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James Watson-O’Neill: Welcome to my second blog post in this series where I share news about our progress with equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at SignHealth. We also get to sit in the mud together and just feel what it’s like to go on this journey and experience the discomfort of this work. 

Bespoke Anti-Racism Training

We are piloting a new anti-racism training course at SignHealth at the moment. We’ve worked with Letesia Gibson at New Ways to make a new deaf version of their excellent and successful anti-racism training. Lots of people have worked hard to make this happen, particularly the director Bim Adjadi and many others at The Deaf Set – thank you! We are about halfway through the first wave of the pilot so we are seeing what works and what doesn’t. Then we will tweak the training before it gets rolled out to all staff at SignHealth. It is really exciting to see the conversations that we’re having. We do our own learning by watching video clips, thinking about some questions or reading short articles and then we come together in groups for facilitated conversations. 

We’ve been talking about social class, racism and British Sign Language. In our most recent session we had all watched Rinkoo Barpaga’s excellent 2014 documentary Double Discrimination and we were reflecting on what has changed and what hasn’t since the film was made. We talked about the “quality” and “level” of BSL that we’re taught to aspire to and the difficulties in preserving and protecting a language while also supporting its growth and acceptance of different communities who use and have ownership of it. It often feels like there is so much to talk about and it’s hard to know which direction to go in.  

It’s also hard to maintain some boundaries – we are fascinated by the impact of racism in the deaf community but I want to try to steer our work to make sure it supports SignHealth’s purpose – we are here to eliminate the health inequality that we experience as deaf people. We know that racism has a very big impact on people’s health for lots of reasons. If we want to eliminate health inequality for deaf people that means tackling racism too as it all leads back to health. And not just racism, but transphobia, misogyny and homophobia too. All of the ways in which our health is worsened just because of our identities and the system not being made by or for us. 

Priorities and expectations

A couple of years ago we worked with Letesia to develop a written statement of our ambition on anti-racism. I loved it. It felt really clear to me and a very powerful expression of what we wanted to do. We successfully got the board to sign it off but it took me too long to get it translated into BSL, to introduce it to staff and then to launch it externally and we missed the moment. There was a lot of other stuff happening at the same time and it kept falling off people’s priority lists. We are growing as an organisation and it isn’t easy to make decisions about what is a priority. I notice other leaders talking about their struggle to make EDI a priority. This has been my experience too despite being very personally committed to it. Maybe we’re all too busy and need to stop doing some other stuff and really decide what is important? My colleagues are helping me learn that when something is a priority to me I need to do a better job of helping other people see that and understand why. Just because it is obvious to me, doesn’t mean it is obvious to other people. That still catches me out. 

Also, I think I expected everyone to know what to do with this work. Lots of us haven’t had access to the same learning that other people have so there’s a risk in assuming that we all know the same things. We know that there is a lack of resources in our deaf community to learn about anti-racism in British Sign Language, for example. But whether you are deaf or hearing, none of us approach this work in exactly the same way. Because it is new to a lot of us, we don’t all have the same expectations, or even any expectations, so planning or predicting what will happen can be hard. 

So we are having another go. This time we are aiming to develop a broader EDI strategy. It needs to link to our new three year plan for SignHealth, our new set of Values and to explain clearly why EDI is so important to us because it’s part of health inequality. It is making my head hurt a bit. But we are getting lots of help from lots of people. We are asking our trustees to help with it, not just to approve it. We are also asking members of SignHealth’s committees to help and comment too and that includes some people who aren’t trustees. They are independent members of specific committees because they have lots of experience in things like EDI. So we are lucky to have existing connections with a good range of people to help us. We need to understand this work from an intersectional perspective and then be ready to explain it to other people who are less familiar with deaf culture and the impact of audism too. It is tiring but really important work. I am confident we will get there this year and then we will be ready to talk more clearly about our ambitions and plans for EDI at SignHealth in the months ahead. 


Finally, I’m keen to keep championing other people’s work so I’d like to say a big thank you to Azaria Francis who has been working at SignHealth as our EDI Lead for about a year now. Azaria has helped us make our dreams a reality by helping us get our anti-racism training off the ground but she is also a member of the steering group for the Interpreters of Colour Network. If you need to book a BSL Interpreter, I’d recommend contacting IOCN. I’ve seen a lot of discussion about EDI in recruitment and how important it is to try to have diverse interview panels but I very rarely see this conversation extended to include interpreters or other professionals who support us as disabled people. All the people in the room matter, particularly if they look like us or share our background and lived experience. There is power there. 

As before, if you have any comments or suggestions I would be really pleased to see them. I am keen to share our experiences and make progress together. 

Email communications@signhealth.org.uk

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