Logo: Hello Digital. Typeface retro with 'Hello' in block capitals, grey text. Speech bubble points out of the letter 'O' again block capitals with white text on a blue background.

On Wed 21st September I attended the Hello Digital Conference part of Digital Birmingham’s Digital Festival along with loads of others. It was packed. Judging by the twitter feeds for #HD09 everyone had a fantastic time

I didn’t. Despite being told there would be British Sign Language Interpreters British Sign Language Interpreters (SLIs) booked – they weren’t. The event started at 8am. They called Birmingham Institute for the Deaf at 10am and the SLI (Sign Language Interpreter) finally arrived at 1.30pm – 5 and half hours after it started.

I question my place in Digital Britain.

What will it take take for Deaf and Disabled people to be a real part of so called Digital Britain?

Why do we have to fight for our access needs so much? Where are there no live subtitles streaming online at conferences? Where’s the audio description? Why arn’t websites compatible with screen readers? Why can’t conferences get the access right? It’s been 13 years since the Disability Discrimination Act came into force.

Every time you plan to go to an event you’d expect to literally do two things – you fill in the form (usually online), have your attendance confirmed and you simply turn up on the day.

Every time I (and any other Deaf or Disabled person) want to go to an event we literally have to organise our involvement in it.

I have to seek out the contact email for the organisers (sometimes even that takes some doing), send email(s) requesting whether they will provide British Sign Language Interpreters or not. I always include a list of interpreting agencies (cuts down 3 email conversations). A couple of weeks usually goes by before they get back to me to confirm – in meantime the event places are filling fast and I’m still not registered.

The morning of Hello Digital – what do other delegates do? I assume arrived, grab the name tag and programme, follow the smell of coffee and get on with networking before it all begins.

I turn up early I have to meet the SLIs so they sign BSL and not SSE (Sign Supported English – not a proper language unlike BSL), check out where they will stand in the room so I don’t end up at the other side of the room crinking my neck and squinting my eyes.

I’ve learned conference organisers don’t want the interpreter on stage next to the speakers (‘Other side of the stage please’) so I usually have to battle to get that right (SLI table tennis anyone? SLI signing on the far right – speaker talking on far left. Right. Left. Right. Left ….).

In the case of 4IP Recasting the Net they wouldn’t let the SLI’s on stage despite their insistence it was the best position and made the SLI’s sit in semi-darkness (you need good lighting on the SLI’s to see them properly) whilst the stage was lit up. 4iP were filming the event to steam online and didn’t want the interpreters in the way of filming. To make matters worse no uploaded videos have been subtitled and my request for that remains ignored.

I emailed Hello Digital on 24th August, received confirmation same day stating that they would arrange BSL support. I arrived at 9.20am on the day and the organisers tell me they are ‘sorting it’. Finally one arrived – some 5 hours after the event started.

I’m profoundly Deaf with severe hearing loss regarding high frequencies e.g. speech. I might talk ‘well’ but I am Deaf. Without SLI support I’m stuffed. I don’t use induction loops cos all I hear is muffled speech, they pick up ever scratch, sneeze and cough – for me they are a pain. Have you tried lip-reading from 20+ feet? Sustain that for 8 hours solid? Exactly – no. That was out of the question too.


twitter logobecomes my Digital Access. Whilst everyone else focused on providing commentary and their thoughts to the event unfolding I’m using twitter to follow the speeches. It became a lifeline. I might as well have stayed at home.

Helga Henry from Fierce Earth opened proceedings as the Hello Digital Conference Chair at 9.30am  – by all accounts her intro was very amusing.  I wouldn’t know. I couldn’t hear any of it. I watch people laughing. I don’t laugh. I tweet @hellodigital:

‘Where are the British sign language interpreters? It’s started!’

Next up Councillor Tisley – so … mm what did he say? I’ve no idea. I try again:

Cllr tisley up STILL no sign of the sign language interpreters in the rm thank god Twitter is now my digital deaf access!

