Hearing Aid UK speaks to Lesley Weatherson - founder and Director of Lipspeaker UK - about what started her company's journey, her dedication to evolving with the times and needs of the deaf community, her own inspirations and what COVID taught the business.
You launched Lipspeaker UK in 2010 and managed to grab the Signature Communication Professional of The Year Award back in 2013. With a company still in its infancy at that time – what do you think steered this success and recognition?
I had been working as a qualified lipspeaker since 2002 and could see from quite early in my career that lipspeaking as a professional was still unknown to many deaf people who didn’t use sign language. I worked hard attending Lipreading classes and representing Lipspeakers at professional events to showcase what we did. What we do!
I created videos and provided live demonstrations to show deaf people who lipread how a lipspeaker could support their preferred communication needs. I was soon getting booked up and travelling across the country to fill requests. Simultaneously Lipspeakers we’re travelling to the very places I was travelling from.; we were often passing each other to lipspeak in each other’s home town- It made no sense.
We needed a central booking hub to coordinate the Lipspeakers on the NRCPD register, across the UK. This would save travelling time and in return provide more working hours and huge cost savings to the public purse.; more deaf people would have access to lipspeakers.
I tested the concept with some supportive peers and we realised in a very short time that we could save money, increase Lipspeakers productivity and save costs. There wasn’t a specialist agency that could provide advice and understand the business enough to support lipreaders with their preferred method of communication. My idea was to book Lipspeakers and then swap them around when more local bookings came through in their locations. They did.
Certificate from the Signature Awards
Our small bespoke services matched the requirements of the service user with the skills of the lipspeaker. For example, someone with a medical background like myself; a former nurse and midwife, was best suited to medical bookings. Another lipspeaker who is a qualified social worker was best suited for child protection meetings or housing issues etc. Knowing the skill set of each and every lipspeaker meant I could make the perfect match.
I was nominated for the Signature language professional of the year award for establishing the hub- Lipspeaker UK and was recognised for providing such a professional and unique service that improved the lives of deaf people who lipread. We are still the only specialist lipspeaking agency in the UK. Deaf people who lipread know where to come to find a lipspeaker that will match their needs.
It’s also a family business as my daughter, son and sister-in-law are all qualified Lipspeakers. We have been collectively called the Weatherspeakers!
"During the pandemic we made information accessible for deaf people. I interpreted COVID and travel info, tested clear masks and made accessible videos for everyone to see how they worked and if they worked"
With your business now having a wide representation in not just the UK, but in the US, Switzerland, Poland, France, Sweden and Belgium. What was the driving force that gave you the dedication to launch Lipspeaker UK – supporting businesses, the government and outreaching to the hard of hearing community on a global scale?
I have to give credit and thanks where it’s due. My client and now friend was working with the British Government as a diplomat. I was cherry-picked to join a team of professional Lipspeakers to support her in her work and soon became the go-to person for any government work as I held certain clearances.
We had a fabulous team that rotated to ensure cover was provided 365 days a year. A formidable team. It’s the same friend who has continually supported me in my career and remains a truly valued client and confidant.
Having worked abroad for many years it became a natural step to offer lipspeaking services to anyone, home or abroad who spoke English. We’ve even worked down under! The time difference means a very late night or early morning and the accents can be tricky but as they don’t have Lipspeakers on their regulated registers we’ve become quite popular.
It’s surprising how, much like the UK, many deaf and hard of hearing people have not seen the work of a lipspeaker and don’t know that we are there providing a professional service.
You are the Director of the company and have shown dedication in piloting the path to success, what is your day-to-day role in your company? Do you think this role has changed you, as a person and not just professionally?
Make communication accessible is my passion. I’m a qualified lipspeaker, British Sign Language interpreter and DeafBlind communicator and guide. If a job can’t be filled then I fill it myself. I also teach colleagues on how to work within the midwifery setting, drawing on my previous knowledge and experiences, and more recently, within the police setting having been the successful agency selected to support Hampshire constabulary on a pilot scheme.
