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Deaf charities welcome lifesaving decision to make 999 accessible in British Sign Language

Three charities supporting deaf people; 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 3 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 has been working with Ofcom for the last 18 months on this issue. An initial petition calling on Ofcom to introduce this system 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. 

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.   

Roger Wicks, Associate Director of Insight and Policy at RNID, said: 

“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.” 

James Watson-O’Neil, Chief Executive, SignHealth added: 

“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 lifesaving 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.” 

Ralph Nattress, Chair, UK Council on Deafness: 

“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.”


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

Notes to editors

  • Visit the RNID website at rnid.org.uk
  • Visit the SignHealth website at signhealth.org.uk  
  • Visit the UK Council on Deafness (UKCoD) website at deafcouncil.org.uk
  • UKCoD, established in 1993 as an umbrella organisation for deaf charities and works to improve services for those with any level of hearing loss.
  • RNID is the national charity making life fully inclusive for deaf people and those with hearing loss or tinnitus
  • Currently, one in five adults in the UK have a form of hearing loss. One in eight people have tinnitus. 
  • RNID was founded in 1911. For more than 100 years the charity has pioneered new treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus. It has promoted access to sign language and subtitles, brought in free hearing tests for new-born babies, worked with technology for cochlear implants and developed techniques to help people cope with tinnitus. 
  • We’re a collective force campaigning for an inclusive society. We make deaf people, and those with hearing loss and tinnitus, part of the conversation to drive change – and help friends and families, workplaces and communities stay connected. We’re a trusted source of practical advice and we pioneer new treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus. We’ve been around for over 100 years and, until everyone is 100% included, we’re here to stay. 
  • Our Infoline offers free confidential and impartial information on a range of subjects related to hearing loss and tinnitus. It is open between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday. Call: 0808 808 0123. Live chat and BSL infoline is available on our website at www.rnid.org.uk.    
  • Visit our website for more information and support on all topics that deaf people or those with hearing loss or tinnitus face.