hearing person for me. I hate text relay in its present form. I hate the fact that someone else is speaking for me when I can speak the Queen’s English perfectly well, thank you very much. That the call takes forever. And that I don’t know what the operator is plonked in the middle of my conversation. It feels a bit like getting my Mum to make my phone calls for me. If I were a deaf teenager, I’d be mortified if I had to use this service. In some respects, the dead have an advantage – an ouija board would probably be a more enjoyable and speedy means of conversing with the outside world.

It may have been acceptable in the 80s, but it’s certainly not now. So why are we stuck in the 80s?

I blame the regulators. In a nutshell, the regulatory framework means that only BT is required to offer a text relay service. And BT self-fund it. You don’t have to be a behavioural economist to realise there are no incentives for BT to modernise, improve or market the service. And as for video relay services for sign language users? Forget about it – it’s not mentioned in the regulatory framework.

Does it have to be like this? No. Deaf people in other countries enjoy a much better service. Captioned relay – where the operator uses voice recognition technology to speed up the phone call, where the deaf person can speak for him/herself and read a live transcript on the computer screen – is available in the States. As are video relay services, where an operator transposes text into sign language for deaf people who communicate in BSL. And in the States, they even have a choice of different providers. Competition! How modern!

The good news is that new European legislations mean that the Government and Ofcom, the regulator, are required to make improvements. It’s a shame it took the EU before Ofcom and the Government actually woke up to the current situation but anyhow.

The bad news is that Ofcom and the Government are dragging their heels and not taking it, I think, seriously. There seems to be a bit of ping-pong going on between the two with neither stepping up to the plate. Ofcom seem mired in very narrow perceptions of what the law allows them to do. A review is underway but it’s been going on for so long, I fear it may be another 30 years before it concludes.

Pressure is needed to break the status quo. The UK Council on Deafness is co-ordinating a campaign on this and a range of organisations, including DAART, TAG and VRS Today, are also applying pressure. NDCS has also set up an online campaign action for people to nag their MP about the issue. It’s fair to say that whatever happens in the next few months will determine whether any improvements are ever made to drag deaf access to telecommunications into the 21st century.