BSL version of: 'A democratic response to COVID19’ blog post.

Being whirled back in time?

Deaf people have been involved in many battles for communication accessibility, such as direct services in sign languages, and the provision of sign language interpreters in educational settings, healthcare settings, workplaces and on TV.

Other challenges in communication processes have been less visible or overt: deaf people built up a wealth of experience and context-based strategies throughout their lives to communicate with hearing people, including writing notes, lipreading, signing, speaking, and using gestures. Deaf people are not represented in parliament and there is no overarching UK Act of Parliament relating to sign language yet (except in Scotland). Thus, political announcements as well as health guidance and government announcements have tended to miss their target with respect to deaf people. Similarly, public engagement processes too often fail to consider their communication needs and preferences.

Most online platforms were not designed with deaf people and/or signed mind.

Many of these services and strategies for deaf people are precarious and have been disrupted in the initial months of Covid-19. This has brought with it all kinds of access restrictions.

Most online platforms were not designed with deaf people and/or signed communication as primary users in mind. Deaf people have therefore had difficulty in participating in hearing-organised and hearing-chaired meetings, presentations and other events online where they and interpreters have been unable to see each other in a satisfactory way. This can be made worse by screen sharing – everything quite simply gets smaller. So, if participatory processes are happening over online platforms, which is becoming more and more common, then deaf people can be instantly disadvantaged.

Requesting interpreters for medical appointments has suddenly become more complicated. It is very disconcerting if you are deaf, and you are hospitalised with Covid-19 or another condition, and everyone in the ward is wearing a mask and no one knows how to sign. There have been cases where hospital staff did not know how to call an interpreter (which can be arranged via webcam) or have refused to write notes with pen and paper (because of contact risk). Guidelines have been developed by the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (UK) along with other service providers for such situations, and the National Association of the Deaf in the USA released similar information. The bottom line is deaf people need to bring a smartphone (and a charger!) to communicate using text or a printed out piece of paper which says they are deaf, deaf blind or hard of hearing and need to communicate in a different way.

Governments around the world have not been consistent with providing sign language interpreters for public health and emergency announcements.

In other words, we are developing new strategies in a world where proximity and touch, and visibility of the face are jeopardized. Emphasis on the need for clear masks (or removal of masks) to enable deaf people to lipread has often taken away attention from other strategies that may be preferred, such as gestures, writing notes or using sign language.

Some groups of deaf people are in especially vulnerable or precarious positions, for example: 

  • deaf key-workers, who are often women who have to work with mask-wearers all day,

  • deaf people who have recently moved to the UK and are negotiating their way in a new country, 
  • deafblind people who require close contact and touch to communicate, 
  • black deaf people and deaf people from other ethnic minorities since the impact of Covid-19 has been disproportionate for these groups, 
  • deaf children many of which do not have family members who can sign and are deprived of communication during lockdown or isolation, 
  • elderly deaf people living by themselves who can become very isolated or in residential care with carers who do not sign very well, if at all.

Governments around the world have not been consistent with providing sign language interpreters for public health and emergency announcements. The British Prime Minister and the American President are yet to hold a press conference with an interpreter in the room (see the #whereistheinterpreter hashtag). Other leaders, notably in countries where sign language has been recognised in legislation, such as Scotland and New Zealand (where leaders of both countries are women) routinely hold press conferences with sign language interpreters standing next to them.  Not only is this relevant to ensuring deaf people understand public health information, but it speaks volumes about how the importance of providing information in sign languages is perceived by politicians and governments. Where sign language interpreting has been provided, in some quarters it has become disaster entertainment where the interpreter has been mocked or been seen as a source of entertainment or humour by politicians and the public.

Covid-19 has meant a step back in time as provision of education and access in sign languages is jeopardised.

Legislation and shifted priorities in Covid-times

Sign languages have been recognised in a number of countries around the world, a consequence of which is that there has been government sanctioned acknowledgement of sign language and language planning efforts to ensure access to areas such as employment, community participation, health and medical services, law and justice. Internationally, a number of conventions deal with the human rights of deaf people. For example, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines language as spoken and signed, and discusses sign languages across five Articles, highlighting their importance in various areas of everyday lives including accessibility, freedom of expression of opinion, cultural participation and most importantly education: “facilitating the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community” (Article 24). Many deaf children and their families around the world are still not exposed to sign languages and many deaf and hard of hearing children are mainstreamed without any provision in sign languages .

Covid-19 has meant a step back in time as provision of education and access in sign languages is jeopardised. Laws that are in place have not necessarily helped us protect against backsliding in access provision: the unprecedented nature of Covid-19 has often trumped respect for deaf people’s legal rights. If we are going to “build back better”, we must ensure that it is a process through which deaf people are not excluded. Deaf communities around the world have found that hard-won gains in accessibility and equality do not mean so much when governments and societies suddenly have to change how things are done. However, the minoritized and marginalised status of sign languages mean that legislative protections are highly important in ensuring that rights are not diminished. And there is no better time than the present to ensure these rights are a given.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Robert Adam is Assistant Professor in British Sign Language at Heriot-Watt University and Honorary Lecturer at the UCL Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre. He is a member of the World Federation of the Deaf Expert Group on Sign Language and Deaf Studies, and his research expertise is on minority language bilingualism and sign language contact. He is deaf, from Melbourne, Australia and has deaf parents and relatives.

Annelies Kusters is Associate Professor in Sign Language and Intercultural Research at Heriot-Watt University. She leads a research project called “Deaf mobilities across international borders: Visualising intersectionality and translanguaging”, funded by the European Research Council (2017-2022) (  Her research interests are the study of multilingual language practices, language ideologies, transnationalism and mobilities. She is a deaf woman from Belgium.