Exploring how we support deaf people who use British Sign Language

August 19, 2021

There are an estimated 87,000 deaf people who British Sign Language (BSL) in the UK. Not all deaf people who use BSL consider themselves to part of the Deaf community, but those who do, share a sense of identity. People in the Deaf community often don’t consider themselves disabled and can have significantly different life experiences than people who are hearing, or those who become deaf later in life.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) is on a mission to make life fully inclusive for deaf people and those with hearing loss or tinnitus. Last year, we returned to our previous name as a way to make it clear who we exist for and our purpose. In many ways, it was about reconnecting with the Deaf community.

As we begin building our new digital service, we want to understand how we might support deaf people who use BSL as their first language.

Learning through discovery

We carried out a discovery to help us understand how deaf people currently access information, support and services. Through remote interviews with BSL users, we set out to learn:

We also encouraged people to imagine ideal experiences, or services that are both useful and accessible.

What we learned

Our research showed that deaf people look to charities if they have information that’s specific to the deaf experience.

Mainstream information that’s not for deaf people is often irrelevant and makes deaf people feel forgotten. There are many organisations that offer support for deaf people, but it’s difficult for people to choose which provider is right for them.

In seeking help, a deaf person will usually choose the service which offers communication support or the opportunity to use BSL.

But, accessing interpreters can often lead to delays, extending how long it takes for people to receive help.

Deaf people are often responsible for finding workarounds to services that are not accessible to them.

For example, many service providers only offer contact over the phone. This usually requires a deaf person to have awareness of other platforms or plug-ins and know how to use them.

You never know if someone working in the Police Office is going to actually listen to the message and wonder who it is before they can explain that it’s a Text Relay service. Some people hear an automated voice and then they hang up because they’re suspicious.

Navigating information that’s not accessible leads deaf people to mistrust institutions, receive the wrong information, or miss out on opportunities.

Because of this, deaf people will often turn to their peers for support. Not only do they value each other’s experiences, but information that’s shared amongst peers is usually accessible.

It would depend, can I access it? If it’s a page, do I have to ask someone to translate it? Do I have to ask someone what it means? Do I have to ask someone to sign to me? That’s the issue, really … the first important thing for me is it has to be accessible. It has to be signed.

An accessible service provides options so that deaf people can make choices that are right for them. Services designed for BSL users show that an organisation supports and understands the Deaf community. There’s an expectation that a charity like ours should provide services that work for people who use BSL.

Turning insights into recommendations

After the research, we shifted our focus towards recommending what to do next. RNID recently announced a move to permanent remote working, and this discovery was an opportunity to test new ways for our team to work together. To help us arrive at recommendations, we ran two asynchronous workshops using Miro, an online collaboration tool.

First, we ran a workshop to share our insights with the team. We asked people to consider the insights and propose a set of user needs. Then, we asked people to respond to a series of ‘How might we’ prompts so we could gather ideas on how to meet these needs.

In the second workshop, we shared back the synthesised user needs and ideas. Then, we proposed recommendations and encouraged others to ask questions and add comments. This helped us refine the descriptions, sense people’s reactions, and learn where things might fit into our roadmap.

Opportunities for our digital service and beyond

This discovery uncovered many opportunities for how we might support deaf people who use BSL.

Some of the recommendations we plan to look at next, include:

Along the way, we’ll continue to value people’s experiences, ask for feedback and stay willing to learn.


This was originally published on Medium.