Lack of BSL Interpreters at COVID Briefings Exclusionary, Judge Finds

Two separate COVID-19 briefings in England were retroactively found to have excluded deaf individuals in the country, as the government did not provide a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter for them. Kate Rowley, a profoundly deaf woman living in Leeds, successfully argued in court that the COVID-19 briefings which took place Sept. 21 and Oct. 12 were exclusionary — similar briefings that took place in the United Kingdom did provide BSL interpreters.

“Without BSL interpretation there was a clear barrier, for a vulnerable and marginalised group, undermining accessibility of information,” wrote Mr Justice Fordham in his written judgement for the case. “The message was blocked, or scrambled, or delayed. The barrier to information in an accessible format arose by reason of disability. The lack of provision — the provision of subtitles only — was a failure of inclusion, suggestive of not being thought about, which served to disempower, to frustrate and to marginalize.”

At the time of the briefings, Rowley had been living alone and felt “outraged that there had been no BSL interpreter for the data briefings,” according to a July 28 report from the Guardian. The briefings did provide subtitled information for the country’s deaf and hard-of-hearing residents to access, however subtitles and closed captioning are generally considered to be insufficient when it comes to providing accessible information to those with hearing conditions.

Sign languages like BSL or American Sign Language (ASL) are completely different languages from spoken English — they have their own unique syntax and grammatical structures that are unlike those of written or spoken English. Deaf individuals who are born and raised in English-speaking countries generally learn how to read English as a second language, but BSL or ASL (or any other sign language, for that matter) remain their native language.

Thus, subtitling requires many deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals (like Rowley) to read these subtitles in a language they may not be especially comfortable with, potentially limiting their understand of the content. Interpreters are generally considered to be the best solution for providing deaf individuals with equal access to spoken government communications.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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