Before the first lockdown, it was a running joke in the Payne household that 57-year-old Janet had a better social life than both of her children put together. Janet, who was born Deaf, was constantly traveling to social balls, going on holidays with friends and attending sailing trips off the south coast of England.
Then, as the UK lockdown was announced in March 2020, things became much harder for Janet and her peers. Community groups, which are a lifeline for many in the Deaf community, were shut down completely. Socialising, as most of it moved online, became increasingly difficult for the profoundly and severely deaf. Even gaining access to government updates was irksome.
All of these things, Janet Payne told me, led to feelings of intense isolation. Primarily, she was isolated most by the government’s inaction on communicating news to the Deaf and hard of hearing. She described how the Deaf community felt “panicked” after every press conference because they had no idea what the government was trying to relay.
Boris Johnson’s daily coronavirus press briefings, unlike the ones in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, did not have British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters in attendance. Subtitles were provided but, for the 70,000 Deaf people in the UK who use BSL as their main or only means of communication, this was insufficient. Reading written English can be difficult for BSL communicators.
The frustration felt by Janet and many others was so intense that it led to the launch of a viral Twitter campaign called “#WhereIsTheInterpreter”. The campaign condemned the government for their resistance to communicating vital public health information to the entire populattion.
Downing Street responded by establishing BSL interpretation at the daily No.10 press conferences via the BBC News Channel. But this was too little, too late. So much so, in fact, that a group of 150 deaf campaigners launched legal class action against the government for what they called discrimination under the Equality Act.
Janet knows about 20 people who have taken their lives in recent months.
In order to understand the severity of the coronavirus and situation and how to respond, Janet says she “has to rely on the kindness of interpreters who volunteer to make Facebook videos that translate the information.”
But despite the efforts of volunteers, Janet, like others, still feels alone and ignored. The impact of these changes had an extremely detrimental effect on her mental health. In recent months, she explained, she has had multiple panic attacks and her mental health has seriously deteriorated.
The Deaf community is feeling the mental health effects more acutely than the general population. Janet knows about 20 people who have taken their lives in recent months.
The evidence confirms the severity of this situation. According to the charity SignHealth, 35 percent of people mentioned that the pandemic had a majorly negative impact on their mental health. An additional 45 per cent said it had a somewhat negative impact. Three quarters of people attributed this to social isolation.
Sidonie, a 38 year-old journalist in London, is one of the many Deaf people who witnessed their mental health suffer due to social isolation. She spoke to openDemocracy about how hopeless she felt at the start of the lockdown in March.
She said: “The big problem with the lockdown was that everything was online. I couldn’t communicate on Zoom or my phone so there was no communication at all. It was the most isolating thing ever.”
She continued: “It totally affected my mental health. I fell into a deep depression which almost became suicidal. I felt like living like this made it impossible to carry on.”
According to Ayla Ozmen, head of research and policy at Action on Hearing Loss, isolation because of an inability to communicate effectively was extremely common during lockdown.
She said: “Whilst many are increasingly turning to the telephone to maintain contact with friends and family, this means of contact is inaccessible to many who are deaf or have hearing loss who rely on lipreading and visual cues.
Lockdown has been particularly difficult for deaf people and those with hearing loss as they can't pick up the phone to talk to a family member or friend.”
Sidonie eventually took matters into her own hands after struggling to get NHS or government support. She decided to crowdfund a pair of life-changing Bluetooth enabled hearing aids which would allow her to tune into Zoom and phone calls. 92 supporters chipped in to fundraise £4700, enough to buy these. “Without this help”, she said, “I wouldn’t have come back to life.”
But she fears for the others who haven’t been able to find solutions. She said: “Being deaf is already so isolating. A second lockdown would have terrible effects on an already vulnerable population.”
Deaf charities are also concerned about the prospect of a potential second lockdown or further social distancing measures. The charity Action on Hearing Loss fears that there is a further risk “that remote services and further existing or anticipated barriers will be adopted for the long term without taking into consideration the needs of people who are deaf or have hearing loss”.
In addition to the difficulties of social communication taking place online more, the charity fears that a recent announcement by Matt Hancock to move GP appointments online by default could also present a major challenge for Deaf people. The charity is now calling on the government and wider general public to be more “deaf aware”.
For people like Janet and Sidonie, being more “deaf aware” could make the world of difference to their mental health should we move back towards a second lockdown.