Jenny Marra -  Deaf Awareness Week - speech in the Scottish Parliament

23 May 2012

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes Deaf Awareness Week, which runs from 7 to 13 May 2012; supports the work carried out by organisations across the country that help people who are deaf or hard of hearing; understands that these organisations aim to create a world where hearing loss does not limit or label people, where children who are deaf are able to achieve their full potential and where people value and look after their hearing; understands that 850,000 people in Scotland are affected by hearing loss and that, for around 6,000 people, British Sign Language (BSL) is their first language; further understands that, by 2031, over 1.2 million people in Scotland could have hearing problems; believes that there are many barriers for deaf and hard of hearing people, including access to public services, progressing in the education system, finding employment and overcoming social exclusion, and commends the efforts of everyone contributing to and coordinating Deaf Awareness Week.


Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab): Presiding Officer, thank you for allowing me to bring this debate to the chamber.

As the motion says, deaf awareness week is an opportunity to note the exceptional work across the country of organisations that support people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

In my role as convener of the cross-party group on deafness I have seen at first hand the commitment of many groups and their determination to make a difference to the lives of Scotland‘s deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

During deaf awareness week this year there were a number of initiatives throughout Scotland, and there were some great ideas for raising awareness.

In Edinburgh, for example, volunteers set up so-called doc squads and handed out communication tips to local general practitioner surgeries and health centres.

Members might think that doctors would be among the last groups of people in need of such guidance, but the evidence shows that even professionals can benefit from it.

Currently, only 45 per cent of people who report hearing loss to their GP are referred on for further support and intervention.

Unaddressed hearing loss continues to be a systemic problem in Scotland.

It is estimated that 500,000 people could benefit from a hearing aid, but only 160,000 people have one. That leaves around 340,000 people suffering from hearing loss without a hearing aid to help them. Evidence has also shown that there is a 10-year delay in people seeking help for their hearing loss.

It is clear that we can make things better.

That leads me to the most critical part of deaf awareness week and the reason why I lodged the motion. It is imperative that we, as policy makers, continue to tackle the barriers that face deaf and hard-of-hearing people in accessing the help and support that they need to live a life that is free of limits and to gain the ability to reach their full potential.

Barriers exist for the deaf and hard of hearing in all areas of life in Scotland.

Whether at work, school or home or in doing the weekly shop, what are everyday tasks for most will unnecessarily turn into difficulties for some.

A recent survey of 500 shops in Scotland showed that 80 per cent did not have the necessary equipment to make them accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

Some 45 per cent of people have said that they have missed their name being called in doctors‘ and dentists‘ waiting rooms, and there is a 38-point gap in attainment between deaf and non-deaf pupils in secondary 4 in this country.

We can do quite a lot to address those issues. In relation to educational requirements, the National Deaf Children‘s Society has stated that deafness itself does not represent a complex additional support need—the complexity arises as a result of the ability or otherwise of local education provision to deliver the appropriate quality, quantity and scope of support to allow a deaf child to flourish.

What is therefore required is greater political awareness in the Scottish Parliament and our local authorities of the issues that deaf and hard-of-hearing people face, coupled with greater political will to invest the resources and create the policy that will help to alleviate the problems.

I have heard that claim many times in meetings of the cross-party group on deafness over the past year. In those meetings, many members of the cross-party group have argued that better guidance for and education of public and private bodies would make a great difference in overcoming some of the obstacles that deaf and hard-of-hearing people face.

There is still no guidance from the Scottish Government on what constitutes effective early intervention for deaf children and their families, for example.

That means that the families of many newly diagnosed children—90 per cent of whom are born to parents who have little or no prior knowledge of deafness—have little direction on where to turn for support or, indeed, little knowledge of the support to which those children are entitled.

As a result, deaf children are immensely disadvantaged from the start of their lives, as the communication between them and their parents becomes increasingly difficult.

As the attainment gap between pupils shows, that can prove to be a major impediment to children achieving as they progress through the school system.

Some good work has been done in the Parliament to improve the guidance on specific issues in order to tackle some of the problems that are faced by those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Very recently, for example, my colleague Neil Findlay sought to address the lack of guidance on minimum acoustic standards in classrooms by lodging a motion for debate that encouraged the Government to address those standards.

Without minimum acoustic standards in schools, the attainment of hard-of-hearing children can suffer unnecessarily, as they struggle even further to take in vital information and, given all the social pressures involved, have all the barriers that children face in admitting that they have such difficulties.

As Neil Findlay‘s motion highlights, guidance on minimum acoustic standards already exists in England and Wales, but not in Scotland.

That is a good example of where just a little political will could make a significant difference for deaf and hard-of-hearing children in Scotland.

I urge members to support that motion, and I ask the minister to address the issue in his closing remarks.

Another positive development in Parliament, which has been closely monitored by the cross-party group, is my colleague Mark Griffin‘s proposal for a British Sign Language bill.

The bill would seek to tackle the fundamental problems of low awareness among the general public and in public bodies of the needs of those who are deaf or hard of hearing, and the shortage of BSL interpreters, which, if addressed, would significantly increase access to information and services for many people.

On that note, I warmly welcome Paul Belmonte, who I believe is somewhere behind me in the public gallery providing BSL interpretation.

Those two developments—Neil Findlay‘s motion and Mark Griffin‘s proposal for a member‘s bill—are positive steps in tackling what I believe are surmountable barriers that exist for deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Scotland.

The challenge that lies ahead for us as we leave the chamber today, as deaf awareness week has passed for another year, is to harness the political will and make available the resources to ensure that we can make those achievable changes and make Scotland an entirely accessible place for those who are deaf and hard of hearing.


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