It seems unlikely that there are many public services whose users would proclaim that they were better off 50 years ago than they are today.
But the more senior members of the deaf community in Lancashire say that is often how they feel as they try to negotiate the challenges of living in a silent world with increasingly limited support.
Len Hodson, 80, recalls a time when people who, like him, were born deaf and rely on British Sign Language (BSL), benefited from social care staff dedicated to helping them with every aspect of their lives.
“There was really good support in the 1950s and 60s – social workers were there to help you with things like understanding documents and even to go to job interviews with you,” remembers Len, a founding member of the Lancashire Deaf Rights Group (LDRG).
“Nowadays, deaf people are integrating more, but there’s still a lot of isolation and many people who are left unable to engage [in society].”
The level of local authority support for deaf people has waxed and waned since the 1970s and by the mid-1990s, the LDRG says it had become largely focused on the provision of interpreters.
In recent years, additional help for deaf residents has increasingly been provided under a Lancashire County Council contract with a consortium of charities. But the axe has hung over that service since late last year, when the authority unveiled budget plans to scrap the overarching Lancashire Wellbeing Service.
That threat appears to have been lifted, with cabinet members this week being asked to approve a proposal to retain the county’s sole deaf support worker, something which Len says would be “great news”. County Hall also commissions social care packages for deaf residents who require them.
But the LDRG is set to continue its campaign to break down the barriers faced by BSL users which can cause them “poor health and hardship”.
“Finding interpreters isn’t the big issue – deaf people can generally get access to them,” LDRG member Mark Heaton explains.
“What we want from the county council is welfare provision – support for deaf people in their everyday living.
“Interpreters can’t offer that, because they have professional boundaries which prevent them from getting involved in any way. If you have any issues with what is being interpreted, then it is up to you, the deaf person, to deal with them.
“The current support worker is a hearing person, but really understands the deaf community – we felt she was the right person for the job.
“But she is just one individual and is overwhelmed with referrals, because deaf people are so desperate for somebody like her.
“There are a few people in the deaf community who can write really well, but the majority cannot read or write well at all.”
Even in an era of strengthened equality legislation, members of the deaf community can still find that they are left struggling with what should be simple tasks.
Faced with a banking error, 75-year-old Preston resident Ian Funnell sought help at his local branch – but was confronted with an all too familiar conundrum for BSL users.
“£4,000 had been taken from my bank account, so I went to the clerk and asked her to sort it out for me,” Ian recalls.
“But she said that I’d have to phone the fraud department directly, because of data protection. There was a queue building up, but I was determined that I wasn’t going anywhere, because I needed somebody to help me.
“In the end, the bank manager got involved and they phoned for me – but it was quite stressful. Who would I have called on if they hadn’t backed down?
“The bank thought their hands were tied – but they obviously don’t know anything about the Equality Act, because that says deaf people can use a third party in instances like that.”
Ann Spencer, a volunteer signer with the LDRG, says she worries about how the most vulnerable people in the deaf community would have coped with such a situation.
“Ian, Mark and Len were successful professionals during their working lives and yet day-to-day living has been a struggle for them – and if they struggle, imagine how it has been for others,” she says.
The deaf community is a diverse collection of ages and levels of hearing and speech – but one younger member who has speaking ability says she, too, often feels “invisible, like a second class citizen”.
“You’d be surprised given today’s technology that deaf people are often asked to phone for certain services – that means I have to ask someone I trust to make the call,” Sarah explains.
“Then they’ll ask for authorisation to talk to a third party – but what if the deaf person can’t talk?
“There is a barrier there all the time for deaf people.”
Mark says that a failure to differentiate between the differing needs of the deaf community often leaves BSL users particularly disadvantaged.
Meanwhile, Ian paints a similar picture of how service providers – from councils to cafes – fail to draw a distinction between the deaf and the rest of society.
“Deaf and hearing are two different worlds – our culture, mindset and language are different,” he says.
The LDRG has taken this week’s expected u-turn at County Hall as just the latest step in their campaign to improve the lives of Lancashire’s deaf.
The organisation’s three founding members – who have lived a combined 220 years in silence and without speech – remain determined that their voices will be heard.
