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Making films accessible with British Sign Language

A still from the Archives film - showing the presenter in front of Victoria Tower. The still shows the BSL presenter and subtitles.

Any form of disability can lead to social exclusion and isolation. As the film production team in PDS, it’s our job to make sure that the public films we produce reach as wide an audience as possible. Our diversity and inclusion priorities at PDS include a commitment to improving accessibility in all its forms.  

It is estimated that 12 million people in the UK have some form of hearing loss – that’s around one in five of us. Deafness is a vast spectrum but an estimated 900,000 people within that group have severe or profound hearing loss.

Reaching a wider audience

We now include captions (also known as subtitles) in every film. Captions help viewers who are deaf, neuro-divergent, or who have hearing loss or learning disabilities. They are also helpful for anyone watching in a noisy environment. We believe that captions shouldn’t be seen as an ‘add on’ but as integral to a film.

Now we’re exploring the next step, which is incorporating British Sign Language (BSL) signing into our productions. An opportunity came about when a member of the Outreach team in the Parliamentary Archives commissioned us to produce a film.

A behind the scenes photo showing the film-makers filming the presenter in Victoria Tower Gardens, with Victoria Tower in the background.
A film version of the physical tour helps us to highlight the collections and their stories to a wider, global audience

Subtitles do not work for everyone

The Archives team wanted an online version of the tour of the archives in Victoria Tower. Physical public tours are available, but spaces are limited, and the restrictive layout of the tower also means it is not accessible to people with mobility issues. A film version on YouTube would reach a wider audience and give more people a chance to understand the value and importance of the archives, which include unique, globally significant collections of documents and other items. 

We were asked to look at the possibility of incorporating BSL into the film to improve accessibility for UK viewers. BSL is the preferred language of many Deaf people in the UK and is preferable to English captions. 

We decided to do a film test and reached out to the parliamentary community to see if anyone had BSL skills and was willing to do a short piece to camera in our studio. We weren’t sure if we’d get any response, but fortunately one volunteer came forward. 

Out of our depth 

We put together a short script and our signer did a great job of learning the piece and performing to camera. The test was a success technically, but we realised we were out of our depth. We didn’t have any knowledge of BSL. How could we tell if the signer was accurately portraying the meaning of the script? How could we edit the film with BSL if we didn’t know how to match what was being said with the interpreter’s signs? 

Our Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit came to the rescue. They are responsible for coverage of Commons and Lords chambers and committee meetings, including Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), which has a live BSL version.

Filming in the archives – the director and another colleague with the presenter looking at rows of rolled up scrolls.
Filming in one of the Archive strongrooms, which include globally significant documents and other items, such as a gravestone!

Early signs show positive results

We were introduced to their external BSL signing experts. A short test film was carried out so we could see BSL and subtitles in place, a few tweaks were made, and two weeks later we finished the film. 

The results are encouraging. Within 24 hours of going live on YouTube, both the BSL version and the version with captions alone reached nearly 1,000 views each, launched to coincide with UK Disability History Month. 

We decided to hardcode (or burn in) the captions, so they are displayed permanently in the film. YouTube’s auto generated closed captions are good, but not perfect. AI is getting better all the time, so there could be a day when we can rely on platforms like YouTube for near perfect accuracy, but it’s not here yet.  

Penny McMahon, Senior Outreach Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, says this about the film project:

“Our collections are stored in a Victorian skyscraper, and they document the UK’s democratic heritage. Seeing the archives that have shaped our democracy in the Palace of Westminster and the Victoria Tower is magical. It is our mission to highlight the collections and the histories they tell with as many people as possible. This accessible film enables us to share this experience with people fluent in BSL but also those who can’t travel to central London or evacuate the Tower using the spiral staircase.” 

Breaking down barriers

We aim to build our skills and the lessons learned from this experience – one member of our team has even shown enthusiasm for learning BSL! What we are aiming to do is a small part of a much bigger campaign to break down barriers for people with disabilities or difficulties accessing content.  

In Parliament, the British Sign Language bill has now received Royal Assent. It will recognise BSL as a language in England, Scotland and Wales and sets out a statutory commitment to improving communication for deaf people.

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