Page last updated at 23:06 GMT, Sunday, 25 April 2010 00:06 UK

Deaf voters 'unheard' by politicians

An estimated 90,000 deaf people in the UK rely on British Sign Language (BSL) to communicate - but only one political party has ever used it in its election broadcasts.

Tessa Padden, a television presenter and BSL translator currently involved with the BSL:UPTAKE project at Heriot-Watt University,believes this leaves many deaf people excluded from the democratic process.


"When Nick Clegg shot overnight from being the Invisible Man of British politics to being the Coming Man, it seemed to take the political establishment by surprise.

But why? Once you engage in dialogue with people and actually listen to what they have to say, you can no longer ignore them.

And too often "invisible" means just that - ignored.

As we move towards May 6th the parties and politicians are doing all they can to persuade people to vote for them.

But how much of their messages will get across to the estimated 90,000 deaf people in the UK who rely on British Sign Language?

BSL translator
Many deaf people believe they are 'invisible' to politicians

Will any of the parties talk to BSL users in a language that they understand? Will any of them understand what deaf people are saying to them?

The BSL:UPTAKE project, based at Heriot-Watt University, offers UK politicians a unique opportunity to engage with and understand the most ignored and invisible community on the political spectrum.

BSL:UPTAKE was set up in 2009 with a remit to improve dialogue and knowledge exchange between the world of politics, public policy and the Deaf community.

Heriot-Watt's main partner in the project is the Scottish government's Equality Unit.

Now BSL:UPTAKE is offering an online resource specifically geared to the General Election.

In its website library, it has created a whole new section - General Election 2010 - at http://www.bsluptake.org.uk/info/?cat=268.

This brings together in one place links to the information deaf people need to understand the general election, from TV programmes in BSL to party manifestoes in BSL and other information.

Swing the election

Just as important, it gives candidates in the general election links to the information they should be aware of if they are to include deaf people in their appeals to the electorate.

In marginal constituencies, a few hundred deaf voters could easily swing the election.

As far as we can see, the only party that has ever produced information in British Sign Language for a national election anywhere in the UK has been the Scottish Green Party.

In 2007, it produced two videos for the Scottish Parliament and Scottish council elections, which were held on the same day in May 2007.

The Scottish Green Party BSL party election video lasted three minutes.

The second video explained the voting system for the Scottish Parliament and council elections. It lasted just two minutes.

Both videos were presented by a Scottish Green Party spokesman, with a BSL/English interpreter standing beside him.

Just five minutes of information, interpreted into BSL by one of the smaller political parties in Scotland, seems to be the only information targeted at deaf people so far, in any election in Britain
Tessa Padden

So the first language of the videos was English, and BSL was added as an interpretation, just as party political information might be translated into other languages for ethnic minority or immigrant communities.

So just five minutes of information, interpreted into BSL by one of the smaller political parties in Scotland, seems to be the only information targeted at deaf people so far, in any election in Britain.

Not really enough, is it?

The Scottish government has devoted more resources to making information available in BSL.

In November 2009, it held a National Conversation event for deaf people in Glasgow, with a deaf chairperson and BSL/English interpretation throughout.

This was filmed and made available on the Scottish government channel on YouTube.

Two recent Scottish government consultations have had summaries translated into British Sign Language, by deaf first-language BSL users.

But as we head towards the general election, how much meaningful information will any of the parties produce in BSL - preferably presented or translated into BSL by deaf people?

More importantly, how committed are the political parties to ensuring that they inform - and consult - deaf people continuously, not just once every few years, when there's an election?

Maybe deaf people are voters - or potential voters - once every few years.

Lacked information

But they are also citizens of the UK, and of Scotland, all the time, all day and every day.

Politicians need to recognise their rights as citizens, and make sure that deaf people, from childhood throughout their lives, have the same access to information that hearing people have.

Citizenship and the deaf community is the subject of an excellent study by Dr Steven Emery, a former research associate at Heriot-Watt University.

BSL:UPTAKE will soon be delighted to publish extracts in both BSL and English, on the BSL:UPTAKE website.

Not only deaf people, but politicians, civil servants and others would understand more about deaf people's political rights and the barriers they face if they would take the time to consult this and other important research.

Steven Emery talked about deaf people and the political process in a presentation that is published in the Scottish government equality unit's The Long and Winding Road - A Roadmap to British Sign Language & Linguistic Access in Scotland.

In it he says: "…all (deaf) groups wanted to discuss the voting process and the role of politicians.

Some people did reflect on how they became political, but it was mostly with people believing they lacked information to make choices how to vote... more importantly, they gave evidence that politicians did not understand the deaf community or its priorities.

"That hindered their ability to engage in the political process."

Deaf people should be engaged in the political process all the time, not only at elections.

You can find out more about how this can be done and about lots of other issues of importance to the deaf community on the BSL:UPTAKE online Library: http://www.bsluptake.org.uk/"



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