WHAT THE COUNCIL SAYS
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, Director of Public Health for Lancashire County Council said: “Following full council’s decision to consult on stopping the Lancashire Wellbeing Service at its meeting in February, some [new] proposals have been made to the county council’s cabinet.
“These include continuing to provide a Deaf Wellbeing Worker post and to find new ways to work with the community to support people to stay well.
“Cabinet will consider these proposals and make its decision at its meeting on Thursday 13 June.”
‘CHARITY CLOSURE WILL BE A LOSS’
The sudden closure of a charity which provided support and training opportunities for deaf people in the county will have “a big impact”, one of its former staff says.
The local democracy reporting service understands that the Lancashire Deaf Service (LDS) – also known as the East Lancashire Deaf Society – stopped operating last month and its workers were told that they were being made redundant.
Sarah Button worked at the LDS – which had branches in Preston, Blackburn and Burnley – for just over six months.
“The deaf community will miss the service, because it provided support workers who were themselves deaf,” Sarah says.
“A deaf person can just talk to another deaf person for company, if they are feeling lonely. But with a hearing support worker, it’s just not the same.
“LDS also offered decorating and gardening services. There was a kids’ nursery and even a restaurant where they would train deaf apprentices to become chefs..
“When we were all called in and made redundant, I was more worried about the longer-serving staff and the clients than myself.”
Lancashire County Council also commissioned some services from LDS as part of its social care support packages.
Director of adult services at the authority, Tony Pounder, said: “We contacted [the people affected] as soon as we became aware that this service was going to stop trading.
“We have now arranged for a new provider to support them.”
Meanwhile, the separate Preston-based charity Deafway has responded to the increased need from the deaf community by expanding its own service.
Chief executive Mike Greer said: “Deafway has arranged extra interpreter drop-in sessions for June and, soon to be announced, for July.
“These sessions take place at Deafway in Preston and the Lancaster Deaf Centre. This does not represent an ongoing extension to the drop-in service but we are obviously hoping future provision can be arranged.”
The local democracy reporting service has been unable to contact any representatives of the LDS for comment. The charity’s website and Facebook page remain live, but its phone lines are going unanswered.
‘DEAF PEOPLE WANT PRIVACY, TOO’
The Lancashire Deaf Rights Group is calling for the NHS in Lancashire to make better provision to maintain the privacy of deaf people.
Under equality legislation, patients are entitled to an interpreter to help in their medical appointments if they require one.
However, British Sign Language (BSL) user and Preston resident Mark Heaton says that many in the deaf community would rather have a one-to-one consultation, just like anybody else. That would require the medical professional leading the appointment to be able to sign.
“It’s a very personal and sensitive setting – but we have to have a third person in the room to interpret,” Mark explains.
“I know of a deaf person who needed counselling, but there were no BSL-trained counsellors in Lancashire. The patient was happy to travel elsewhere in the North West, but the budget stipulated that the appointment had to be within the county..
“It didn’t work out well – the deaf person was so uncomfortable with it that they just didn’t attend any more sessions.”
“WE HAD TO SIT ON OUR HANDS SO WE DIDN’T SIGN”
For more than a century, deaf schoolchildren were not taught to sign, because of a rule agreed by teachers from around the world at a conference in Milan in 1880.
It was decided that the “oral method” would be adopted in schools across the globe – and it was not until the mid-1990s that the restrictions began to be relaxed here in the UK.
“The teachers were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to communicate with hearing people,” remembers Mark Heaton, who attended a boarding school for deaf children in the 1950s.
“So they thought they would ban sign language completely and get the children ready for a hearing world when they leave school.
“We had to sit on our hands in class, so that we weren’t tempted to sign.”
Ian Funell says children seized the chance after school to communicate with each other the best way they knew how.
“Deaf children [of that generation] sign so well because they did it to interact with their friends outside the classroom.
“But parents were told not to sign with their deaf children – so I’ve never signed with my own Mum.”
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
The Equality Act 2010 requires public bodies and private businesses to make “reasonable adjustments” to enable deaf people to access their services.
Such adjustments can include changing the way those services are provided or offering extra assistance such as an interpreter.
The legislation aims to prevent disabled people being put at a “substantial disadvantage”.