THE EDITOR: The current global pandemic has presented us all with many new challenges. It has also thrown new light on old problems which never went away, but which we seemed to be content ignoring.
One of these problems is the longstanding failure to provide deaf people, whose primary language is a sign language, with access to important public information. This has consequences all the time, but in times of crisis, these consequences can be even more disastrous.
When a state of emergency was declared in 2011, several deaf people were arrested for being outside during the curfew, because the announcement was never made in sign language. Lack of communication training for police and medical professionals means that when deaf people find themselves in hospitals and police stations, there are all kinds of additional risks.
On the surface it appears that access to information in sign language is currently going quite well. Sign language has never been more prominent. In press conferences and news reports from around the Caribbean and the world, we are seeing interpreters standing alongside heads of state and using the many different types of sign language that exist around the world to ensure access to information. And yet, unfortunately, this visibility can be deceptive, as anyone who remembers the “fake interpreter” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service will know.
The way that interpreters are placed on the screen can undermine the job they are trying to do. Sign language interpreters on the nightly TV6 news, for example, are confined to a tiny box which makes it impossible for anyone to understand clearly what is being said.
In the recent press conferences the interpreters’ box has generally been somewhat larger, but still far below the international guidelines produced by the World Federation of the Deaf which recommend that the box should occupy 25 per cent of the screen.
Many deaf Trinidadians/Tobagonians are turning off because they cannot understand clearly. They may be watching on a phone, or on a smaller television, they may have sight problems, or they may just find it very difficult to focus on a small box for a two-hour press conference.
The presence of an interpreter during press conferences and live addresses is not sufficient, indeed not even the most important way of providing access to critical information.
All kinds of critical public information is being published every day in written English. Much of this is inaccessible to most deaf people for whom English may be a second or third language. It is essential to provide sign language translations of this information.
As is so often the case, where there are critical gaps, local communities have been stepping in. Organisations such as the Deaf Empowerment and Advancement Foundation, founded and led by deaf Trinidadians/Tobagonians, have been making sign language videos everyday to try to make sure that members of their community are informed. But these groups need much more support to ensure that they can continue, and to make sure that information reaches everyone.
Many deaf nationals work in groceries and supermarkets, where they are poorly paid and have minimal opportunities for career development. Suddenly we now know that these jobs are essential. While many of us are staying home, they are on the front line.
It is our duty, for everyone’s sake, that these people receive full access to information, and that must go beyond tiny figures in the corner of our screens. If we act now, maybe when we come out of this crisis we will have taken important steps towards becoming a more inclusive society.
DR BEN BRAITHWAITE