Interpreters being scapegoated; access to services for BSL users being denied – I cannot be a bystander….

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As a freelance interpreter I take direct bookings from a hearing or deaf person but also accept work through interpreting agencies. With large public bodies no longer able, or willing, to pay interpreters on an individual basis they  are starting to use agencies to make booking interpreters easier and to make the agencies  responsible for sorting most things , e.g. invoicing, assignment details, etc.

Since working as a sign language interpreter I feel I have good working relationships with a variety of agencies. However, one agency in particular, has not improved its working practices, despite numerous meetings with sign language interpreter associations, legal action taken individually by interpreters, feedback from the local, deaf community or letters sent by unions. Alarmingly, these, seemingly,  poor working practices are being disguised as interpreters not turning up to appointments, i.e. BSL/English interpreters are being used as scapegoats.

Before the agency was awarded the contract for a public service, it was operated by a local, BSL specialist agency. Maybe it’s true what they say, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Because, now that BSL specific agency no longer exists (it ceased operating December 2017), it has left a gap in sourcing interpreters for a  specific domain that this new agency has been unable to fill. It has also meant that we, as interpreters, know how a good agency can be run, e.g. woking alongside its freelance interpreters, rather than seeing them as something that needs to be tolerated.

Among other issues, there are two significant problems which have been a regular occurrence for this agency not only in this new contract but in other contracts they hold in the South West (and from what I am aware of from other interpreting colleagues across the UK, these issues may not be exclusive to the South West peninsula). These issues are: 1) providing a non-registered, unqualified interpreter to medical appointments, and 2) persistent late payments for work undertaken to interpreters and /or no payment at all.

  1. Medical assignments are inherently complex, with high risks if information is misunderstood. The ‘Sick of It’  report published in 2014 https://www.signhealth.org.uk/health-information/sick-of-it-report/  found that BSL users had worse health outcomes than the general population. Not only does this mean missed diagnosis and poor treatment for BSL users, but it costs the NHS £30 million per year. Therefore, any agency providing non-registered interpreters to such assignments are increasing costs to their client- which contracting an agency is supposed to make more less costly. For example, I was told  by an organisation that it is cheaper for them to outsource their interpreting bookings to an agency than it would be to pay someone to manage interpreting bookings because of the costs of a full time salary and the benefit associated with that (sick pay, holidays, etc). Yet, this agency’s policies and procedures stated that they only recruit interpreters who are NRCPD registered https://www.nrcpd.org.uk/index.php. When challenged about this it was stated that this was because the agency was finding it hard to find interpreters who want to work for them . This leads me onto issue number 2:
  2. There has been persistent late/ none payments for a significant period of time since this agency was awarded a contract for a public service in the South West. Since being awarded this new contract recently in Devon, the issue of payments has not improved and has resulted in many interpreters starting legal proceedings to try to retrieve the money they are owed through working for them. This, of course, has meant that a large proportion of most of the interpreters in this area are refusing to work for this agency as there is no guarantee they will be remunerated for the work they have done. And, if they are finally paid, this entails reminder emails, phone calls and texts to chase payment.

So, maybe the answer is simple – I am a freelance interpreter, I can decide who I will and will not work for, right? Well, in some ways – yes. But I like to believe that the majority of interpreters I have worked with have chosen this line of work because we have an interest in the well-being of the people for whom we work. In an article by Street Leverage https://streetleverage.com/2013/02/sign-language-interpreters-and-the-quest-for-a-deaf-heart/  it talks about cultivating a ‘Deaf heart’. It also states that “Part of having a Deaf heart is caring enough about the well-being of Deaf people and their communities to put them above ego, pride, and unwillingness to fight for what is right.” This doesn’t mean that I believe all interpreters should be working for this agency regardless of whether they receive payment for their work. On the contrary, I am proud of myself and other colleagues I know who have worked hard and paid their way to earn their title as a professional. However, it does mean this agency takes advantage of our good will and Deaf heart. And so, the original question above that seemed easy to answer is now grey and unclear as to the outcome. Essentially, if we don’t provide interpretation for these appointments, then who will? And so, do some interpreters find themselves accepting some work regardless of whether they know they will be paid. Not because they don’t care about money – I think this is a naive stance and for the profession to achieve as much as it has done to date, this has meant orchestrating appropriate recompense for our services as sign language interpreters. But, it will mean interpreters cannot turn a blind eye to the issues surrounding them both locally and nationally. Whilst interpreters can still take a stance to not work for this agency, it is therefore necessary and relevant for those interpreters to not act as bystanders to the dire situation unravelling in the Devon area, but to look at ways to make sure voices are heard and actions taken.

