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Using Makaton to make a difference

Jo Reece and Danielle McIntyre are on a mission to help people with disabilities thrive by teaching Makaton to colleagues around the bank. 

When a health visitor recommended using Makaton to help Jo’s son Joseph, who has Down’s Syndrome, to communicate, her daughter Sophia was already learning the sign language system at nursery, so the family got stuck in.  

“At 3 years old Joseph can say a few words but is otherwise non-verbal, so we use Makaton massively in our lives,” Jo explains. “It really helps us to understand what he needs and wants as he can use signs to express himself. For example, he can sign juice, snack, good night, more, yes and he knows most animals and colours. We share Makaton with friends and family so they can communicate with Joseph too.” 

Jo, who works as a customer service advisor in our Commercial credit cards centre in Southend, enrolled in a Makaton evening course at a local college to learn more signs that could help Joseph, and it got her thinking that it would be great to use Makaton at work. She looked for groups who might be able to help and met Danielle McIntyre, deputy global co-chair of the Enable employee-led network, NatWest Group’s employee-led disability network. 

Danielle’s son Charlie has a physical disability, and Danielle is determined to make things better for people with disabilities and their families: “Jo and I have something in common, as we are both passionate about making our children’s future fully accessible and helping other people with disabilities,” she says. “Everyone has the right to be able to communicate.”

What is Makaton?

Makaton is a unique language programme that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable people to communicate. It’s helpful for people in many different circumstances, including children and adults with a wide range of physical, sensory and learning disabilities, not just hearing loss. Jo has helped a friend with a brain injury and a cousin who had throat cancer to use Makaton to communicate while their speech was impaired. Some parents use it with babies and toddlers who are learning to speak. It’s also more transferable than other sign language systems and many signs are universally recognisable. 

Breaking down barriers

Realising how many customers, family members and people in the community could benefit from bank colleagues learning Makaton, Jo and Danielle set out to introduce it to as many colleagues as possible. Together they’ve run a series of sessions, both face-to-face before the pandemic, and over Zoom since. Shifting the sessions to Zoom has meant that they’ve been able to reach many more people than they would have otherwise.   

“Everyone we’ve met has been so impressed with Makaton and has really seen the benefits of learning it, particularly for branch staff,” says Danielle. “It can help people get their financial independence back as disability can put up barriers. It’s so empowering for someone to be able to go into a branch and sort out their own financial affairs.” 

They’ve also run a pilot with our Private Banking brand Coutts, where all of the banking hall staff at Coutts’ London office 440 Strand now have basic Makaton training, and are looking to run pilots with more branches. The sessions include signs relevant to banking that can help clarify understanding and put customers at ease, such ‘save money’, ‘withdraw money’, ‘take your time’ and ‘would you like to sit down?’. 

With Jo set to start her Makaton tutor qualification after Christmas, she and Danielle intend to continue using Zoom to get more people in the bank signing. Danielle says: “As a parent of a child with a disability, you want to make the world better, and Enable is my way of trying to make the future a bit better for children like Charlie and Joseph and for people who work here now. There’s so much we can’t control, but this is something we can. That’s where the enthusiasm comes from.”

More about our Enable Network

Our employee-led Enable Network believes that, by promoting awareness of disability and celebrating the diversity it brings, we can create a better bank for colleagues, customers and the communities where we work. The network’s mission is to make NatWest Group the disability employer of choice by collaborating with others across the bank to develop a truly inclusive culture. A culture which enables people, with all abilities, and those who care for others, to bring the best of themselves to work. 

Our Enable Network was established in 2013 and currently has around 1,500 members. Over the last seven years the network has delivered awareness events on a range of disabilities, supported the development of disability friendly products and services and contributed to the development of disability and inclusion learning across the organisation.