Health boards in Wales are breaching the law by not providing accessible services for the deaf and hard of hearing, the BBC has learned.

The seven health boards should have published policies about improving access to services in December.

The director of Action on Hearing Loss Cymru said they were not meeting legal obligations from the Equality Act.

But the health boards said they were striving to improve access for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Meanwhile, a separate report shows that 90% of GPs in Wales are failing to provide reasonable alternative methods for deaf people to book appointments.

The Equality Act 2010 says that if someone is at a substantial disadvantage of accessing services because of a disability, reasonable adjustments must be made to allow access.

The director of Action on Hearing Loss Cymru Richard Williams said health boards were failing to meet that legal obligation.

“Hearing people don’t have to walk to the GP’s surgery to book an appointment or ask others to call on their behalf. If you can’t use the phone it’s a considerable hurdle to booking an appointment,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable that deaf and hard of hearing people have to wait for access and that they are treated differently from others in how they access services.

“If you sat anyone from the health service down and explained the difficulties, none of them would be able to justify why that’s the case.”

In response, the health boards said while they had some provisions in place for deaf people – such as booking some appointments online, bookable sign language interpreters and hearing loop systems in place – they were striving to improve access for those who are deaf and hard of hearing.

A report by the Welsh government in conjunction with Action on Hearing Loss, The NHS Centre for Equality and Human Rights and other organisations, was published in January last year to improve access for people with sensory loss.

Interpreter not provided

It says that 70% of British Sign Language users admitted to accident and emergency units in Welsh hospitals were not provided with an interpreter.

The Accessible Healthcare for People with Sensory Loss in Wales report also recommended that all health boards had a policy in place to improve access by December 2012.

None of the health boards have the policy in place and all but one are waiting on a draft copy which is still being developed by the Welsh government.

The Welsh government said it was working on the policy that should be completed by the end of 2013.

A report by the Deaf Access Research Group found that 90% of GP surgeries in Wales were failing to provide deaf and hard of hearing patients with reasonable alternative methods of accessing their appointments system, such as text or email. Generally, the only way to book out-of-hours appointments is on the telephone.

Sarah Lawrence, the director of Deaf Friendly Solutions and SL First Ltd, says it is a cultural problem.

“I think the main problem is NHS staff aren’t aware of the issues,” she said. “It’s all well and good having something that’s in a policy, but if it’s not being carried out by staff at ground level then there’s an issue.

‘Good service’

“The NHS is not meeting the legal obligations it has to deaf people. Regular training is needed about the needs of deaf patients and the systems in place to help communication. If you ask staff for an interpreter, often they have no idea who to contact.”

Dr David Bailey, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, agreed that awareness was the main issue.

“It’s impossible to say that we ever give enough support to disabled patients, but we’ve made more progress in Wales towards helping them than the rest of the UK,” he said.

“In 2007, we had a training programme for all GPs and practice staff.

“Awareness is the key issue. If practices are aware that patients need particular support then they can help. We want to give a good service to deaf patients.”

By India Pollock at BBC News