There also seems to be a default narrative that when an agency such as this one fails to provide interpreters there is a disservice to the deaf community. But what about the disservice to the hearing folk we also interpret for? Let’s not forget that it is not just about the deaf person, for example, unable to understand the diagnosis from their doctor, but surely it is also about the doctor unable to diagnose their patient? I believe they too have a duty to report such instances and not to be a bystander to these avoidable occurrences. They too have a responsibility to investigate why an interpreter was not present at an appointment or ask to see their ID badge which should show they are part of NRCPD.

It does not have to be like this when working with agencies. Many agencies I work with demonstrate their ability to do a good service to the service user (both deaf and hearing) and form a good, working relationship with its interpreters. Almost as if the agency and the interpreters have the same aim – providing high quality interpreting for both the deaf and hearing client! What is currently taking place in the South West IS avoidable, unnecessary and needs to be stopped and action taken by all parties involved – the deaf community, interpreters and hearing folk. As the ASLI representative for the Devon and Cornwall interpreters, but also as an interpreter directly affected by this, I will be part of this action and not a bystander.

Who’s with me?

 

Photo by: https://www.flickr.com/photos/57466809@N07/5607861762/in/photolist-9xxKVL-qfuFfA-oV1Vjf-av9WYv-7a84GA-gkWRzJ-7zdceS-86DmKm-pMyZ6m-dxr8hK-vA2wN-RNWKM6-nftAEv-59MbZg-rRvKH-7QaAjH-VkHg62-pY9duu-dNMntv-U1BwSP-ewAY1r-UvXgDg-TKk99s-jrTMjs-TrRTgV-R7hY7n-aBNPhb-wbhNeY-4m5NuZ-bZ374-o5ZhXc-no2K1x-5R8UR3-dK1Eis-Tv81im-bQcGhn-dB6UZe-CGw82S-p3uFTA-d68M9W-2A2Sus-3YsXBy-cbnpq-65Nuan-eWd1fV-6cY1Jh-57s47x-d9KDXv-CiyiMG-bkQWJt

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I just can’t hear you….

8617995216_771cc8615e_q‘I just can’t hear you..’ said my Dad. Through gritted teeth I repeated what I had originally said to him. I then paused and felt the biggest hypocrite and quite mean! Why was I treating my father any differently from when I meet deaf people who cannot hear me? Looking back I can get quite frustrated with older people with hearing loss, who find it difficult to hear me. I go to raise my hands but realise they cannot sign, so that strategy is no use when trying to communicate with older adults with hearing loss.

However, other strategies that I use when communicating with a deaf person can help when talking with my Dad, and yet I don’t seem to use these. The strategies are things such as looking at him when talking to him. Too many times I’ll try to talk to my dad whilst I am walking away from him. No wonder he can’t hear me! Not only this, but when we are at the dinner table, for example for Christmas dinner, my Dad was left out of about 50% of the conversation because he could not keep up with everyone talking all at once. I did try to keep him in the conversation, but maybe I didn’t try as much as I would have if someone deaf was next to me. But why? Perhaps hearing loss is a lot closer to home than I previously realised and perhaps I need to practice more of what I preach. Sorry Dad!

Image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/94630727@N07/8617995216/in/photolist-e8xtJq

What’s your daily commute like?

