The Hansard team recently took part in a British Sign Language awareness session. We had invited Ahmed Ali – BSL tutor and founder of Teach Me Sign – and his hearing interpreter Beth Ashfield to help us learn more about the deaf community in the UK and its needs from public service providers like us. Ahmed told us:
I’m profoundly deaf and have been since I was three years of age. I set up a company teaching British Sign Language because of a determination to break communication barriers between hearing and deaf people. For those like me who never learned to speak or read English in a traditional mainstream education setting, live interpretation in our first language – BSL – means we have access to information when we need it and how we need it. Without that, we are left out of important conversations, and there is a lack of equality. This needs to change.
Ahmed and Beth were pleased to see recent developments to make the work of UK Parliament more accessible to all-comers, but wanted us – as part of Deaf Awareness Week 2019 – to share our ambitions and plans more widely.
What we do
As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Hansard isn’t only about the written word. The Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit (PBU), where I work, is also part of the gang. We’re responsible for televising both Houses of Parliament. We also deliver and publish the online, on-demand video service, parliamentlive.tv, which covers all committee sittings and debates in the Commons and Lords Chambers.
And we want our output to be useful to all possible users and audiences, including the 11 million people – one in six of us – with hearing loss in the UK.
We’ve been working with specialists such as Love Language and the Ofcom accessibility and standards teams to understand our obligations in relation to our coverage and audience numbers. But beyond this, the team has a desire to do even more. Over the past 18 months, we have been trialling various techniques to open up the work of the Houses of Parliament to everyone who wants to learn about it.
We started to experiment in earnest in 2017 for a debate on hearing loss in Westminster Hall. We sorted out post-production facilities, and hired in extra equipment and professional signers to interpret the session into BSL for everyone in the Chamber. After a day in an edit suite, we uploaded an on-demand video version with subtitles – using the Hansard edited verbatim transcript – to the official UK Parliament YouTube channel, and a split-screen version to our own website with clean AV coverage of the debate on the left of the screen and the shot of the BSL translator on the right.
Our next step was to go live. In March 2018, working with our sound, vision and online video services contractor NEP Bow Tie TV, we had our first stab at delivering live simultaneous BSL translation to audiences on parliamentlive.tv. And we were overwhelmed by the positive response from the media, Members of Parliament, deaf and hearing loss organisations, and the deaf community in the UK.
Buoyed by the success of the coverage of that debate, we started to delve further. We researched the Action on Hearing Loss Subtitle It! campaign and learned that, in addition to the 24,000 people across the UK using BSL as their main language, there are also:
7.5 million subtitle users in the UK, but… 76% of on-demand services remain inaccessible to people with hearing loss due to a lack of subtitles.
So, when our boss, John Angeli, spotted that Luke Hall, the Member of Parliament for Thornbury and Yate, had secured a Westminster Hall debate on issues faced by deaf children and their families in his constituency, we cranked up our offer.
As well as providing a live signer in the Public Gallery and a live BSL feed, we contracted Red Bee Media to work with us on a test of live subtitles, given their specialism in subtitling using human re-speakers. The team provided us with two test subtitle files based on the debate: one created in real-time, and another lightly edited after production to remove significant errors and delivered an hour after the debate.
Encouraged by the results, we felt confident enough to publicly overlay live subtitles on to a livestream of a debate on deaf children’s services in September 2018, in addition to delivering a live BSL translation feed.
Making it more social
When the Education Select Committee contacted us in March to discuss plans to gather evidence from children with special educational needs and disabilities, it was clear UK Parliament needed to up its game again.
This time, as well as delivering a variety of AV output offerings to satisfy all audiences, we reached into social media platforms, so that the young people involved in the discussion could share information. There was a live clean-feed of the AV content; a second stream with BSL translation on the right-hand side of the screen; and a third feed with a BSL and subtitles mix. This blending of signed translation and subtitles together was another technical and production first for our team and our talented contractors.
Our PBU website team, working with UK Parliament’s Web and Publications Unit, also set up a livestream of the session to @CommonsEd audiences on Twitter using its Periscope app – another new challenge and service development.
And it worked. The Committee’s work interrogating Government reforms of the SEND system was amplified beyond the Palace of Westminster, getting picked up, liked, shared and talked about. The BBC’s “Yesterday in Parliament” edition the following morning focused on this session in its entirety – choosing, for once, to leave the ongoing debate on Brexit to one side. We had 8,360 views from 740 viewers across all three versions just on the day itself, with 1,476 viewers following the meeting live on Twitter, proving that the effort and planning were all worth it.
Rosie Eggleston, Senior Participation Officer at the National Deaf Children’s Society, told us:
It’s a really positive step forward. Like anyone else, deaf people have a democratic right to find out what happens in Westminster, and this extends far beyond just deaf issues. Once this technology becomes commonplace, deaf people of all ages will be able to follow the issues that interest them.
Our next move will be to better integrate all this into our video player, so that users can more easily find their way to the content and toggle – from the same landing page – between clean video, BSL translation and subtitles on occasions when we are able to offer alternative options.
Every Wednesday, the House of Commons Digital Outreach team sync recorded AV material with Hansard’s PMQs report to create a subtitled video, which they aim to upload to Parliament’s YouTube channel by mid-afternoon. This is a great service and is much appreciated by users. But it doesn’t wholly answer the immediate needs of people like Teach Me Sign’s Ahmed Ali, who want to know what happens in PMQs in real time.
So, we’d like to share with our blog readers a sneak peek of the test in-house BSL studio that our friends at NEP Bow Tie are busy creating and testing. On ‘box office’ Wednesdays – hopefully from July – we will be joined by BSL interpreters, who will be filmed translating Chamber output. This will be added to the AV content and put out on a separate channel on the website. It will also be made available to YouTube, and to all newspapers and broadcasters, such as BBC Parliament.
Although this post focuses on the work we’re doing to connect with deaf audiences and the number of people living with hearing loss, we aren’t ignoring the 2 million people in the UK with poor or no vision – we promise. We plan to improve the service for audiences who might just be listening to us, in audio.
To that end, we’ve just done some encouraging offline recreations of what audio descriptions might sound like, detailing who is speaking when and on what business. More work will be done on this, so watch this space for a fresh post on all things sound in the coming months.