Joel Harris: Why having sign language on big screens is such an important step

This summer all the first-class venues in England and Wales will feature players using BSL on the big screens to promote anti-discrimination messaging.

It is late on a Tuesday afternoon and England Men’s Deaf team international Joel Harris is standing in a room behind the broadcast boxes at Edgbaston teaching players from The Blaze, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire their assigned lines in British Sign Language.

It is the final session after two days of filming for the ECB’s Content Day ahead of the domestic season, and Harris has now run through a similar routine with more than 70 players from each of the first-class county and women’s regional teams.

This summer all the first-class venues in England and Wales will feature their local women’s and men’s players using BSL on the big screens to promote anti-discrimination messaging.

What fans won’t see is the immediate connection that Harris – who has a cochlear implant that helps him to speak and hear – and his England team-mate Jake Oakes strike up with their fellow players in a room that has for the past 48 hours been completely engaged by the endearing manner they have both taught BSL.

“British Sign Language isn’t an easy language to learn,” Harris says during a break between filming. “The players have been amazing in the way they have wanted to learn. I have had a lot of good feedback.

England Men's Deaf team all-rounder Joel Harris teaches Glamorgan player British Sign Language at Content Day in 2024

“We’re not asking the players to be knowledgeable, but they’ve wanted to know more. We’ve taught them their lines and some of the basics like how important facial expressions and body movement is alongside hand gestures.

“They’re small but important things for the deaf community to feel welcomed.”

For Harris, who in 2022 helped England win the Men’s Deaf Ashes in Australia for the first time, that last sentence is particularly poignant.

An all-rounder, Harris has been the subject of discrimination as a player in recreational cricket. He is pragmatic about the few moments that he has endured discrimination, and is effusively proud of the way his home club Middleton have always supported him since he arrived at the Greater Manchester club as a teenager.

“When it has happened the club has always called it out and it has made a difference to stamp It out,” he said. “It is about awareness so other players understand better. I can tend to be loud on a cricket field simply because I don’t realise how loud I’m being!

“I have seen a difference, of course. It’s about helping people more aware, which is what we’re doing here is all about. My experience is that most people want to be inclusive.

“I’m lucky because I have such a great club and I have seen first-hand the way education plays a massive part. Middleton have always made me feel so welcomed regardless of my deafness or not.

“I’m a part of the family there and other lads in the team are deaf aware. That for me is massive. We have deafness in my family and the club have gone out of their way to make sure it is inclusive for us. It’s simple, but it really means a lot.”

Harris is a father of two and his family use BSL in their home.

His fatherly presence is apparent in the way he explains the nuanced body and facial movement of BSL to the players, each of whom then disappear into the next room to film their lines.

“I’m quite fortunate because my little family, we sign at home. It’s really personal to us,” he said.

“BSL isn’t just about what you do with your hands. Hands is one form of communication but the body is also an important part of the communication. Your face will also say a lot more because you can mouth a word as you are signing it and your expression can shape it a different way.

“We use our hands and face and body as well to mimic what we’re talking about. As an example with the line ‘Call It Out’ in the videos we’re doing, the natural BSL way will be to have hands on the side of the face pretending to be on a (phone) call and then thumbs up and out, which is ‘out’.

“We are doing it slightly differently for these videos, just trying to use a way that conveys the message.

“Interpreters do it all the time, natural BSL users do it all the time too and in a lot of ways the hearing community, if they don’t know BSL, then gestures do play a big part – your hands, body shape movement, facial expressions – the deaf community will pick up on that whether you know sign language or not.”

The England and Wales Cricket Board has made it clear that it wants to be the most inclusive team sport in the country. For Harris it is the small things that will add up to such ambitions.

The ground-breaking Disability Premier League has provided more opportunities on the field outside the international disability teams since it was launched in 2022, while the building of the Inclusive Cricket Centre in Worcester will give more people at all levels the opportunity to pick up a bat and ball.

“I know the ECB is doing incredible work to make the game more inclusive and accessible,” Harris said.

“I am happy to play a little part in that. I know the value of small changes.

“In my workplace my boss is deaf aware and is able to make little adaptations for me to fulfil my work. It makes such a huge difference – it is about wanting to help make change. It’s been enjoyable to see the players here wanting to be part of that. It just helps make things a little bit more equal and a little bit more inclusive.”

This summer Harris is set to get the opportunity to pull on an England shirt on home soil for the first time with a white-ball series against India scheduled for June.

Joel Harris bats during England Deaf team's Ashes victory at Brisbane in 2022 (Getty)

It will be the first time the England Men’s Deaf team have played at home since 2008, with the two-week series set to begin with a T20 under lights at the Incora County Ground in Derby.

“I can’t wait. It will be an exciting opportunity to play at some county grounds across the country,” he said. “We trained last week – a few of us are still sore – but we’ll be ready to go by June!”

The DPL final has been broadcast on Sky Sports for the past two summers and with increased exposure of disability cricket, Harris hopes the next generation can see the opportunities available at all levels.

“Cricket has given me so much. To bring back the Ashes was just amazing and to do that for the first time in 31 years as well – there was no better feeling than that,” he said.

“I will also admit I don’t mind being able to play on Sky Sports as well and getting nice kits – of course I do. The DPL has been an amazing step up to provide opportunity outside of international cricket.

“Now we’re focused on India. It will be amazing to get our families involved and watch us.

“But we want to spread it further. We’d love more people to come down whether they’re friends, families, cricket-minded people or non-cricket-minded people – just come and watch us.

“We want people to know that cricket is an inclusive sport regardless of your disability and there are opportunities across the whole of cricket.

"It’s about playing a game where everyone is equal as long as you have a passion for the game. That’s all that matters.”