165.The Office for Disability Issues has published “guidance on accessible communications, including alternative formats, aimed at government communicators”. Nevertheless, a lack of accessible communication and information, including from the Government, was highlighted as a problem by many witnesses. This included a lack of EasyRead information and a failure to provide British Sign Language interpreters. Problems were also reported with the accessibility of websites: the Business Disability Forum had undertaken research of “online recruitment processes amongst FTSE100 companies” where they found that:
“Only 1 in 4 companies had website accessibility features that were straightforward for an applicant to find and only 3 in 10 companies had spell-check functions integrated into their online application processes—an important feature which enables candidates with disabilities such as dyslexia, visual impairments and learning difficulties to demonstrate on an equal basis their capabilities”.
166.The growing use of the internet had also increased the cost of living for many disabled people:
“Twenty-seven per cent of disabled people have never used the internet. In a world where we are used to getting the best deals for things online and where increasingly the way we interact with goods and services and providers is online, it is very difficult for disabled people to access those types of things if they do not have that access.”
167.The DWP itself was a focus for concerns about accessible information. Fazilet Hadi told us that the RNIB had “recently asked blind and partially sighted people what experience they had of getting accessible information from the Department for Work and Pensions, and without a lot of trouble we had around 50 cases and are now up to about 90.” Inclusion London, a user-led organisation promoting equality for disabled people in London, reported Access to Work letters “sent out in hard copy not electronically to blind people”. Newcastle Society for Blind People told us of difficulties and delays in obtaining accessible versions of factsheets on the Care Act when the website neither contained accessible versions, nor had a facility to request them. Lord Low of Dalston felt that:
“One of the biggest “culprits” in this regard is government. Some sectors have embraced the requirement [to provide accessible information as a reasonable adjustment], particularly banking and energy (although not without issues), but the public sector has not been as proactive and the recent commitments from DWP and NHS have only come about as a result of threats of litigation. Local Authorities are proving to be particularly problematic as there are so many of them offering such a wide range of services.”
He argued that “as a spur to best practice … the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) should issue instructions to all public authorities on the provision of accessible information, and this should be included in any statutory code of practice produced by the EHRC.”
168.There were examples of good practice. The Association of Convenience Stores included accessibility of information in its best practice guide on ‘Welcoming Disabled Customers’ and NHS England had recently adopted a “mandatory Accessible Information Standard”. This standard was welcomed by a number of witnesses, albeit with the reservation that it was yet to show that it will produce results. A similar concern appears to have been borne out in Wales: RNIB Wales told us that the “Welsh Government launched the All Wales Standards for Accessible Communication in December 2013 and almost two years later, the standards are not being met.”
169.We expect the Code of Practice on Reasonable Adjustments, which we recommend in Chapter 5, to help improve the accessibility of information and communications by providing greater clarity on what the law requires. However, practice is just as important, and the Government has a responsibility to lead by example. The Office for Disability Issues has already provided guidance to Government departments; it is time for a more proactive approach.
170.All government departments, local authorities and official bodies should review their means of communication with the public, especially online, from the point of view of people with a variety of disabilities. The Office for Disability Issues should coordinate this and lead by example.
171.We received forceful written evidence from, among others, the British Deaf Association (BDA) regarding the status to be accorded to British Sign language (BSL) and the adjustments they would like to see made to facilitate communication in BSL. This evidence was amplified by oral evidence from Terry Riley, the Chair of the BDA, and David Buxton, the Director of Campaigns and Communications. That evidence was, as we said in Chapter 1, given in BSL.
172.It seemed to us that BSL was a very efficient tool enabling our witnesses to communicate with us, and vice versa. But this is not the way they would wish us to see it. In its written evidence the BDA deplored “the continued policy perception of BSL as a communication tool for disabled people despite extensive academic research to the contrary that BSL is [one of the UK’s] indigenous minority languages.” Mr Riley explained:
“We have research that proves that sign language, BSL, is a language. It has a grammar; it has a syntax. It is not just waving your hands. There are regional dialects as well, in the same way as the other indigenous languages have: Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Cornish. We are the fourth language. There are more BSL users than there are Gaelic speakers. To us, sign language gives us empowerment; it gives us pride in our language; and it gives us access.”
And later Mr Riley said: “BSL is sometimes seen as an inferior sub-language. As I said before, it is a language.”