@paulbradshaw kick-starts #battleships I focus on spotting friendly faces in the audience and follow the twitter stream. I give my position and add:

‘Now where’s BSL interpreters I can’t follow zilch’

Great! Sion Simon’s up. Now I was really looking forward to his speech. Can’t follow a bloody thing. I’m picking up the odd comment via twitter – rock and roll and cars stand out mmm what else did he say? I’m getting very, very upset.

It’s gone 10am Sion is in full flow – a sinking feeling, anger and confusion is going round my head. I try again:

Please RT @hellodigital WHERE ARE THE BSL INTERPRETERS

have they not been booked? #HD09

I spot the induction loop sign, turn my hearing aids to the T switch and guess what … IT’S NOT SWITCHED ON! That gets me tweeting again.

@hellodigital is also tweeting but not responding. I request people to RT (re-tweet) as the #hd09 feed isn’t picking up my tweets.

So big thanks to @LSpurdle @willperrin @citilab @rayduff @talkaboutlocal @dominiccampbell @cyberdoyle @littlelaura (who put up a picture of one of my tweets) @katiekatetweets @benjibrum @gabrilleNYC @wrinklydragon @CandocoDance @chrissyhammond @wesharestuff @greenwichlive @paulocanning

From Birmingham, Barcelona to New York my plea went global. So did about 12,000 followers. When I realised this I felt less alone.

The Learning Disabled Hate Crime Conference #CSA09 was taking place in Birmingham same time as Hello Digital. It’s a major and very crucial event discussing attacks and assaults on people – because they are disabled. It is serious – attacking and killing a disabled person is not seen as a hate crime by most police forces. Check out the conference and their first video.

Twitter message from @wesharestuff it reads: @alisonvsmith your interpreter issue is creating discussion at our consultation.

I leave after Sion’s speech finishes to find out what is going on. I’m upset, I’m trying to be calm and polite. The response? ‘we are sorting it … we will have one for 1.30pm’. I say ‘It’s not good enough I’d have missed most of the conference by then’. ‘… arriving 1.30’. I know from body language and expression I’m being told off. I should be grateful. I’m also told  ‘sorry it was something we had on a list to do and didn’t’. I’m speechless.

I get escorted to the first workshop session by the conference organiser and directed to sit in the front row of the lecture space. The induction loop is now on. I stay a short while then leave. I can’t deal with it and feel I’m in the wrong session. I can’t handle the flash photography jarring my eyes and brain as I’m concentrating on lip-reading the panel members from 20 feet away. I give up.

I wonder into ‘News Innovation in a new media age’. I spot the masking tape going round the room – it’s the tape over the induction loop. I sit down by the wire. It works. I relax a bit and tweet:

Now in news innovation session #hd09 no BSL interpreters till 1.30pm Completely unacceptable! Scraping by odd word via induction loops.

A question gets asked I realise the induction loop’s not working with the mic on the stand in the audience. I pip up but it’s no use it’s not working right.

I’ve had enough by now and weighing up whether to run out, hid in the toilet and cry.

It’s now 12.30pm 3 hours since arrived. Nearly lunch time. An hour to go before the BSL interpreter arrives. Lunch is difficult …

1.20pm I go back to the Reception Desk again – the interpreter has arrived. Yippee – just in time for my Digital Surgery one to one session.

I’d like to say the rest of the day improved – it did … but marred by feeling of complete isolation. My digital surgery was brilliant – one to one with @paulhendeson and @paulbradshaw joined us. Lots of advice for Pesky People blog. Lots of food for thought. I even tweet that Andrew the SLI has arrived.

David Rowan’s keynote speech was great – visual and interactive and signed! The screens even cropped Andrew the SLI in a smaller box on the screen – fab. Unfazed David didn’t cut in front of him cutting off the sightline. At last I get something from it (besides the fab complementary yearly subscription of WIRED).

It ends as it started … flash photography and me leaping out the way.

I don’t go to the After Party … I am sure it was fun.