In March 2020, as lockdown came into effect and services across the country switched to phone consultations, Deaf people needed a solution fast to address this new barrier to healthcare in the UK.
The Deaf health charity SignHealth launched a free on-demand 24/7 remote interpreting service called BSL Health Access, in partnership with the company, InterpreterNow, to enable Deaf people access to medical services over the phone, free of charge.
When BSL Health Access launched, SignHealth was optimistic that NHS England or another government body would pay for the service in order to make phone consultations accessible to Deaf people. In the meantime, SignHealth invested £800,000 from their own reserves to kickstart the service and ensure Deaf people were not left waiting. Late in 2020, the NHS agreed to cover the running costs from December to the end of March 2021 to ensure the service continued into the winter while the NHS reviewed British Sign Language (BSL) provision more broadly. SignHealth have been told that that review is not yet complete.
After investing £800,000 from their reserves, SignHealth are unable to cover the costs of the service. The NHS has not committed any further funding for April 1st onwards, effectively closing the service of BSL Health Access.
James Watson-O’Neill, SignHealth Chief Executive, said:
“I am incredibly proud of what BSL Health Access has achieved and I will always be grateful to SignHealth’s deaf-led Board of Trustees for approving such a significant investment to fund this innovation. I hope that we can work together with NHS England and individual NHS providers to find a long-term sustainable solution. Access to health services is a right, not a privilege. Deaf people, whose health is already poorer than hearing people’s, deserve excellent access to health care in British Sign Language.”
Response to BSL Health Access closing
Andrew Dewey, CEO, InterpreterNow, said:
“SignHealth and InterpreterNow are incredibly proud of the service we provided to enable access to healthcare during the pandemic. Over 25,000 conversations were interpreted over the last year through BSL Health Access, and Deaf people have told us the service was ‘life-saving’. We are incredibly disappointed and gravely concerned that the Deaf community could be left without any BSL access in health care settings during the pandemic and beyond.”
BSL Health Access enabled important conversations at hospice centres with the Deaf relatives of people at the end of their lives. Vital conversations happened at hospitals (18% of the conversations) where Deaf patients were unable to have interpreters or family members present due to social distancing restrictions. 61% of conversations were to and from GPs. Urgent conversations were also held with emergency services at homes with sick babies and elderly family members.
Rebecca Mansell, SignHealth Director of Communications & Fundraising said:
“As it stands, BSL Health Access will be switched off at midnight on 31st March 2021. BSL Health Access is now in the hands of the NHS and we call for NHS England to continue to fund this vital service, fast.”
A petition has been set up asking the NHS to fund BSL Health Access.
Feedback received separately by SignHealth about BSL Health Access included:
“I used BSL Health Access and it was amazing, solved all of my communication barriers.”
“Was in the hospital and had to use my iPad to access app. It saved my life.”
“Brilliant to have a phone call with GP in preferred language”
“Amazing! And gave us the full access.”
“Effective service and instant support”
This sudden closure will leave many in the Deaf community asking how they will access health services moving forwards. The NHS states, “the provision of BSL interpretation is the responsibility of individual NHS providers, so you will need to contact your local provider to confirm arrangements for BSL interpretation.”
SignHealth Communications Office:
Rebecca Mansell, Director of Communications & Fundraising
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
InterpreterNow Communications Office:
Ashley Kendall, Director of Business Development & Marketing, InterpreterNow
Tel – 020 3388 0777
Email – email@example.com
Notes to editors:
InterpreterNow is a service that enables deaf and hearing people to communicate with each-other. We deliver immediate access to online interpreting for deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users.
The service can be accessed through any laptop, PC/Mac or, Android or Apple tablet and smartphone via the InterpreterNow App.
InterpreterNow can be used in the workplace for face-to-face meetings, appointments, in shops or businesses. It can also be used for telephone conversations – where deaf people can call a business or service and they can call them back.
All you need is a good internet connection.
InterpreterNow is a social enterprise, dedicated to providing high quality services to improve the health and wellbeing of deaf people
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.