In the UK, some 11 million people are affected by hearing loss. That’s 1 in 6 of us. And, as a largely invisible disability, it’s all too easy for those with hearing loss to be ignored or forgotten.
This hidden disadvantage commonly leads to emotional distress. Studies show that hearing loss leads to withdrawal from social situations and depression – not to mention professional difficulties in the workplace.
Adequate support, then, is essential to the wellbeing of deaf or hard of hearing people. But with telephone calls inaccessible, and emails slow and delayed, modern communication methods don’t always cut it.
Enter Womankind and its innovative charitable work in Bristol.
Women supporting women
Womankind Bristol is a charity run by women, for women. Each year, the organisation helps hundreds of women improve their mental health and wellbeing so they can experience a better quality of life.
“As well as 1:1 counselling and group therapy, we run a confidential helpline service. This helpline offers emotional support and signposting where appropriate,” explains Laura Gallagher, Volunteer Service Co-ordinator at Womankind. (Who is hard of hearing herself.)
“It’s a busy service, and we take about 5,000 calls a year. Trained and supervised female volunteers use active listening skills to support women to talk about what is going on for them – for up to 50 minutes at a time.”
For Womankind, support accessibility was a key objective. The team was passionate about ensuring that all vulnerable women – regardless of their age or ability – were able to experience the same smooth access to help.
“A text relay option was available for deaf or hard of hearing women to use the helpline,” says Laura. “However, this wasn’t offering them the same ease and quality of experience as hearing women.
“We are well aware that deaf women are more likely to experience mental ill health and all forms of violence and abuse. Yet typically, they face greater barriers to getting support. Most services, unfortunately, are suitable only for hearing people.”
At the same time, the charity was analysing how younger women were accessing support. As with their deaf service users, a telephone helpline was not an ideal gateway to counselling.
“We were beginning to realise that younger women are less likely to use the phone,” Laura adds. “Meanwhile, recent research identifies this group as particularly at-risk of experiencing mental ill-health, violence and abuse.
“So, we wanted to do something to increase the support available to both of these vulnerable groups. And it was a webchat helpline that fit the bill.”
Turning to webchat
The Womankind team already had a Deaf Women’s counselling service in place. Inspired by a deaf woman using this service, the charity decided to take further steps to hone their support offering.
“We decided to set up an internet-based, instant messaging channel to the helpline,” explains Laura. “Although webchat isn’t perfect for women whose first language is British Sign Language (BSL) rather than English, we hoped it would be a step in the right direction – and at least more accessible than the telephone helpline. Plus, our research told us that younger women were more likely to get in touch this way as well.”
This meant that the team then had to find two things to proceed: funding for the webchat helpline, and a provider that could fulfil all their requirements.
“We needed a webchat service that could flex around our needs,” Laura continues. “Factors such as security, confidentiality and accessibility are key to us as a charity.
“We spoke to several live chat vendors and trialled different options. Ultimately, we chose WhosOn because they communicated really well with us, and because they were offering flexibility around the design of the platform.
“We knew we would need some special features and they seemed keen to take on the challenge! The other factor that clinched the deal was that WhosOn was offering in-chat translation. For us, being accessible to Bristol women whose first language isn’t English felt really important.”
Putting inclusion and safety first
A generic approach to webchat wasn’t sufficient for the level of accessibility that Womankind needed. Imperative for the charity was the peace of mind and confidence of their service users.
“We had a good bit of custom work done to ensure that our chat window would help the women using our service feel confident they were really connecting to us at Womankind,” says Laura. “It was essential to us that the connection was secure, confidential, and above all – human.”
For a charity like Womankind, a number of granular details had to be considered. For example, standard webchat avatars needed to be redesigned with diversity in mind. This meant not showing headsets (a hearing-centred visual). Then, chat avatars shouldn’t look like men. Or, for that matter, only like Caucasian women.
