Jeff McWhinney: Text-based customer service options are not enough for Deaf people

Posted on May 24, 2017

By Jeff McWhinney, Chairman & Founder of SignVideo (a supporter of this site) and member of The Top 100 List Of The Most Influential Disabled People in the UK.

We see organisations in the UK trying to be accessible and consider their social responsibility with pride – and we salute them for trying. However for the Deaf community, it’s simply not enough.

Many hearing people don’t realise that for the 150,000 British Sign Language (BSL) users in the UK, text based services just do not work.

Organisations try to make their customer services helplines available to Deaf people through text relay, or email services but they don’t realise that these communication options are in fact putting up another barrier to Deaf BSL users – written English!!

British Sign Language is a language in its own right.

It is not a translation of English into sign – it has its own structure, flow, expression and physical elements and is quite different to English.

Unlike spoken languages, there is no written form of BSL. In spoken languages, the voice can convey a range of emotions. Deaf BSL users convey emotion and intonation through facial expression, which forms approximately 80% of British Sign Language.

BSL is, for the majority of Deaf people, the only language in which they can access information – from learning about current affairs on TV to finding support from councils and businesses.

So text relay and email doesn’t serve those Deaf BSL users who don’t speak or use English. What we need is helpline and in-branch customer services in our own language – just like Welsh speakers have.

Teresa Garratty, writing for Limping Chicken, summed it up nicely in her recent article saying:

“When we write/read we can’t see all those little signifiers that help shape the outcome of human interaction. There’s no body language to detect, no facial expressions to use as a guide. Is this person so at ease with you that they sit close enough to be touching? Or are they at the opposite side of the room with their arms folded tightly across their chest? You just don’t know, and it’s things like this that can cause a dramatic shift in reality. The conversation that you thought you were having, turns into something completely different and when you’re on the end where the wires are crossed…well, brace for impact.”

Text based services can cause confusion for Deaf people which in turn leads to frustration and feeling excluded from society. We need to make things easier for Deaf people not harder! Organisations must provide access to customer services for Deaf people in BSL. It needs to be in real-time, as and when the Deaf caller needs it – just like it is for hearing people.

I hope to see a future where BSL achieves legal status as a language in its own right and where all organisations provide BSL customer services for the Deaf community as standard.

Find out more about SignVideo here:


The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

Find out how to write for us by clicking here, how to follow us by clicking here, and read our disclaimer here.

The site exists thanks to our supporters. Check them out below:


Posted in: Jeff McWhinney