Former Cabinet Minister Chloe Smith has hit out at local councils that are refusing to fund sign language lessons for deaf children.
It comes after The Mail on Sunday revealed that some parents are being forced to shell out £20,000 or more to learn how to communicate with their child.
The former Work and Pensions Secretary said it was ‘simply wrong’ that families have to pay for such classes themselves.
Ms Smith, who has a deaf family member, was pivotal in the passing of the British Sign Language Act earlier this year which recognised signing as an official language. She said: ‘I’m worried to hear of families left coping on their own to communicate with and educate their children.
‘The Act means that reasonable adjustments must be made, and it’s simply wrong for a child and their family not to be able to learn sign language if they need to.’
All deaf children in the UK are offered NHS cochlear implants – electronic devices that can help them to hear. However, in a third of cases the implants offer little or no improvement, so they also need to learn sign language.
More than 90 per cent of deaf children are born into hearing families, so if they have to use sign language their parents and siblings need to learn it too. About 151,000 people in the UK use sign language, with some 87,000 relying on it as their main form of communication.
Earlier this month this newspaper reported that up to 40 per cent of local councils do not provide financial assistance for lessons, meaning families end up having to fund it themselves, which can cost up to £400 a week.
Ms Smith, the Conservative MP for Norwich North, was joined by Education Select Committee chairman Robin Walker, who called on the Government to intervene.
He said: ‘Local councils have a responsibility to care for their residents, but I don’t think it’s fair that they should be the sole source of financing to help families with sign language. Central Government should play a role in financing this too.’
A petition started earlier this year calling on the Government to fund sign language lessons for the parents and guardians of deaf children has now received almost 18,000 signatures.
Katie Littlejohns, 36, from Cornwall, started the petition after she was unable to get council funding to teach sign language to her deaf two-year-old son Alvie.
She said: ‘I want Alvie to learn sign language so we can properly communicate with him, otherwise he’ll be isolated.
‘I was shocked when I found out how difficult it was to get funding for sign language, and this is a problem that parents like us are facing across the country.’
Rachel Hubbard, of the charity Deaf Umbrella, said: ‘We’ve heard from many distressed families who are struggling to keep up with the costs of sign language lessons.
‘Some councils will offer funds for introductory lessons, but this provides only basic nursery-level vocabulary such as words and numbers. If you want to learn sign language fully it will cost about £10,000 per person and you’ll have to fund most of that yourself.’
Children identified as deaf at birth will usually receive a cochlear implant before they are two. The device turns sounds into electrical signals and sends them, via an implanted electrode, to the cochlea, a bone in the inner ear that’s key in hearing.
Cochlear implants, which require surgery to insert the electrode, can help many children to hear and speak at a level comparable to hearing people, but those who do not respond to the implants – which can happen for a wide variety of reasons – will have to rely on sign language.
‘Cochlear implants are sold as a complete answer for deafness, but they’re not,’ adds Ms Hubbard. ‘If a child can’t communicate then their development will suffer.’
The lack of support for sign language is a key reason that deaf children can fall behind in education – often deaf 18-year-olds leaving school have a reading age that is equivalent to a hearing nine-year-old’s.
Sophie Lavers, 29, from Cornwall, says that her family need sign language lessons in order to communicate with her three-year-old son Leighton.
‘Leighton was born totally deaf and the implants have not worked,’ says Sophie.
‘I knew that he needed sign language as early as possible, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to communicate or learn anything.’
Sophie’s local council provided four months of online lessons, but refused to fund further help.
‘This barely covered the basics,’ says Sophie, who cares for Leighton full time. Sophie managed to get funding from two local charities for the first year of lessons, but believes it is unlikely this support will continue. Meanwhile, her partner Justin, 30, a builder, has been told he will have to pay for lessons. ‘It’s costing thousands of pounds,’ says Sophie.
‘We don’t have that money but we’ll get a loan.’
A Government spokesperson said: ‘We fund some sign language qualifications through our adult education budget and advanced learner loans, and are looking appointing a new Board which will provide expert advice to the Government on the implementation of the British Sign Language Act.’TIOB News