“We consulted with our service users and volunteers to make sure that the kinds of women who use and operate our service would feel both safe and represented,” Laura explains. “The Parker Software team was patient and we ended up with something we’re very happy with.”
Beyond visual elements, it was important that the chat service was informative enough that no user felt left out. “We had our chat button specially designed so that it would show when we were busy,” continues Laura. “This went further than a standard ‘online’ or ‘offline’ message. Women would know we were online during our opening hours, even if we were currently occupied with other chats and unable to take theirs.
“Finally, a really important bit of design work was a ‘leave this site safely’ button like the one on our main website. This ensures that women can exit the webchat session and wipe all trace of Womankind from their browsing history with just one click. This is vital for females living in abusive situations.”
Prior to the launch of the Womankind webchat service, there were no instant messaging services of the kind available in Bristol. Womankind is providing unique value, in a much-needed format.
The chat service is catered to women at a time of crisis, as well as those seeking support to prevent their problems from escalating into more serious mental ill health. All through a channel that’s discreet and accessible.
Each webchat is answered by a woman who has had comprehensive training, including Deaf Awareness. The written English of service users doesn’t need to be perfect, and they can remain entirely anonymous.
So, for women who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, or simply for young women who find the telephone inconvenient or inaccessible, expert care during times of need is only a click away.
Via webchat, Womankind has been able to reduce the barriers to reaching out for help. “What we have learned is that the webchat is helpful for those who cannot use the phone for a variety of reasons,” says Laura.
“Some women who are being abused have used it because it’s more discreet and they can erase the trace of usage more easily than with the phone.
“For some, it’s just that they have very little privacy. For others, it’s that they can’t afford long calls – but if they can get Wi-Fi access the webchat is very cost-effective.
“And for still others, it’s just less anxiety-inducing to connect through a screen than to make a phone call.”
A real difference to vulnerable women
This breaking down of barriers is manifest in the positive feedback from service users. Despite only launching in June 2019, Womankind’s webchat has already made a real difference to real people.
As Laura says, “We’ve been really pleased with how well the webchat has been taken up. We’ve had some great feedback from deaf service users already.”
This feedback includes comments such as:
- ❝ Thank you for setting up the web chat service. It was extremely easy to use and will be of help in the future. There are not sufficient words to express what it feels to know that there is an accessible service I can reach and use easily.
- ❝ It’s only been a short while, but it feels so good to actually ‘say’ what I am feeling without any judgement – thank you … Thank you for having the service. I’m sure I will be in touch again.
Nor is it only deaf women benefiting from webchat. Younger women have also been using the service and letting Womankind know how helpful they find it:
- ❝ Thanks for being awesome and not making me regret talking”.
- ❝ I have no idea where I’d be without y’all … You all make me so excited to have a future.
- ❝ Really helpful to be able to chat by text rather than talk … This has really helped … It is still a huge apple cart. But at least I don’t have to explain why I have apples!
Helping women get heard
Women can currently access the webchat service across three sessions a week. However, the channel’s success is seeing demand surge.
So, Womankind is hoping to sustain and extend their use of chat. “The first thing we need to do is raise funds to be able to open more webchat shifts,” explains Laura. “We are due to go up to five sessions a week, and current funding will only take us up until the summer. We’re keen to keep running the service for as long as vulnerable women need our help. But to do so, we’re dependant on charitable donations.
“Further down the line, we’d also love to have more live chat licences. This would mean that we could take multiple chats at a time, helping more women at once. Again, though, this depends on us being able to secure sustainable funding.
“Ultimately, the real dream is to bring in a BSL element to the chat via a remote interpreter – which would allow deaf women to access a fully anonymous service in their own language. That would be offering them genuine parity with hearing women!”
Pledge your support
Womankind is urgently seeking support to fund their webchat helpline. Donations help the team extend their webchat service— as well as ensuring that women in distress can continue to receive accessible online support in the months and years to come.
To help their cause, please visit the Crowdfunder here: https://acf.crowdfunder.co.uk/womankind-webchat#start.