As our undergraduates in Special & Inclusive Education will be able to tell you, disabled people in the UK draw upon a range of inclusive communication methods to receive and impart communication. For example, people with learning disabilities and/or autism may communicate via Makaton, a simplified version of British Sign Language. Others who do not read traditional printed text may access information via symbols and/or photographs, and software exists which will instantly symbolise text as it is typed. Some people can access information through text if it is simple and clear, and the charity Mencap have produced guidelines for producing ‘Easy Read’ text here. Additionally, according to the British Deaf Association, British Sign Language (BSL) is the preferred language of 87,000 Deaf people in the UK.
The right to receive and impart information through one’s communication medium of choice is recognised nationally and internationally. For example, Article 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) calls upon signatory states (including the UK) to ensure that disabled people can ‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice’. In the UK, the Accessible Information Standard was introduced by the government in 2016 to ensure that disabled people are given information from the NHS or adult social care in a format they can understand.
All of which begs the question: where is the inclusive communication of essential COVID-19 related UK government briefings and guidance? Of all the times to ensure that clear, accessible and accurate information is reaching every single person in society, a life-threatening global pandemic with unprecedented government lockdown measures might be said to top the list. Long before COVID-19 it was already known that adults with learning disabilities were at significantly more risk than the general population of a premature and potentially avoidable death, due to failures in accessibility or quality of health care. It therefore seems imperative that core information not only on the clinical aspects of the pandemic but also on lockdown restrictions and mental health implications are conveyed clearly to everyone.
The lack of British Sign Language interpretation of daily government briefings in England has been the subject of a petition to the government with over 56K signatures, and a movement which began life as the Twitter campaign #WhereIsTheInterpreter? has now grown into a class action legal case against the government for discriminating against deaf people contrary to the Equality Act 2010. This has not been a problem in the other home nations: in Scotland and Wales, BSL interpreters stand 2m behind ministers during briefings, whilst Northern Ireland issues briefings with both BSL and ISL (Irish Sign Language).
Whilst Public Health England did produce two Easy Read documents on COVID-19 in March 2020, one focusing on medical information and another on looking after your feelings, they do not reflect the rapidly changing situation and contain advice which is now outdated (for example exercising only once per day). Some of the advice (‘Do not smoke … do not drink too much alcohol’) smacks of paternalism rather than genuine engagement with the legitimate concerns of disabled people and those who support them. For instance, reinforcing the 2m social distancing rule when it is impossible in any case due to the need to receive personal care only heightens anxieties about ‘breaking rules’; and ‘if you can, get food delivered’ does not allay legitimate anxieties about the lack of delivery slots and unavailability of particular foods where the person has a restricted diet.
Of course, there is a separate argument here that the problem is not just the lack of accessible information, but rather the more substantive underlying problem that disabled people have been an afterthought in government COVID-19 policy from the beginning. For example, government policy initially suggested that everyone was to leave the house only once per day for exercise and only in their local area. It was only when two families of disabled children threatened legal action over the unlawful and disproportionate impact of this policy on disabled people that the government issued amended guidance recognising that this simply was not possible for everyone. It will remain difficult to issue clear and inclusive COVID-19 communication for disabled people, irrespective of the chosen medium, when the decisions being communicated are being taken on a post hoc basis instead of being guided by principles of inclusion and accessibility which are embedded into policy planning from the start.
In addition to addressing these underlying policy concerns, I would suggest four steps that the government can take to make COVID 19 communication more inclusive. The first and most obvious step, which is neither expensive nor difficult, is to have a BSL interpreter at every government briefing, without exception. The second is to engage with communication specialists – social scientists from the academic community, NHS Speech & Language Therapists, and the many charities and organisations who have already ‘translated’ government guidance for their service users – in order to take advice on disseminating messages through a range of media for maximum accessibility. The third is to draw inspiration from other countries who are responding to creatively to the challenge of disseminating information in an accessible way to diverse groups: for instance, the New Zealand government’s decision to hold a press conference especially for children or the St Lucia government’s child-friendly video explaining COVID-19. This is emphatically not to suggest that disabled people should be infantilised by direct appropriation of these approaches, but rather a more general suggestion to be creative and think ‘outside the box’ in terms of delivery. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, engage directly with disabled people to identify their concerns and ensure that they are addressed in any resources produced. Direct ‘translations’ of the advice given to non-disabled people may have limited relevance.