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Deaf Awareness Week: Interview With Sue Gardam

We're so proud of the services that Sue Gardam provides to Culturally Deaf people across Lancashire and the impact she’s already made since she started at n-compass.

Sue Gardam of n-compass is Lancashire’s only Deaf Link Worker and, as this week is Deaf Awareness Week, we spoke to Sue to find out more about her role, how she helps people, and the challenges that Culturally Deaf people face.

What is a Deaf Link Worker?

I support Culturally Deaf adults - British Sign Language (BSL) users - to access services and overcome barriers within our Communities across Lancashire. I work with the services and provide them with the knowledge and understanding to improve policies and access for Deaf people. For example, service providers don't always understand what they need for deaf access and that’s where my role comes in.

What experience led you to become a Deaf Support Link Worker?

I'm a qualified nurse and worked as a nurse for 30 years. I worked in hospice care - care of the dying. It was a difficult job but it was important to me. During my time in hospice care, we had two ladies admitted who were Culturally Deaf and, even with using interpreters, I couldn't provide them with the level service I wanted to give them because communication was so difficult. 

That’s when I decided to learn some British Sign Language, at least at a conversational level. I didn’t expect to fall in love with the language, but I did. It's a beautiful language, so rich and expressive. 

I completed the training while I was still nursing, I decided to volunteer because to improve your ability to use BSL you need to practice. I attended Warrington Deaf Centre and began working in the Deaf Community. I started at the bottom and worked my way up over 10 years and gained experience in different places with different types of people. It was then that I was offered a position as part of the n-compass wellbeing team. 

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

The best part of my job is when a client needs help and support, I can instantly give them relief because I can sign. This role brings so much fulfilment knowing that I have the ability to turn around a crisis in their life with the ability to communicate.

The worst part of the job has to be the lack of awareness of Cultural Deafness across the county. There are approximately 1700 Culturally Deaf people across Lancashire who struggle to access a wide variety of essential services. It’s something that frustrates me, but also a very rewarding aspect of my role is when I see these same people take the information that I give them on board and make changes to improve access.

Do you take your work home with you?

Yes, I am constantly looking to become a better communicator. Being able to sign now means that I feel that I have a great responsibility to the Deaf Community. There is no real information out there in BSL so beyond my role I am also involved in many Deaf groups and forums online to pass on information to Culturally Deaf people in their own language.

What are the main differences in the world for deaf people now vs 20 years ago? How do you see it changing in the next 10 years?

Firstly, British Sign Language is only just being accepted as an official language. Years ago, the education system was oral with the focus on teaching Deaf children to develop speech. Deaf children were sent to specialist boarding schools many miles away from their own home. These children were punished for signing, the standards of these schools varied widely resulting in a big difference across the country in BSL users literacy skills which in turn affects their ability to manage in the ‘hearing’ world.

These days, Deaf people, thankfully, are more aware of their rights and there is legislation in place to protect them more. Technology such as remote video interpreting services are developing however this technology is not without cost to the individual. I hope by the end of my 3-year contract to have changed things enough to have greatly reduced the barriers that the Deaf face in Lancashire and have ensured access and support for them to allow them to manage their lives well. I also hope that my Deaf friends and colleagues will be able to go into shops, cafes and restaurants and be greeted by people that sign at least to a conversational level so that they begin to feel included in the hearing world.

A Deaf friend of mine once said to me: “You would never build a building without a ramp for access for wheelchair users. We can get in the buildings but cannot access the service.”

Can you give 3 examples of the challenges deaf people face that the general public don't realise?

  1. People who don't sign are expected to lip read and, with lip reading even in the best conditions, only 30% of the information can be reliably conveyed. Lip reading is impossible in groups and is exhausting because of the focus required.

  2. Isolation. So many D/deaf people feel isolated and cut off from the rest of the world. Very few people sign. An interpreter is needed for BSL users to access the spoken word. BSL users cannot access any services or groups or even their GP without an interpreter.

  3. There is no information out there in BSL to allow BSL users to understand their health, access housing, access benefits, access employment, access social activities etc. Some Culturally Deaf people will have health conditions they don't know about due to the lack of an interpreter at medical appointments. This is just a small example of the areas of a person’s life affected by being a Deaf BSL user.

What is the difference between your service and an interpreter service?

An interpreter’s job is to interpret the spoken word and translate the written word. They have strict boundaries that they must keep within. An example of this is that a person must be allowed to make mistakes and poor choices. The interpreter must interpret for them without offering guidance or advice. My role is more about advocacy and giving that person a voice. I ensure that they understand all the information, their rights and the choices that they have. Both services are essential for BSL users and we work well together. I'm incredibly passionate about the role that I do and I’m proud to be able to do it.

How have you adapted your service and work since the COVID-19 outbreak? 

When lockdown was announced, I had a meltdown because I was so worried about the Deaf Community and my clients. My manager encouraged me to focus on supporting the Deaf Community to recover from this. Due to lack of information about Covid-19 in BSL many of the Deaf Community will not have full understanding of the current situation. I have adapted my role to provide remote support via video so that I can support my clients to understand what is needed to keep themselves safe. I am using any time that I have to develop the service to be more far reaching so more clients will benefit from support when the restrictions are lifted. 

BSL is a language that is better conveyed face-to-face but the COVID-19 outbreak has pushed many members of the Deaf Community to embrace technology more in order to communicate. Since lockdown, many of my sessions are done now from home via Facetime, allowing more time that would usually be spent travelling. This has allowed me to spend time creating valuable resources for the Deaf Community that aren’t currently available. I intend to provide a much more proactive rather than reactive service in the future. I am also doing a BSL interpreter course and a professional Lip Speaker course to continue to improve my communication skills and ensure that n-compass has a qualified, professional communicator for any D/deaf clients needing access.

To find out more about the services n-compass offers, take a look around our website.

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