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UK Ignoring British Sign Language Video Technology, Analyst Warns

Most British companies and government departments are ignoring new ways of offering video links to British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters because they misunderstand the value of this to deaf customers, a leading practitioner has told E-Access Bulletin.

Jeff McWhinney, chair of social enterprise SignVideo ( ), was speaking following the launch of a trial service by the broadcaster Sky, allowing deaf customers to contact the company’s customer services team using SignVideo interpreters based in London and Edinburgh.

The cloud-based service – run through Sky’s Accessibility website ( ) – facilitates the call between a member of Sky’s Accessible Customer Services team and the company’s customers, who use their own webcam.

However, use of such services by major firms is all-too rare in the UK despite advances in technology, McWhinney said, due to basic misunderstandings about the need to offer them. “The technology has been around for some time now, but there are a lot of misunderstandings about sign language”, he said. “Most people think sign language is a visual form of English, but that is not the case: it is actually a different language. Its grammar and syntax are nothing like English. Sign language is actually closer to languages in India in terms of word order, for instance.”

That misunderstanding creates a lot of barriers because companies usually just say that deaf customers don’t need to sign, they can just send an email, McWhinney said. The problem is, the average deaf person has a low reading age, so in email exchanges there will be misunderstandings, he said. “But when deaf people are able to use sign video as first language, they can express themselves confidently.”

Sky is the only major broadcaster outside America to use this service, McWhinney said, though one or two other UK firms such as BT and Lloyds Bank have used it. “It is crucial for financial industry: in the past, deaf people had to ask their neighbours and friends to phone in for them, and you can imagine the security consequences of asking your neighbour to call the bank for you.”

Around 40 UK local authorities also use the service, he said, in a similar way to offering telephone language interpreter services to customers with other spoken languages such as Polish or Hindi. But no central government body is using SignVideo, McWhinney said, despite many such as HM Revenue & Customs being huge, customer-facing organisations.

“I have major frustrations with HMRC: they refuse to speak to me via a third party. On three occasions I have been fined £100 for not filing a tax return on time due to confusion over my password, and I couldn’t phone them, I had to write to them and of course this meant the deadline was passed. All three times I have had my fine refunded because it was obviously not my fault, but all this just adds more bureaucracy.”

McWhinney said Sky has a good track record with deaf people who use BSL, as one of the main funders for the BSL Broadcasting Trust which produces independent content presented in sign language for the Community Channel on Sky, Virgin Media, Freeview and BT Vision services.


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