How Ofcom helped to extend a lifeline for British Sign Language users

Jan 18th '23

Last year saw the launch of a new video relay service enabling British Sign Language (BSL) users to contact the emergency services by making a video call.


The service, known as 999BSL, was brought in following the introduction of new rules by Office of Communications (Ofcom). It is a free, 24/7 service through which BSL users can contact the emergency services in their first language via a mobile app or website.


This makes it easier for them to get help in emergencies, giving them better ability to describe the nature of the emergency and understand potentially life-saving instructions from the emergency services.


As well as Ofcom changing the rules to help make BSL999 happen, one particular Ofcom colleague played a central role in the service’s creation and introduction.


  • Meet Katie Hanson

Katie Hanson is a senior consumer policy manager at Ofcom, and has worked on many projects focused on making it easier for older and disabled people to access and use communications services.


Before joining Ofcom, she studied Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and worked as parliamentary and public policy officer for Sense, a charity that supports deafblind people.


During her time at Sense Katie worked on the parliamentary bill that became the Communications Act – this is the legislation that sets out Ofcom’s powers and the way in which it carries out its work. She also represented Sense on the Consumer Expert Group established to advise the UK Government on digital switchover.


  • How did Katie help 999BSL to come about?

In 2018 the European Union (EU) adopted a set of new rules about electronic communications services. Because the UK was still in the EU when the rules were adopted, they were moved into UK law in 2020.


The new rules strengthened the requirements for disabled people to have the same access as everyone else to emergency communications. They made it clear that emergency communications include not only voice communications services, but also SMS, messaging, video or other types of communications such as real time text, total conversation and relay services.


In light of this change, Katie suggested that Ofcom should require communications providers to provide British Sign Language access to 999, alongside voice 999, text relay 999 and SMS 999. Katie’s suggestion was accepted by Ofcom senior management, and Ofcom carried out a public consultation on the proposal.


Crucially, Ofcom consulted in British Sign Language as well as in English, as they wanted the consultation to be accessible to the people who would be using the service.


Once Ofcom had made the decision to introduce the obligation, industry had a year to prepare. As well as the technical work to prepare for the service, it was necessary for industry to work together to decide how to share the costs of providing this service.


  • How does 999BSL work?

The deaf BSL user makes a video call to an interpreter in a call centre. The interpreter places a voice 999 call, voices over what the deaf person is signing and translates what the hearing call handler says into sign language.


“It has been a privilege to work on 999BSL. All our work at Ofcom is designed to benefit citizens and consumers, but this project has been really special.  …  “And of course, it could be you in need of help in an emergency and a deaf passer-by calling it for you. Making the world more inclusive ultimately benefits everyone.” – Katie.


Find out more about 999BSL.


Source: Ofcom


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