Lesley's team made a bear with a mask to stop deaf children from being upset when they saw adults wearing them
#ScrapTheFramework is a national campaign to stop using large procurement frameworks to provide specialist language professionals; It doesn’t work. Big spoken language agencies win huge multi-million dollar contracts but they often don’t know the first thing about access for deaf people. We do.
Hampshire constabulary wanted to be the first force to use a specialist deaf-led agency to support the deaf residents of Hampshire. So far we have fulfilled 100% of bookings in less than 2 hours reducing custody times by a huge percentage. This saves money from the public purse, police hours and time spent under lock and key for deaf people.
I support my team of 4 to make bookings, match skill sets with Lipspeakers and also work at improving access. I’m a full-time BSL interpreter and lipspeaker and championed online working when the pandemic hit the UK.
We upskilled our language professionals to use online platforms, researched and shared best practices for WIFI/Ethernet cables and cameras and provided free communication support for all GP/Hospital consultations. All decisions are made by the team who are all deaf. I’m always looking for new ways to improve access and we have recently launched LipsLive.
For those who aren’t aware of Lipspeaker UK – could you tell us about what support and services you can offer to the hard of hearing and businesses outreach to this community?
We won the small business of the year award in 2016 and this gave me the confidence to do better, and bigger. Lipspeaker UK became a limited company and we have continued to grow, continued and strived to do better and succeeded.
We provide anything that deaf people need to communicate. Predominantly Lipspeakers who support people who lipread but our success and reach have meant we have branched into offering BSL interpreters, STTR’s, notetakers, interpreters/guides and mobility trainers for DeafBlind people as well as our new LipsLive on-demand lipspeaking service powered by our partner Sign Video.
We provide advice, we signpost, we fulfill bookings for the police, MOD and government contracts with specialist cleared support professionals, supply UK-wide to universities and colleges and have a large portfolio of clients who need communication support at work. We also supply language professionals to the Ministry of Justice, Royal households and corporate events.
More recently we have started to translate from English to BSL using deaf translators and also expert lipreading for high-profile events such as royal weddings. There are few agencies that can fill requests on the same day. We can and we do with another 100% record. I was even invited to Buckingham Palace for tea as a thank you!
We offer a free drop-in service for deaf sign language users who have difficulty reading and understanding English as it’s not their first language- British Sign Language (BSL) is their first language so letters and forms can be tricky. I translate them into BSL and back to English.
What is your company’s ethos? Has the focus of Lipspeaker UK always been the same or has it evolved over the years? If so, how?
We pay our freelancers well and within 7 days. We accept their terms without question and negotiate fees fairly. We only add a small booking fee to each professional fee so we are affordable and flexible. If we can reassign the processional following a cancellation there is no charge to the client. This again helps to protect the public purse.
What’s been the proudest moment in your career journey and what has been the biggest challenge so far?
My proudest moment has to be this:
We also provide free literature such as fingerspelling bookmarks to hospitals and schools to allow patients, staff, pupils and teachers to learn the alphabet in BSL. We had some wonderful feedback from a teacher that a pupil with autism (non-verbal) had learned how to sign his name and for the first time was able to tell his school friend what his name was on the school bus.
She sent us a video of the young man saying hello and showing us so proudly that he could now say his name- in sign language.
The biggest challenges have to be the out-of-hours requests that need fulfilling urgently to ensure communication is effective. A birth perhaps or a detained person in custody who needs language professionals and events can’t wait until the morning. I often step in and cover the bookings myself but of course, this isn’t always possible.
We have fabulous support and engagement from our freelance lipspeakers and BSL interpreters who always go the extra mile to ensure deaf people have the support they need. We are truly blessed to have such a great relationship with them all.
