Language & Communication28th November 2014

Principality's BSL Week Raises Awareness

With staff learning BSL, the Principality wanted to go one step further to support deaf people in Wales

by Gareth Hughes

Earlier this year Principality Building Society teamed up with Deaf Friendly Business Solutions and I was lucky enough to attend a range of workshops to learn some basic sign language and financial terms that we can use in our roles at Principality.

It was a fantastic experience and I found it really worthwhile, so when Principality announced it was having its first ever BSL coffee morning at Principality’s Bridgend branch, as part of a range of events to celebrate BSL, I jumped at the chance to attend.

Our incredible deaf tutor Sarah Lawrence led the event along with James Harper, Principality’s Local Marketing Support Manager. Introducing the proceedings, James said: “Principality Building Society is proud to be at the heart of our communities throughout Wales and the borders and this year we have grown our community work even further. I’m delighted to report that an increase in deaf awareness and introductory BSL training has formed part of this community focus. It has been fantastic to see some of our retail staff learning new skills and the utilisation of branch sponsorships throughout our branch network to support community BSL learning in Ynyswen and at Ridgeway Golf Club in Caerphilly.”

This is something that definitely rings true with us in branches as being part of our local communities is something we are very proud of and something that we want to support.

As the coffee morning began branch managers Sue and Julie gave everyone a warm BSL welcome, they had done a sterling job setting up the branch for people to congregate and they quickly made everyone some tea and coffee using signed orders.

Then the branch’s first customer walked in and she was greeted by a barrage of eager faces all wanting to tell her about our coffee morning and offer a cake. Everyone’s faces dropped as she refused the cake but we were all delighted when the lady wanted to learn ‘good morning’ in BSL and make a donation to MS Society Cymru, Principality’s Charity of the Year, instead of having the cake – success.

If that wasn’t enough, after being dealt with at the counter the lady asked how to sign ‘thank you’ and ‘good-bye’ before she left. Sarah once again obliged and showed the lady who was delighted and responded saying “I can’t wait to show my children later”.

The time then started to fly by with more customers coming in showing an interest as they passed by on the way to the counter. Two local members of the deaf community then turned up after a gym session including a lady called Hazel – or after finger spelling her name ‘Matie’ as James called her - I think he needs a bit more practise!

As the conversation continued I have to admit that I did start to panic. I knew I needed to keep the conversation going but I wasn’t sure if my BSL skills would keep up. However, I managed to break through this anxiety and proceeded to introduce myself, and ask Hazel how she was, using BSL. I think she could tell I was pleased with my effort and proceeded to tell me and James about herself and her interests. I found that I was very good at understanding BSL and that the hard work Sarah has put in with us at the Principality was paying off.

Branch manager Sue was by far the leader of the gang when it came to signing, she chatted away to both Hazel and her friend Lynne, before a mother and daughter came in and told us a fantastic story about how their granddaughter/daughter works in a local supermarket and had been helping two customers with their shopping, one blind and the other deaf, and through this had picked up small bits of sign and was keen on learning more.

We were pleased to hear this story and told them where she could go to get more information, but it was the lady that came in next that really blew my mind.

The lady, who was now a grandmother, had been deaf since a little girl and learnt a small amount of BSL as a child, however, as her family did not agree with this, she stopped and has never used BSL since. This has left her feeling quite isolated throughout her life as she has not been able to talk to people, even fully communicate with members of her own family. But by simply popping in she made new friends and arranged to attend the local deaf club. It also transpired that her granddaughter was deaf so she was excited to take her along too as it was something they would be able to do together.

As the morning rolled along more and more people came through the door, many just chatting as they went about their business, others staying for a while.

I found the people that shared their stories with us both fascinating and inspiring. For me bringing people together, who at times feel very isolated, highlights the success of this event. Even if we only helped that one lady and her granddaughter through our work with BSL, I think it is incredible. The smile on the lady’s face as she left really made our day. I can’t wait for the next event!

The final activity in the week of events with BSL took place in our Queen Street branch in Cardiff. Sarah once again led a team of staff for two BSL taster sessions in the lobby area along with representatives from other organisations Principality has worked with this year, including Neath Port Talbot College, Cardiff City Football Club, Touch Trust, Cardiff Volleyball Club, and the YMCA Housing Association.

It looked a bit strange, a training event taking place in the noise and bustle of the main lobby area, but it worked, and it was good to see deaf customers stop and have a quick ‘hand-wag’ (chat) with Sarah as they came into the branch.

At the very start of the day, Principality CEO Graeme Yorston popped in to see the workshop and said: “I am delighted that we have been able to hold a BSL Week and that the team in Principality have continued the excellent working relationship through an event such as this. The benefits that we are seeing are fantastic, not just in those people affected but in our teams as they throw themselves into such a wonderful cause. It has been our enormous pleasure to contribute in this way and we are delighted that we have had the opportunity.”

In typical Sarah fashion, the taster sessions were fast, fun and friendly, encouraging people to have a giggle whilst learning to say hello, and having a quick chat about their day.

It was always going to be a success as everyone who attended wanted to be there, they were interested and wanted to learn, but I think people are always surprised at how energised Sarah makes them feel, how quickly they can learn some basics and within three hours, how they can have a short conversation with Sarah, without speaking a single word!

Sarah has really changed my thinking towards the deaf community, and I was pleased to see that the people who came to the two taster sessions also saw the huge benefit in coming along. The mark of any good training course is people wanting to learn more at the end of the course and that is exactly what happened at the end of these two taster sessions, with Sarah in high demand to tell people more. To mark the end of the Principality BSL Week, I don’t think we could have finished any better, with community partners all buying in to better deaf awareness and appreciating the offer from the Principality to get involved.

I’m extremely proud of all those that have been involved in the BSL activities and the way that organisations from around Wales have joined us to support this common goal. It’s been a fun, challenging and very worthwhile experience that we look to build on further in 2015.

Gareth Hughes, Penarth branch manager at Principality Building Society, talking about his work with British Sign Language (BSL) and the difference it is making in Welsh communities.

Article by Gareth Hughes

posted in Community / Language & Communication

28th November 2014