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New emergency services app launches for users of British Sign Language

Local charity Merseyside Society Deaf People (MSDP) hosted a party in partnership with Deafness Resource Centre for the Merseyside Deaf Community on Friday 17th June to celebrate the launch of 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.

A Merseyside Police Officer, Jo Parr from MSDP and John Stewart from Sign Video pose for the launch of the 999 BSL app

The new service, which will be provided by interpreting and communication support provider Sign Language Interactions, officially launched as an app (iOS and Android) and web-based platform on 17th June. The service, funded by private telecoms companies, will be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and will be completely free of charge to Deaf users.

While a text relay service already exists, video relay will enable Deaf callers across the UK to make video calls to the emergency services in their own language – British Sign Language – for the first time ever, without needing to use English or ask a hearing person to make a call to 999 on their behalf.

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 Thursday 28th April 2022 after decades of campaigning by the Deaf community.

The 999 BSL launch party has been funded by a generous grant from Deaf health charity SignHealth.

Janice Connolly, Community Liaison Officer for MSDP said: “We are delighted to support the launch of the first Deaf accessible 999 service.  The Deaf Community has campaigned for years for equal access to vital services and to have access in our first language is amazing.”

“An emergency situation can be a matter of life or death, particularly for our Community who don’t routinely have access to mainstream services because of our communication needs. This service means independence and equality.  It means Deaf people do not have to rely on hearing neighbours or their hearing children to make a 999 call.”

Abigail Gorman, SignHealth said: “This is a breakthrough for Deaf people that will save lives and means one more step forward towards equality. We won’t be satisfied until Deaf people have full and equal access, particularly to life-saving health services.”

To find out more about the 999 BSL service, including a demonstration video, FAQs and guidance on how to download the app and use the web platform, visit: www.999bsl.co.uk