You don’t need to be a master in British Sign Language (BSL) in order to communicate with a deaf young person. All you have to do is make small, simple adjustments such as speaking at a steady pace and facing the young person while talking to them. Many deaf people are able to lip-read and, supported by simple gestures to emphasise what you are saying, you will be able to work together and communicate effectively.
If you are unsure how to communicate, always ask the young person or family member as they are in the best place to know what works for them.
Listed below are some of the common methods of communication chosen by deaf people and some use a combination of these.
Using technology such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, deaf children and young people can develop listening and spoken language skills.
This is the ability to read lip patterns. Deaf children naturally pick up lip-reading but many speech sounds look the same (for example pat and bat) so it is difficult to rely on lip-reading on its own and it's usually used alongside other communication methods.
British Sign Language (BSL)
Over 87,000 people in the British Deaf Community use BSL. It is a visual language using handshapes, facial expressions, gestures and body language. BSL is independent and a complete language with unique vocabulary. The structure and grammar is different from written and spoken English, evolving over time and with regional dialects. On 18 March 2003, the Government officially recognised BSL as a minority language.
Find out more about BSL.
Sign Supported English (SSE)
SSE uses signs taken from BSL. It is used in English word order but you do not sign every word. This may help you become familiar with BSL as you use signs alongside your own language.
Signed English (SE)
SE is an exact representation of English where a sign is used for every spoken word, usually used in education to develop written and spoken English skills. If a child uses only BSL to communicate they may not fully understand SSE or SE, due to the structural and grammatical changes.
Each letter of the alphabet is represented using the fingers and palm of the hand. Fingerspelling is used for signing names or a word without signs. If you would like to learn more, you can download our free fingerspelling postcard and poster.
Makaton is a sign system for children and adults (deaf and hearing), with communication and/or learning difficulties (for example, children with Down’s syndrome). It uses speech with signs (taken from BSL) and symbols and is grammar free.
For more information about communicating with deaf children, please look at our dedicated communication section.
Communicating by telephone
Some deaf people can use the telephone, but this is not to case for everyone. Even if you can talk face-to face, the phone takes away the ability to lipread.
Consider alternatives such as text messaging, whatsapp or email. You can also use ‘Next Generation’, a telephone relay service that involves communicating via an operator. More information can be found about this service in our technology section.
Working with communicators
A deaf child attending your activity who uses BSL may need a volunteer communicator, communication support worker (CSW) or BSL interpreter.
- Volunteer communicators can be recruited to sign for a deaf child who uses BSL, SSE or SE. Volunteer communicators should have achieved Level 2 or above in British Sign Language. Please get in touch if you need any guidance on using volunteers for communication.
- CSWs are usually based in educational settings. CSWs are working towards, or hold a specific qualification to work in, this role.
- BSL interpreters are professionally qualified to translate between English and BSL. Interpreters are registered with the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI) and booked for professional meetings, interviews, training and conferences.
The cost of an interpreter varies depending on the interpreter, agency and where you live. A minimum number of hours and travel expenses will need to be covered. Costs vary from £30-65 per hour.
Check the best method of communication with parents or the child before they attend your activity.
Tips for working with communicators
- Let the communicator know in advance what you plan to do during a session so they can prepare and ask questions on topics they don’t understand.
- Stand so the child can see both you and the communicator. The best view is standing side by side.
- Talk to the group or child directly. Even if everybody is looking at the communicator, your role is to lead the children and young people.
- Take your time talking. It is hard work translating into BSL!
- Make sure there are breaks in your activity. It is very tiring watching a communicator for a long time.
- When you ask a question, wait for the communicator to finish so everyone has a chance to respond.
- Allow time for children to look at the communicator and then the board or flip chart before talking again.
- Use gestures and signs you know, even if a communicator is present. This helps you build a relationship with the deaf child in your group.
Find out more about BSL courses.