Supporting the Deaf Community during the spread of COVID-19
Please note: The information below specifically relates to supporting the Deaf BSL users or those who have severe hearing loss during Covid-19. Some of the measures will apply more generally to other vulnerable client groups.
If you support vulnerable clients such as Deaf BSL users, you may be concerned about how an outbreak could affect your clients’ welfare as well as your own. Research suggests that people with disabilities are at greater risk of harm due to a disruption in care so planning effectively can reduce the spread of a pandemic.
The information relating to the current COVID-19 outbreak is overwhelming and is only relevant to mainstream services. Unfortunately, many of the mainstream measures are simply not applicable to more vulnerable members of the community such as Deaf or hard of hearing individuals.
The management of support is not without its challenges. Many Deaf people already have health conditions that put them into a high-risk group. Additional communication issues can also cause a delay in getting vital information that can prevent infection. So, if your clients face additional risks, how can you support clients effectively? Below are some important points to consider in your COVID-19 pandemic plan:
1. To improve the readiness to act, it is essential to establish the existing capacity of community services and determine where there are gaps in services. It should not be assumed that contracted service providers can manage or adapt during a pandemic – smaller organisations working with vulnerable client groups have greater flexibility so may be more able to adapt according to community needs.
- Key questions to ask are: Does your Covid-19 plan include all vulnerable groups, including Deaf people? No one should be left out. Does the plan include contact details of all organisations that may work with vulnerable client groups? Do the groups have the capacity to provide support during a pandemic? Having answers to these questions will help establish a unified community response.
- Within each community group/organisation there needs to be one person responsible for communicating externally and internally.
- Find out the operating times of organisations. Ensure some form of service is available at all times, including evenings and weekends.
2. When creating a pandemic strategy, there needs to be one designated point of contact with multiple contact opportunities (phone, email, text) so that community groups and official agencies can connect, liaise and be part of the coordinated approach to the pandemic.
3. Identify safeguarding risks that may arise. Fraudsters take every opportunity they can to take advantage. Deaf sign language users (or those who have other communication difficulties) will be at higher risk because they will be reliant on others for information. Dependency creates risk.
4. A communication strategy needs to include different formats (including BSL). Resources may well be limited, but front-loading resources will save time, money (and lives) later. Any communications to the public need to avoid social media as the main platform or only way of sharting important information.
There is research* to suggest that updates on social media cause unnecessary anxiety. Members of the public, particularly Deaf service users should be directed to a trusted website where reliable information about Covid-19 is updated daily in a format that is accessible.
There are a significant number of deaf sign language users in the UK. Many BSL interpreters have adapted to the new ways of communicating and can do video calls if needed. Therefore, you do not need to adapt your ways of working. However, you will need to have a better understanding of how to integrate interpreting services into your processes and procedures. Under the Equality Act, you are required to ensure sign language users can communicate, so it is in your interests to use a service that is readily available. Details of interpreters working remotely are available here.
Of course, there may be situations where video calling is not possible or appropriate. An obvious (but often overlooked) point to bear in mind, is that an interpreter will need PPE to protect them in a high-risk environment.
5. Partnerships with groups should be formalised to guarantee continuous service provision. Vital information can then be shared with all groups providing services. Vital includes food, medical and communication support.
6. Carry out regular risk assessments: As a pandemic progresses the risk to staff and volunteers increases and operation capabilities decrease. A key issue to consider is whether organisations have a contingency plan if staff or volunteer numbers reduce.
7. Encourage vulnerable client groups to increase their self-sufficiency. For example, by keeping a full list of medications close by in case emergency services need to visit.
Practical advice – treating a deaf person:
If you do not use sign language (most people don’t), here are three simple points to help you communicate
- Eye contact: deaf people rely on eye contact for communication. If you can maintain eye contact, a deaf person will know they have your attention and will try and communicate with you.
- Gestures: Simple gestures such as pointing to the body, frowning to show you want to know where there is pain, will help a deaf person understand what you are asking.
- English: Keep.It.Simple. Someone who uses sign language may not understand English (because it is their second language). Use bullet points, drawings and simple sentences to convey your message.
Information you can provide to service users:
Deaf people may not fully understand what a pandemic is. Below is the type of advice you could share with sign language users in your area:
1. Arrange for food and medication deliveries. Have one list of all the food you usually need in one week.
2. Create a plan in case you need to go to the hospital. For example, you need to keep a list of medications in an accessible place ready for any visit from a doctor/nurse
3. Stay in touch with friends and family. Prepare a list of people you can contact when you are feeling vulnerable or in case of an emergency (I.C.E). Make sure you tell someone if you start to feel poorly. If you have pets, make sure a friend or family member is able to look after them.
4. Make sure you know where to get reliable information from. Government websites, NHS websites and sites such as Signhealth provide regular updates of important information.
Local GP email addresses:
BSL Health Access:
Deaf BSL users can use this service to book GP appointments. Interpreters are available online 24/7.
Signhealth information provide clips about Corona Virus can be found here
BBC channel 231 and online
Pandemic outbreaks cause anxiety for service providers and service users. The best way to minimise anxiety is to have a clear plan that is communicated effectively. The information provided here is for guidance only and should be used in line with the Equality Act 2010 obligations.