Awareness and BSL ‘teaching’


Registration without regulation …

… what would be the point in that?

Registers are there for a reason.

  •  If it is for fire safety, then they must be available for a fire crew in an emergency.
  •  If it is to encourage attendance, then a way of monitoring the register and penalising those who don’t attend must be in place.
  •  If it is to give people confidence that a certain standard of service should be delivered, there must be a way of monitoring that service.

A new campaign called ‘Our Health in Your Hands’ has been launched “for the Deaf community.” (sounds like Action on Hearing Loss wrote this!) at the same time as interpreters around the UK are voicing widespread disquiet about the current NRCPD registration system.

The website has been set up in response to a survey of BSL users accessing healthcare in April 2012, but I would argue that the key findings from this survey, as detailed here, are fundamentally flawed!  The partners in this study (BDA, ASLI, AoHL, Signature, NRCPD, Sign Health & BSMHD) state that, “For the purpose of the survey ‘sign language interpreter’ is used to define anyone attending an appointment with the aim to provide translation.

It then goes on to assume that any misunderstanding of the interpreter, unhappiness with the standard of the interpreter or confusion because of poor communication, suggests “that Deaf people are not always being provided with registered, fully qualified, interpreters.“.  I can see no figures on how many of the interpreters used for the 305 people surveyed were or were not registered interpreters.

Do the partners in this survey believe that confusion, unhappiness and misunderstandings never occur when BSL users book a registered interpreter?  I’m sure they don’t believe that the assessment referred to on the OHIYH website: “The NRCPD has a register on the internet, of all the interpreters which have been assessed and are able to interpret to an agreed standard.” is some kind of miracle!  Once assessed, registered interpreters are perfect?

But in that case, where is the survey to find out how many BSL users were happy with the service provided by registered sign language interpreters?  Where are the statistics on how many RSLIs openly admit that they are scared to do police work, yet happily wander in to a hospital and interpret in life & death situations?  How many RSLIs have such a poor grasp of English that they can not cope in conferences or training programmes aimed at Deaf professionals, but will text a reminder to Mr Smith who can’t remember whether the Dr said 2 tablets 3 times a day or 3 tablets twice a day?

I am fully supportive of the idea of a register, but the current system is like a placebo.  It gives clients confidence, but it is a false confidence.  Without stronger regulation and a responsive complaints procedure which results in effective penalties for those interpreters who do not measure up, then it is a pointless effort!

Finally, the campaign seems to imply that BSL users have a legal right to an interpreter who is registered with NRCPD.  Terms like ‘proper qualifications’ and a promise that the workshops they run will show you how to complain ‘if the interpreter arrives but they are not registered with the NRCPD’, leave me a little bewildered.  There are other registration bodies and I do not see how a healthcare provider can be subject to a complaint if they use an interpreter who is registered elsewhere, or indeed, is qualified but not registered.  I understand that there are risks, but if a freelance worker has PII, CRB, etc – then surely they are suitable?

Agencies v Freelancers

In a (developing) profession where we are told there is a shortage of interpreters and a shortage of money to pay for them, why do we find ourself in a position where freelance professionals are in competition for jobs with agencies?

A boom in the number of agencies happened throughout the 90s, as interpreters and other ‘signers’ realised that there was money to be made from providing a booking service.  At that time remember, there would have been around 400 MRSLIs in England and Wales.

Now, there are twice as many interpreters, they are better organised in local and national groups, there are generic websites where contact details can be found, yet the agencies still spring up.

A recent example; an organisation was booking one of two local RSLIs to do a regular meeting.  Paying around £90 + local travel.  Suddenly, the local RSLIs were told that the organisation could only now book people through Action on Hearing Loss.  This was (so they were told) to save Access to Work money.

The same organisation now gets the same interpreters & (one assumes) pays agency fees on top of the interpreters’ fees.

Where is the sense in that?  There is more expense.  The Deaf person has no control over who is being booked.  There is no continuity or communication between RSLIs because no-one knows who did the job last month.

The competition between various agencies is also affecting interpreters.  As they offer interpreters for lower fees, we are then asked to reduce our prices.  Are the staff at the agency taking a pay cut?  Have they reduced their ‘admin fee’?  (Admin fee charged for the trouble of sending out 1 text message for a job in Halesowen to every RSLI and TI within 300 miles then sending an email to confirm!)

*awful analogy alert* If you want a can of Stella Artois, you will not be happy with Kwik Save ‘Value Lager’.  If agencies want to survive, they must concentrate on providing the best, not just filling every job that comes in.  We are reassuringly expensive too!

Registration – a cause for complaint?

I was never convinced that there was a need for registration with the IRP (Independent Registration Panel) when it was first set up.  It wasn’t until I started to find it difficult to get work that I finally registered with what had, by then, become the NRCPD (The National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People).

So, how is that working out for me?  Well – I pay an ever increasing fee to an organisation who seem very busy, but don’t actually do what I need them to do.  So, what is it that professionals and clients require from a registration system?

I suggest:

a) an assurance that the qualifications gained in order to register are of a sufficiently high standard to allow the professional to cover the majority of work offered.

b) a monitoring system of continual learning and/or reflective practice

c) a robust complaints procedure that has the power to suspend registration and remove it if necessary.

