Deaf Awareness Week 2023 – focus on access to communication

Posted: 03/05/23

This year’s Deaf Awareness Week runs from 1-7 May, and the theme of the week is ‘Access to Communication’.

The aim of this year’s Deaf Awareness Week is to promote greater awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by the Deaf community, and how to break down the communication barriers that prevent deaf people from fully participating in society.

What is the Mental Health and Deafness Service?

Did you know, Deaf people are around twice as likely to experience mental health issues compared to the general population? These difficulties are often made worse by the difficulty Deaf people can face when communicating with their healthcare providers.

The Mental Health and Deafness Service, based at Walkergate Park in Newcastle, works with Deaf and deafblind adults who have mental health problems. The service is run by Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (CNTW) in partnership with Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust (TEWV).

The service was set up in the late 1990’s by pioneering nurse Joyce Pennington, who recognised the lack of services for Deaf people in the region who communicated using British Sign Language, and took it upon herself to lead the change. (You can read more here about how Joyce set up the service.)

We work with local community mental health teams, offering assessment, treatment and advice. We work hard to make sure that teams are communicating with D/deaf people in the way that is best for each person.

Did you know, there are about 12 million people in the UK who are Deaf or hard of hearing – that’s one in six people.

We can adapt resources and ways of communicating to make sure each person can access the information they need. We also support staff to work with people in a meaningful and effective way.

For example, we recently facilitated a Deaf awareness session for the mental health services in Durham and Tees Valley. The session was led by Suzie, a Deaf carer from Darlington who is an experienced deaf awareness trainer and a lipreader. She has been a key member of the local Deaf wellbeing network and supports the recognition of the diverse communication needs of people who are D/deaf, deafened, deafblind or with hearing loss.

Suzie reminded us of the importance of both communication tactics and sign-language skills. It was fantastic to see the positive attitude of the teams at the training session, which is vital in making sure that deaf people and communities can engage with and participate in services.

Crisis support for the Deaf community

The North East Mental Health and Deafness Service has produced two videos with members of the Deaf community to highlight the support available to them in a crisis.

Emmanuel Chan, a nurse in the service, said: “It has been such a rewarding experience to co-create these informative videos with local Deaf people.

“These videos were created to provide information to the Deaf community in our region, in an accessible format, about what support is available if they find themselves in a mental health crisis.”

The longer video begins with information in British Sign Language about what we mean by a ‘mental health crisis’, and explains what support is available.

The shorter video focuses on ‘Ann’s story’, showing an example of what someone who is Deaf can expect from CNTW when they reach out for support.

CNTW also has a wide range of other information and resources available in British Sign Language, including our award-winning self-help guides.

Since last year, deaf people have benefited from the BSL999 App. This has significantly improved deaf people’s access to all the emergency services, and we are pleased that the BSL101 was launched by the Cleveland Police earlier this year – hopefully other police forces in the Northeast and Cumbria will follow their lead!

Our top tips for supporting someone who is D/deaf:

  • Book a double appointment to allow time for interpretation. Professional, qualified and registered interpreters should be arranged for appointments, using the Deaf person’s preferred interpreter. The interpreter should also have experience in working in mental health settings, as there can be a risk of an interpreter attempting to make sense of someone who is thought-disordered. Interpreter bookings in CNTW can be made online at
  • When sending appointment letters, provide the option to use text messaging and email to contact the team; please do not ask Deaf people to ring a number
  • Make sure you have the person’s attention before you start speaking
  • Places with good lighting and less background noise are best for conversations
  • Use your normal volume, lip movements and facial expressions; you don’t need to exaggerate or raise your voice
  • Check whether the person understands what you are saying, and if they don’t, try another way of communicating it – never say ‘don’t worry about it’ and move on
  • Learn some basic finger spelling or BSL phrases. This fingerspelling alphabet from Action on Hearing Loss is useful.
  • Let them know about CNTW’s wide range of information and resources available in British Sign Language, including our award-winning self-help guides. There is also a handy wallet-sized card with details on; copies can be requested from the Patient Information Centre or Mental Health and Deafness Service.)

If you live in the Northeast of England and are Deaf or deaf/blind and think you may have a mental health condition, please speak to your GP who will be able to make a referral to the Northeast Mental Health and Deafness Service for you.

You can also find further information on the TEWV website for County Durham and Teesside and on the CNTW website for the rest of the Northeast.

If you need urgent help with your mental health right now, each of our Crisis Teams has a text number for people who are Deaf or have communication difficulties. These teams can be contacted 24/7:

  • North Cumbria: 07795 656 226
  • Newcastle and Gateshead: 07919 228 548
  • North Tyneside and Northumberland: 07887 625 277
  • South Tyneside and Sunderland: 07889 036 280