Deaf People Can Finally Access 999 Calls And It's About Time

The new app will allow deaf people to communicate with a BSL interpreter in an emergency.
You can now use a video app to contact 999.
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You can now use a video app to contact 999.

We don’t know why it’s taken so long, but deaf people will now have access to 999 emergency services.

Previously, you could only make audial calls for the police and ambulance or fire brigade, but today a new BSL-friendly new service is being launched.

People will be able to download and use an app to communicate to a BSL interpreter who will then relay the information to emergency services. Ofcom, the communications regulator, says that telephone and broadband companies are required to offer the free, 24/7 video call service for BSL users.

Until now, deaf people could only use a text messaging service to contact 999, but this only worked if you had registered in advance. So anyone who needed access but hadn’t registered had to find an alternative way to get help, which could be catastrophic in the case of an emergency.

Additionally, the text service operates only in English, meaning non-speakers might also struggle to communicate their situation and needs.

It’s been the result of a long campaign by deaf organisations and individuals, including the national hearing loss charity, RNID, and Sign Health, the deaf health charity, with many people shouting out their work on Twitter.

Ofcom estimates the provision could help save at least two lives every year and police forces across the country have been sharing links to the service.

The 999 BSL app comes as welcome news to the deaf community who finally have a service that caters to their needs in an urgent situation.

The Action Deafness charity is hosting parties for the Walsall, Worcester and Oxford Deaf communities on Friday 17 June to celebrate its launch.

The charity told HuffPost UK: “Action Deafness is incredibly pleased to be celebrating the launch of the new 999 BSL, the UK’s first ever Video Relay Service (VRS) connecting Deaf people to the emergency services (police, ambulance, fire and coastguard) via a remote British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter.

“We are celebrating with the deaf community through a series of launch parties in Worcester, Walsall and Oxford and will be joined by members of the emergency services.”

This is another major milestone in improving access for the estimated 90,000 Deaf people in the UK, following the recent historic decision by Parliament to recognise British Sign Language as a language of Great Britain for the first time. The British Sign Language (BSL) Act passed into law on 28 April 2022 after decades of campaigning by the Deaf community.

Annie Harris, advocacy officer at the RNID, told the Times: “Anyone needing the emergency services is facing a difficult, distressing and potentially life-threatening situation. Everyone must have timely and easy access to the emergency services and it’s brilliant news that deaf people will now have equal access to 999 in their first language.

“We’re proud to be part of this life-saving campaign and we hope this major step will be followed by increased deaf awareness among emergency services staff, so that deaf people facing an emergency can get the support they need.”

The British Sign Language (BSL) Act was passed into law on April 28 2022 after decades of campaigning by the deaf community.