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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Is some access better than no access at all?

318947873_12028f1b66_oThis is a question that crops-up time and time again in my profession  – and one which doesn’t have an easy answer in my opinion. One thing that springs to mind when thinking about this is the abysmal access the deaf community received at Nelson Mandela’s funeral with the fake interpreter. It is still not clear to me why he was hired in the first place. Perhaps it was a case of forgetting to book an interpreter and they were in desperate need of someone and he was the only one available; or perhaps he came out cheapest – some similar reasons I hear now and again why an interpreter wasn’t booked.  Whatever the reason in this situation, if this was the only person available (and I find that hard to believe) but let’s just say he was – then I would think the right decision would be not to provide an interpreter at all.

Speaking to a deaf lady recently, she said that perhaps it depends on the situation which requires an interpreter. She gave the example of a child protection meeting compared to a parents evening, giving less weight to the importance of a registered interpreter at a parents evening. Another example she gave is the utmost importance of having a registered interpreter available at a GP or hospital appointment so that the deaf person goes away with the full knowledge of what was their problem, diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, as the charity SignHealth has found all too often this is not the case as shown by the ‘Sick Of It’ report (http://www.signhealth.org.uk/health-information/sick-of-it-report/sick-of-it-in-english/sick-of-it-poor-treatment/ ) However, whilst this particular deaf lady may feel that she could tolerate an unregistered interpreter/signer, another deaf person’s view could be that this would be unacceptable. Perhaps this comes back to my previous blog about ‘choices’ https://chhinterpreting.com/2015/02/22/choices/.  That is, is it the deaf person’s right to choose who is and is not acceptable to interpret for them depending on their opinion of the situation?

As the deaf lady said, if she knew a person who was a proficient signer but had no qualifications to prove this and she wanted to use that person then she said that it was surely her right to have that person if she wished. I agree. Perhaps the problem lies when that choice is denied – that is, the deaf person wasn’t given the option. What’s more, perhaps one deaf person can get by with a level 2 signer that a school provided for a parents evening because they are able and happy to lip-read most of what the teacher is saying, so the signer is barely needed, except to clarify a few words lost on the lips. But how will that affect other deaf parents in the future? Perhaps in two years’ time in the same school a deaf parent will require an interpreter but is provided with an unregistered interpreter with no choice in the matter because the school saw how it ‘worked so well’ for a previous deaf parent so they now don’t understand why there should be a problem. The problem could be that this deaf parent finds it difficult to lip-read and can’t follow English as well as the previous deaf person (for example). Is there also an issue of hearing people being under a misapprehension when an unregistered interpreter and/or signer is used? They could believe that access has been provided and the needs of the deaf person matched by a level 2 signer being provided. However, that perception may well have been misinformed due to the hearing person having limited signing skills themselves and sees a person waving their hands about as satisfactory (as I probably would if I heard a German interpreter as I cannot speak or understand German).  Couple that with the deaf person declining to complain, and it could be assumed all is well and standards don’t need to be improved.

Furthermore, although it is about choice, if the deaf person was asked their preference how does this impact on the deaf person in feeling pressurised to accept a signer which is less costly than a registered interpreter? As with all people, this doesn’t just relate to the deaf community .  Some of us can be assertive and are aware of our rights, whereas others could feel obligated to accept whatever is provided and don’t want to ‘rock the boat’. Perhaps this contributes to the devastating results found in SignHealth’s ‘Sick of It’ report.

On top of that,  there is a lot more to interpreting than just being skilled in BSL. Swabey and Mickleson (2008 cited in Valero Garces and Martin 2008, p51) described sign language as “complex, linguistic, social cognitive and cultural process” and that interpreters have the potential impact on people’s lives (Swabey and Mickelson 2008 cited in Valero Garces and Martin 2008). Furthermore, an interpreter needs to be a holistic thinker, have reflective skills and be observant about experiences (Napier, Mckee and Goswell 2010). Therefore, whilst an unregistered interpreter / signer may have excellent linguistic skills, do they have the other attributes that have been described above to ensure high standards are maintained for the deaf person receiving the service?  Whilst it could be argued that registered newly qualified or trainee interpreters may not have attained all of the skills listed above, the assumption is that by being on a training course the interpreter is aware of their learning needs and seeking ways to achieve this.

Overall, this makes me think it’s about the importance of deaf people choosing who they wish to interpret for them. At the end of the day I am in my profession for the deaf community, so they should ultimately have the say on who they want to use as an interpreter (registered or not). I don’t believe there is anything wrong with trying to strive for the best.  One of the biggest reasons I believe in using registered interpreters is to promote, and to endeavour to have, the highest standards of interpreting available for all of the deaf community – that is if they want it.

References:

  • Swabey, L and Mickelson, P,G (2008) ‘Role Definition’ in Valero-Garces, C and Martin, A Crossing Borders in Community Interpreting Definitions and Dilemmas (2008) Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing Company, P51-71;
  • Napier, J, Mckee, R and Goswell, D (2010) Sign Language Interpreting Theory and Practice in Australia and New Zealand, Sydney, Federation Press;

Photo by Oberazzi found here – https://www.flickr.com/photos/oberazzi/