Call for sign language access to county council services for Lancashire’s deaf community

Members of the deaf community in Lancashire look set to be asked whether they would like to have access to a facility that would enable them to communicate with Lancashire County Council in British Sign Language (BSL).

County Hall is to investigate whether it should introduce a “targeted” video relay service at some of its main public contact points.

If it does, the authority would be following in the footsteps of Preston City Council, which has long provided that option for deaf and hard of hearing residents - and is one of only a few local authorities nationwide to do so. Lancashire Police also have a similar system in place.

Rupert Swarbrick, representing the Longridge with Bowland division at County Hall, made the call for better access to services at a recent meeting of the full council.

Could County Hall make it easier for the deaf community to access its services

He asked whether the county authority “should be installing a…text service and a BSL video interpreting service at no cost to the user… at all our public points of contact - such as libraries, registrar’s offices, museums, care facilities and council offices”.

Cabinet member for adult services, Graham Gooch, said that the county council already offers an SMS [short messaging service] text facility via its Customer Access set-up - but that no text or video replay service is currently in operation.

The meeting heard that demand for the existing facility was low - with just 17 interactions via SMS in the year to March 2021.

However, County Cllr Gooch said that with an estimated 2,000 BSL users in Lancashire, “there is evidence to suggest that there is a hidden demand - with people currently accessing services through family and friends or through other members of the deaf community”.

But he also noted that not all deaf people use BSL and so any video service would “not cater for every need within [the deaf] community.

“It is therefore necessary to engage and consult with the community before agreeing upon and implementing any solution. We need something that actually meets their needs, not what looks good from here,” County Cllr Gooch said.

He added that the huge variation in the charges levied by the two main providers of a video relay service - 65 pence per minute compared to £2.50 a minute - meant that there was the potential for a high cost to the council if it installed the facility in all of the places where the public access its services.

“I would suggest that a targeted, proportionate offer should be looked into,” County Cllr Gooch said.

The meeting heard that a recent research project carried by the county council could provide further evidence of need and demand for a video relay service.

In April, the British Sign Language Act recognised BSL as a language of England, Wales and Scotland in its own right. It is also placed a duty on the Work and Pensions Secretary to report regularly on what each relevant government department has done to promote or facilitate the use of BSL in its communications with the public.