Me and the case in rehearsals.
Interpreting Dreadnought’s production of ‘The Cause’, touring throughout the South West, has sadly now come to an end. It is as they say ‘all good things come to an end’ – and it was, a very good thing! Both in terms (of course) that access to theatre for people who use BSL as their first language, but equally for me as an opportunity to interpret in theatre again. It was extraordinary for me this time that I also had the privilege of interpreting the play more than once because I travelled with the Dreadnought crew to four of their touring locations in Devon and Cornwall. Interpreting a play more than once is a dream for many theatre interpreters as they will have the opportunity to evaluate their work and improve upon anything ready for the next show.
I used my time wisely and invited my mentor to the first performance in South Devon, so I had two sets of eyes (mine and hers) to evaluate my interpretation. Whilst it is very kind for people to say that I looked ‘very good’, these aren’t always reliable sources of feedback due to the nature of their comments – usually they are trying to be kind, or they might not understand BSL to make any meaningful comments (although, always nice to be told that I am doing a good job!) Another set of eyes (my mentor) meant that I not only avoid the risk of ‘head in the clouds’ attitude that all is OK and nothing needs to be changed, but more so to stop me from being too critical on myself and having more of a constructive view to work from.
I was also very fortunate that the attitude from Dreadnought was very flexible and open minded when it came to including a BSL interpreter into their performances. They made it very clear from the start that they did not want it to be just a token gesture, but also something for them to learn from so that they will have more of an understanding of how to make their performances accessible in the future. Their flexibility included having numerous meetings with the director and writer of the play to discuss my positioning on stage and the resources I needed from them in order to start prepping the play effectively. Among many other things, this included having early access to the script; a filmed performance for me to have available at home; complementary tickets to as many performances to help me understand the concept of the play and characterisation. I was also invited to the rehearsals, where I could stand and have an open dialogue with the actors in what they thought might work well.
Whilst the above might seem standard to what you would expect an interpreter would need in order to help prepare for a theatre production, these things aren’t always available. This can depend on things such as the attitude of the director, i.e. they’ve been told they are having an interpreter in their play, rather than them seeking to make their play more inclusive. This can sometimes lead to challenging discussions about where they want the interpreter to stand on stage and where I believe it would be more beneficial to the deaf audience. It can also be linked to time constraints in that an interpreter is sometimes not sourced until a couple of weeks before the scheduled performance. It was a luxury that I was given the script and met with Dreadnought in spring this year and the BSL interpreted performances did not start until autumn.
Having more than one performance date I believe helped me to improve as the performances toured in and around Devon and Cornwall. Whilst it is always important to self-reflect after interpreting assignments – particularly theatre work to think about what I could do differently next time for a different show – I actually had the opportunity to have a ‘next time’ for the same play.
So, this week was my final week working at Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education (the Academy). That means I am no longer a PAYE employee and the safety net of a regular wage has gone. I enjoyed working at the Academy as an Equal Access Coordinator to help ensure access to communication for the deaf staff was on par with those who are hearing. Principally, I made sure all communication sent to staff, i.e. all staff emails, newsletters, etc. had a BSL translation (in video form) to accompany the English text. This helped to make sure deaf people were not the last to know about news and information happening in and around the Academy. Previously, deaf staff would receive emails with no BSL translation which meant that for some, they would struggle to understand the message perhaps because there was too much jargon or ‘flowery’ language or quite simply because English is, for most deaf people, their second language. A dual communication policy has since been released stating that no all staff email can be sent without a BSL translation attached and they must be sent at the same time (i.e. not the English email sent and then BSL translation sent 1 week later). This is a real innovative step for an organisation – and whilst you may be thinking this seems a simple thing to do – you would be surprised at just how many workplaces don’t do this, particularly those who employ deaf staff. I hope that the Academy continues its practice and other organisations copy shortly.
The Academy job was a good one and I worked with some great people, but I was finding it increasingly difficult juggling working at the Academy for 2 days and freelancing as an interpreter for the rest of the week. Interpreting is my real passion. I do feel working at the Academy in this capacity has helped me as an interpreter because it has given me an insight into some of the challenges people who are deaf can face when at work. It has also helped me to see certain situations from both perspectives, not only in terms of deaf staff, but also seeing hearing staff wanting to change attitudes and improve access but finding that it isn’t something that can happen overnight. Of course, in any organisation, change is not easy and there will be some reluctance shown by staff. Hence, the importance of deaf awareness for new and existing staff. As mentioned in my previous post ‘Deaf awareness, for what it’s worth…’ hearing people are not naturally deaf aware. I believe holding both perspectives of hearing and deaf people in mind when interpreting will help me appreciate that not everyone knows how to work with a BSL interpreter or are deaf aware just because they have deaf staff working with them.
A new beginning? Yes indeed it is. Challenges ahead? I expect so. But not only for me as a freelance interpreter, but also for the BSL interpreting profession as a whole. Things have still not settled with the recent cuts and changes to the Access to Work scheme (‘A2W’: a service provided by the government to support anyone whose health or disability affects the way they do their job) and discussions are on going. In the meantime, this is causing untold stress in the workplace for deaf employees who are unsure if their support will continue hindering their ability to do their job; the introduction of the National Framework Agreement (NFA) where the government has asked companies to bid for a new national contract to provide language and translation services including BSL interpreters – a worry that contractors will reduce or ignore fair fees in order to maximise profits, having a profound effect on quality and standards ;and, whether you believe the figures or not, The National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI) reports 48% of the profession are thinking or already actively seeking to leave the profession because of such changes http://www.uniteforoursociety.org/blog/entry/british-sign-language-interpreting-a-profession-in-decline/ . Other challenges are those still employing people who have not received training as a registered interpreter to support and work with deaf people – and deaf people feeling unable to complain that a signer has been employed with barely conversational BSL (level 1 and 2) perhaps because they don’t want to make a fuss in case their employer deems them to be complaining and a nuisance. These are just a few challenges and there are many more I have not mentioned – to be explored in future blogs. But, is there hope and opportunities for the future? Of course! I am hopeful I can be an ‘agent for change’ to educate people – both in working as an interpreter and, if only in a small way, by writing my blogs http://www.streetleverage.com/2013/04/ethical-choices-educational-sign-language-interpreters-as-change-agents/ . As the message gets out into the public domain, then perhaps deaf awareness increases and A2W will achieve an outcome shortly which will be for the interests of those depending on it; the NFA will safeguard deaf customers who are entitled to appropriately qualified registered BSL interpreters who will be paid competitive fees.
How will it all pan out? Watch this space….