TECHNOLOGY has been transforming Tim Scannell’s life since he got his first pager a teenager.
Profoundly deaf from birth, he was unable to talk by phone. So the ability to send instant messages meant his family could finally contact him directly at college.
More than two decades on, he’s a trainer and consultant in the various communication aids available to the estimated 900,000 people in the UK with severe or profound hearing loss.
“In 2002, I did an IT course and my world really opened up to tech,” says Scannell. “I became a trainer in assistive tech like speech-to-text software and video relay services which provide remote sign language interpreters.”
Nowadays, he runs a website explaining how deaf people can benefit from technology such as assistive listening devices and internet captioning systems. He also advises companies and public bodies on deaf awareness. He’s come a long way since struggling at school.
Some 87,000 people are said to use British Sign Language (BSL) as a first language by the British Deaf Association. But Scannell, 39, says most people don’t realise the difficulties many deaf people have reading or writing.
“English is a second language to many deaf people,” he says. “At the age of 16, the vocabulary of a deaf child is probably equivalent to that of a hearing nine-year-old.”
It was against that backdrop that Scannell lagged behind in class: “You spend so much time concentrating on trying to understand what’s being said rather than learning the subject.”
This, he points out, is no reflection of a child’s intelligence or capabilities. And it was only on arrival at a specialist college for deaf children, where he learned to sign, that he flourished and was able to go on to study computer science at university.
That opened career opportunities but potential employers would often fill vacancies before he could line up an interpreter lined up for an interview.
“Sometimes I was unsure whether to say I’m deaf. Companies say they want you to tell them but, when you do, they go into automatic panic mode,” he says.
“I did lots of different jobs, from care work to being an information officer within a deaf organisation. But then I moved into IT, working with assistive tech hardware and software for a mainstream company. Four years of that helped me develop the skills I needed for consultancy.”
Life as a freelance suits him. He’s in control instead of hoping others are willing to offer the support he needs. And his work on the CommAccess.Net blog has led to him being appointed a social media ambassador by the team behind the Signly app.
Signly provides a BSL video overlay whenever a user points their mobile phone over an enabled piece of text or barcode. It has been used by companies such as Network Rail, which translated safety information about level crossings, and the Roald Dahl Museum, in Buckinghamshire, which used it to explain exhibits.
“It’s the perfect way to allow a deaf person to have complete and full access to information in a quick and easy way,” says Scannell. “There are real gaps in things like medical information and education. Using Signly means deaf children who aren’t able to access either spoken or written English have a way of accessing literature.”
As a married man with three children and a stepson, life away from work can be tricky. Quickfire chat around the dinner table can make it impossible to lipread at family gatherings, while he often misses crucial information. Only when his wife became pregnant with twins did he find out this tendency ran in the family.
Household bills are solely in his wife’s name, as few firms communicate other than by phone. Cancelling a mobile phone contract by mail took him three weeks.
Such challenges are a daily part of life for deaf people, according to Dionne Thomas, from the Preston-based Deaf Business Academy CIC. Many BSL users rely on friends and family for help with written English when dealing with processes such as registering for tax.
The academy has developed an online BSL business training course to help deaf people starting out in business get around everyday difficulties.
“Everyone makes sure there’s an accessible toilet with a ramp for people who use wheelchairs but there are no laws to say people should provide interpreters,” says Thomas. “Very few organisations will pay for interpreters.
“Underlying attitudes are a barrier too, and not necessarily that people are acting in a negative way.
“Often people are genuinely fearful of learning to communicate in a different way. A deaf person has to be quite dynamic to get over these issues.”
Improving the situation need not be rocket science, particularly when tech can help, she says.
“Often to get into an office building, you press a buzzer and have to speak to someone before they can let you in. It can be as simple as the reception staff having a bit of awareness to send a text to a deaf visitor to say the door is open.”
But progress is slow, she says, adding: “There’s a growing awareness of the need for sign language interpreters in the public sector but it hasn’t yet spilled over into the private sector.”