Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Sense

Sense welcomes the opportunity to respond to this call for evidence. Access to appropriate interpreting and translation services are of the utmost importance for deafblind people. Our response sets out why this is so, what is needed for a quality interpreting service for deafblind people and explains how restricting interpreting services to a sole provider can have a negative impact on deafblind people.

Key Points

Enabling effective communication between a deafblind person and others should be the priority.

Providers must be flexible in meeting the needs of deafblind people and not bound by inflexible policies, or to sole providers, where these will not give the best outcome for the deafblind person.

Having an interpreter with the right skills and experience is essential.

Qualifications and registration help to safeguard standards but are only relevant to some forms of communication support.

About Sense

Sense is a national charity that supports and campaigns for children and adults who are deafblind. We provide tailored support, advice and information as well as specialist services to all deafblind people, their families, carers and the professionals who work with them. In addition, we support people who have a single sensory impairment with additional needs.

About Deafblindness

Deafblindness is a combination of both sight and hearing difficulties. Most of what we learn about the world comes through our ears and eyes, so deafblind people face major problems with communication, accessing information and mobility.

Deafblind people and Communication

The communication needs of deafblind people are complex and individualised. Deafblind people communicate in many different ways including BSL, visual frame signing, hands-on signing, deafblind manual, block, clear speech, gestures and objects of reference.

See Appendix I for an explanation of each of these methods. Some of these methods of communication are slow compared to speech or BSL and additional time may need to be allowed.

The type of communication support needed depends upon many factors, including the communication method(s) the deafblind person uses, how proficient they are with them, how much vision and hearing they have and if they have additional impairments. There is no single solution that will work for all deafblind people. A flexible approach to meeting deafblind people’s needs is essential.

Deafblind people must get the support that best meets their individual needs, in order to maximise their ability to express themselves and to understand what is said to them and what is happening. Deafblind people themselves are the best judge of what communication support they need. Before interpreter bookings are made, the deafblind person should be asked about his or her support needs.

The appropriateness, quality and professionalism of communication support provided in a justice setting is of the utmost importance. If communication support is inappropriate, of low quality or unprofessional, miscarriages of justice may occur. Sense recognises that using registered interpreters helps to safeguard professional standards. However, registered interpreters are not always the best people to meet the unique communication needs of all deafblind people and it will sometimes be necessary to use communication support providers who are unregistered and/or unqualified but who have the appropriate skills and experience.

It is essential that communication support is provided by people with skills and experience in the specific communication method(s) used by the deafblind person. See Appendix 2 for an explanation of the different types of support that deafblind people may need.

The register of sign language interpreters makes no distinction between interpreters who are experienced in using visual frame signing and/or hands-on signing and those who are not. There is a register of deafblind manual interpreters but there are very few deafblind manual interpreters on it and with current uncertainty about the future of deafblind manual interpreting qualifications, it is likely that, if the register is continued, the numbers on it will dwindle yet further. There is no register of Deaf relay interpreters, communicator-guides or intervenors. Therefore, communication support for deafblind people often needs to be provided by someone who is unregistered but has the appropriate skills and experience.

Sense is aware of many instances, in a range of settings, when interpreting agencies, including Applied Language Solutions, have booked the wrong kind of support for a deafblind person. This is a waste of resources and leads to frustration, appointments being cancelled and, potentially, to miscarriages of justice. The wrong type of communication support, for example, could be a BSL interpreter for someone who uses deafblind manual, a deafblind manual interpreter for someone who uses BSL, a BSL interpreter with no experience of working with deafblind people for someone who uses visual frame or hands-on signing, a BSL interpreter with no experience of working with people with learning disabilities for someone who has a learning disability as well as being deafblind and who communicates using a few basic signs. Care must be taken to understand the type of support a deafblind person needs and to arrange the right type of support. To make sure that this is achieved, deafblind people must be asked what support they need and courts must have the flexibility to book appropriate support from wherever it is available and should not be bound to a sole provider who may be unable to meet an individual’s unique needs.

The unique difficulties faced by deafblind people often result in them needing support in more situations, and for longer, than people with a single sensory impairment. For example, deafblind people may need communication support for even the simplest of interactions such as asking for a drink or the toilet, whereas a deaf person may be able to manage these situations by lipreading or asking people to write things down. Deafblind people may also need support with mobility to get to the court and find their way around it.

There is a national shortage of communication support for deafblind people. It may be necessary to have flexibility to book an interpreter from further away or to make the booking directly with the interpreter rather than through an agency. Anything that restricts how interpreters are booked, including being bound to a sole provider, will exacerbate the shortage.

August 2012



Block is a method of tactile communication where the shapes of capital print letters are drawn with a finger onto the deafblind person’s palm.

Deafblind manual is a form of tactile fingerspelling. Each letter of the alphabet has a sign that is made against the deafblind person’s hand. Words are spelt out, letter by letter.

Hands-on signing is an adaptation of BSL where the deafblind person uses their hands to feel the signs.

Visual frame signing is an adaptation of BSL where the signs are kept within the deafblind person’s field of vision.



Communicator-guides are people who are trained to provide support to people with acquired deafblindness in day to day situations. The methods of communication they can use will be different, depending upon their training and experience. They are not trained to interpret. However, some deafblind people may prefer to use a communicator-guide rather than an interpreter. This may, for example, be if the deafblind person’s communication skills are limited and the level of communication support provided by a communicator-guide matches their level of communication skills or if they need someone who can repeat spoken communication using clear speech.

Deafblind manual interpreters are trained to interpret between spoken and written English into deafblind manual. They do not necessarily provide verbatim interpreting; they may paraphrase so as to speed up communication. They are also trained to provide additional information to the deafblind person, such as what is happening around them and what other people are doing.

Deaf relays are deaf BSL users, with specialist skills in visual frame or hands-on signing, who watch a BSL interpreter and copy their signs into visual frame or hands-on signing. When a deaf relay is used, it is vital that a BSL interpreter is provided for them to watch. Some deafblind people who use visual frame or hands-on signing find it easier to follow a Deaf relay interpreter than they do to follow a BSL interpreter. This is especially the case if the interpreter lacks experience of using visual frame or hands-on signing but may also be the case even if the interpreter has experience of hands-on or visual frame signing.

Intervenors are people who are trained to provide support to people with congenital deafblindness. They use very individual ways of communicating, which may combine speech, signs, gestures, facial expressions and objects. This individuality usually means that the deafblind person and intervenor must be familiar with working together.

Prepared 5th February 2013