A Deaf campaigner is set to take legal action against both the government and the Labour party after they both failed to provide British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters at televised coronavirus briefings this week.
Katie Rowley, who is pregnant, said it was “terrifying” to be unable to follow the information provided at the coronavirus briefings, particularly those on health-related issues.
The Labour party member, from Leeds, is supporting an existing legal action being taken by Deaf campaigners against the government over its “callous and heartless” refusal to provide BSL interpreters at its coronavirus TV briefings.
That legal action is spearheaded by Lynn Stewart-Taylor, founder of the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign, who with fellow Deaf activist Mark Hodgson is set to reach Downing Street tomorrow (Friday) after walking from Gloucester to London in a bid to “shame” the government into providing interpreters alongside ministers and health experts at the briefings.
They are also raising funds for a judicial review of the government’s refusal, which they say has breached the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the UN disability convention.
Now Rowley (pictured), while backing their legal action, is also taking two legal cases of her own.
One of those relates to the failure to provide a BSL interpreter at two televised briefings with health experts at 10 Downing Street, on Monday (12 October), which focused on how the NHS was preparing for the next phase of the pandemic, and on 21 September.
Monday’s briefing was attended by three health experts, including Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, and Professor Stephen Powis, medical director of NHS England.
The government has previously defended itself by arguing that BSL-users can now follow its televised briefings by watching the interpreter provided by the BBC News digital channel, but Rowley says that service was not available for either of the briefings so there was no way she could understand the information provided.
Her second case is against her own party for failing to provide an interpreter for a televised COVID-19 briefing given by Labour leader Keir Starmer on Tuesday.
Leeds is currently at the second highest local coronavirus alert level, with fears that it could soon be placed into the highest level.
Rowley, who is also visually-impaired, and struggles to understand written English, told Disability News Service: “As a Deaf BSL-user I feel at disadvantage to what’s going on.
“I have health issues and am pregnant. I need access to an interpreter to be able to protect not only myself but my unborn baby.”
She said it was “terrifying for any mum” to be without access to the information she needs to “make the appropriate decisions”.
She added: “Without access to the information, how can I make decisions which not only affect me, but my unborn baby and those around me?”
Her solicitor, Chris Fry, of Fry Law, yesterday (Wednesday) sent a letter to Labour party headquarters, seeking compensation for disability discrimination under the Equality Act, as well as a written apology and a promise to provide an interpreter for future live briefings.
A similar letter will to be sent to the government relating to its failure to provide an interpreter at the briefings on 21 September and 12 October.
In the letter to the Labour party, Fry says that Rowley watched the Starmer briefing hoping to find out about his COVID-19 policies and hoping he would “demonstrate his commitment to the Deaf Community by leading by example, embarrassing the Government and ensuring that his Briefing was accessible” by providing a BSL interpreter.
The letter adds: “However, and much to Ms Rowley’s dismay, the Briefing had no BSL Interpreter.
“She could not follow any of the content. As a result of the inaccessibility of the briefing for our client, she was left feeling excluded from her own political party, she felt insignificant and irrelevant and isolated.”
The party said more than a month ago that it planned to begin its own regular media briefings – which it wanted to be televised – but it has so far refused to apologise for the failure to provide an interpreter on Tuesday, arguing that the event was only set up at short notice.
A Labour spokesperson said: “Yesterday’s press conference was organised with only a few hours’ notice. We did try to get a BSL interpreter.
“However, unfortunately this was not possible at short notice. The Labour Party is committed to introducing a BSL interpreter at future news events and we have already spoken to Vicky Foxcroft [the shadow minister for disabled people] about taking this forward.”
The Cabinet Office refused to comment on the failure to provide a BSL interpreter for Monday’s televised NHS briefing, with a spokesperson pointing instead to a comment made last week, which related to briefings where there was an interpreter provided by the BBC News channel.
He said: “At this stage we have nothing further to add.”
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…