A sign of the times: Kim’s story

A sign of the times: Kim’s story

During the recent pandemic, the importance of human connection became even more clear to the world, and was the catalyst for Kim’s drive to support the deaf community

Over the years, I’ve had many ups and downs, and have struggled with my mental health – experiencing depression, anxiety and, most recently, post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But through it all, learning a new skill and using that to help others has given me purpose, and helped me pull through. In late 2016, I started my degree in psychology at Royal Holloway University of London. I have always been fascinated by psychology, and how the brain works – but my other passion is British Sign Language (BSL). I started learning BSL nine years ago by watching YouTube videos, and teaching myself in my free time. Once I was confident with signing the alphabet, I realised how much I enjoyed it, and was keen to do more. An online search helped me to find British-Sign.co.uk, which had a flexible level one course that was ideal for me. I loved learning new signs and increasing my BSL vocabulary – even though the online course wasn’t perfect – and after a few months, I got my certificate in level one BSL! It was amazing and I was so proud that I knew the basics of BSL and could communicate, even just a little, with the deaf community. What I’ve learnt over the years is that this language helps so many other groups of people too, as well as those who are deaf – including individuals who are on the autism spectrum, who have Downs Syndrome, or painful chronic illnesses – because sign language allows them to communicate without the strain of using their voice. And I’ve personally found it useful as well. Back in 2010, I was diagnosed with bronchiectasis. Since then, I have been hospitalised numerous times with other respiratory infections.

Kim with her dad

When my chest is bad, I feel weak and am in a lot of pain. So I keep communication to a minimum, as I get breathless and can’t talk due to the pain. However, being able to use sign language has helped me tremendously with communicating when I am severely ill. In 2017, I was approached to teach level one BSL at Royal Holloway. It was a scary concept to teach 25 students, and I thought I couldn’t do it. But after my first lesson ended, I fell in love with teaching the language of sign. But in December 2018, my dad suddenly died. I stopped learning BSL, and became very detached. I was in my third year of university, which I struggled with. My dissertation, which my dad helped me with, was a research piece looking at the deaf community’s mental health compared to those with hearing. It made me open my eyes to the adversity that deaf people endure every day, and the impact this has on their mental health. It sparked something within me; I wanted to do more, and to raise awareness surrounding the deaf community. Even though my dad didn’t get to read my dissertation, or see me graduate, he knew that I would always go above and beyond to accomplish whatever I set my mind to.

Being able to use sign language has helped me tremendously with communicating when I am severely ill

After graduating in 2019, I, much like every graduate, was scared and anxious about what to do next. I looked into studying a Health Psychology MSc at the University of Surrey, as I always wanted to get a Masters. However, halfway through the course, my PTSD and mental health were really suffering, and in January 2020, I made the decision to stop and return to part-time work. Then one Sunday, I was with my mum when I mentioned the idea of becoming a BSL level one teacher and helping hearing people learn the basics of BSL – but mostly, I wanted to support businesses to communicate with deaf customers. My mum mentioned the Prince’s Trust, and that day I signed up to attend its Enterprise course. I loved the course and met some of the most wonderful people, including my mentor, Richard. He believed in my idea, and helped me through the process of making it into a business. But just after I started putting my plans together, in March 2020, coronavirus hit the UK, I became furloughed, and due to my chest condition I received an NHS letter saying I am considered vulnerable, and had to self-shield for more than three months. This greatly impacted me starting my Help2Sign business, and made me anxious about what the future would hold – especially as being on furlough increased my anxiety and mental health.

Kim smiling

On 26 March, 2020, I uploaded my first video – which was nerve-racking, but I loved so much. I couldn’t believe the positive feedback I was getting. Every day, I receive lovely messages from many hearing individuals learning BSL, which makes me so happy that people are actively learning such a beautiful language. After just four months, I went from 10 to 6,200 followers, have been featured in Stacey Dooley’s documentary Locked down Heroes, and was nominated for a Diversity Award in the Excellence Entrepreneur category, which was an incredible and lovely surprise. Recently, I was approached to collaborate with Tea Please UK, to combine my love of art with BSL, and have now got a range of mugs and T-shirts with my illustrations on, with the proceeds going to SignHealth. This is a charity I have supported for many years, that has played a huge part in helping deaf individuals with their wellbeing and mental health issues, and is particularly close to my heart due to experiencing mental health issues as well. In a world so focused on promoting diversity and raising awareness, there is still a lot to do regarding accessibility for the deaf community – such as interpreters. I hope that I can, even just a little, make a positive impact in the deaf community.

Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr, says:

We have all seen the world differently in the past few months. We’ve noticed just how important it is to connect with our loved ones, but also to be able to communicate our needs to others – and be ‘heard’. It’s really great that at a time when many were drawing away from society, Kim found she could reach out and engage. She reminds us that there are so many different ways to experience the world, and opening our eyes to how others see it can broaden our own horizons, and allow us to feel part of something bigger.

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