Deafness, communication and policy in Europe

deafness policy in europe
© iStock/Kemal Yildirim

Health Europa speaks with the European Union of the Deaf about deafness, communication, education, the impact of COVID-19 and policy in Europe.

Interview by Rosemary Lobley

The European Union of the Deaf (EUD) is a European non-governmental organisation (ENGO) bringing together National Associations of the Deaf (NADs) from the EU and its neighbouring countries. It aims to represent its members at the EU level by driving policy in order to contribute to the empowerment and equality of Deaf people around Europe. HEQ speaks with the EUD’s Executive Director Mark Wheatley and Policy Assistant Jorge Crespo Garcia about communication, education and the impact of COVID-19.

What are the main aims of EUD?

MW: The European Union of the Deaf was established in 1985 as the official representative for Deaf people in Europe. We have 31 national members altogether, comprising the 27 EU Member States, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and the UK. We are guided primarily by the United Nations’ (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; within the EU, we work to ensure that those rules are matched and correctly followed – for example, by ensuring that European countries are following the right process for recognising their official national sign languages. Communication is a key aspect of our human rights, so we are constantly reviewing that and supporting the EU’s disability strategy planning. Over the period between 2020 and 2030 we will be reviewing the processes, making sure that Deaf people have access to adequate communication; ensuring that the EU is following the guidelines it should be to prevent Deaf people from being forgotten or left to the side.

Visibility is important. Deaf people should not be made invisible because of a disability – Deafness itself is an invisible disability, which means it can be easy to forget about when devising policy. We work to make sure that Deaf people are included in everything, from implementing accessible ICT processes to integrating Deaf accessibility in emergency phone numbers like 112 in the EU or 999 in the UK.

We have also been working alongside audiovisual media services (AVMS): we looked at the percentages of TV channels in the EU that offer subtitles and sign language interpreters, which it is their responsibility to do. Some countries have been very good at providing accessible media, while others have absolutely nothing.

JG: The main goal of UED is to ensure equality for Deaf people and sign language users, compared to the rest of the population. We work with as many policy frameworks as possible, both in Europe and internationally.

With many press events and news reports covering COVID-19 still not featuring sign language interpreters as a matter of course, has the pandemic further highlighted the need for inclusive reporting of crises?

MW: A lot of the European countries have sign language interpreters for COVID-19 news as a matter of course, which is amazing to see because they are able to relay very important pieces of information. Here in the UK, however, there does not seem to be a great deal. Some countries are noticeably improving on this front, but some only seem to bring in the interpreters for the very important matters such as COVID-19 updates: they pick and choose where to use an interpreter, rather than delivering full access for Deaf people.

JG: We worked extensively on the topic of coronavirus during 2020. We have been working closely with our members to monitor and to try to make sure that information is accessible both at the national level and EU-wide, ensuring that news updates from the European Commission provide interpretation at least into International Sign.

The accessibility of information is far from being realised: there is still lack of closed captioning in many countries and a particular lack of comprehensive information being offered in sign languages. We can see a press statement from the prime minister being interpreted into sign language, but what about information from the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education? It has been a challenging situation; it has improved the visibility of sign language to a degree, with many countries including sign language interpretation for the first time, but this is still very broad and we have realised that a lot more still needs to be to be done.

Should sign language interpretation be made more widely available, particularly in the field of healthcare?

MW: In the EU, on average, there are currently around 80 Deaf people to one interpreter. If you look further north, around Finland and Sweden, the average drops to about seven Deaf people to one interpreter. However, in some of the more Southern regions, it rises to over 1,000 Deaf people to one interpreter. There is a lot of regional variation: this can be due to government oversight or attitudes to language diversity; but it is primarily related to the funding which is allocated for training interpreters.

We need to push governments to increase funding for sign language interpreters. It’s for the benefit of our children, for their wellbeing at school and in healthcare; so that they in turn will be able to give back and contribute to the system. Some governments are very short-sighted: they only plan as far as the next election, they don’t think any further into the future. That is why we are here now: to make them aware of the long-term effects of accessible policies on the community.

Integrating sign languages into education curricula would be an important step to give children and young people confidence and improve their communication with others. If you know a little bit of sign language, that will go a long way.

Has the development of new and emerging technologies, such as apps and mobile devices, improved the experience of Deaf patients overall?

Yes, and the EUD has been involved in a number of projects on this front. Some of those projects involve Artificial Intelligence (AI): we have been trying to develop an app which can recognise and translate sign language. It’s quite complex, but we’re still in the very early days – it’s going to take a few years to be fully ready for rollout, but it is really quite exciting.

What should Member States do, both at the national and EU-wide levels, to implement equality and empowerment for their Deaf citizens?

MW: For me, the first thing would be education. There is not enough provision in place for equal access. We are seeing more and more Deaf children who have been very isolated going into mainstream schools, because the current philosophy prioritises integration; but the issue for Deaf children is obviously communication, without which it is very difficult to integrate. Governments must focus more on how to improve the situation for education, as well as looking more broadly at the laws around sign language. Wider adoption of sign languages within court systems or healthcare is essential.

Mental health is another very important issue: there are very few counsellors or therapists who can sign, so Deaf people face a lot of barriers to accessing treatment. Sign language interpreters who work with counsellors obviously have to follow a very strong code of ethics and confidentiality, but counselling is very personal; and when you have an interpreter there, the atmosphere can be quite stiff and constrained. Interpreters in that setting need more training to work with mental health – especially with the impact of COVID-19, so many Deaf people are feeling lonely and isolated at home.

Mark Wheatley
Executive Director
Jorge Crespo Garcia
Policy Assistant
European Union of the Deaf

This article is from issue 16 of Health Europa. Click here to get your free subscription today.

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