Sign Assist: breaking down barriers for the Deaf community

Sign Assist: breaking down barriers for the Deaf community

6th May 2021

By Philippa Jolliffe

Sign Assist is Connect Assist’s pioneering new service: a helpline for Deaf and hearing impaired people, staffed by Deaf and hearing impaired advisors using British Sign Language (BSL). 

Chris Coles (Team Leader) and Ben Lee (Contract Manager) tell us about how Sign Assist aims to bridge the gap between hearing and Deaf people, and make services more accessible…

Chris, can you tell us a little about growing up Deaf?

I was born Deaf but my family didn’t find out until I was two. I remember being put in a booth in the hospital Audiology department and feeling like a monkey in a cage! They played sounds to me, but I didn’t respond at all.

My mum was heartbroken – but my grandmother already had a daughter in a wheelchair, so she wasn’t fazed by disability. She got me the best speech therapist. I was privileged: my family didn’t wrap me in cotton wool, and said I could do anything.

I went to school and learned sign language from the age of six. Can you imagine lip-reading a teacher all day and learning sign language at the same time? It was soul draining.

What effect did your Deafness have on your working life?

I always wanted to be a fashion designer, but my careers advisor and teachers all agreed I should go to college and train to be a chef. They said: fashion is for hearing people; how can a Deaf person do it?

So, I did four years of chef training, then got a job in a Marks & Spencer food hall. A job came up in visual merchandising – designing the window displays. The store manager gave me a week’s trial, then said: you’ve got something in you that wants to glow! 

Since then, I’ve worked for big high-street brands doing visual merchandising. But it’s hard to progress: some people still think that Deaf people can’t do certain things.

How did you come to work on Sign Assist?

A friend told me about this Team Leader job. I was ready to leave retail, and felt I had useful experience of working with hearing colleagues and customers.

At the interview, said something pretty bold: “You need me more than I need you.” An hour later, I was offered the job!

What excites you most about the launch of Sign Assist?

I feel passionate about Sign Assist. My top priority is that my advisors deliver the best customer service.

Our customers have probably had bad experiences of poor service – I have myself. I want them to feel: finally, there’s someone out there who’s listening to us. I want to deliver straight away for them. 

I can bridge the gap between hearing people and the Deaf community. I wouldn’t say we see each other as enemies, more as a bit of a threat! But we’re not in medieval times – we’re in the 21st century, and people need to wake up. 

I believe that Sign Assist is going to reach out to all the people in the Deaf community across the UK and break down the barriers they experience to this day in the NHS, call centres, government – everywhere.

We Deaf people are often forgotten, and it shouldn’t be like that. 

Ben, how did you get involved with Sign Assist?

I’d only been a contract manager for three months when I began working on this project, and I thought it was a really exciting opportunity.

As a hearing person, how did you adapt to working with Deaf colleagues?

I didn’t want to change too much in the way of delivery – just provide coordination and support. I wanted us to work together without making it too challenging or complicated.

I learned basic sign language, although Chris and the advisors are bilingual, but was still very nervous on the first day. Chris and his team had a little joke at my expense, I’d shaved my moustache off thinking it would be better for lip reading, and in walks Chris- with a moustache! We laughed about it, and since then we’ve got on like a house on fire.

What’s your vision for Sign Assist?

In five years’ time, I’d love to see the Sign Assist team having grown in size. I’d also love to see our provision for the Deaf community included in our sales team’s pitch to all potential new clients. It really is a groundbreaking service!

To find out more about Sign Assist, click here.


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