173.The BDA in their written evidence called for a “BSL Act”, and said:
“BSL is a threatened language and without a BSL Act there is a real risk of losing the cultural and linguistic diversity it represents due to the very real threat posed by interrupted intergenerational transmission.”
The Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Group supported them.
174.Mr Riley explained: “A BSL Act would change the status of BSL, so that it would become one of the British indigenous languages. It would put deaf people on the same basis as disabled people, who are protected by the Equality Act. We would be protected by a BSL Act. It would also encourage the Government to promote and facilitate the use of BSL, such as we see here today. An Act would hopefully lead to the appointment of a commissioner, who would make it their responsibility to ensure there was proper public provision, working together with the BSL community.”
175.It was not made very clear to us what a BSL Act would say, or what it would achieve. The Scottish Parliament passed last year the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015. This provides that Scottish ministers are under a duty to “promote, and facilitate the promotion of, the use and understanding of the language known as British Sign Language” (section 1). It further provides that both Scottish Ministers and listed public authorities must produce action plans for the use of BSL. These public authorities include local authorities, but also such bodies as Health Boards, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, the Scottish Commission for Human Rights, and the Scottish Parliament itself through its Corporate Body.
176.The Scottish Parliament briefing on the Bill explained that “the Bill does not go as far as imposing an explicit statutory requirement on authorities to provide British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters or translation services, nor does it require listed authorities to deliver specific services to BSL users or those wishing to learn BSL.” In this, and other, respects it follows the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. The cost estimate of some £6 million in the first session only considered “the likely financial implications for writing and reviewing plans, rather than changing the delivery of services as a result of any proposals in BSL plans.” The Scottish Government Memorandum on the BSL Bill noted: “Lessons from the implementation of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 suggest significant additional resource implications … At present there are 34 public authorities with published Gaelic Language Plans. This is a far lower number than is proposed through the BSL Bill, where approximately 116 authorities are required to produce BSL plans.”
177.We wonder whether this very significant cost might not be better employed in directly training more BSL interpreters and increasing their availability where they are needed because, as Mr Buxton explained, “it is important we have more people learning BSL to a higher level … because, without access to education, deaf children will not achieve the potential they could achieve. Ultimately, the investment they put back into society later in life is not as much as it could be. In Scotland, we are talking about 92% of teachers who did not have fluent British Sign Language when teaching deaf children.”
178.The proponents of BSL object to it being called a communication tool, even though communication is the primary purpose of any language. Whether regarded as communication tool or minority language, it is clear from the evidence of the BDA itself, and the examples they gave in their written evidence, that there is a considerable unmet need for BSL interpreters in health services, in education and in employment.
179.Action on Hearing Loss said in their written evidence:
“We are a partner in a campaign to raise awareness amongst … BSL users about their rights in relation to accessing healthcare. The campaign … explains people’s rights in relation to getting an interpreter for health appointments, how to ensure they have a properly qualified interpreter and how to complain if they do not get a good service. Around two-thirds of BSL users (68%) have asked for a sign language interpreter to be booked for a GP appointment but did not get one and almost half of those who do find the quality of interpretation isn’t good enough. Research by SignHealth suggests that people who are deaf are more likely to have undiagnosed high blood pressure and receive less effective treatment due to confusion about their medication and health information being provided in written English rather than BSL.”
180.In view of the very real unmet need exposed, we think it important to stress that our task is to scrutinise the impact on disabled people of the Equality Act 2010, and to recommend how it might be improved. It is not for us to decide on the status of BSL as a language, or to suggest where it should come in the hierarchy of Welsh, Cornish and Gaelic. It is however very much our concern to see whether the law, and society in applying the law, is making adequate provision for the significant proportion of deaf people and people with severe hearing difficulties for whom BSL is often the only means of communication. We wholeheartedly support the provision of additional resources for training more BSL interpreters so that they can facilitate the health, education and employment needs of such people, including children.
181.Mr Buxton told us that “the Equality Act does not cover BSL users” and “does not cover BSL use”. Our conclusion is otherwise. The Equality Act covers BSL users because it imposes on service providers a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments in communicating with them; and where BSL is their first or only language, those adjustments will very often be the provision of BSL interpreters. Without the Equality Act and, before it, the Disability Discrimination Act, there would be no such legal obligation.
