We spoke to Sally Paull, about her business, Positive Signs, a Deaf-led service provider, supporting and raising awareness of the Deaf community.
Positive Signs is a one-stop-shop for services for Deaf and hearing customers, including the provision of British Sign Language (BSL) Interpreters and other Language Service Professionals (LSPs), BSL and deaf awareness training, employment and education support.
A graduate of the 2013 Innovating for Growth: Start-ups programme, Sally has grown her business by expanding its offering and increasing the client base. Here, she reflects on her journey and plans for the next phase of growth, including how Covid has catapulted them into developing full online service provision.
'I started Positive Signs in 2004, following a successful and diverse career in social work, leading on the delivery of the first BSL NVQ and Interpreter Training for a national deaf charity, and as one of the first qualified Sign Language Interpreters in the UK. I wanted to combine my skills, broad professional knowledge and strong network, to create a unique offering centred around the provision of BSL training and interpreters. The seeds of Positive Signs were planted!
Since then, we have grown into an established provider of services to support the Deaf community in the workplace and higher education. Our expansion has enabled us to become a family run business and I really value their involvement and support. Six incredible people make Positive Signs what it is today.
We are driven by our passion for ensuring Deaf people achieve and succeed. Many people are not aware of fabulous schemes like Access to Work and Disabled Students Allowance, which support Deaf and disabled people to get into work or education, stay there and achieve. For Deaf people this could be providing BSL Interpreters for interviews, then regular on-site support so they can engage with colleagues and customers, take part in meetings, and attend events such as induction, training and conferences. We work with clients to apply for these awards and then manage their ongoing support provision.
I am proud of the many things we achieve every day at Positive Signs. From the small things that make a big difference, such as seeing the results of matching the right interpreter to a Deaf person; to the big things which show the world that Deaf people don’t have limitations, only those put on them by others, such as securing 24 Deaf apprenticeships at blue chip organisations without any funding or partnerships, just sheer determination to support young Deaf people onto the employment ladder.
In 2013, I was fortunate to secure a place on Innovating for Growth: Start-ups. The programme and one-on-one support enabled me to develop a formal business plan, identify obstacles and opportunities to broaden and improve our business. It gave me the confidence to grow to where we are now.
We’ve built our reputation around quality, honesty and importantly, taking the time to really understand what clients want. We then carefully match our provision to meet that need. This makes for great customer satisfaction and has enabled us to develop our brand.
I’m delighted to have been accepted onto Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups, to coach myself and Positive Signs to the next level. In preparing the application, it’s been satisfying to stop and look back on the last seventeen years – what we’ve achieved, the amazing people we’ve met, how we’ve grown – and beneficial to help crystalise future plans. We don’t often take the time to reflect as we’re always striving for what’s next! That’s one blessing of Covid, it’s given us the time to stop and reflect.
Covid has massively disrupted the lives of Deaf people in work and education: the tech requirements of working or learning from home; the impact of mask wearing on communication; the reduced availability of LSPs; the overnight switch to remote interpreting online; last minute logistical changes to whether lectures are onsite or online.
It’s a lot to deal with at the same time as trying to keep up-to-date with government guidance on Covid safety, which unfortunately, in England, has not been made available in BSL. BSL is not the same as English, it’s a language in its own right with its own grammar and structure, so it’s not as simple as saying, ‘read the subtitles’ or ‘look at the website’. Vital information such as this needs to be provided simultaneously in BSL. But it’s only due to the dedicated efforts of charities, who took it upon themselves to act, that some provision has been made after the event.'
Covid has also disrupted much of our service offering: with training courses cancelled; prohibitive costs of delivering Covid-safe training; less LSPs available to work due to shielding, home schooling, or unwillingness to travel; many LSPs can’t work online as video remote interpreters as it’s expensive to kit yourself out, or they simply don’t want to work this way. It’s been really tough. However, I take my hat off to our handful of regular LSPs who were determined to continue supporting Deaf clients on site throughout the pandemic, so that they could maintain employment, despite the fact that BSL Interpreters weren’t immediately granted Key Worker status.
In taking time to reflect, we are re-framing our experiences as a way to create opportunity. We have fast-tracked plans to take existing services online in new and innovative ways, for example our online interpreting service and BSL training. These will become part of our standard offering recognising the shift in people’s attitudes and purchasing patterns, as well as ensuring business continuity during any future crisis.
We are introducing new services, starting with an essential Employment Service to support Deaf people back into work as lockdown eases and later, a Translation Service to open up important information to Deaf BSL users. Plus, we wish to reach new audiences who wouldn’t ordinarily work with a Deaf-lead company, either because they are not aware of us or don’t realise they have the perfect potential to take on Deaf people with our support.
Through expansion we aim to create more jobs for Deaf people who can find it harder to gain and remain in employment, making us a role model for our services.
We are not short on ideas! We’ve recruited new, full-time staff during lockdown, and we are investing in major systems to increase automation, save time and to improve our ability to create and convert opportunities as a data driven entity.
It’s going to be very different for me. I have managed Positive Signs as a one-woman band for many years, doing everything from Access to Work applications, client management, coordinating bookings, delivering training, marketing and finance. I’ve worn a lot of hats and thrived on every minute! Transitioning from a hands-on manager to a leader who coaches others to deliver isn’t always easy, but I’m working on developing the skills to ‘let go’!
People often say that I’m ‘lucky’ to have my own business. But Positive Signs didn’t happen by luck, it happened by design and hard work. However, I am lucky that I have been well supported, both to set up Positive Signs and to keep it growing, including by my family and Innovation for Growth, which I am really grateful for. And I am lucky to work with amazing people doing things we love every day. I can’t ask for more than that and I’m excited to see how the future shapes up.'