What do I feel NRCPD provide?  None of the above!

Does this mean I want the system scrapping?  No.  The confidence that the system gives to clients (Drs, solicitors, police, etc) is invaluable and the idea of striving to become registered undoubtedly stretches trainees … unfortunately, when the system is tested, it fails.

A colleague recounted a story to me of a complaint put forward to NRCPD.  Interpreter X had arrived at a court case and informed their legal team and the interpreter working for one of the other legal teams involved, that Deaf person B had a learning difficulty.  This ‘fact’ delayed the case by many months and an assessment was ordered which showed no such issue.  When my colleague tried to complain to NRCPD, they were told that they would need to provide the court transcript to ‘prove’ what had happened!!  The complaint was dropped and a dangerously naive interpreter continues to work with a yellow badge.

This kind of example shows a huge failing.  I understand that investigating complaints costs money, but if the system can not afford to do that, then it is worthless to all who are supposed to benefit.

Agencies like Action on Hearing Loss have backed registration, but of late seem to be showing a lack of confidence in the assurances it provides.   For them, and other interpreting agencies, RSLI (Registered Sign Language Interpreter) status should be a kind of ‘kite mark’ which means they don’t have to worry about seeing certificates, insurance, CRBs, etc.  They also shouldn’t need a complaints procedure, but I wonder if it would be more effective if complaints were made to booking agents rather than to NRCPD.

The NRCPD has had great exposure and support from the profession which has led to a wide recognition of the system.  Local groups and national organisations have spent time and energy educating communities about the system (and re-educating them when it changed) which leaves them in the perfect position to provide all that we want, but they are stumbling.

Can we give them time to recover or is it time to put them out to pasture?  If it’s the latter, then who/what would replace them?

‘Learning to sign’ v ‘Communicating’

Whilst I appreciate the work of various organisations who are promoting awareness, I wish people would stop emphasising the importance of everyone learning British Sign Language.  The reality is that most people will learn/remember the signs for about 10 words (inc ‘turtle’ & ‘bullshit’) and then give up.

Let’s teach people not to be scared of communicating with Deaf people even though they can’t sign.

My carer … I mean – career as an interpreter.

I’m all for negotiating fees and making decisions based on good sound business sense, but a line has to be drawn!

When was the last time you got in a taxi, and the driver said, “It’ll be half price today cos I’m on my way there to pick someone up anyway.”?  When did a mechanic ever say to you, “It’s only taken me 45 minutes so we won’t charge you the full hour for labour.”?  When did a dentist say, “Don’t worry that you missed your appointment, someone else came in so I didn’t lose any money.”?

BSL/English interpreters will never be seen/treated as professionals until they act like professionals.  If agencies put out assignments to the lowest bidder or on a ‘fastest finger wins’ basis, then the interpreters in least demand will be the ones mopping up that work.  Deaf people will never get a professional service until they stop moaning about fees (which, as a general rule they don’t pay from their own pocket) and accept cancellation terms as they do with other services.

It is very easy as a young trainee interpreter to do favours and cut deals – this ensures a certain amount of work and makes good contacts.  That’s all well and good when you’re living at home with your parents, but the lack of structure in interpreter fees (a newly qualified will often charge the same hourly rate as someone with 20 years experience) means that as you move on in life, start a family, buy a house, etc, your income stays the same. Worse than that, there are young trainees doing favours and cutting deals with your regular clients!

The huge increase in the number of interpreters (and Signature still crying about a chronic shortage) out in the field, whether they are registered or not, coupled with public services cutting costs where ever possible will have a massive impact on the viability of an interpreting career.

What do Deaf professionals and the Deaf community want?  Professional interpreters who work in a consistent manner, or well paid carers who can sign? If it’s the latter, then let’s teach everyone ‘a bit of sign’ and train interpreters in universities which have a vested interest in passing people.

If it’s the former, then reclaim your language and demand tougher examination of interpreters.  Make your black list and tell the agencies that provide you with interpreters who you want/don’t want to work with.  Challenge those who set the budget for Access to Work if it’s not enough to pay for true access.

A dream of a job?

As announced, I want to tell you about my dream.

I was asked, with about a dozen other interpreters, to be part of a dramatic production which would form part of an evenings entertainment for the Queen. (Please remember, this was a dream!)

Our section of the entertainment was going to be the second in the programme of events.  We were to use it to demonstrate how we provide access in situations where Deaf and hearing people meet.  The rehearsals went well and we were ready to impress.  What a fabulous, accessible event ….. isn’t it?

It was at this point that I realised that our section was the only bit of the night that would be accessible!  No interpreter with the MC, none of the other sections interpreted!  What the hell …..?

Not a problem though, surely?  After all, there were a dozen of us!  We could do this!

Alas …. no-one else was willing to actually interpret in front of the Queen and television cameras!  I ended up doing the entire evening alone! *end of dream*

Question – is the truth far from my dream?  Do we care more about ‘being seen as interpreters’ than about ‘interpreting’?  Has the purpose been forgotten and replaced with image?