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May 2024

UK Council on Deafness, RNID and SignHealth have welcomed a decision by the telecoms regulator, Ofcom, to provide deaf access to the 999 emergency service in British Sign Language.

Following a joint campaign by the three charities supporting deaf people, Ofcom has said that telecoms providers will be compelled to offer their customers free 24/7 access to the emergency service via a video relay service (VRS) on both an app and website. VRS allows a deaf person to make a video call to a BSL interpreter, who will then relay the call via phone to the 999 call handler.

The trio of charities have been working with Ofcom for the last 18 months on this issue with an initial petition calling on Ofcom to introduce this system which received 874 signatories and resulted in Ofcom consulting on this idea. Since then, the charities have been working behind the scenes presenting Ofcom with evidence of community need and engaging the deaf community to contribute the public consultations.

The industry now has one year to prepare and to make this service available. During this time the provider will have to be approved by Ofcom and will need to demonstrate how it can meet a number of stringent standards such as the need to only use registered and appropriately experience BSL interpreters, as well as having the IT systems to support this.

Roger Wicks, Associate Director of Insight and Policy at RNID said:

 “We are thrilled with Ofcom’s decision to make 999 accessible in British Sign Language.  This will have a huge impact on those that need to access this service in their primary language of BSL. We would like to thank the deaf community for helping us to campaign on this issue and we are proud that we have achieved something which will ultimately save lives.”

James Watson-O’Neil, Chief Executive, SignHealth added:

“This is a breakthrough for Deaf people and means one more step forward towards equality. But what happens when the ambulance arrives? The paramedics won’t be able to sign and there is no national video relay service in England to support them to communicate with Deaf people. We won’t be satisfied until Deaf people have full and equal access to services, particularly lifesaving health services. We call for a national video relay service to be urgently commissioned so that NHS staff can communicate with Deaf people throughout the health service, and we are ready and willing to work with the NHS to make that a reality.”

Ralph Nattress, Chair, UK Council on Deafness:

We welcome this in principle decision from Ofcom and recognise there is now a lot of work required over the coming year before the service is up and running. We are encouraged by the positive and constructive work carried out by Ofcom to arrive at this decision and trust Ofcom will continue to engage with the deaf community and ensure that any approved provider offers a service which works for and with BSL users and that a year of continued cooperation can create a system that truly works for the deaf community.”