182.Awareness amongst disabled people of their rights was mixed. People still often referred to the ‘DDA’, the Disability Discrimination Act, rather than the Equality Act, and the Bar Council believed that many disabled people “have no idea that the obstacles they come across on a daily basis, whether to do with accessibility, charges or a whole range of matters in their local communities, are simply unlawful.” Muscular Dystrophy UK told us that “there have been some improvements in relation to awareness” but nevertheless felt that “a considerable amount still needs to be done on improving attitudes of staff providing services and increasing training and knowledge of how to treat disabled people equally and fairly.” This view was echoed by the Law Centres Network, who felt that “the difficulty is not so much awareness of the existence of anti-discrimination legislation but of what service providers and employers must to do avoid it” and a “lack of awareness amongst individuals about what they can do if they feel they have suffered discrimination”.
183.Awareness is not the same thing as understanding. We discuss in Chapter 2 the lack of understanding of how the Act applies to disabled people. This has practical consequences. George Selvanera of the Business Disability Forum felt that, although campaigns such as Disability Confident were a good start, in that they “can raise awareness of the value of recruiting people with disabilities”, “much more” was required:
“One of the challenges of thinking about how you make a recruitment process accessible is that it has to involve the IT department, because that is often an online recruitment process. It means involving the premises department, so that the building is physically accessible. It means involving the learning and development department, so that there is adequate training and line managers are equipped to know what to do. It cuts across the entire organisation.”
184.Understanding had been undermined by a move “away from the idea that for disabled people to have real independent living, some support is often needed”, and by a tendency to focus on those considered to be “vulnerable”. Liz Sayce, Chief Executive of Disability Rights UK, argued that “People with very significant impairments can and do do all sorts of things with their lives with the right support, but there may be people who may not be classified as vulnerable but for whom a few adjustments make all the difference and they can successfully raise a family, go to work or go to college or whatever.” She felt that “stronger and clearer cross-government leadership” was needed, for example by using equality to “frame” the commitment to halve the disability employment gap.
185.A linked concern of many witnesses was what was described as “pervasive negative messaging” around disability. Breakthrough UK, a Manchester based disabled people’s organisation, said that:
“Whilst our clients have often not heard about the positive rights they have under the Act, they have often absorbed many negative things about what it means to be a disabled person in our society … Often people will be highly reluctant to identify as a disabled person because they see it as negative.”
186.Action for M.E. cited a respondent to their survey who felt that negative treatment and public attitudes had been “perpetuated by irresponsible journalism focusing on benefit scroungers rather than genuinely ill people. It is harder to get welfare, harder to travel and a definite increase in hostility and lack of understanding towards people with a disability.” Action on Hearing Loss felt that the Government was responsible for negative messages “about disabled people and the Equality Act more generally”, a view echoed by concerns surrounding the inclusion of equalities in the Red Tape Challenge discussed in paragraphs 64–66.
187.Many witnesses called for a public awareness campaign to improve understanding of the Equality Act. The Challenging Behaviour Foundation felt that this would help to see that “policy is fully embraced and translated in practice.” Diverse Cymru, focussing on the reasonable adjustment duty, went into some detail on how they wanted a campaign “supported by Plain English and alternative format information distributed through disabled people’s organisations, equality organisations, community groups, County Voluntary Councils, Community Centres, and Council offices.” Changing Faces, a charity working with and for people with disfigurements, advocated a similarly multi-agency approach, while Down’s Syndrome Association wanted to see an “Equality Act Awareness week/day spearheaded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in collaboration with the Charity sector”. They wanted to see this include training provided by the EHRC to enable charities “to provide practical information and support, and promote awareness of the Act and its practical application.” Action on Hearing Loss also saw a key role for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, alongside the Government.
