Heidi and Lee Robertson got married in 2013. Both use sign language as their first language. Heidi was born in Finland and moved to the UK in 2009. She is a marketing expert specialising in social media. Lee, from Scotland, is a graduate in Aerospace Engineering Design and a qualified Psychological Well-being Practitioner.
Can you describe each other please?
Lee: We are profoundly visual.
Heidi: Yes, from birth!
Lee: We try to steer away from using the word 'deaf' because it doesn't really describe us. To deaf people, the word 'deaf' has a positive meaning: it means things like community, culture, sign language and stuff like that which give you a feeling of belonging. But hearing people view it differently. When I tell you that I am 'deaf', what will you think first?
Heidi: You will probably think 'Oh, he can't hear!'
Lee: Exactly. Your focus will be in my ears, which is totally irrelevant because my ears do not play any role in my life, apart from holding my glasses. Now, imagine if if we did this differently and I told you that I am a visually oriented person and use sign language, what would you do?
Heidi: I would try and find a way to communicate with you visually instead of assuming that you will lipread me.
Lee: Yes. That would enable us to connect straight away because I am not drawing your attention to my ears but instead give you a clear idea of how you can communicate with me. It actually works – I have tried!
What differences, if any, have you noticed about equality in Finland and in the UK?
Heidi: When I moved to the UK it took me a while to realise that the interpreting system is very different to what we have in Finland where sign language users get 180 hours of interpreting per year for personal use. That's our right by law. This voucher-based system means you can book an interpreter to negotiate a loan with your bank, go to parents' evening at your child's school, see your personal trainer or view a house you would like to buy. When you need an interpreter, you only need to make a booking – the service is there for you to access.
Lee: That gives you a lot more independence and you are fully in control of your life. But, in Finland they don't have Access to Work.
Heidi: Yes, that's right. Access to Work is great. It makes working life so much easier and increases the employability of BSL users. It also enables you to access online interpreting services such as SignVideo. I never forget my first interpreted call! I have probably never felt so empowered in my life. It made me realise how easily and quickly hearing people sort things out on phone while we have to send emails back and forth or rely on ancient and monotonous text relay service which lacks real human connection.
Lee: However, if you don't have a job, you don't have Access to Work. That leaves you with very limited access to BSL interpreters.
Heidi: Indeed. I have lived in the UK for five years and to be honest, in this country I feel like a second class citizen when I try to access public services. I have to use my best negotiating skills to ask, beg and sometimes even threaten them with consequences if they won't provide me with an interpreter to an appointment. 'No, I do not want to have lengthy conversations by pen and paper. No, I don't have any hearing friends who could come with me. No, my mother isn't able to come either and believe me, it's easier for us both if you book a BSL interpreter.' I don't like that because it makes me a difficult and even undesired customer! I just wonder how other, less assertive BSL users cope? Do they keep insisting or do they just give up?
Getting work is tough for young people at the moment and can be much tougher when you are deaf. You have both achieved a huge amount and are great role models for others. Do you have any advice for young deaf people?
Heidi: If you don't know which career to take, try something that you think you would like doing. Contact an employer and ask if they could take you for a work placement for a couple of months. If you don't like it then great, you are a step closer to finding your passion! Plus, you have something new to add in your CV. Join LinkedIn and start building your profile - it's actually fun!
Lee: For many reasons, a lot of young BSL users feel lost. It can make it difficult for them to picture anything in the distant future. If you feel depressed or anxious, ask your GP to refer you for therapy in BSL. Just like you would go and see a doctor when you have a chest infection, you should look after your inner self as well. When you feel better, you have a clearer mind and more energy and enthusiasm to start planning your future.
What are your aspirations for the future?
Lee: We are both very creative and enjoy being involved with projects where we can contribute with our ideas and skills. Personally, I am passionate about sign language and media. I have produced a large number of BSL and International Sign videos on YouTube. Media is an area I would like to explore further. Another thing I enjoy is psychology. I worked as a BSL Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner for some time and it was an extremely rewarding job in many ways. I still keep my eyes open for any opportunities in that area but unfortunately there are very few psychology jobs available in the BSL community.
Heidi: I started my career as an event organiser in the Culture Department of the Finnish Association of the Deaf. One part of the job that I always enjoyed most was marketing communications and in the past years I have naturally geared towards it more and more. I totally love connecting with people and thinking of new ways to introduce new, exciting services and products that will make a difference to their lives. These communication skills are something I want to deepen in the future. I also have an idea for a small business which is going to be great fun – watch this space!
If you could make one change to improve equality in the UK, what would it be?
Heidi: I will quote Dr Liisa Kauppinen, a remarkable Finnish deaf woman who was one of the driving forces behind the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). In December 2013, when she became the first deaf person to receive The United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights she said: 'Only when Governments meet their obligations under the UN CRPD, will deaf people have equality in their everyday lives.' That's the one thing I would change if I had a magic wand!
Lee: I would make the word 'deaf' disappear and be replaced with something that defines us better.