6 min read

Learning to design services for Deaf (and deaf) people

One of my favourite things as a designer is getting to learn about different groups of people. I’ve started to work on the Apply for communication support at interview (Access to Work) service. A large group of users of this service are deaf and Deaf people.

I’ve had the opportunity as part of the team to test the service with deaf and Deaf people, as well as hear stories from an interpreter and some volunteers. I’ve also investigated some literature around British Sign Language (BSL). This is my initial understanding of the community and how it relates to designers.


Deaf vs deaf: difference or disability?

While I’ve only seen the service tested with two users, they came from completely different perspectives.
One used the interpreter to support what the service team asked and answered confidently in English. They used a Sign Supported English (SSE) interpreter for interviews. This was because they needed to focus so sometimes skipped connecting words.
The other spoke to us through the interpreter using sign language. They were also foreign so they signed as their native language, then probably learned another language. English was probably their third language!

This sort of difference in communication is an important element of the Deaf community. British Sign Language: Teach Yourself elaborates on this further to explain the difference between deaf and Deaf people.

Differences, Redfern, 2010, p6

Deaf (capital ‘D’) deaf (lower case ‘d’)
Deaf from birth or early age Using lose hearing later in life
First or preferred language is BSL First language is spoken (usually English)
Sees ‘deafness’ as normal See ‘deafness’ as disability or loss of hearing
Enjoys meeting other Deaf people Want to maintain same circle of friends or family
Pointing at people is not rude Often think pointing at people is rude
Comfortable with being expressive Tend to be uncomfortable about using facial expressions
Often check if other person is Deaf and uses sign language Tend to hide their own hearing loss

The Deaf community in the UK today has BSL recognised as a minority language. This is recent. Past generations of deaf children were taught to lipread and read English (from various accounts, a failure).

The excellent book Far from the Tree has a chaper about the Deaf community in the USA. There are political discussions as to the ethics of Cochlear implants (that help deaf children hear the world but in a robotic way) and being Deaf in general.

I am very early in my understanding of this world. However, as a designer I have to be aware of these nuances to make sure what I design is appropriate and respectful.

“Sign language” is actually sign languages and accents

Just as an English speaker can’t understand Spanish or Japanese, so the Deaf community has different sign languages. While the topic is too big for me to cover here, BSL is similar to AusLang and NZSL, but very different from American Sign Lanugage (ASL) and other languages.
British Sign Language: A Beginner’s Guide shows the differences (while also being a glorious example of peak 80s fashion).

3 people signing father in British Sign Language, Hong Kong Sign Language and South African Sign Language; 3 people signing Try in British Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language, and American Sign Language
Different examples of ‘father’ and ‘try’ in various sign languages; Miles, 1988, p14

And like British English, BSL varies widely between parts of the UK. Our translator found that Liverpool and North East BSL were very different from the Manchester area. The book also has an example of this.

Version of 6 in northeast England (right hand upward facing fist with little finger up) and Manchester (right hand pointing index over fist of left hand)
Regional differences for signing the number six

Also, if someone is signing and voicing words at the same time, it’s not BSL, but Sign Supported English or Sign Exact English. There are also other communication modes for deaf-blind people that I haven’t investigated yet.

Like any foreign language, British Sign Language has its own grammar

Anyone who has learnt a foreign language understands that it’s not possible to directly translate. BSL is no exception.

The Teach Yourself book shows some of the main differences:

British Sign Language (BSL) English
Simultaneous Sequential
Facial expressions Voice tones
Signing space No signing space
Expressions in signs Expressions in voice

The simultaneous nature of it means that pictures of signs never quite get things across.

BSL also differs in structure from English. English is normally subject-verb-object. In BSL it’s topic-comment. The easiest way to see how this works is by translating a sentence to BSL.

Translations (Redfern, 2008, p13 and 46)

English BSL
What’s the time? time what?
What’s the weather like? weather like what?
Why are you learning BSL? you learn BSL why?
What’s your name? you name what?
Where do you live? you live where?
How did you get here? you arrive how?
Have you been shopping? shopping, been?
Yes, I’ve been shopping shopping (with head nodding) been
I bought some food buy food been

According to what I’ve read, a good BSL interpreter can keep up with someone speaking in English. How? While requiring signing space, BSL saves time by:

  • being simultaneous (for example, shaking head while signing to negate it)
  • not having prepositions (for example, ‘of’, ‘for’ or ‘on’)

The lack of prepositions in BSL provides a challenge for non-fluent English speakers. The volunteers we spoke to said that prepositions were often an area where they would help Deaf people in written applications.

Finally, like any foreign language, some words translate better than others. We tried testing a sentence using the phrase ‘paid role’. It didn’t work. When we spoke to the interpreter about it she said that the word ‘role’ doesn’t exist in BSL! We changed it to ‘job’ and it worked far better.

Two examples: first is "is the job interview for a paid role? Yes/no" and the second "Is the interview for a paid job? Yes/no"
Before and after, considering BSL translation

What I’m doing next

For me the biggest area of interest is investigating how to support both deaf people and Deaf people. When do we need to allow for translation, and when do we need to allow for extra support?

For example, DWP makes videos in BSL and has options such as Next Generation Text and a British Sign Language video relay service.

Can similar services allowing for multiple languages be applied to British Sign Language?

When I was working on another service designed for mainly international users, I looked at relevant services. I liked the standard visa process that still needed answers in English but allowed for other languages.

Example of allowing for different languages as part of a visa application process

Are there ways to do this with BSL or relay groups in-service depending on user preference?

Can other alternative formats also help?

EasyRead is a known format for government. It’s used for people with learning disabilities. I also know that similar formats are used for visa services (I know this from personal experience). However, the visual format may be useful for BSL readers.

What are the Deaf community using now?

Textphones are a known option for the Deaf community, but even now cost around £300. In a world of smartphones and laptops, I’m not sure how common these are now.

How do we give the right message to the right groups of communities?

We were testing a screen with users on communication preferences. Users were writing ‘text only’ on their mobile phones. However, a Deaf participant explained that in job CVs people ignored the ‘text only’ comment and would call. While a person is not required to declare a disability, having their communication preferences aren’t helpful.


  • Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. The chapter on d/Deaf community is a good primer into the politics of disability vs difference.
  • British Sign Language: Teach Yourself by Paul Redfern. A nice balance of conciseness but effectiveness for understanding the language.
  • British Sign Language : A Beginner’s Guide by Dorothy Mile. Based on a 10 part BBC series on BSL that ran in 1988, this gives a lot of context about the history of the language in the UK. It’s also a time capsule into the late 80s, from the fashions of the signers, to a foreward from HRH the Princess of Wales!
  • British Sign Language for Dummies by City Lit. Bigger than Teach Yourself but with more information.
  • Understanding disabilities and impairments: user profiles by Government Digital Service. Saleem: profoundly deaf user and Ron: older user with multiple conditions are good examples of Deaf vs deaf.
  • See Hear, BBC. Current events for the Deaf community.