Comment: Deaf people are only just starting to see where the cuts will fall

First published in the October 2011 issue of The Hearing Times.

You have to feel sorry for deaf people in Bristol. In early September, Bristol city council withdrew £240,000 of funding for Bristol Deaf Centre, putting it at severe risk of closure. This comes on the back of a decision in the summer of 2010 by the University of Bristol to cut a Deaf Studies Bsc course, which means the loss of over 75% of staff in their Deaf Studies department by 2013. And not forgetting that the future of Elmfield – the local specialist deaf school – remains in doubt pending a review by the city council.

Those three cuts together could mean the loss of services, jobs, skills, and even people (who might move) from Bristol. For one area to potentially suffer so many cuts at once is scary. But what’s more worrying is the prospect that the situation in Bristol could turn out to be an indicator of how the cuts will affect deaf people everywhere.

On another front, the National Deaf Children’s Society is currently campaigning to protect educational services for deaf children. The charity say that one in five local authorities have made cuts to provision, and they’ve even produced a handy map on their website to show just which areas have been affected. It’s scary – because you can see the impact in so many different places.

I am partially deaf and I was educated in mainstream schools. It’s no exaggeration to say that without the support of the teacher of the deaf who visited me and my brother every few weeks, I might never have made it as far as sixth form, let alone university.

My peripatetic teacher made sure my equipment (hearing aids and a radio aid that directly picked up what my teacher was saying) was working properly, ensured my teachers knew how to make sure I could hear what was going on, and more importantly, was someone I could talk to about any problems I was having. Even better, he could then act as a middleman, talk to my teachers and find solutions, which I might have lacked the confidence to do for myself.

Support services are crucial, especially now that so many children are being educated in mainstream settings. So it came as a relief that the NDCS recently won a High Court case to force Stoke City Council to back down over cutting a teacher of the deaf. But in other areas, such as Southampton, parents are still fighting.

Here I’ve written about the cuts affecting Bristol and the wider education system. However, over the next few months we’re going to get a much better idea of where the cuts will fall, and it seems inevitable that many more areas are going to feel the impact.

What’s at stake is not only the future educational attainment of deaf children and the ability of deaf adults to access vital services, but ultimately, the quality of life for thousands, perhaps millions of deaf people in Britain today.

Deaf mother campaigns for tougher sentences for dangerous drivers

First published in the October 2011 issue of The Hearing Times.

A deaf woman whose daughter suffered life-changing injuries after being hit by a dangerous driver is campaigning for tougher sentences for people found guilty of the offence. Christine Harper and her daughter Katie, from East Riding in Yorkshire, were seriously injured in a head-on collision in November 2009.

Katie, then 23 years old, suffered multiple breaks to her pelvis, two broken arms, facial damage and nerve damage to her right leg, which means that she is unlikely to ever walk properly again. Christine also suffered injuries that will affect her for for the rest of her life.

Due to missing evidence, the driver of the car was never sentenced. However, even if he had been convicted, current laws mean that in cases where victims survive the crash, the defendant can only be convicted to a maximum of two years in prison. If they plead guilty, that sentence is automatically reduced by a third.

Christine and her family believe that the sentence does not reflect the continuing effect of injuries sustained by victims of dangerous driving. “Katie and other victims are sentenced to life disability,” Christine said. “Katie was nursed at home after six weeks in hospital but could not stand or walk for six months, and she then had to learn how to walk again.”

After Katie was released from hospital, her father was forced to give up his job as a teacher to help care for her. Although she is making a recovery, she continues to suffer from her injuries. Christine said: “She is amazing, so strong, despite numerous plates, wires and screws in her arms and pelvis. She’s registered disabled and is sadly in constant pain, but she’s trying and succeeding in getting on with life.”

The family have been campaigning for tougher sentences since September last year. Now their case has been taken up by their local MP, Karl Turner. Prior to becoming an MP, Karl worked as a criminal barrister. His final case regarded dangerous driving: “It was an awful case and it was clear the judge felt constrained by the law and was unable to give the sentence he saw fit. Coincidently, one of the first cases I dealt with as an MP was that of the Harper family. It was this case that motivated me to push for this necessary change in the law.”

Karl has gained the support of the government’s Victims Commissioner, motoring organisations the RAC and the AA, and the Labour and Conservative parties. He now hopes to add the reform as an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, with the Early Day Motion 1969 being submitted for debate in the House of Commons later this month.

Karl says that the main aim is “to provide justice for victims. The current system is completely unfair. Many are left with lifelong injuries and the sentences given are embarrassingly small. Our justice system should be providing deterrence, justice for victims and punishment; our Dangerous Driving laws don’t tick any of these boxes. The changes I am proposing will go someway to addressing this issue. Christine Harper added: “We hope the maximum sentence for Dangerous Driving will go from two years to seven years.”

