A DEAF hospital porter has been helping colleagues improve the way they treat patients – by teaching them sign language.

In the four years Steve Hartman has worked at Basildon Hospital he has taught 60 co-workers how to “sign”, allowing them to make themselves understood to patients and visitors with hearing problems.

Now Mr Hartman, who was left profoundly deaf by a particularly vicious flu infection in 2001, has his sights higher.

His aim, put simply, is to make his hospital the most deaf-friendly one in the country.

Mr Hartman, from Benfleet, has been leading British Sign Language courses for the past two years, under a hospital scheme to encourage staff to learn all sorts of useful extra skills.

The kind of sign language he teaches is used by 125,000 deaf adults in the UK and 20,000 children and uses the movement of the hands, body, face and head to represent words.

British Sign Language was something the 53-year-old porter was forced to get to grips with after being told his hearing would never return.

Before that, he had run his own successful garage, but was forced to sell up after he was ill.

Mr Hartman recalled: “My first reaction was anger and frustration. Not being able to hear made me feel completely isolated.”

As he tried to adjust to his new circumstances, he learned to sign, then qualified as a sign language tutor.

He started as a porter at Basildon Hospital in 2008 and soon began putting his experience of life without hearing to good use.

He explained: “My deaf friends would tell me they didn’t mind coming to this hospital because I could sign for them, but I’m not always around, so I decided to try to make this the most deaf-friendly trust in the country, with at least one signer on every ward.”

The hospital trust’s education department agreed to fund sign language courses for staff, and Mr Hartman has now run five courses, with more planned for later this year.

Known for his jokey manner and upbeat personality, and for being an amazing lip-reader, Mr Hartman leads the courses in the hospital’s education centre.

As a result, Basildon Hospital now has good number of staff with the skills to communicate with deaf people, though Steve has promised to plough on until each ward has its own dedicated “signer”.

Among Steve’s graduates are Tracey Stone, an Accident and Emergency reception supervisor, and Melanie Quy, an administrator in the hospital’s chaplaincy department.

Ms Stone said: “Steve is a great teacher. I really enjoyed the course and I’m pleased to have been able to assist patients with my signing skills.”

Ms Quy added: “I went on the course after a deaf person came into the sanctuary, where the chaplains are based.

“It made me want to be able to communicate with people with hearing difficulties.”

Gill Shephard, an X-ray assistant and another former pupil, said: “Steve is really popular with staff and patients.

“Everyone knows him as a friendly guy, who will do anything to help anyone.

“He’s a fantastic tutor. Very patient, and with a great sense of humour.

“He explains to patients he is deaf and needs to lip-read, and he communicates really well with them.”