It was only when I had a puncture last Sunday driving home from Bristol that it made me stop and think about how much I rely and use my car for my interpreting work. As you’ll see from my webpage ‘About’, I travel all over the South West – Devon, Cornwall, Plymouth, Somerset and Dorset. It can be lovely.  Just a couple of weeks ago I drove back from Cornwall with the sun out and hardly any traffic on the roads. I don’t see driving for my work as a chore, but it did make me think about staying safe and healthy when driving. Changing my mode of transport is almost impossible for the distances I need to travel. I couldn’t contemplate getting the train or bus.  That’s not only because of the time difference between these modes and the car but also because a lot of my destinations are not conveniently near a bus stop or train station. On the rare occasion I could, possibly, entertain the idea of travelling by bike, if I know I will be working in one place for the day or a few places in the Exeter area. This is an enjoyable prospect as I look out of my window on a nice, sunny, day, but I don’t think it would be fair to arrive at an assignment beetroot-red face and trying to compose myself whilst burning inside from the heat and wiping my brow from sweat!

Most interpreters living in the South West region will travel long distances by car due to the rurality and span of the region. Because of the national shortage of interpreters it’s not unusual for me to be in Exeter in the morning and Cornwall in the afternoon. Not only is it important for my wellbeing to make sure I have given myself plenty of time to get to my destination and planned my journey in advance, but also to ensure I am not exhausted by the trip which would affect my ability to interpret to the standard clients understandably expect. Having said this, I do seem to spend a lot of time in my car – not driving, but waiting for an acceptable time to go into the venue and introduce myself. Somehow I don’t think those who have booked me would welcome me arriving 45 minutes before the agreed time! This often happens because I have given myself far too much time to make a journey for fear of being late, only to find the roads were clear and I caught every green light on the road.

So, apart from cycling on the odd occasion, it seems driving wins for my commute! I am not alone in this prospect – the RAC claim that 7 out of 10 people in rural areas get to work by car than bus or train http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25175752. What’s more the average British commuting time is the highest in Europe http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-road-to-happiness-dont-catch-the-bus-to-work-9124322.html. One of the main things I consider when driving is fatigue. Fatigue is a factor in up to 10% of accidents – so it is important I don’t start a long journey if I am tired http://www.theaa.com/public_affairs/reports/tired-drivers.html. It is also those distances where I travel on dual carriageways (A30 Cornwall to Exeter) or motorways (M5 Exeter to Bristol) where I am most at risk as this type of driving is monotonous, with fewer interruptions and challenging scenarios to keep me alert and attentive http://www.brake.org.uk/info-resources/info-research/road-safety-factsheets/15-facts-a-resources/facts/485-driver-tiredness. Also – a little fact for the day – our bodies have a natural dip in energy at the times 2pm to 4pm making us sleepy and less able to concentrate http://www.brake.org.uk/info-resources/info-research/road-safety-factsheets/15-facts-a-resources/facts/485-driver-tiredness.

Sometimes I have finished an assignment and I can be in such a rush to get home. However, advice from other interpreters has been to have a short walk before I attempt a long journey home. I often do this when driving back from Plymouth, particularly driving on dark, rainy nights as the drive can become monotonous. One slight problem with this is I can be drawn into Drake Circus (the shopping centre in Plymouth) and end up exercising my debit card rather than my feet! I also try to leave plenty of time to get to an assignment. This is not only so that I can arrive at the venue in  plenty of time to meet with those I am going to be working with (co-workers, clients, etc) and set myself up looking at any prep that may have been provided, e.g. powerpoint slides, but it also has a massive effect on my levels of stress. When I feel I am short for time I can physically feel myself breathing more heavily as I feel out of control and more likely to drive dangerously in my attempt to get to the venue quicker. On longer journeys I also factor in breaks and even see it as a treat, e.g. I will treat myself to my favourite, soy, skinny, decaf late from Starbucks on one of the service stations on the A30. And, of course I keep my music fresh in my car so that I can have a good old sing along to myself and other drivers looking at me as if I am mouthing something to them (I currently have Taylor Swift in my CD player – don’t judge!).

Being alert and constantly being aware of what is going on around you whilst you are driving will obviously have a number of effects psychologically and physically (I know I slouch quite a bit whilst driving and I am in the same position sometimes for an hour and a half). Whatever job you may have (interpreter or not) I think it is worth remembering and doing things to ensure our health and wellbeing are affected by driving as little as possible. Happy driving!