Stations can be busy, disorientating places. Knowing where to go to ask about service disruption or to get some information about your ticket can be confusing. So just imagine how much more difficult it would be if you couldn’t hear the loudspeaker announcements and there was no one around who could even communicate with you.
‘There’s nothing worse than having to write things down for people,’ says Marie Tacey, who travels around the country teaching British Sign Language (BSL) to rail industry staff.
Marie, who herself is deaf, has had a mixed experience travelling round the network and knows the frustrations that deaf passengers regularly encounter, from ineffective hearing loop systems to the difficulty of lip reading through ticket office windows.
She’s not the only one. A survey of deaf passengers by Action Hearing Loss raised similar concerns and found that a third admitted to feeling vulnerable whilst travelling by train.
Rules and standards have been put in place to improve the train environment for deaf and disabled passengers. The Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (RVAR) require that all new and significantly overhauled rail vehicles meet certain criteria surrounding the availability of visual and audible announcements by 2020. Older stock will also have to meet a certain standard, albeit a less stringent version. But there are no regulations governing the level of staff training .
Action Hearing Loss has recommended that all operators have trained deaf-aware staff, but they are not legally obliged to carry out the training.
Although there is a great effort to improve accessibility at stations for disabled passengers, support for deaf passengers still appears to be limited. Other guidelines suggest that if you have 15 members of staff or more, there should be somebody who is able to communicate with a deaf person. But it doesn’t specify BSL.
Marie, through ASLEF’s education programme, is trying to improve the travelling experience for deaf passengers, training rail industry employees around the country in BSL and deaf awareness.
Starting in the East Midlands seven years ago, Marie now goes up and down the country delivering flexible classes designed to fit around shift patterns. Each unit takes around 30 hours of study and can be pursued up to a Level 6 NVQ Certificate.
The courses are open to anyone. Many of Marie’s students are frontline staff who hope to use BSL in their everyday working lives, but she also teaches train drivers and other behind-the-scenes staff who often have a personal reason for wanting to complete the course.
A husband and wife train driver team wanted to learn BSL so they could communicate with their daughter.
‘They don’t have to do it, they’re there because they want to, for whatever reason whether it’s personal, social or to better their skills, or part of their job,’ says Marie.
Teaching into practice
Since launching the programme, Marie has had feedback from learners who have put her teaching into practice, including an incident where police called on one of Marie’s students, while they were on shift, to sign to a runaway.
Marie added, ‘The majority of students I teach have all come back and said that it’s boosted their confidence because they understood somebody.’
Unlike English and maths, funding for BSL is extremely limited and most employees have to fund the course themselves and attend lessons in their own time. Chris Nutty, the project worker at ASLEF who introduced the BSL programme, says he would like to see these sorts of initiatives incorporated into every franchise agreement.
He said, ‘If this sort of awareness was in a franchise agreement they would have to comply to it. It would be monitored, but they don’t, it’s not there.’
1.66 billion passenger journeys were made on the UK rail network in 2014. There are more than 10 million people in the country who suffer from some form of hearing loss – this number is expected to continue to rise given the ageing population. Only a fraction of those use the railway on a regular basis. It should be more. They may represent a minority of passengers, but it matters as the industry strives to improve the experience for all passengers.