My “Campaigning for Deaf Children” Christmas wish list

As a campaigner, what would I like Santa Claus to give deaf children for Christmas?

1) Greater focus on making sure deaf children start primary school on a level playing field with other children. The newborn screening programme is now over 5 years in and every child born deaf should be being diagnosed within the first few weeks of life. Late diagnosis was a major barrier, now removed. And deafness isn’t a learning disability. Yet government figures suggest little change in the early years attainment gap. So what’s going on? And what needs to change to close this gap? In my view, there’s lots of theories and lots of best practice suggestions but no concrete answers or explanation of why the gap isn’t closing. I’d like Santa to bring us closer to some solutions.

2) Local authorities stop picking on deaf children’s services for cuts. It’s a false economy; denying deaf children support the help they need now means a generation of deaf adults failing to achieve their potential and make a full contribution. It also means parents of deaf children will push for statements for special educational needs, and the legal entitlements this brings. NDCS’s Save Services for Deaf Children campaign has information on campaigning to protect services. There’s lots of ways councils can make savings without impacting on services: such as working with neighbouring council’s to share and pool resources. I’d like Santa to knock heads together in council offices. Or at least make sure they get no presents this year.

3) And something for the stocking. The BBC, ITV and other programme makers stop using live subtitles for pre-recorded programmes. Charlie Swinbourne’s blog explains the fury caused when the final of the Young Apprentice had subtitles out of sync with what was being said. “Technical problems” are often cited. More likely, the programme editors were too busy faffing about with last minute changes that there wasn’t enough time to prepare subtitles. This denial of access is just not on. I’d like Santa to say to whoever is responsible for these kind of “technical problems”: you’re fired.

It’s a pretty modest list of requests, I think. What else do you think we should ask Santa for?

Otherwise, all that remains is to wish everyone who reads my blog a very happy Christmas and prosperous 2012. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the 2011 blogs and see you next year.

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Signed interpretation on TV: under attack from the Guardian

A while back, the Guardian did a fantastic set of articles on deaf people. On Monday though, I read a blog on the Guardian’s website which seemed to suggest that the Guardian’s own journalists don’t read their own paper.

This article was about sign language interpretation on a film shown on TV, by a Nick Lezard, called “Sign language strangles cinema”. It’s hard to know where to start – but the whole article suggested a profound ignorance, which was rather worrying to anyone who campaigns on deaf issues.

Nick shows a profound lack of understanding between British Sign Language and English, asking why deaf people cannot just use subtitles. Five minutes of basic investigation would have revealed to him that BSL is a distinct language. It is not just English with signs. It has a different grammar and structure. Asking a BSL user to follow subtitles is like asking a French man to follow a German film with Spanish subtitles. I imagine that most deaf people will in fact prefer to use subtitles to access TV. But there are a sizable minority who communicate primarily through British Sign Language and who will prefer to see sign language on TV.

Nick suggests the film was ‘ruined’ by the presence of sign language interpretation. If he doesn’t like it, that’s fine. And if all programmes were shown with signed interpretation, I can imagine he’d be very unhappy. But this is not the case. We’re talking here about a film that was on in the very early hours of the morning. In fact, most signed interpreted programmes are shown in the twilight zone, deliberating timed to avoid being too intrusive to hearing viewers. BSL users – who pay a full licence fee too – are forced to either stay up to after midnight or record programmes in order to be able to access a small number of programmes and films in their own languages.

Nick has the option of renting or buying a DVD and being able to watch it in English, or waiting till it is repeated on TV again. BSL users do not have this kind of ready access. It is a shame that Nick seems to want to begrude BSL users this small accommodation to their needs.

One of the comments to the blog – from ahumanist – summed up my feelings by saying:

In my understanding, the job of a journalist is to ask questions and investigate when he comes up against an issue. So when he turns on the box and sees “a fat little man” (I prefer not to think what Lezard looks like) gesticulating in the corner of the screen, then he might be prompted to ask some questions and investigate: Do deaf people prefer subtitles or sign language? Is poor literacy more prevalent amongst deaf people? Can one get DVDs film with sign language? Is the BBC filling a gap the private sector ignores? Are there technical problems is using the “red button” to switch on and off? These are the kind of questions I would expect a journalists to see as their task, and they should be paid for that kind of work. Lezard is a lazy man, his column inches of self-indulgence and ignorance are pure garbage.

I couldn’t agree more. The article was ignorant and mean-spirited. To see it appear on the website of a paper which I’ve always thought recognised diversity and the needs of disabled people and promoted inclusion is profoundly disappointing.

Bong! Exciting news from the BBC…

When I was a young deaf child growing up (I won’t tell you what decade – I feel old enough as it is), very few programmes were subtitled and my family didn’t get a subtitled TV until I was in my teens. I would still try and watch TV but most of the time, I wouldn’t have a clue what was going on. Why was everyone so miserable in Eastenders, for example?

Why is she so miserable?

A complete mystery. Anyway, it meant that I would have to pester my family to ask them what was going on, that I didn’t know really what was happening in the news and that I couldn’t talk to my hearing friends in the playground about what was on the telly last night. In short, I felt a bit excluded from what was going on.

Fast forward to yesterday afternoon and I was listening to Mark Thompson, the Director General for the BBC, confirm at a House of Commons reception that there would be 100% subtitling on all of its 7 main channels! Amazing. And something that will make a huge difference to lots of deaf children growing up today.

The reception was organised by NDCS and the Royal National Institute for the Deaf to congratulate the BBC. And to call for more action! We’re an ungrateful bunch, aren’t we?

So what do we want? First of all, subtitles are really important and we want other broadcasters to up their game and move towards 100% subtitling. But at the same time, deaf children are a diverse bunch of people and subtitles alone won’t ensure that TV is genuinely accessible for deaf children. So we’re calling for:

* More signing on programmes for deaf children. Some programmes, like the Hollyoaks omnibus are signed which is fine. But deaf children want to see sign langauge coming from the presenters or characters in the programme – not from an interpreter in the tiny corner on the screen…

* More deaf role models on TV. Lots of deaf children never meet other deaf people. Who are they going to look up to? We have Ben on Eastenders but someone suggested to me the other day that he was a bit of a “geek”! Where are the whole range of positive deaf role models living normal lives and being a success on our screens?

* A greater awareness by TV producers of the needs of deaf children. For example, producers need to think about making their shows more visually orientated for young deaf children. NDCS has done a booklet with CBBC that will help their producers meet this challenge.

At the event, we brought along some deaf children from Mary Hare and Heathlands schools because we wanted MPs and the BBC to hear directly from deaf children themselves what needs to change. The children were absolutely fantastic. They were fearless, relentless and determined in going up to MPs to tell them exactly what they thought. They were definitely the stars of the day. In fact, they were so good, I began to get paranoid they were after my job of campaigns officer…

So, all in all, a great day out and a big step forward. Now all deaf children can see that everyone in Eastenders is miserable for no good reason!

PS If you want to support our campaign for accessible TV for deaf children, you can write to your MP. Our website makes it quick and easy for you to do this and you don’t even need to know who your MP is.