STUDENT midwives at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) are being taught basic sign language so they can help tackle the problems faced by deaf women and their families during pregnancy and labour.
Currently, midwives and nurses are not taught sign language as part of their training, so they are unable to communicate with deaf women without an interpreter. This can cause huge problems, particularly in emergency situations, when an interpreter may not be available immediately or at all.
According to figures from RNID, the largest deafness charity in the UK, there are around nine million people in the UK who are deaf or hard of hearing and an estimated 50,000 people who use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first or preferred language.
The ratio of interpreters to sign language users is 1 to 156.
Bernadette Gregory, senior lecturer in Midwifery at DMU, decided to run sessions for the student midwives so they can communicate basic information until an interpreter arrives.
She enlisted the help of Dr Joanna Downes from local charity Action Deafness to teach the students BSL and deaf awareness issues.
Bernadette said: “We decided to run these sessions to highlight the fact that midwives are personally and professionally accountable under the new Equality Act, which came into force in October 2010, to offer the best possible, non discriminatory care, to all women and their partners.
“The workshops have highlighted some of the problems faced by deaf parents accessing midwives and their unique communication needs and we hope to teach the next generation of midwives how to communicate and provide better care to these women at such an important time in their lives.”
Amanda Mitchell, 36, is one of the student midwives who has attended a sign language session, she said: “I think the introduction of deaf awareness classes for student midwives at DMU prior to qualifying is fundamental in their process of learning and it is important to be aware of the complex needs of all women accessing midwifery services.
“Midwife means ‘with woman’ and as a future healthcare professional it is my focus to care for all women, regardless of any disability, equally and without prejudice.”
Dr Downes said: “These workshops are not only about teaching BSL but they enlighten the student midwives on the psychological, emotional, social and communication issues facing deaf parents and hearing parents of newly diagnosed deaf babies.
“Many deaf parents face challenges and barriers accessing the same services that other people get and during times of pregnancy and labour, it can be even more stressful for them.
“Through the course, we are breaking down these barriers so that midwives have the knowledge of what to do and what risks they need to be aware of that could have implications on how they do their work.
“The aim of this is to make the pregnancy and labour experiences for both the deaf parents and NHS professionals more positive and effective. “
Bernadette hopes that other midwifery lecturers will incorporate BSL into their teaching and also believes that as pregnant women often have to deal with doctors, health visitors and other NHS staff, BSL would be hugely beneficial to student nurses and medical students.
She added: “I believe that we are the first university to run this type of training and I hope by highlighting this issue, midwives and other health care professionals will introduce it into their training and we can help meet the needs of these women and their partners.”
Bernadette also hopes to produce an educational DVD to teach health professionals some common BSL signs and highlight best practice when communicating with deaf parents.
She also hopes that a key fob of useful signs can be produced for staff to carry round with them and a resource book for clinical areas.