Meet: Jeff McWhinney, Deaf social entrepreneur

Posted on November 5, 2012

Jeff McWhinney is a Deaf social entrepreneur, child of Deaf parents, father of four, former Ireland Deaf International footballer, a yachtsman, former CEO of the BDA, native BSL user and a proud Belfast man. He now runs SignVideo, which was established in 2004 and offers instant access to BSL interpreters.

Could you tell us about growing up deaf, your earliest memories?

Basically it was a normal upbringing as all the family were deaf and the grandparents on my mother’s side were not, but could sign. We lived in a district in South East Belfast where there were other deaf families nearby and so the neighbourhood was deaf aware. I cannot remember any problems with going in the local shops and expressing our requirements on paper and pen or by gestures…

What was school like?

At my first school, there was a deaf teacher who signed in class, however others signed with varying degrees of success. There were two departments in the school – the Deaf department where sign was used and the Partially Hearing department where strict oralist teaching methods were used.

In the playground we would all go together and use sign language. There was a very small minority who were unable to sign and this group usually huddled together on the perimeter of the playground – like deaf children in mainstream schools or units today I suppose.

What do you consider the biggest achievements of your career?

The success of my kids, especially as they were brought up in a BSL-first bilingual environment. Their successes brings joy and warmth to our lives.

Their educational route was unusual to say the least, starting in a BSL dominated nursery/infant school, then their junior school years in a local primary school where there were no deaf kids around – we demanded that the teacher of the deaf be restricted from visiting – they had to let us know when they were visiting so we can ensure that they do not trot out the usual spiel with regard to the education of deaf children (!).

Brigitte, my wife, is a qualified ToD as well as a MRSLI so we had credibility on our side. Then they went to that famous old oral secondary school in Berkshire…

SignVideo is the culmination of my career to date. I am very proud of what it has done, especially in continuing when other video interpreting setups emerged and fell away over the years. It is the innovation and consistency of our services that ensures its continued success.

In terms of campaigns, in spite of the current views of the validity of the “official recognition statement” of BSL by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions back in March 2003, I see this as a real watershed in the linguistic rights movement, as today we enjoy far better access to BSL in terms of programme broadcasts, interpreted events and of course access to interpreters at work which are, to me, streets ahead of countries where there is a legal recognition of their indigenous sign language.

The fact that my team at the BDA (supported by the political marches and protests organised by the Federation of Deaf People) managed to get over 35 signatures from various deaf organisations including a statement from DELTA (hitherto seen as a staunch oralist, anti-BSL, organisation) that BSL is a language was an achievement in itself, I believe, as many people were gobsmacked when they saw this statement. The negotiations and manoeuvring behind the scenes with senior civil servants were tough and an eye-opener into the inner mechanisms of politics…

Tell us about setting up SignVideo, how does it feel to see it become the success it is today?

To be honest it was a no-brainer setting up SignVideo – just look at all the opportunities that Deaf BSL users miss out on simply because it is not possible to find an interpreter at a moment’s notice unless you live with one!

There were many research studies highlighting the lack of interpreters without addressing the key roots which is the effectiveness and efficiency of using an face to face interpreter.

In my previous jobs I had to book an interpreter weeks in advance BEFORE fixing meetings just so that I was assured that an interpreter would be present. Sometimes this was not possible and as a result I had the interpreter sitting around reading a book on the off chance that a phone call would come in or someone wanted to see me.

This scenario multiplied all around the country sees an enormous waste of interpreters’ costs and time. I see having an interpreter sitting around reading a book as denying another deaf person’s access.

At SignVideo the interpreter does up to 30 interpreting assignments a day – compare this with two to three a day for a face to face interpreter. Now you see why it is a no-brainer!

What are your hopes for video relay in the future?

I believe that it will happen without any doubt as Ofcom’s research clearly shows that there is a need.

Even Lithuania has a video relay service which puts the UK to shame. However the killer question is that of consumer choice. With TypeTalk (now BT Text Relay) there is no alternative and therefore no incentive for BT to develop its platform beyond the current ancient practice of access via the minicom/textphone. One cannot blame BT as they fund the text relay service and if they innovate, this could lead to a growth in caller demand leading to further costs in expanding the text relay service.

