According to charitable organisation BID Services, the majority of health professionals lack necessary communication skills or knowledge of deaf awareness to meet the needs of deaf patients, which often results in those patients feeling excluded from decisions about their medical care. A similar thing can be said for access to information. In the UK, users of British Sign Language are not always able to easily access key health information in a comprehensible format, says Sarah Collis, CEO of Self Help UK. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and all of a sudden information needed to quickly be provided to the population about the need to socially-distance, remain at home and in some cases shield, this presented a problem.
Self Help UK, which works to promote self-help and mutual aid as a high-impact means for people to have more of an influence over their own health and wellbeing, is involved in a unique project where it supports deaf people who are affected by cancer. This demographic would, therefore, be required to shield in the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK, which meant that the organisation had to quickly mobilise and address this concern despite the ongoing uncertainty.
Speaking on the Leaders Council podcast in recollection of the early stages of the crisis in the UK, Sarah Collis said: “As has been the case with many in our sector, it has been a time of uncertainty for us. We are usually used to this in the charitable sector, but it has been amplified by Covid. We had to get a grip of the virus quickly, and then considering that we are working with people with long-term conditions it was very much all hands to the pump among our people to think about how we could change up our operations. At Self Help we have a unique project where we support deaf people affected by cancer. British Sign Language users are excluded from much information out there anyway, and when Covid hit this was a real concern, so we had to take a front seat and look at how they were coping because they would need to shield and would need access to the right information.
“Financially we were hit and funding we expected to have coming in dried up, and we had to find new funding to keep us running and allow us to overhaul our operations to keep doing what we do safety. I am immensely proud of our team, who have risen to the challenge and shown the resilience of our sector in times of difficulty. I am optimistic for the future of the sector, but it has been a challenging moment in our history.”
Addressing how Self Help UK was able to adapt to help the deaf community and how well they took to the changes, Collis added: “We quickly adapted by taking everything online and we soon entered into a world where much of our communication with deaf people was done through technology and social media. We set up a weekly Zoom chat for deaf people suffering from cancer and it has proven to be a huge lifeline for them. We initially started in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and as the weeks have gone on, we’ve had people connecting with us from across the country.”
An increased use of technology in Collis’ view is something that the deaf community have needed in the healthcare sphere for some time to give them better access to communication and resources to enhance their health and wellbeing.
What the Covid-19 pandemic has now done is force the healthcare sector to pay closer attention to that problem, and Collis believes that the deaf community can take a lead in promoting increased and more effective use of technology to being people together for the common good.
Collis explained: “One of the positive things to come out of this is that it has highlighted the need for better use of technology. Deaf people have been asking for technology to come into the health sphere for years to give them greater access to communications to enhance their health and wellbeing and help dissipate various issues they face.
“Covid has given us an opportunity as a nation and internationally to embrace a new way of communicating, and I believe the deaf community had led the way in this and can continue to lead the way in revolutionising communication in the health sphere. I am proud that we have been a vanguard to show the health system how we can connect people together, and how the deaf community and our support professionals have come together in support of each other at this time is incredibly inspiring.”
With significant progress being made on resolving issues faced by the deaf community at this time, it will now be paramount that positive steps continue to be made now and in the future.