Ignoring all the Signs – Mental Health and Wellbeing Implications for the Deaf Community
Measuring Humanity has been working with the Deaf Community (people born Deaf or who become Deaf during their infant years), whose primary language is British Sign Language (BSL), to help address the range of barriers they face and to explore ways of co-producing appropriate services.
To emphasise the importance of this forthcoming work, which has been funded by NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde (NHSGGC), a Deaf community member, who wishes to remain anonymous, highlights some of the barriers Deaf individuals face when attempting to access health services. The insightful blog, below, also details the impact these experiences can have on an individual’s mental and physical health and well-being and the importance of taking steps to break down the barriers between the hearing and Deaf communities:
Imagine that you’ve fallen ill in a foreign country and you’re taken to a hospital where medical staff speak very little English, or no English at all. A place where interpreters are difficult to acquire – where you might have to wait for days or perhaps weeks for someone to arrive. What would happen if you have a medical emergency? What would happen if you experience mental illness?
This sounds like quite a frightening prospect. Unfortunately, it is the reality for Deaf people who primarily use sign language as a main form of communication. Even booking an appointment to see a GP is problematic. A considerable proportion of medical appointments are arranged over the telephone, meaning that the healthcare system and services are frequently inaccessible. Research has shown that 70% of Deaf people who wanted to go to a GP did not go because there was no interpreter.
Furthermore, according to academic reports, Deaf people are four times likely to develop mental health problems than the general population, and their life expectancy is considerably lower due to a lack of access to education, work and health support.
However, this is not always the case. On a small island enclave off the east coast of mainland USA, there was a time when Deaf people were afforded equal status in their community. In the late 19th century, early settlers to Martha’s Vineyard were genetically likely to produce Deaf children. At one point, up to 30% of the islanders were Deaf. As a result, the whole community spoke in sign language and spoke the English language. Even families who were all born hearing were taught sign language. All the Deaf population had jobs and had access to education and health. However, because of migration, the Deaf population eventually began to decline and now sign language no longer routinely exists at Martha’s Vineyard.
Indeed, unfortunately sign language is little used in society and many people who are born deaf are encouraged to speak and hear by medical professionals. Whilst some Deaf people can manage to speak and communicate with their hearing peers with ease, many others struggle and may feel they are being accused of not trying hard enough by these professionals. This can lead to the ‘ghettoisation’ of the Deaf community, with marginalisation from wider society by inadequate access to health, employment and education.
Today, many Deaf people are frustrated by the communication barriers or ‘invisible wall’ existing between the Deaf community and the hearing community. There are reports that after an encounter with a Deaf person, hearing people may feel embarrassed that they have not learned sign language. For many Deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users, loneliness and isolation are the norm, along with increased vulnerability of the risk of abuse. This can also increase the risks of poor mental health.
Effective communication within the families of Deaf children is an important contributing factor for maintaining positive well-being and for enhancing social and emotional development. Yet many families are reluctant to learn sign language as they have difficulties overcoming the psychological barrier of accepting that their child has a handicap that remains invisible.
If social and emotional development is impacted at childhood, BSL users are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than the general population. In addition, BSL users cannot improve their own wellbeing unaided, by accessing general daily services that people take for granted. Examples include:
- Going to the cinema or theatre.
- Attending music concerts or public meetings.
- Ordering food at restaurants.
- Attending vocational classes.
- Becoming a volunteer in the community.
There is a high prevalence of low socio-economic status among the Deaf community, many of whom are likely to be unemployed as a result of negative attitudes shown by employers. Moreover, BSL users have a limited use of English language, with an average reading age of a 9-year-old. Therefore, all these barriers inevitably lead to poorer mental health in the Deaf BSL population.
It is important to highlight that Deaf people’s struggles are almost unnoticed in written text because of communication barriers. There has also been a systematic failure to recognise that Deaf people need sign language to be a fully functional member of society.
It is thus imperative that leading authorities listen to the Deaf community to find solutions that will work for everybody. The recent Scottish Government ‘British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015’ requires public bodies in Scotland to publish plans every six years showing how they promote and support BSL. Examples of public bodies promoting BSL include, training medical staff to be aware of BSL and provision of BSL delivered in classrooms. Will this break down significant barriers between hearing community and Deaf community and improve the lives of many BSL users by improving health and access to employment and education?
Over the last decade, the use of video technology has improved dramatically, allowing Deaf people to communicate visually. By applying creativity and connectivity using the Measuring Humanity framework – and using comedy as a visual medium to share and collect evidence of Deaf people’s struggles accessing services- this will hopefully make an impact at local and national policy levels.
 Fellinger, J, Holzinger, D, Dobner, U et al. Mental distress and quality of life in a deaf population. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatry Epidemiol. 2005; 40: 737–742
 Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness in Martha’s Vineyard Paperback – 1 Jul 1988 by N Groce (Author)
 Marschark M,Harris M.Cornoldi C, Oakhill Success and failure in learning to read: The special case of deaf children, Reading comprehension difficulties: Processes and intervention,1996 Mahwah, NJ (pg. 279-300).