How COVID-19 impacts the deaf in the UK

Female with a protective visor and mask over her mouth.

The coronavirus affects society profoundly, but in which ways has the pandemic influenced access to and need for sign language interpretation around the world? In our blog series “Sign Language interpretation in the time of corona,we will take a closer look at the situation in different countries. This time, we’ll focus on the UK, as Andy Irvine at Sign Language Interactions, discusses accessibility for Deaf sign language users in the country.

How extensive are sign language interpretation services in the UK usually?

Apart from business that relied on ‘footfall’ we have provided continuity of services to some extent. In regards to specific health- and social care services that Deaf BSL users access, many have continued to provide services—albeit slightly limited. GPs (local doctors) for example were fully reliant on telephone contact to arrange repeat prescriptions, test results, etc. This new situation has brought video remote interpreting into the forefront.

Service providers who normally accepted calls via a third party (interpreter) continued to do so with no real change. We are all operating in challenging and different times, in which technologically-assisted communication is currently the only acceptable method of communication.

How has the overall need for sign language interpretation services increased due to Coronavirus?

Call volumes on nearly all of our queues/services have increased. This is especially true for access to health-related information. In particular there was a spike in calls to our national non-emergency health help line during March and April.

We have been able to meet the demands of the higher level of calls and the availability of online interpreters at most times. Most interpreters in the country were either employed by organisations and furloughed (granted leave form work, being paid 80% of wages by the UK government) or freelance with no forthcoming income. We were able to secure the services of additional interpreters to work online.

Within the first week of lock-down, we had all interpreters set up to be home-based and deliver services as normal. Some were already set up prior to the COVID-19 response.

Interpreters fully utilized chat facilities such as WhatsApp group messaging and have had a number of ‘get togethers’ on Zoom conferencing. Management and support has been different during these times.

In your opinion, what does the best-case future scenario for sign language interpretation services look like? What tools and decisions should be in place to increase accessibility for deaf people?

One main feature that is beneficial is the use of three parties on screen: Deaf user – Interpreter – Health worker.

This can be achieved within MMX if all parties were on app/WebTC – interoperability with MS Teams, Zoom and other video platforms as standard, would be ground-breaking. The interpreter being able to ‘call-in’ from MMX would offer far wider accessibility.

With increased use of video technology (nation-wide) and now becoming an acceptable method of communication in these times, for both sign language users as well as ‘hearing’ members of society, governments (local and national) should work with video remote interpreting services to ensure that firewalls/network restrictions can easily be overcome.

Image of Andy Irvine.
Andy Irvine, Project Manager at Sign Language Interactions, UK

Read more about Sign Language Interactions and the services Sign Language Interactions provides at