• Tamara El-Halawani and Rebecca Atkinson

The BSL Interpreter Campaign

The UK government has failed to provide a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter to broadcast vital Covid-19 news briefings. Despite an interpreter being present at Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales briefings, England has made the ever-changing rules and regulations inaccessible by not having one, in breach of the Equality Health Act of 2010. Last month, I spoke to Rebecca Atkinson and her Mum, who uses BSL to communicate, about their campaign to include a BSL interpreter at all televised Covid-19 announcements. Their insight brings to light a greater understanding of the difficulties impacting the deaf community during this crisis and the damage that not having an interpreter has caused.

Dialect by Lucy Mulholland (Instagram: @lucygm_art)

Description: ‘Dialect’ is part of a series of work exploring ideas of language, communication and misunderstanding. Referencing BSL fingerspelling and using purple ink to mimic the results from leaves in eco print processes, this work looks at forms of communication which are often overlooked or misunderstood.


Why did you start your campaign and petition?


Rebecca: It was either the night before or after the emergency lockdown announcement from Boris Johnson. I’m currently at home with my Mum, who only uses BSL to communicate. As the announcement was a sort of unwelcome surprise, there wasn’t an interpreter - BBC or Government provided - and I had to translate most of the information to my Mum.


This isn’t something I’m unfamiliar with. Growing up when there were any events like parents evenings or school plays, we’d always ask for an interpreter and most of the time they’d be good enough to provide one. However, a few times they’ve forgotten, or I daresay not even bothered. And it's that feeling of being less to someone that I can’t abide, that your language and your understanding doesn’t matter to someone - this is how I’ve been feeling about the Government briefings.


So quickly after that evening I fired up a petition online and sent an email off to my MP. Deaf people and other BSL users should have the same right to information as everyone else. I don’t think our Government quite grasps that BSL is a whole different world to spoken English.


Deaf activist Lynn Stewart-Taylor tried to launch a #WhereIsTheInterpreter last October and one petition calling for BSL interpreters to be used in emergency announcements on TV has now closed but amounted to approximately 26,000 signatures - why wasn’t this campaign successful? What measures do the government say provide sufficient alternatives? Why are they/are they not?


Rebecca: The #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign had to switch from being a petition based campaign to a legal challenge (for which a hearing has recently been given the go ahead by a judge). I think it's less a case of the campaign not being successful, and more of the campaign having to change footing. I didn’t realise this was an existing campaign until after I had sent the application off for the petition - a misstep on my part. However, it did make me realise that our Government doesn’t want to listen to deaf people - the only way they will listen is with mounting pressure from all directions, which is why I think the switch to a legal campaign was appropriate. I’ve still kept the petition up - partly because I have no idea how to take it down!- but also because I think if the right amount of pressure was leveraged on the Government they would cave and finally listen.


You see it all the time with various U-Turns and the realisation that feeding children are a good thing. Our Government listens to public pressure and scrutiny but only when it is applied continuously and from all sides.


At the moment, the Government says that the BBC provides an interpreter and that is the appropriate alternative. There is something to be said for the tax-funded BBC providing this service, however, as I mentioned before, it doesn’t always happen. Additionally, there is a core element to being able to see yourself and your language on television in the room where it happens, so to speak, it would feel like the Government wanted you to be safe like it wanted to care about your life the same way they cared for everyone else’s.


Also, I think it feels very lazy on their part.


The Government has argued that following PHE guidelines, they cannot safely include a BSL interpreter in the room for daily briefings without potentially putting them and others at risk - isn’t there greater harm in preventing some 80,000 people with hearing loss who watch the Covid-19 briefings being able to understand them? Why haven’t the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland concluded the same?


Rebecca: The first point to be made would be that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have fewer people in the room. However, for example, the Northern Irish Government has not one but two interpreters present via a video link - one for BSL and one for ISL (Irish Sign Language). So it's clear that there are many ways around the issue.


I think that the Government is doing the bare minimum to protect deaf people. You’re right in saying that there is a greater harm to those by not conveying the right information. I don’t think any of those people in Government have ever been in contact with someone who solely uses BSL for communication. You can’t get the right information across just using subtitles and spoken word. The grammar is all different, the words are more straightforward and in writing, you lose all the nuances given across by someone using their facial and hand expressions to convey the emotion or depth behind a concept.


