Highways Heroes: Learning the language of inclusion

Dominic Browne

Traffic officer Stewart Fox (pictured) has been nominated by Highways England as a Highways Hero after showing leadership in learning and promoting the use of British Sign Language (BSL) to support deaf customers on the network.

Mr Fox has worked as a traffic officer for four years and took an interest in BSL when he struggled to communicate with a deaf person after attending an incident and had to resort to using a pen and paper.

After that, he not only resolved to learn the necessary sign language to support his day job but also sparked interest across Highways England in BSL by creating a helpful video of sign language basics.

He is now working on a BSL translation of Highways England's breakdown advice.

According to the British Deaf Association, BSL is the preferred language of over 87,000 deaf people in the UK while a total of 151,000 individuals can use BSL - this figure does not include professional BSL users, interpreters, translators unless they use BSL at home.

Q and A with a Highways Hero

Mr Fox spoke to Dominic Browne about learning BSL, being an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) champion at Highways England, and making a difference just by being nice.

What advice would you give to others who want to learn BSL or find out more about it?

Firstly, I would advise anyone that wants to learn BSL to give it a go, there’s nothing to lose. Whether that’s just learning basic numbers, the alphabet and greetings on free internet search videos or by doing an affiliated course on the internet at a small cost.

Due to COVID most of these courses are run via a Zoom or Teams based programme so the qualification can be gained without leaving your living room. A lot of us have a little extra spare time on our hands so why not put it to good use and learn a skill that won't only help yourself but help others at the same time.

Did you learn BSL as a group with other colleagues and did this help?

After struggling to communicate with a deaf lady on an incident one day I felt embarrassed I couldn’t give this customer the same level of service I could give to a hearing person. I thought this was unacceptable and when I had a little downtime I started by learning the alphabet and numbers with my colleagues at work via YouTube.

Between us, we had a little fun as this was a practical experience so we corrected each other when wrong and progressed quickly through a few videos. At home I got my kids involved in the learning process - basic words such as ‘hungry’ and ‘juice’ were soon being asked for in the family household in sign language!

Can you tell us what it means to be an EDI champion at Highways England and what impact this programme is having on how you do business, train and hire staff?

Within Highways England, safety plus EDI are probably the two main areas we pride ourselves in being very good at. Luckily for me as an On-Road EDI Champion, I can help combine the two topics and help push them forward together to continue to improve my colleagues' and my knowledge.

One topic currently being looked at is adapted vehicles on our road network. By helping to roll-out training on these adapted vehicles it firstly improves the customer's safety at the roadside but increases the speed that we as an organisation can deal with an incident thus improving safety and raising disability awareness at the same time.

As a traffic officer (and former prison officer) communication under pressure must be a vital skill. What are the most essential things to keep in mind when in a difficult situation on the road?

Communication is key to my job. When I first started I was told the acronym ABCD. On a big incident, the whole thing moves a lot smoother and support resources can be called faster if this acronym is adhered to at all times. This acronym stands for Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity and Discipline. For me, discipline is the first to be forgotten on larger scale incidents but keeping calm and maintaining the communication discipline with every incident helps control the scene and in turn keeps the customer calm.

You must be proud to have sparked interest in Highways England for learning materials on BSL and greater communication with deaf customers.

Where do you hope to take your BSL training this next?

I continue to learn BSL as and when I can. Being involved in an accident or breakdown on the motorway is frightening enough but then not being able to communicate with anyone must be terrifying. I want to reduce this communication barrier as much as I can so I’ve done a short BSL video for Highways England Traffic Officers to watch and pick up a few very simple words or phrases.

This short video has had a lot of interest and requests have been made for further videos to help improve the vocabulary of our Traffic Officers, including words such as ‘recovery’, ‘time’ and simple safety advice which I hope to put out monthly.

Have you encountered any myths or misconceptions about the deaf community or in general about EDI that you can let us know about?

The subject of EDI has a misconception that it can be a boring topic and it's not needed. This cannot be further from the truth. Since becoming an EDI Champion I have seen such a variety in topics from language, to disability and pride events each offering a different perspective to the last but also very different training techniques.

The personal growth in all areas of EDI helps you become a more understanding person and assists you in challenging appropriately. Stay Safe and remember: ‘It’s nice to be nice’.

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