188.The Law Centres Network gave the example of a programme started by the Disability Rights Commission, but discontinued with the loss of the EHRC grants function. The DRC had been “proactive in recognising by 2005 that, although the DDA had been passed ten years previously and was being reasonably well used in the employment tribunals, it had been used very little in the county court to enforce goods and services cases”. This was due to a lack of awareness of the rights of disabled people and the difficulty individuals faced in bringing cases “because of the cost, formality and unfamiliarity of the court system, coupled with the almost complete lack of available legal advice.” The DRC responded by funding the Law Centres Network to “provide and co-ordinate a service across 15 Law Centres. These provided a pioneering service of awareness-raising in their local communities, coupled with a casework service for those disabled people who wanted to enforce their rights once they became aware of them.” Douglas Johnson told us that:
“When I started at the law centre, 50% of the time, my job was going out talking to community groups, disability organisations, and to whoever else, about their rights under the Disability Discrimination Act and therefore what they could do once they realised that they were suffering things that were unlawful. The other half of the time was spent in helping them in practice deal with those. In some cases, those would end up in court claims.”
189.Andrew Lee, of People First (Self Advocacy), told us how such an approach could be particularly important for people with learning disabilities, for whom “Ninety-nine per cent of information … is passed on by word of mouth.”:
“One thing that might be really good would be, let us say, that a test case is taken and, whatever the decision, whether it is good or bad, there is a requirement for an organisation to have the staffing capacity to go and talk to people with learning difficulties by word of mouth, to bring people together in their local community, to talk to them about the case and how it might benefit them. It is two-way because people can say, ‘This is my experience. Am I protected and can I get support from the law? Can I do something about it? How do I get support to take a test case?’”
190.We have already explored the concerns disabled people have about the effectiveness of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We believe that a proactive educational campaign, conducted in partnership with disabled people’s organisations, would provide the EHRC with an opportunity to rebuild trust—in keeping with its role as a strategic regulator and supported by the return of its responsibility for direct advice to individuals and organisations.
191.We recommend that the Equality and Human Rights Commission work with local and national disabled people’s organisations to undertake a wide programme of educational activity, raising awareness of the rights of disabled people and the responsibilities of those subject to duties under the Equality Act.
212 Written evidence from the Government Equalities Office ()
213 Written evidence from The Salvation Army (), Pembrokeshire People First (), RNIB (), Scottish Disability Equality Forum (), Sense (), Thomas Pocklington Trust (), Action on Hearing Loss (), British Deaf Association () and People First (Self Advocacy) ()
214 Written evidence from People First (Self Advocacy) ()
215 Written evidence from British Deaf Association ()
216 Written evidence from the Business Disability Forum ()
217 (Elliot Dunster)
218 (Fazilet Hadi)
219 Written evidence from Inclusion London ()
220 Written evidence from Newcastle Society for Blind People ()
221 Written evidence from Lord Low of Dalston ()
223 (James Lowman)
224 Written evidence from Action on Hearing Loss (); (John Holden)
225 Written evidence from Newcastle Society for Blind People (), Signature (), Thomas Pocklington Trust () and University of Leeds ()
226 Written evidence from Lord Low of Dalston ()
227 Written evidence from RNIB ()
228 Written evidence from the British Deaf Association ()
230 Written evidence from the British Deaf Association ()
231 (Terry Riley)
232 (Terry Riley)
233 Written evidence from the British Deaf Association ()
234 Written evidence from Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Group ()
235 (Terry Riley)
236 The Scottish Parliament, British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill SPICe Briefing (January 2015): [accessed 2 March 2016]
238 The Scottish Parliament, British Sign Language Bill: Government Memorandum (December 2014): [accessed 2 March 2016]
239 (David Buxton)
240 In January 2016 DWP issued a Call for Evidence in support of the Minister for Disabled People’s Market review of British Sign Language and communications provision for people who are deaf or have hearing loss. One of its purposes is to assess the scale of the demand for communications services.
241 Written evidence from Action on Hearing Loss ()
242 (David Buxton)
243 (Paul Breckell)
244 (Rachel Crasnow QC)
245 Written evidence from Muscular Dystrophy UK ()
246 Written evidence from Law Centres Network ()
247 (George Selvanera)
248 (Liz Sayce)
249 (Liz Sayce)
250 Written evidence from Breakthrough UK ()
252 Written evidence from Action for M.E. ()
253 Written evidence from Action on Hearing Loss ()
254 Written evidence from the Challenging Behaviour Foundation ()
255 Written evidence from Diverse Cymru ()
256 Written evidence from Changing Faces ()
257 Written evidence from Down’s Syndrome Association ()
258 Written evidence from Action on Hearing Loss ()
259 Written evidence from Law Centres Network ()
262 (Douglas Johnson)
263 (Andrew Lee)