Election week is finally here, the political parties have pitched their manifestos to the electorate, most of us have already decided which way to vote and what's left now is just the wait to see what happens on Thursday and beyond. The campaigning is over - it's decision time.
This election week also happens to coincide with the annual Deaf Awareness Week and for us the work doesn't stop when the polling stations close. If anything the coming election makes it even more urgent that we make sure that the next government is fully awake to the challenges faced by people affected by deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss. If I had to summarise those challenges in three words I would say 'access, attitudes and inclusion'. Access to employment, transport, education, healthcare, entertainment; the attitudes of employers, service providers and members of the public; and full inclusion in everything from the national political process to decisions in the workplace.
On March 2nd this year, we held our first Hustings event (The Deafness and Hearing Loss Hustings), where disability spokespeople from the UK's three largest Westminster parties took questions from an audience of two hundred people, nearly all whom were deaf or had hearing loss. This was the first ever accessible General Election debate on hearing loss and deaf issues and the simple truth behind the rationale for the event is that previously there has been a complete lack of party political material available in BSL which deaf people could use to form their opinions and decide how to vote.
Not surprisingly barriers to employment was one of the hot topics raised during the debate with discussions centring on the Access to Work government scheme and the challenges of the past year for deaf people, where support has been restricted in a variety of ways. It is clear to everyone in the disability field, that Access to Work scheme needs to be better promoted and more efficiently implemented to achieve its desired outcomes that more disabled people attain and stay in employment. It is also essential that the recently imposed cap on Access to Work awards is lifted. I do not want to live in a society where we consider some deaf and disabled people too expensive to employ; this debate is about human rights not the stroke of an accountant's pen.
The issue is broader than just the government policies. Nearly eight out of ten respondents in our survey identified employers' attitudes as the main barrier to employment. With modern technological advances, skilled communication professionals and a positive attitude accommodating someone with a hearing loss in a workplace should not be that difficult. Is it a lack of will or a fear of the unknown? Incidentally, recent recommendations from the Disability Charities Consortium asked for increased focus to be placed on the role of employers.
How can we make the employers more aware of what can be done to recognise, attract and retain the talent and the skills of employers who just happen to have hearing loss and how can we get the government to offer more incentives to employers and more support to the employees?
What we want to achieve is a change in attitudes. At Action on Hearing Loss we want a world where deafness and hearing loss doesn't limit or label people and Access to Work scheme is viewed as a workforce investment.
We need the policies to affect the change, but we need awareness to affect the policies and once this awareness becomes the norm, then it will be much harder for the government to ignore whatever needs to be done to enable change.
This is a conversation that needs to keep going and at Action on Hearing Loss we will continue to chip away at breaking those barriers. And whoever triumphs on Thursday, they can rest assured that our campaigning for equality won't stop on election day.