For example, if I said to you, “I feel sad,” you might be able to tell how bad I felt in the tone of my voice and perhaps some subtle undertones in my body language. In BSL, to say ‘sad’ you hold your hand up in a straight line, with your thumb pointing towards your face and then you move your hand down your face towards your chest. Depending on how fast you made that action, or how slow or how large - you could convey multiple different meanings.


How are those with hearing loss left feeling by the government still not including a BSL interpreter in their broadcasts? What risk is this leaving them in regarding Covid-19?


Mum: My mum says that she feels: why are we different? Why do the other nations get better treatment? The language is very different from spoken English. Coronavirus is so serious that we need to be able to understand what's going on in our first language.


Rebecca: It might leave more people susceptible to false information and means there is more leg work to do to try and understand the rules. At a point when the rules aren’t always clear anyways - this is hard to do.


Some are threatening legal action as not including an interpreter goes against the Equality Act 2010, the UN disability convention and the Human Rights Act 1998 and is discrimination. Katie Rowley who’s the first language is BSL, sued the government when she learnt she had broken lockdown measures after they were not presented in an accessible format. How is this impacting the mental and physical well-being of people with hearing loss?


Mum: Makes more worries, what is wrong with having one when all the other governments and countries appear to have one. It makes it harder to find out what the real information is.


Rebecca: At a time when we all feel more lonely than ever before, being able to see your language on-screen would connect the Government to a lot of people. It would make you feel like someone is talking to you personally, taking the time to make sure you understand.


What has the response been like since you launched the campaign?


Rebecca: It was great at the start. I was really overwhelmed by the amount of response I was getting. However, as it’s gone on and the semester has got gotten harder, it's been really difficult to make time for trying to spread the petition and I also feel at a bit of a loss in terms of where next to put it out to people.


On top of that, you start to wonder if people really care about deaf issues. As a CODA (Child of Deaf Adult), throughout my school life, well into uni, people have been amazed by the fact that I have deaf parents and I grew up bilingual - speaking both English and BSL. Yet that's as far as it often goes. They want to know some words from me or show off the words they already know.


I’ll teach them some words happily, but I know for a fact that they will never use those words to speak to a deaf person. I know for a fact that they won’t care much about deaf issues or deaf culture. I would go so far as saying that people only want to know sign to show off to their hearing friends. There are whole societies at Universities across the country built upon sign for showing off with no links to the deaf community or the culture. I feel that reflected in the issue of getting an interpreter to the Covid-19 Briefings.


If no BSL interpreter is put in place, what do you think the long-term message will be to people with hearing loss?


Mum: That the government does not consider people with hearing loss equal. The Government doesn’t think that our lives matter in the same way as hearing people.


If you had one message for the government about the impact that this has had on people with hearing loss, what would it be?


Mum: Why can’t you do it live with an interpreter, you should look at all the other nations and follow their example, despite being the leader!


After our interview, Rebecca informed me that she had sent a letter to Rachael Maskell MP about the use of a BSL translator at Prime Ministerial briefings. She received a reply from the Rt Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP, Minister of State for Media and Data, in which he highlighted that the government was committed to building a digitally inclusive and aims to ensure that Covid-19 media announcements are accessible for all UK audiences.’ He established that following Public Health England guidelines, it was not possible to safely include a physical interpreter at the daily briefings due to social distancing measures. Moreover, he mentioned that the government was engaging with broadcasters in developing appropriate accessibility provisions.


Yet, the rest of the letter felt insincere, passing responsibility to individual public broadcasters for providing their own resources due to being ‘operationally and editorially independent of government’. Rather than more concrete conclusions, he further suggests that Rebecca might like to share her suggestions with Ofcom.


While social distancing guidelines must understandably be met, too few solutions were drawn from the letter and those included felt unfulfilled. Once again, we are faced with a government who falls short in their delivery on promises to treat people equally.


If you would like to sign the petition, please click here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/567549


This article was written and edited by Tamara El-Halawani, who interviewed Rebecca Atkinson. Both are students at the University of Edinburgh.

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