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Three charities; RNID, SignHealth and the UK Council on Deafness have welcomed a decision by the telecoms regulator, Ofcom, to provide deaf access to the 999 emergency phoneline in British Sign Language (BSL).

Ofcom have estimated that this service will save at least 2 lives per year.

Following a joint campaign by the three organisations, Ofcom has said that telecoms providers will be compelled to offer their customers free 24/7 access to the emergency phoneline 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 to the public consultations. Input from the deaf community has been invaluable in showing Ofcom the life-saving impact the service will have.

What happens next

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 experienced BSL interpreters, as well as having the IT systems to support this.  

“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.” – Roger Wicks, Associate Director of Insight and Policy at RNID

“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 life-saving 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.”

James Watson-O’Neil, Chief Executive, SignHealth
Abigail Gorman, Policy and Public Affairs Manager

“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.” – Ralph Nattress, Chair, UK Council on Deafness


Notes to Editors :

For media enquiries or comment.
Andie Hill, PR Manager, telephone: 0203 227 6065 or email andie.hill@rnid.org.uk or prteam@rnid.org.uk
Laura Woodbury, Communications Manager, email lwoodbury@signhealth.org.uk

RNID is the national charity making life fully inclusive for deaf people and those with hearing loss or tinnitus: www.rnid.org.uk

UK Council on Deafness, UKCoD, established in 1993 as an umbrella organisation for deaf charities and works to improve services for those with any level of hearing loss.: www.deafcouncil.org.uk

SignHealth is the Deaf health charity led by Deaf people at all levels of the organisation. We are dedicated to making sure Deaf people get the same sort of access to healthcare and health information and we provide services to improve Deaf people’s health and wellbeing. 

We have media-trained Deaf people who use British Sign Language to communicate, as well as access to registered BSL interpreters, ready to be interviewed to support this statement. 

For more information about SignHealth, visit signhealth.org.uk and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at: @SignHealth