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The importance of communication between medical professionals and Deaf people amid the coronavirus outbreak


The Deaf community has always faced barriers when accessing the NHS, from needing an interpreter to talk to a doctor, to navigating information in NHS leaflets and on medical advice websites.

Now, as the coronavirus COVID-19 continues to spread worldwide, Deaf people are met with even more challenges, where accessible information and medical services are more important than ever.

Deaf people were initially denied access to live government updates on COVID-19 as press conferences had no interpreters present. This has now been resolved and information is being delivered in British Sign Language (BSL), but there is more work to be done in increasing accessibility. So, how can we keep communication flowing during this challenging time and ensure Deaf people aren’t left behind?

Know your obligations

The Accessible Information Standard (AIS) was introduced by the government in 2016 to ensure people with a disability or sensory loss are given information in a way they can understand, and it’s important to keep this legislation front of mind as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise. If implemented effectively, it brings several benefits, including improved outcomes, heightened experiences and the provision of safer and more personalised care and services for patients. Medical professionals should be aware that they are legally obliged to comply with the AIS in order to identify and meet the information and communication support needs of patients and must act accordingly.

Take advantage of technology

With patients being actively discouraged from attending their local GP practice or hospital in person due to the COVID-19 spread, technology has a key role to play in aiding communication between medical professionals and Deaf people. For the NHS, video interpreting systems can enable profoundly Deaf patients to have instant access to a clinician in person or over the phone, through a registered and qualified BSL interpreter. The systems work to remove the communication barriers for Deaf people, by giving them the freedom and independence to communicate with and access the services provided by their local NHS trust, allowing vital information to be communicated simply, easily and on demand 24/7.

Understand your patient’s requirements

Understanding and acknowledging your patient’s communication methods is vital. Fail to communicate appropriately and effectively and you could risk misdiagnosing your patient or, even worse, prescribing the wrong medication. There are various means of communication that can be used depending on your patient’s needs and preferences, from BSL and Sign Supported English (SSE) to using the deafblind manual alphabet or lip-reading. That said, you must be aware of the challenges lip-reading presents (studies show only 30 to 45 percent of the English language can be understood through lip reading alone[1]), and you should never presume a patient will be able to lipread because he/she is Deaf or hearing impaired.

Seek external support

Whilst taking the above steps can undoubtedly help bring the NHS closer to meeting accessibility needs during the COVID-19 crisis, if in doubt you should seek the advice of an external expert who can offer guidance and services to help you communicate effectively in these testing times. This includes interpretation support face-to-face and via video, BSL translations and Deaf awareness training. With the right action and support, it is possible for medical professionals to empower the Deaf community and break down the barriers that people with disabilities face, not just as we gear up to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, but into the future, too.

Clare Vale is Managing Director of Sign Solutions