We’re learning British Sign Language so our deaf colleagues aren’t excluded

A smiling woman talks using BSL to a colleague in her office

If you ask any of my colleagues at Sense what drives them, they will tell you how important inclusion is, and how we can ensure on a daily basis that no one we support is left isolated, alone or unable to fulfil their potential.

At Sense we pride ourselves on being communication experts. By unlocking barriers to communication, we ensure everyone enjoys meaningful lives – and this applies equally, both to the individuals we support, and our staff and volunteers. That’s why, as part of our Equality and Diversity Week this week at Sense, we’re proud to be launching an online learning module so all our staff can learn British Sign Language (BSL).

Five years ago, as a new employee at Sense, I was inspired to learn some basic BSL.  I was very aware of the barriers facing children and adults and I wanted to do something about it. At home, I poured over video extracts on YouTube, overwhelmed by the range and varying quality.  For some reason, I was drawn to learning the BSL signs for every country in the world. I would try and learn the signs for countries like Thailand, India and the United States of America.  Needless to say, it wasn’t very productive! I thought I needed a different and more proactive approach.

I asked around at work and was recommended to take BSL lessons from a trained deaf teacher.  So I became a furtive BSL signer. My classes took place in my office, with the blinds pulled down, hidden from my colleagues so no one was able to see (as I was a little embarrassed!). There I would practice signing for an hour at a time. But even after lessons, I was too nervous to do it in front of my colleagues, let alone the people we support.

It was this experience that made me realise this was a challenge for Sense, and that we needed to improve the experience for staff, enabling people to easily learn BSL so they could communicate with their deaf colleagues.

Equality and diversity at Sense

I’m the Chair of the Sense Equality and Diversity Group. Equality and diversity is something Sense is completely committed to. We want to create equality of opportunity for employment, and volunteering opportunities for disabled staff, including individuals with hearing impairments.  Our starting point is to recognise the unique contribution of every individual, and that everyone’s talent should be recognised and supported.

Sense supports children and adults with complex disabilities who are supported by dedicated staff across Sense. We have always strived to provide the best support for deaf staff. We have a forum in the north that enables staff to come together and share good practice, and provides a support network for staff that have a hearing impairment. We want it to have a bigger role in challenging policy and practice at Sense. Like other charities, we signed up to the Positive about Disabled People, which allows us to display the Two Ticks symbol, and we undertake to interview all disabled job applicants that meet the essential criteria.

However, we wanted to go further and drive more improvements to practice.  We surveyed our staff and they gave the Equality and Diversity Group a very clear message, saying that they often felt excluded from the workplace, not part of general conversations with work colleagues, and didn’t feel like a member of the team.

BSL training for all staff means colleagues aren’t left out of the conversation

In response to this direct feedback, we have created an eLearning module, put together by deaf colleagues, and tailored to the work environment – focusing on day to day conversations such as ‘what did you do over the weekend’, ‘how is your day going’, ‘what time is the next meeting’, and the perennial favourite, ‘the weather is terrible, it is raining today!’ We are rolling out this module to all our staff and volunteers as part of our Equality and Diversity Week this week.

We wanted to create an eLearning module that meant learning BSL was a fun and enjoyable experience that inspired people to have conversations with deaf colleagues (not locked away in their own room) and to give people the encouragement to learn more.

To support this, we are setting up BSL cafes across Sense to provide an informal environment for people to come together and practice as a team, at a pace that suits the group as a whole. In this way, we hope to make staff more confident – and we will also improve inclusion in the workplace if we can encourage hearing and deaf colleagues to communicate with each other.

What have I learnt from my own experience? Sometimes we are paralysed into inaction through our own self-invented fears about inclusive communication. I practiced at home at work behind closed doors as I felt “I wouldn’t know where to start”; “I feel embarrassed”; “I’ll be criticised if I get it wrong”.  A good first step, for example, is always to make an attempt to communicate with another person, however complex you imagine that to be. “Keep on trying” is a key principle of inclusive communication.

Who knows, if I had never decided to look at YouTube videos and failed, maybe I would never have tried to introduce a BSL eLearning module alongside my fantastic colleagues at work. I have never been so proud about not knowing the signs for different countries in the world!

Sense is committed to providing equality of opportunity for people with complex communication needs. We welcome a diverse workforce and value differences in our staff and volunteers. Find out more about Equality and Diversity at Sense.

Author: Richard Kramer

Richard Kramer is the Chief Executive Officer of Sense.

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