The pandemic has taught and continues to teach us many things. It forced many people to feel more isolated and segregated from their community more than ever and changed how we communicated dramatically. How can we empower the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to thrive going forward? What advice would you give to family, friends and neighbours?
When the pandemic hit the UK we had already begun to change workstreams to online platforms in preparation, where possible. This was an educational process for freelancers who were trained, purchased equipment, most already had laptops or computers and cameras to almost seamlessly switch to online working. Many deaf people didn’t and did not have the funds to simply purchase such expensive equipment to make online access possible.
We purchased iPads for our most vulnerable clients to allow online video calls. This wasn’t just for work-related calls but for ‘check-ins’ to ask how we could help. One particular client was shielding and couldn’t get shopping. We contacted a local interpreter who agreed to do some grocery shopping and collect prescriptions. The generosity from people was truly overwhelming.
Lesley Weatherson wearing a 'Clear Mask'
Mask wearing and not having English as a first language were two major challenges for some of our clients. Online shopping, E-Consults with their GP’s, broken hearing aids and no access to repair centres, benefit claims with complex forms, the list goes on…… We tried to ensure that everyone had access whether it was through a video call on the phone or social distancing face-to-face appointments. I truly believe we succeeded.
We purchased ‘clear masks' (clear windows to ensure the lips are visible) for our deaf clients and lipspeakers attending face-to-face bookings. We also managed to buy a further 1500 marks to sell to councils, surgeries and hospitals to ensure their staff did not have to wear the material masks that cover the face.
The big problem was the company ClearMask would not ship to the UK – only USA. We asked a family friend in St Louis to purchase the maximum allowed, then ship them to us in the UK for distribution. It worked, and despite the additional carrier costs, we were able to send them to those in need within 10 days of the order.
For businesses who want to become more inclusive and access the deaf and hard of hearing community – what advice would you give and how can they get started?
Any business that doesn’t make itself accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people should really think about what they could do with 10 million more customers. Around 10m people in the UK are not able to access services and businesses. There are companies that provide video interpreting services, in the UK but there wasn’t anything for deaf people who don’t use sign language.
LipsLive is the UK’s first on-demand lipspeaking service, still in it’s infancy. Companies and services can sign up, purchase the license and pre-paid minutes for their customers to use. A button appears on their website and this allows a deaf person to simply click and be connected to a lipspeaker to facilitate the call.
This allows the deaf person to make personal calls to their bank or GP for example, independent of family and friends. We still need more companies, councils and services to sign up to really make the service viable. This in turn would mean more access for deaf people who lipread.
What is your biggest influence? A company or person who gave you the courage and confidence to launch Lipspeaker UK?
Undoubtedly Jane Cordell from Result CIC. A musician and Cambridge graduate who lost her hearing and found lipspeakers. I was introduced by a dearly departed colleague, Sara, and Jane and I became lifelong friends. Take a look at her website; she users lipspeakers daily, speaks French, Polish, coaches people both deaf and hearing, public speaking…I could go on.
She gave me the courage to follow what I thought was possible and with the support of my husband Terry, wonderful family and friends, I did!
At Lipspeaker UK you are always thinking of new ways in which you can evolve with technology, consumer's wants and needs and those who are hard of hearings expectations. Like the launch of SignVideo last year - are there any future projects you can tease us with that you think will really enhance your company?
Just to be clear, Sign Video is a company in its own right. We were engaged as contractors to cover certain business aspects with them and have been working together to ensure LipsLive went from concept to reality. My dream would be to have LipsLive covering 365 days a year and 24 hours a day- watch this space!
We are celebrating being 10 years old (it’s actually 11 but Covid scuppered our party in 2020). We have probably the biggest gathering of deaf people for many years, attending Portsmouth Deaf Club later in September 2021 as a thank you from me and my team. Food, drinks and even a Rat Pack singer and signer for entertainment.
Lesley Weatherson - Director of Lipspeaker UK
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