If you would like to support the campaign, contact your local MP and encourage them to sign the Early Day Motion 1969 to increase the maximum sentence for dangerous driving.

Transcript of my interview with Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ about subtitle glasses

Two days after the BBC News film about subtitle glasses was shown on TV, I took a short break in between the chaos of wedding planning (!) to speak to BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme. The interview features more of my views on cinema access for deaf people, and what the glasses could offer deaf audiences.

 The transcript is now available on the BBC website, and you can read it by clicking on ‘deaf glasses’ on this page. I’m probably breaking the law in some way by doing this, but I’ve also copy and pasted it below to save you the hassle. Do leave a comment to let me know your thoughts.

TX: 26.08.11 – Deaf Glasses

PRESENTER: PETER WHITE

White

Now for people who are deaf or have a hearing loss watching films on the big screen can be a frustrating and unsatisfactory experience. Subtitled films are often shown at unsociable times and they can suffer from technical problems. But there could soon be a solution: Sony Digital Cinema has developed special glasses which allow the wearer to see subtitles directly in front of their eyes, even if the film itself isn’t subtitled. Charlie Swinbourne is a journalist, a scriptwriter, he has a hearing loss himself and he’s tested the glasses and I asked him what the problems were for deaf people going to the cinema.

Swinbourne

Often when people go to the cinema, when you get to the box office you find that they don’t know whether there’s a subtitled screening happening, even when it’s been sort of flagged up on the internet, the schedules. You can get as far as being in the screen only to find that when the film begins the subtitles don’t appear. The other thing is that subtitled screenings are often at off peak times during the week when people are at work, it’s very rarely in the evening, very rarely at the weekends when you’re most likely to want to go to the cinema. I think that’s what you really want, you want to be able to go whenever you’d like to.

White

You’ve tried out these new glasses, what are your impressions?

Swinbourne

I tried out the glasses last Friday and what you can see looks almost the same as subtitles that are actually burnt into the screen, which is how we usually watch them. It almost seems impossible that they could appear on these little glasses but what you can see when you’re sitting there is very clear and very easy to read.

White

Do you think the cinemas will take this idea up?

Swinbourne

So far one cinema chain in America has ordered thousands of the glasses, so there does seem like there’s a big enthusiasm within cinemas to take them on and hopefully the UK cinemas will feel the same. For some deaf people it’s worth remembering they do prefer to actually have the subtitles burnt into the screen, I don’t think deaf people want those to disappear but what they would love is to have much more opportunity to go whenever they’d like. And I think hopefully the cinemas will realise that there’s a good business reason for doing it as well,  if you provide the glasses you’re likely to sell more tickets in the long run and so it could be that it’s a win, win situation for everybody.

White

 Now with audio description for visually impaired people the cinemas keep and hand out the headphones, do you think the same model would work for these new glasses?

Swinbourne

I think it would work in a very similar way because I think what you’d probably end up doing is deaf people probably need to leave some kind of deposit or something when they pick up the glasses and they would take the glasses away and then return them afterwards. And in some ways it works similarly at the moment for deaf people who use loop headphones – which enhance the volume of what they can hear when they’re in the auditorium at the cinema. Above all what I would really like to see is deaf people given the opportunity to try the glasses, give feedback to the cinema chains, give feedback to the people who’ve developed them because I don’t think it’s something that hearing people should necessarily make the decision on, I think it does need a lot more deaf people to try them. But there’s a massive potential to really give us a chance to have equality with hearing people, which is what we should have.

White

That’s Charlie Swinbourne and to see those glasses in action and to find out more about them follow the link on our website.

Subtitle glasses offer deaf cinema goers a new future

Apologies for taking two whole weeks to blog about this – I got married a week ago and things were very hectic at the time!

After writing a Guardian comment article about the poor service deaf cinema fans receive here in the UK (including how few subtitled screenings are scheduled) I was lucky enough to be asked by BBC News to try out some new glasses which deaf people can wear while watching films – which have the subtitles built in.

Here’s the BBC News film – which shows me trying them out.

I have to say, the glasses are great. The subtitles look as if they are on the screen. They’re very clear, and easy to read. The glasses may look bulky, but they’re light, and they can be worn with existing glasses, for people who already wear a pair.

Some people might have misgivings about the appearance of the glasses, granted they do look unusual but since they’ll be used in dark auditoriums, I for one would be willing to wear them and risk looking a tad strange if it means I get to see – and fully understand – the latest releases with the same freedom that hearing people have.

The glasses were developed by Sony and are already set to be used by a major cinema chain in the USA. Depending on whether cinemas buy and install them, they could be available in the UK from next summer.

What the glasses potentially offer is the chance for deaf film fans to go and see a film anytime they like. Currently, deaf people have to plan visits to the cinema carefully, because of the reluctance of cinemas in the UK to display subtitles on the screen when non-deaf people are watching. So subtitled screenings are few and far between, and often at off-peak times.