in interpreting, outsourcing

Interpreters: Undervalued, Under-respected and Under-employed

There are many reasons as to why I started this blog. Mostly it is because in the face of a changing market I felt interpreting had become undervalued. The profession was changing as a result and was affecting not only interpreters but also access for the Deaf community.
The hot topic between interpreters whenever they meet is usually are you getting enough work right now. Mostly, we’re not.
With spoken language agencies taking a lot of the health, council and legal contracts, there are interpreters out there who are now struggling to find work. It is not that the work has disappeared. Deaf people haven’t. It’s just a fact that Registered Interpreters are being used less. We are under-employed.
Over the years I have heard interpreters and Deaf people say community interpreting should be done by the best interpreters but is often done by the least experienced. Why do a GP job when you can interpret a conference? Of course all access is important for Deaf people but it is some of the most vulnerable Deaf people that need access to community interpreters. By ‘community’ I include medical, legal, mental health, social services, housing…
A community interpreter has to be prepared for anything. They need a large toolbox of skills to be able to give access to a Deaf person who may have minimal language skills, poor educational background, learning disabilities, mental health issues, a different sign language if a recent immigrant or maybe very little sign language at all. A Deaf relay interpreter is not always at hand.
Can an unregistered inexperienced signer have the confidence to know that the Deaf person left knowing how to take their tablets and that they understand their condition, symptoms or lack of them? Did they facilitate communication in a mental health appointment so that a Care Co-ordinator or Psychologist could do their job and know that their patient was safe? Is a Looked After Child really safe if a Social Worker does not get full access to what is happening at an appointment? Does the Deaf parents’ child get taken away if an Interpreter is not there to communicate for Mum and Dad? Do they then end up in court proceedings and would they have access to the justice system?
It takes years to train as an Interpreter and get the appropriate skills to deal with the above scenarios. The more you understand the intricacies of community interpreting the more you understand an experienced Interpreter is not an option but a necessity.
Why then have spoken language agencies been awarded some of these contracts? Do they really say they can provide interpreters for the unit costs that are being quoted? A colleague did some mystery shopping with some spoken language agencies and found, in horror, many were willing to accept her for work without seeing a police check, insurance or even any qualifications. Some were not only prepared to put someone with a level 2 (GCSE equivalent) or 3 (A-Level) qualification but some did not even ask for any qualifications at all. That is right. You can now be employed to be a Sign Language Interpreter without knowing any Sign Language. And get paid for it. This is how some NHS trusts and councils are spending their interpreting budgets.
I feel respected by other professionals for my skills. I think we rarely get this respect from Commissioners of services. Paying for a Registered Interpreter means other professionals can do their jobs properly and therefore safely. There is value for money in this alone. It is an utter waste of public funds that contracts are not effectively monitored, FOIs reveal some organisations are paying the same per interpreter booking but for people with GCSE language skills. Could you interpret a medical appointment with GCSE Spanish? On the other hand Registered Interpreters are struggling to find work. We are officially under-employed.
The implications of this are immense. We may see a profession that sheds its most experienced members, people may stop training (why pay for qualifications when you can get work at the hospital with level 2) and community interpreting will become community signing. Deaf people will not get access to services, including the most vulnerable Deaf people who need it the most.
Interpreters. We are being undervalued, under-respected and under-employed. But it isn’t just about us as Interpreters. We are just the ones that get to see most of these changes first. Sometimes that means we are the first to shout about it. Not just because we earn money from interpreting but because Deaf people are our family and friends. Most really good interpreters are part of the Deaf community too. With the really horrific stories that are coming out now about a lack of access, a lack of understanding by authorities and worse, mishaps, misdiagnosis and fatalities it is only a matter of time before all of this becomes more public. With community interpreting being decimated by commissioners and government policies what it really means is that Deaf people are being undervalued and under-respected too.

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  1. I’m studying to be a sign language (ASL) interpreter in the U.S., and I feel what you’re saying.
    I went to an ASL practice group hosted by a woman who claimed she was right about to graduate as a sign interpreter. She didn’t have any idea how to produce signs that I consider *basic* vocabulary, and some of the signs she did produce were very poorly executed!
    All I could think after that experience was, “That is *not* going to be me.” As terrible as this may sound, I sincerely hope that woman does not pass her certification exam. At least not until she holds herself to higher standards of linguistic competence.

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