If this was unshackled from BT and opened up to the free market we could have seen other competitors come in with an internet access relay service, mobile text relay service etc as is the case across the pond. We are seeing a deadlock here because of the reliance on BT to fund the current relay service in the main. There is no funding mechanism here in the UK to develop a truly open and free market and this is the crux of the question.

If we have a single provider providing VRS then there is no reason for this provider to innovate or adopt and implement newer developments in video technology. If we have more than one then it is in the interests of each provider to innovate and bring new products to the market to attract a greater share of the deaf consumer market.

Another benefit is that deaf consumers will then have a choice – if they are not happy with a provider they can simply move to a new provider. Before too long the first provider will lose customers and start to innovate to attract them back. That is the basic principle of competition and has proven to be a success elsewhere.

However we need to be aware of the unpalatable side of competition – unethical practices used to win customers and in the extreme, fraudulent activities – we need a strong regulatory framework to prevent these and it falls on Ofcom to implement this. Deaf organisations have a role in informing deaf consumers of their rights and also facilitating “whistle-blowing” however it has to be seen how those currently providing an interpreting service could handle the dual role of being a provider as well as an advocate.

What are your thoughts on the prospect of a ‘cure’ for deafness, using stem cell treatment?

I am continually amazed by the energy behind some people to eradicate deafness – what have we done wrong to them? ūüėČ

Seriously, I am more concerned at the stated or implied message that sign language is no longer needed, whereas I believe that it will be a rich addition to a child’s linguistic development over the early years – just look at the popularity of “Baby Signs”!

My main frustration and concern is linked to the pressures being imposed on parents and deaf babies/children to “conform” to society’s ideals – just look at Denmark and what is allegedly happening there – apparently the medical professionals are advising parents of CI babies/children NOT to use sign. This runs a risk of the child being left with no fluent or functioning language if the medical intervention fails.

Stem cell research, if we believe the PR blurb, restores the physical aspect of hearing sounds – however hearing is more than just physically hearing sounds, as it also depends on the “interpretation” of these sounds into a meaningful combination of sounds that underpins a spoken language and the ability to relate this to a language learnt by the child/person.

Where do you think the deaf community goes from here, as attendances at deaf clubs dwindle – how can the community stay together and increase its strength?

There are both positive and negative sides to the demise of deaf clubs and centres. The positive is in the fact that deaf people have other ways of networking with each other and are now more visible within the mainstream society. This presents a real challenge to deaf charities as they are now faced with a reduction in demand for their services which is to be welcomed as it means that deaf people are becoming more independent and no longer need to rely on them.

I stated when I was at the BDA that the ultimate goal of ALL charities is to make themselves extinct with all the goals achieved – idealistic yes but why not! It is interesting to see the leaders of local and regional charities dominated by hearing people whereas deaf professionals are more likely to go off and establish their own businesses.

I believe that there is a contradiction between charities espousing the image of the “vulnerable” deaf community that seeks generosity and assistance from the wider hearing public AND the deaf entrepreneurs giving out the message that they are competent, independent and here to offer a service.

This has already created some conflicts and I can see this increasing and leading to the closing down or mergers of charities. Obviously there are some charities who are providing a valued and/or specialised service to the more vulnerable members within the deaf community itself and there is no reason for these type of charities not to continue.

The demise of deaf clubs and centres is in line with the demise of “hearing” working men’s clubs – when I grew up there were thousands of them all across the UK with good attendances – today these are being peopled by the older generation with a few youngsters in tow. Hearing people do not stop networking or meeting up in other places such as the local pubs, events and so on, with some occasionally popping into their local working mens club if at all. This is rapidly becoming the norm for deaf people too.

Having said that, I am still concerned at the loss of the “therapeutical and caring” side to deaf clubs and centres for deaf people who are more “vulnerable” than others – I believe that there is a need for this to be in place rather than having them attend day centres and/or professional-led events where the social side of things are often “forced” rather than natural.

I could write a book about the whys and wherefores of this but want to close with one observation. I firmly believe that if the deaf baby or child AND their parents are encouraged to use sign language then the “vulnerability” of deaf adults would be drastically reduced in numbers. People say that if we encourage deaf babies to sign then their speech will suffer – I say ******* to that as my deaf siblings and children speak even when they were brought up in a sign dominated household – if they have the ability to hear and speak then good for them! If they did not have access to sign language then only God knows what their linguistic abilities would be like today…

To find out more about SignVideo, go to:

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