Innovation during Covid-19

Last week SignHealth launched a new service – – which will enable anyone to use a remote online British Sign Language interpreter to communicate with a Deaf person in any health setting, free of charge, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. CEO James Watson-O’Neill shares how the idea came about and the process of developing it.

Hand-written notes

I came up with the idea less than a week earlier when one of my colleagues shared pictures on Twitter of the ordeal her and her husband had when they needed to call an ambulance. They are both Deaf people who use British Sign Language to communicate and when the paramedics arrived, wearing PPE including face masks, they couldn’t lip-read so couldn’t communicate at all.  Later in hospital her husband had to communicate with doctors using hand-written notes – she shared pictures on Twitter. It was emotional. I cried.

As Deaf people we’re used to communication barriers, but the current Covid-19 situation has made it much much worse. On top of PPE, Deaf people can’t take friends or family with them to hospital for support or to act as interpreters so Deaf patients are totally on their own, often with little understanding of Covid-19, and their doctors and nurses can’t communicate with them.

What’s our job as the leading charity in this space?

But we are the Deaf health charity – we’re meant to come up with solutions and we’re meant to understand what our beneficiaries need best. I felt like we needed to do more than we already do (and we do a lot).

So I got some idea of cost from the remote interpreting company InterpreterNow who already deliver BSL access to NHS 111 (they’ve been swamped with calls over the last few months) and then I spoke to my chair, Jackie Driver.

I explained the situation, proposed that we set up a new service and that we ask the NHS to fund it. Then I really stuck my neck out and suggested that we don’t wait for that funding to be approved (as that could surely take weeks or months to agree). I suggested to my chair that SignHealth should underwrite the cost of the service from our reserves until the NHS can work through their processes to approve funding themselves. She said yes.

And so did all of my nine other trustees when I contacted them over Easter weekend.

I wanted to ensure the board fully understood what we were proposing, so I worked with my team to write a board paper clearly explaining that the proposal we had made meant the organisation may not get the reserves back from the NHS. There is no guarantee they will fund the service at all. But they said yes. And they all approved the paper before the end of Easter Monday.

So, three days later we’ve launched a new service, with a name, a visual identity, a website, FAQs in English and BSL, a press release and communications plan and BSL interpreters waiting to support communication with Deaf people right across the country. On the first morning we opened the service a 76 year old man downloaded the app, registered, and made a call to his GP in sign language.

Achieving our purpose through innovation

I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved in such a short space of time. Having a chair and board that are willing to believe in me and my colleagues was a huge part of that. We aimed high and we’ve got there, in record time. And of course, if the NHS agrees to fund it and then continue to fund it even after Covid-19 is over then we’ll be able to retain a new service that we designed and implemented in a time of crisis, keeping innovations beyond Covid that help us achieve our charitable purposes more widely.

So, I dare you to dream and then call your chair!

On Monday 23 March we hosted an online event to discuss what charities can do to ensure they have equity at the centre of their decision making and designing when responding to COVID-19. Watch the recording below or read the summary here

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