The TUC has angered disabled union activists after failing to ensure that its annual conference was accessible to people with hearing and other impairments who tried to watch it online.
Many activists were not able to follow this week’s annual TUC Congress if they needed subtitles or British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation.
Only those whose unions had alerted TUC in advance were able to take advantage of a subtitles feed provided by a speech-to-text reporter.
A message had to be added to the TUC website during the conference – following complaints about the access failure – telling union members how to access this feed.
No BSL interpretation was available throughout the conference.
TUC Congress was open to all those interested in attending this year, rather than solely to union delegates, as it had to be held online because of the pandemic.
Paul Kempton, a deaf, retired former union convenor and local government worker, and a union activist for more than 50 years, said he had been looking forward to watching the online event, particularly Monday’s debate on the equalities impact of COVID-19, although he knew he would not be able to participate in the debate.
But when he logged on, he found “absolutely no subtitles available”.
Kempton, who is still an active member of the GMB union and is disability lead on its regional equalities committee – but was not speaking for the union – said the absence of subtitles made him feel “unwelcome and unwanted” and “excluded”.
He said: “If the TUC is broadcasting its Congress, on a publicly accessible website and with no restrictions to viewing, it should be fully accessible from the start.
“This means comprehensive, comprehensible subtitles, produced by competent, capable palantypists. There should also be BSL signers.”
After he complained, he was told that he could be linked to the speech-to-text feed, but he told the TUC that “if my deaf sisters and brothers aren’t equally welcome, neither am I”.
He said: “As it was, I didn’t see any of Congress, though I am told that subtitles appeared during Keir’s speech [Tuesday’s speech by Labour leader Keir Starmer].
“I think, in 2020, the TUC needs to face that they are failing on this, and address it very, very urgently.”
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) has written to the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, to express its concern.
Linda Burnip, DPAC’s co-founder and herself a UNISON member, said she was “shocked and saddened” by the lack of BSL and captions, which she said was a “slap in the face undermining our continuing efforts to educate political parties and unions to be more inclusive of disabled people and to meet those needs that put barriers in the way of our equality”.
She said: “I can’t even imagine how marginalised this has made your Disabled Workers’ Committee and any disabled and deaf union members trying to watch the event feed.”
She added: “As a completely unfunded group we have managed to organise several on-line meetings with both BSL and live captioning.
“Surely if we as a tiny campaign group can manage this there can be no excuse for a large, well funded, well resourced organisation not to do so as well.”
Another disabled union activist, Ellen Morrison, also expressed disappointment at the TUC’s failure to provide BSL and captions to all those watching.
She said: “Disabled workers already face so many barriers in the workplace – it’s not acceptable that many would have been unable to participate with this year’s online conference.
“In light of the pandemic, it’s as important as ever for disabled workers to be active in the trade union movement, especially when there are motions raised and important debate that directly affects us and our lives.
“Including BSL and live captions (which can be useful for wide-ranging impairment groups) for online events should be standard in the labour movement.”
Morrison, a Unite activist and chair of Unite’s London and eastern young members committee, said: “I helped run DPAC’s online event series this summer, and we managed it for every online event we did, and we’re not a well-funded organisation.
“If disabled activists without technical support or large resources can make online events accessible, why can’t the Trades Union Congress?”
A TUC spokesperson said the speech-to-text service had been provided to all delegates whose union had requested it in advance.
But he added: “We gave full consideration to making speech-to-text services available on the live stream for any member of the public wishing to view Congress when planning the event.
“However, we were not in a position to provide broadcast level subtitles without compromising the scope for a live public feed.”
Asked if TUC had decided it could not provide this service because of the potential cost, he had failed to answer by noon today (Thursday).
But he said earlier: “In advance of Congress, unions were advised on several occasions to notify the TUC of any access requirements for union participants.
“Following suggestions that some union participants may not be aware of this offer, we were happy to make this clear on our website.”
The TUC had not made it clear by noon today what it meant by “participants” and who this “offer” applied to.
But he added: “In terms of BSL, we would not book this unless we knew we had a requirement for it.
“This is because there is limited provision and booking it without the need or a requirement means denying it for others who do need it.
“This has long been the TUC’s approach at recent Congresses.”
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