Malta goes to the polls in March and the political parties will soon be presenting us with their plans to improve the lot of the Maltese, all Maltese. Hopefully, that will include the deaf. Who knows, for the first time ever, the deaf might even merit a paragraph in the parties’ manifestos. They can feel free to borrow from below.

If we can’t change the deaf we must change ourselves- Christopher Ripard

Ever since the diagnosis in 1992 of one of our daughters as being congenitally, profoundly bi-aurally deaf from birth, I have been trying, through the local deaf association, to do what I could to improve the life of all persons in Malta who have hearing loss.

The suggestions that follow are the fruit of 20 years of constant contact with deaf people and the result of what I have learnt first-hand trying to raise a deaf child.

The general impression most Maltese have of deafness is – and I’ve heard this hundreds of times – “Oh, but, today, there’s so much that they can do for it”. Wrong.

There’s only two things: amplification (hearing aids) or a cochlear implant and neither of the two cures deafness.

It follows, therefore, that if we can’t change the deaf we must change ourselves, that is, we must build a society that is deaf-friendly or, rather, deaf-inclusive. How should we go about it?

The deaf are Malta’s great losers educationally. They are the only ones who almost never develop their full potential.

The deaf are every bit as intellectually capable as the hearing. However, no profoundly deaf from birth person has ever graduated with a degree from the University. Most end up barely literate, despite IQ scores on a par with the hearing.

The policy of inclusion applied in the 1990s made no academic improvement for the deaf. It was rushed through without a careful appraisal of the infrastructure and back-up services required.

Our deaf daughter, who had been assessed as being of well above average intelligence (by an English University) struggled through mainstream school, barely keeping her head above the water and, even then, only with massive input from her parents, the economic consequences of which I will not go into here.

In her later years at school, a sign-interpreting service, developed and provided by the Deaf Association, made a huge difference. But the service only covered about 15 per cent of her lessons since the association was only given the financial support (in fits and starts) to engage two or three interpreters for the entire deaf school population.

The only service the Government provides directly is a learning support assistant with no knowledge of sign language!

I suggest that our next government investigates whether deaf students reach their potential. The provision of interpreting services, presently regulated by an agreement that is too onerous for a tiny association to operate, should be improved and expanded, possibly by setting up a foundation for interpreting services.

Ancillary services such as hearing aid provision, note-takers and learning support assistants should be included not as privileges but as the right of deaf students, if necessary including them in any customer service charter.

The vast majority of us are informed, educated and entertained through visual media, especially television. We can hardly contemplate life without it. Think, if you can, how much poorer your general knowledge would be without the documentaries you’ve seen. Think about how much you enjoy your favourite programmes such as EastEnders, Casualty, Blackadder, CSI (to name a few of my favourites) and so many others.

TV makes us what we are today and, yet, it is virtually inaccessible to the deaf here because subtitles are not provided. Any new government must, immediately and without excuses – there shouldn’t be any – ensure that service providers of television programmes include access to subtitles when available. This in itself would be a quantum leap in life quality for the deaf, at virtually no cost.

In the longer term, however, there should be a commitment to developing a subtitling studio of our very own to ensure that those choosing Maltese as their first written language are not left behind. I think such a project would be eminently suitable for EU funding.

Sign-based deaf individuals should be assisted in the purchase of videophones and mobile telephones capable of providing live camera feeds. This would allow them to communicate with each other almost as easily as the hearing do.

Moreover, Mater Dei Hospital, the police headquarters and call centres of commercial banks and government entities should all have videophones... and someone with at least a basic knowledge of sign-language available at their end.

While mention has already been made of the importance of sign-interpreting in an educational context, there is also a need for interpreters throughout society. My own view is that there should be full-time interpreters for education only and a small pool of interpreters who work on an on-call basis for hospital appointments, police matters, law courts and so on. Private entities should also have access to this pool, if necessary against payment or as part of their social/corporate responsibilities.

These few measures I have proposed will not break the bank. Besides, if deaf persons can start fulfilling their potential and break through the communication, linguistic and educational barriers that presently see them ending up either in low-paid employment or dependent on handouts, they would generate more tax-revenue and commerce. This would offset a lot of any investment necessary.

Having been forced by fate to enter the world of the deaf, I must confess that I was hardly aware of their needs beforehand. Now that I know differently, I am ashamed that I never bothered to think what life for the deaf was like. Hopefully, whoever wins the next election will not be similarly indicted.

And while we’re at it, allow me to state here and now that the party winning will find me more than willing to assist in the implementation of the above.

Deafness has no place in partisan politics.

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