Four things I learnt working with Tyrese on Sense Sign School

Karen heads up the content team at Sense. She worked with Tyrese, an inspiring teenager from Birmingham, recording Sense Sign School. Here’s what she learned working with him.

Let me take you back to a cold, drab day in February 2020.

Tucked away on a back street of Birmingham is an industrial unit. From the outside it looks plain and uninviting; inside it’s a hive of film gear and activity.

Rumours of a pandemic and lockdowns are floating nervously in the air. But for those of us gathered in the film studio, we have a job to do.

The stage is set, the lighting rig is ready and the cameras roll. ‘Mr Tyrese’ strolls on, takes off his jacket, writes on the old-fashioned blackboard and sits down in the leather armchair.

The filming of Sense Sign School begins.

‘Mr Tyrese’ or, Tyrese for those who know him off camera, is a teenager, who is Deaf and partially sighted, from Birmingham. He has CHARGE syndrome, which affects his body in many ways, and he and his family have been supported by Sense since he was six months old. He uses British Sign Language (BSL).

A television studio. We see a woman behind a camera, and a lit area. In the lit area, there's a blackboard with 'Sense Sign School with Mr Tyrese' written in white chalk. Next to the sign, a young man is sitting down wearing a white shirt and an orange tie. It's Mr Tyrese
Mr Tyrese, behind the scenes of Sense Sign School

Like Sense, Tyrese wants more people to learn to sign to help reduce loneliness and social isolation among disabled people.

So, we joined forces to create fun video lessons teaching simple signs on topics like family, entertainment and festive celebrations. More than 80,000 people signed up.

Here are four things I learned along the way.

BSL is a language. It’s not English with signs.

I knew this. I knew that BSL has its own word structure, starting with the main subject or topic.

I did a BSL beginner’s course a few years back. I knew that ‘My name is Karen’ in English is ‘Name me Karen’ in BSL.

But knowing something and truly understanding it are two different things.

It was only as I watched Tyrese and the BSL interpreters working on the translation between the English and BSL scripts for filming the video lessons that I began to truly understand. It’s no less a task than translating English into, say, French or Russian.

BSL is more than hand gestures.

Lip shape, body movements and facial expressions are equally important. Again, I knew this. But there’s nothing like watching fluent signers in action to reinforce the point.

I loved watching Tyrese show the difference between signing “It’s windy” and “It’s really windy”.

On a mime course I did many years ago, I had to lose my inhibitions and learn to use my whole body to express myself. I need to remember to do the same when I practise my signing.

BSL has different dialects across the country, just like spoken languages.

Did you know there are seven different ways of signing “toilet” depending on where you live? I didn’t until filming Sense Sign School.

Sometimes, Tyrese and the interpreters had to decide whether a sign was too local to Brum or personal to his family.

It reminded me of my mum using the word ‘hunger bunk’. In our family, it meant you were so hungry you felt sick. I have yet to meet anyone who has heard the phrase or knows what it means outside my family.

Sometimes there is no easy match between English and BSL.

One of the most memorable moments for me during filming was watching the debate and laughing together over how to sign ‘pigs in blankets’ (Tyrese’s favourite festive food) and ‘Brussel sprouts’ (his most hated festive food).

A reminder that there are fewer signs in BSL than there are words in the English language.

Let me fast forward to today

Tyrese has won a Pride of Birmingham award and is named in The Independent’s Happy List 2021 celebrating inspirational people driving positive change in Britain. He’s just won a Points of Light award, given by the government’s Cabinet Office. And he’s now up for a Pride of Britain award.

Such recognition is well-deserved. It’s been an absolute joy working with Tyrese and watching him grow in confidence. His cheeky ad libs during filming are some of my favourite moments in the video lessons.

As someone who has hearing loss and knows what it’s like to feel left out of conversations, I feel privileged to have played a part in encouraging more people to learn to sign so that Deaf people aren’t excluded.

Learn the basics of British Sign Language

Our handy guide to BSL explains the basics of sign language, including how it works, who uses it and how to learn it.