The NHS have recently discussed the ongoing prevalence of mental health issues in individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Concerningly, it is not the medical condition itself that leads to psychosocial issues, but miscommunication and negative attitudes in wider society that are contributing to isolation and underrepresentation.
Our Head of Mental Health Law, Gina Steele, has commented; “I feel that deaf Mental Health patients are at a further disadvantage than hearing Mental Health patients due to the lack of community services and support that is available to them and that can sufficiently meet their communication needs as well as their Mental Health needs.” With this in mind, it is vital to examine the ways in which the deaf community can be suitably supported in a legal environment.
What are the risks and the issues that the deaf community faces?
There has been a notable lack of recent research into the correlation between diagnosed hearing conditions and mental health problems. The last significant research of its kind was carried out in 1994 and found that 40% of the deaf or hard of hearing population were affected by mental health issues, compared with 25% of the hearing population. Further guidance from the Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health has found that the prevalence of mental health problems within the deaf community ranges from 30 to 60%. It has also noticed that sign language users, in particular, have an increased vulnerability to mental health problems compared with the overall population. One statistical example of this is the fact that more than 90% of deaf or hard of hearing children are born into hearing families, but only one in 10 of those parents will learn to sign. This can then later have an impact on the child’s emotional and psychosocial development, ultimately leading to further mental health issues.
Specific risks that may occur in legally representing a deaf individual
When considering the problems that those who are deaf or hard of hearing may face within society, it is of vital importance that they feel that they can have access to the right legal support. The Equality Act of 2010 aims to ensure that all services – including legal – are made as equally available to these individuals. One change that has been noted is the heightened importance on using a professional sign language interpreter (SLI) in place of a family member who can sign, and the provision of a loop system wherever possible. When thinking about how to best support a deaf client, the three most important factors a legal professional must consider are:
Effective communication with the client must be established and maintained at all times to ensure that the correct information is being understood by all involved and as much help as possible can be offered.
The complexity of the client’s needs as well as their case must be understood, in order that the correct means of communication is offered, and all elements of the case are fully expressed and recorded. If deaf children are involved, it can sometimes be the case that their language skills have not developed enough so that can present further challenges that must be sufficiently addressed.
Making sure that all the relevant care and attention is being taken in relation to these cases can take more time than other cases that legal professionals may be used to, so they must be able to allow for this to be taken into account.
All of these factors are important for both situations where the deaf individual is a client with a case, and also when they are being called to witness. In a courtroom scenario, it is likely important to video record the witness, rather than just provide the standard audio recording to avoid any potential for the accuracy of interpretation being challenged at a later date. The physical layout of the courtroom may also need to be considered, in order to ensure that visibility is at an optimum for all involved.
Getting the right support
At AWH, it is very important to us that every client feels fully supported when they are going through a legal process.
Since qualifying as a solicitor and specialising in Mental Health Law, Gina Steele has been passionate about representing deaf mental health patients. Having obtained BSL Level 6, she states; ‘I feel that I have all the vital awareness to sufficiently meet deaf patient’s legal needs as well as their communication needs.’
We believe that no-one’s mental health should be affected by a lack of services that are provided for them.
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