Former cabinet minister Chloe Smith has slammed city councils for refusing to fund sign language classes for deaf children.
It comes after The Mail on Sunday revealed that some parents are forced to spend £20,000 or more to learn how to communicate with their child.
The former Work and Pensions Minister said it was “simply wrong” for families to pay for such lessons themselves.
Ms Smith, who has a deaf relative, was instrumental in passing the British Sign Language Act earlier this year, which recognized sign as an official language. She said: “I am concerned to hear that families are managing on their own to communicate and educate their children.
“The law says reasonable accommodations must be made, and it’s just wrong for a child and their family not to learn sign language when they need to.”
All deaf children in the UK are offered NHS cochlear implants – electronic devices that can help them hear. However, in a third of cases the implants offer little or no improvement, so they also have to learn sign language.
Katie Littlejohns (left), 36, from Cornwall, started a petition calling on the government to fund sign language lessons after she was unable to get council funding to teach sign language to her deaf two-year-old son Alvie (right)
Former cabinet minister Chloe Smith has lashed out at city councils refusing to fund sign language classes for deaf children (file photo)
More than 90 percent of deaf children are born into hearing families, so if they need to use sign language, their parents and siblings should learn it too. About 151,000 people in the UK use sign language, with about 87,000 relying on it as their main form of communication.
Earlier this month, this newspaper reported that up to 40 per cent of councils do not provide financial assistance for lessons, meaning families will eventually have to fund it themselves, which can amount to £400 a week.
Ms Smith, the Conservative MP for Norwich North, was joined by the chairman of the Education Select Committee, Robin Walker, who called on the government to intervene.
He said: ‘Local councils have a responsibility to look after their residents, but I don’t think it’s fair for them to be the only source of funding to help sign language families. The national government should also play a financing role in this.’
A petition launched earlier this year calling on the government to fund sign language classes for parents and carers of deaf children has now garnered nearly 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 communicate properly with him or he will be isolated.
“I was shocked to find out how difficult it was to get funding for sign language, and this is a problem that parents like us face across the country.”
Rachel Hubbard, from the charity Deaf Umbrella, said: ‘We’ve heard from many families in need who are struggling to keep up with the cost of sign language classes.
‘Some municipalities offer money for introductory lessons, but this only offers basic vocabulary at kindergarten level, such as words and numbers. If you want to learn sign language completely, it will cost around £10,000 per person and you will have to pay for most of it yourself.’
Ms Smith (pictured), who has a deaf relative, was instrumental in getting the British Sign Language Act passed as an official language earlier this year. She said: ‘I am concerned to hear that families have to manage on their own to interact with and educate their children’
Children identified as deaf at birth usually receive a cochlear implant before they are two. The device converts sounds into electrical signals and sends them, via an implanted electrode, to the cochlea, a bone in the inner ear that is essential for hearing.
Cochlear implants, which require surgery to insert the electrode, can help many children hear and speak at a level comparable to hearing people, but those who do not respond to the implants – which can happen for a variety of reasons – will have to rely on sign language.
‘Cochlear implants are marketed as a complete answer to deafness, but they are not,’ adds Ms Hubbard. “If a child cannot communicate, his development suffers.”
The lack of support for sign language is a major reason why deaf children can fall behind in education – often deaf 18-year-olds who leave school have a reading age equivalent to a hearing nine-year-old.
Sophie Lavers, 29, from Cornwall, says her family needs sign language lessons to communicate with her three-year-old son, Leighton.
“Leighton was born completely deaf and the implants didn’t work,” says Sophie.
“I knew he needed sign language as early as possible or he wouldn’t be able to communicate or learn anything.”
Sophie’s congregation offered online classes for four months, but refused to fund further assistance.
“This barely covered the basics,” says Sophie, who cares for Leighton full-time. Sophie managed to get money from two local charities for the first year of school, but thinks it is unlikely that this support will continue. Meanwhile, her partner Justin, 30, a contractor, has been told to pay for lessons. “It costs thousands of pounds,” says Sophie.
“We don’t have that money, but we do get a loan.”
A government spokesman said: ‘We are funding some sign language qualifications through our adult education budget and advanced loans, and we are looking for a new council to provide expert advice to the government on the implementation of the UK Sign Language Act.’