Gran's cancer fight shows dearth of NHS sign language interpreters in Belfast
The daughter of a deaf woman has spoken about the stress of having to interpret for her at hospital appointments.
Carole Curlett (48) said she had signed for her 74-year-old mother Agnes Curlett in hospital more than 30 times in the last year due to a lack of interpreters.
Mrs Curlett has been receiving treatment for leukaemia since last month, and was also admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast last September after breaking her hip.
The visits have been a mixture of scheduled appointments and short-notice admissions.
As she spoke, a tearful Carole translated the conversation for her mum.
They produced scraps of paper showing how medical staff often had to write out questions for Agnes until her daughter could arrive.
"Not once have the Belfast Trust offered me an interpreter," said Carole.
Although a process exists for booking signers, she said she no longer asked for one as she's not confident they will be available.
She explained that last-minute hospital admissions for her mum had been especially tough.
She said: "I have a wee boy with learning difficulties so it can be very difficult to manage for me. For the most recent appointment, I was in the city centre and was told I had to come in to sign for an operation. That meant I had to rush home to arrange care for my boy and back out to the Royal Victoria Hospital immediately.
"It's very stressful and I feel like I've been hitting my head against a brick wall."
Agnes added: "It's been very hard." As well as living with leukaemia, she said she could do without the worry of communicating her needs to staff while waiting for her daughter.
Carole said: "I definitely think there should be more resources made available, the amount of times they just expect me to be there isn't fair."
Ann Owens from the deaf charity Hands That Talk said a lack of available signers was a problem for short-notice requests. "It can be difficult as you can need about two to three weeks' notice sometimes, but if it's an emergency there can be times when someone's not available due to the shortage, including for A&E admissions.
"There's about 25 to 28 British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters in Northern Ireland and only three Irish Sign Language (ISL) interpreters, which would mainly be used in the Enniskillen area," she explained.
Hoping to improve services, the charity has delivered deaf awareness training for staff in hospitals and health centres.
When Stormont collapsed over a year ago, the introduction of an Irish language Act was listed as a key demand to restore the Executive. But the charity said an official sign language act should be given higher priority.
The Belfast Health Trust said it was committed to ensuring equality of access to all patients and that all complaints were taken seriously.
The charity Action On Hearing Loss is under contract to the Belfast Trust to provide interpreters, but it said demand exceeded the relatively small number of accredited interpreters available.
"We need to give an appropriate amount of notice to book a sign language interpreter, and while this is possible for regular outpatient appoints, it becomes more problematic for emergency appointments and visits to emergency departments, and in spite of our best efforts it is not always possible to accommodate a request at short notice," it said.
"All service users or patients have the right to access a professionally trained and accredited sign language interpreter (in both BSL and ISL) and we will continue to do our best to ensure that a sign language service is provided."