New 999 service allows British Sign Language users to call for help in their first language

A new 999 service for sign language users in Britain has been launched allowing those who need it to contact emergency services quickly and easily.

On Friday, Cheshire Police welcomed the Deafness Support Network to an event celebrating the launch of the service – for the first time in the UK, British Sign Language users are able to contact emergency services in their first language.

The service, which was activated on the day of the event, allows BSL users to speak to emergency services via a real-time video call with an interpreter.

Using either the smartphone app, or from the online website, people can talk to the call handlers, with an interpreter signing the responses and instructions back to them.

John Dwyer, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Cheshire, said: “This new technology will have an incredible impact on British Sign Language users.

“It is a breakthrough in the accessibility of the police and other emergency services to the deaf community and I am delighted to have hosted the launch event for this special occasion.”

As well as the police – fire, ambulance, and coastguard services can also be accessed at all times of the day, through 999 BSL.

Paul Binyon, Assistant Chief Fire Officer for Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service said: “Having the opportunity to communicate with the fire service and other emergency services in their first language could be life saving for a BSL user.

“This development will be a milestone within deaf communication.”

There are around 12 million deaf people living in the Britain who, until the launch of BSL 999, had to either rely on others to call for help or use a text-based system – this new service is undoubtedly a step forward in accessibility for emergency providers.

Yet there is still more progress to be made in making the entire system equally accessible for all people.

David Horrocks, CEO for Deafness Support Network, said: “We all agree that it will help BSL users access to communicating with the 999 service. But the emergency services will not be able to sign when they get there.

“It is obviously the first step, but we still need to work hard to ensure that deaf people have full and equal access. DSN will continue to provide awareness and support for the 999 BSL service, and we will continue to work with the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Cheshire and the emergency services to advise on how they can improve their communication with the deaf community.”

The new service is still a significant moment in widening accessibility for the general public, and raising awareness of the everyday struggles people with disabilities face.

Dwyer said: “Deaf individuals and BSL users can be some of the most vulnerable members of our community, so this is essential to ensuring their safety and inclusivity within society.

“I am committed to protecting vulnerable and at-risk people in my Police and Crime Plan and this is certainly a step in the right direction towards that aim.”

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