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March 12, 2004

Deaf talkabout: Gaining access to a better future

From: Belfast Telegraph - Belfast,Nothern Ireland,UK - Mar 12, 2004

By Bob McCullough

JOAN Harbison, Chief Commissioner, Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, welcomed owners and managers of small businesses and other small service suppliers to the Europa Hotel last week to hear about major changes to the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995.

Since that date it has been unlawful for employers with 15 or more employees to discriminate against anyone with a disability, but Joan told us that, from October this year, the law will change.

Organisations like shops, cafes, government offices, banks, doctors, hospitals and solicitors and so on must make provision for reasonable access no matter how few are employed.

The period before October is a time of transition and, if you and your business do not use it to prepare, the courts may take this into account when deciding whether you have acted reasonably.

On a positive note, business owners should benefit from the positive public interest and increase of the market which inclusion of disabled people will bring.

Not all service providers will have to make adjustments, or at least adjustments on the same scale. The DDA only requires them to do what is reasonable in all the circumstances of the case, including the size of the business in question.

Several speakers displayed Powerpoint text and pictures illustrating changes that might be necessary to provide access for people in wheelchairs or with other physical disabilities.

Blind people can be helped by larger direction signs and more distinctive colour contrast in places like bathrooms and toilets; but it was pointed out that respect for human dignity is also to be considered and for years the only access for wheelchair-bound visitors to our own City Hall was by a ramp round the back.

I was asked to speak on deaf people's needs and how we could achieve equality in the real meaning of the word.

Our disability is invisible and most hearing folk will need training in how to perceive the different forms deafness can take and the best way to respond. No one likes to be ignored or feel unwanted and service providers need to be made aware of this.

Physical features like good lighting are important for lip-reading and hard of hearing folk would appreciate induction loops to help with their hearing aids.

But, for deaf people, the most important requirement is easier access to information and communication. Note pads should be mandatory on all desks and shop counters and staff should at least learn a few basic signs for everyday remarks such as good morning or welcome.

Much is being made of the provision of technology helps such as minicoms and flashing lights or vibratory alarms in hotel bedrooms.

These, and our mobile phones, are transforming communication, but nothing gives deaf people so much satisfaction as professional service providers who take a genuine interest in our communication needs and provide the personal touch we need.

Ultimately, real equality will only come about when deaf people are just as well-educated as their hearing peers and are given similar aspirations and opportunities to become managers and leaders in business. This is the access we need.

© 2004 Independent News and Media (NI) a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd