In the Media

Making the law work for deaf people

PUBLISHED May 22, 2012

Tuesday 22 May 2012 by Melissa Davis

Until I started working with the team at the Royal Association for Deaf People's Deaf Law Centre (RAD DLC) I wasn't aware of the difficulties that so many D/deaf** and hard of hearing people face when accessing legal services. When I met Rob Wilks, head of RAD's legal team, in 2010 I was so impressed by the dedication and hard work of the team whose main aim is to open the door to legal services to all D/deaf people across England and Wales that I was on board before the tea and biscuits arrived.

The RNID puts the figure of D/deaf and hard of hearing people at one in seven, so with a population of 62 million, a staggering 8.8 million are D/deaf and hard of hearing. When you also consider that the DLC is the only legal advice provider providing legal advice to the D/deaf community in the UK, you start to realise how much work they have to do.

It's taken from 2010 to formulate the plan around the launch of the new Deaf Law Centre (DLC) to showcase their range of services and products that they will provide to legal professionals, D/deaf individuals and the Deaf community, which will take place in July. I met Jeff Brattan-Wilson, ambassador for RAD DLC, just last week and was again massively impressed by another member of the team, which was established in September 2010 and was then accepted as a full member of the Law Centres Federation in November 2010. It was the establishment of this law centre that has required a shift in focus for RAD's Legal Services department, which became RAD Deaf Law Centre from 1 April 2012.

The main aim of the campaign may seem simple: awareness. At the heart of the problems that D/deaf consumers face when accessing legal services is the issue of a huge lack of understanding. Essentially, like many things in life, without direct experience of a situation, it is often difficult for lawyers to grasp the potential issues that could arise. For example, it may not occur to someone who is hearing to ensure that a meeting room is well-lit so that a D/deaf person who is receiving legal services is able to lip read properly. That is not to say that a lack of experience is an excuse for not providing services for D/deaf people. In light of this lack of awareness, there have been a number of steps taken to try and highlight these problems and to set a standard for handling those situations that do arise properly.

The main source of this is the Equality Act 2010, which states that service providers must make reasonable adjustments in the way those services are delivered to account for D/deaf and disabled people to avoid any disadvantage being suffered. In fact, as the Equality Act requires, extra care should be taken by those who are providing legal services and don't have experience with deafness to ensure that adequate provision is made.

Against the background of this lack of insight, communication between someone who is Deaf and a hearing legal practitioner is the next obstacle to overcome. Practical issues such as badly maintained loop systems will always present a problem for the hard of hearing, as well as poorly prepared written materials.

RAD DLC offers D/deaf people something that no other mainstream legal advice provider does: access to legal advice on their own terms. Firstly all their advisers are Deaf British Sign Language users (or fluent in BSL) which means that clients can communicate directly with them. They can also offer a national service by virtue of the technology available to them, namely webcam and videoconferencing software, although they are not restricted to webcam; they can also provide advice face to face, via email and instant messaging, as well as other more conventional means such as telephone, post and fax.

Also, it can be the legal practitioners themselves who make communication the biggest issue, either by assuming that someone who is D/deaf also suffers from mental impairment and treating them differently as a result, or through a lack of awareness of the reality of deafness, resulting in something as simple as not maintaining eye contact in order to enable someone who is D/deaf or hard of hearing to lip read.

With the arrival of the Equality Act and a growing awareness of the difficulties of a situation such as this, there is some hope that in future accessing legal services for D/deaf and hard of hearing consumers may not present quite such a challenge.

RAD DLC want to overcome these challenges and as well as building awareness around the issues that D/deaf people face their campaign includes practical steps. For example they are currently rolling out Access Points across England and Wales within Citizens Advice and law centres, with 12 bureaux and 4 law centres having signed up so far to be loaned a webcam by RAD DLC to allow local D/deaf clients to access their webcam advice project.

This in essence means that they can offer a local service as clients do not need to leave their own homes to seek the advice they need (if they have the facilities needed), and for those who don't they will work with local mainstream advice agencies to establish Access Points at strategic locations in order to achieve a local feel to their service.

We want to 'make the law work for Deaf people'. Support our mission to work together to ensure justice and equal access to the law and legal services through advice, representation, education and training to all Deaf people.

Our campaign will be launched in July. Please follow us on Twitter via @raddlc for regular updates and news.

**Something else you may not know about deaf culture is that there are "big D" Deaf and "small d" deaf. What is the difference? What makes a deaf person big or small d? Find out more on the About website.

Melissa Davis, director of MD Communications