With deafness playing a large part in my family life; my mother is a Sign Language Interpreter and both my uncle and aunt are profoundly deaf, deaf culture and sign language have always been of interest to me. Yet it was only when I began working for Deafax, a UK charity that works to improve access to information for deaf people that I really began to appreciate the mountainous issues that deaf people come up against, to gain equal access, on a daily basis.
Many deaf people, although categorised as 'disabled,' would beg to differ and see themselves instead as a linguistic minority. Society disables deaf people by failing to provide equal access to services, information and education, which then hinder deaf people's ability to make informed choices and be fully included in decision-making.
This is no better demonstrated than in the areas of sex education and sexual health services: both areas are under-researched when linked to deafness, yet the effects are quite shocking.
Take this deaf teenage mother, who didn't know anything about sexual health until she had already fallen pregnant:
"I didn't know anything about sex, contraception or relationships when I left school, there was never anyone to ask who could explain properly to me in sign language. I didn't know how many sexual partners were 'normal'. When I left school and left home, I was raped by a man. Then I had lots of men coming to my flat and asking me for sex, I just thought that it was what I was supposed to do."
Her experience isn't uncommon; another young deaf mum recalled her experience of sex education at school:
"I never understood the sexual education classes I had at school and there weren't many of them either. They were taught by a teacher who was very embarrassed and it was embarrassing for us. I struggled to understand any of it and switched off."
When she later fell pregnant she was unsupported and uniformed:
"I never went to antenatal classes, because I wouldn't be able to follow what was going on there. No one used sign language and I couldn't read about having a baby; the leaflets were complicated and I didn't understand them."
Speaking to health trusts and midwives, Deafax has uncovered that this experience is common for many deaf mothers; there simply isn't the provision to ensure that they have staff and professionals who can communicate with them.
As one midwife's account suggests, health services rely on the families of deaf patients to aid communication: "We have always relied on their family to interpret, but the patient doesn't always want someone there, so we sometimes use lip-reading. When they want an interpreter, there isn't always one available. We try and use written information when this happens."
This approach is not effective: for many deaf people English is not their first language and written text is hard to follow. Failing to provide interpreters can lead to distressing and dangerous experiences:
"We had one deaf lady who was in labour; she was very distressed and had no interpreter. Normally, I would talk to her and soothe her, but she couldn't understand me so we decided to give her an epidural."
Concerned about the repercussions on the health and wellbeing of deaf mothers and their children, Deafax are pioneers in the area, having launched the deaf E.A.R.S campaign to give Education and Advice on Relationships and Sex to the deaf community.
The campaign focuses on increasing public awareness of the communication needs of the nine million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the UK, and beyond. The deaf E.A.R.S campaign targets healthcare professionals, who are flouting the Equality Act of 2010 by not providing equal access to their services, and teachers of the deaf, whose lessons can be improved by ensuring they are using the correct signs for sexual health enabling them to feel confident in teaching what can be a challenging subject. Deafax are also encouraging new research in the area through an online survey for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
In order to tackle the barriers to communication, Deafax has created a Sexual Health Package, full of deaf-friendly, visual resources for teachers of the deaf to deliver effective and interactive sex education to deaf students. Using expert deaf trainers, Deafax provide training for teachers of the deaf, midwives and healthcare professionals and also work directly with deaf students through a variety of workshops.
For more information on the campaign, and to show your support, please visit: http://bit.ly/HhaG5W.
To take part in the latest research into deafness and sexual health, please complete this short survey (for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community only): http://svy.mk/JppzAh.