in deaf access, interpreting, profession

Making a Profit: A Deaf Wage?

Although we have had a two-tier system of access for the Deaf community since the register of interpreters was started, this is getting worse in our current economic climate.
By two-tier I mean the use of registered interpreters and the continued use of the unregistered signer who has yet to acquire the National Occupational Standards in order to be able to register.
We have seen what are called CSWs (Communication Support Workers) in education for a number of years. Started to plug a gap when interpreters were low in number, they no longer are, the use of the CSWs has spun out of control with many believing they are up to the job of interpreting. Many aren’t.
The term CSW has become a way of trying to give the untrained and often not fluent signer some credence, some recognition for the job of filling the gap and an excuse for service providers to say they have made a reasonable adjustment under British Law.
How did CSWs who were deemed suitable for education in the 1980’s become a stop gap for other areas such as community bookings and employment (funded by the government through its Access to Work scheme)?
Even some agencies who state they only use reigstered interpreters use them in other areas. Two I know use them for office interpreting with Deaf staff and one uses them both for their education service and as employment consultants. Whichever way you couch it the work this personnel is doing is interpreting i.e. translating from Sign Language to English or English to Sign Language. As much as an agency can say it only uses registered interpreters, it does not if it only adheres to those standards for certain areas.
So why does this two-tier system exist? Mainly profit and a few myths in existence which now no longer apply:
There are not enough interpreters… We have more interpreters on the register than ever and some are struggling to find work.
Interpreters are expensive…
a) The truth is that many agencies are expensive with some charging 50% more than the fee an interpreter charges. When you use an agency for your Access to Work interpreting it is your budget that is being eaten away in fees to that middle man.
b) CSWs are cheaper and more flexible. Many are not and charge similar prices to interpreters. Someone told me recently of someone with level 2 earning £40k a year by their own admission. Not bad for a GCSE qualification and someone is paying them. That does not constitue value for money by anyone’s standards.
Using agencies for public service contracts will save money…
Many signers are working at community bookings, mostly at the hands of spoken language agencies (one previous example I
have quoted of a level 3 signer in court was a spoken language agency). Having been successful in winning a contract or even a sub-contract many agencies find their profit margin decreases so they must squeeze the fees of the interpreter. FOI requests show per booking the cost of providing a signer was no cheaper than a registered interpreter. The cost of having to book an interpreter, often to repair the damage a signer did, can be worse. Use a cowboy, you usually then have to spend more to fix it.
In this two-tier market there are agencies and CSWs who continue to make a living out of the Deaf community without care or concern for the potential damage they do or the reduction in choice for the Deaf client.
There has been a phrase that Deaf people have used to denote a living someone makes from the Deaf community by someone that gives nothing back. It has been said that the person is making a ‘Deaf wage’.
Regardless of whether your marketing suggests you give something back, if you or your business make a profit by supporting this two-tier system, I suggest you could be deemed as earning a Deaf wage.

  1. CSWs are sometimes used in office situations because it is not just about sign language. Employees sometimes need assistance with checking/modifying English, which interpreters won’t do. Likewise, AtW might not fund an interpreter f/t, and the person becomes part administrator part communication support, they will step in for communication where necessary.
    I’m not stating I don’t agree with the main thrust of your argument, or there’s issues with this. Just stating these are practical considerations that assessors / deaf people / managers face.

    • Thanks for the comment.
      I think therein lies another myth. Many interpreters will do language modification and are much more flexible than many people realise. I am happy to look at a piece of English and tidy it up, have something signed to me and type it or write it up and continue editing something with a client. The only thing I won’t do is write something independently as that is doing someone’s job for them.
      When a CSW is charging only a bit less for a days work, Deaf people could be getting high quality support in an office and using an interpreter offers much more value for money.
      The use of what I would call a PA is slightly different, someone who would make calls and write emails independently on behalf of a Deaf person. I have to be honest this still sits uncomfortably with me as someone who is ‘helping’ but I do understand why some would want to employ them. We are all different after all.
      The issues of budgets is separate and a much bigger subject. The disparities between Access to Work (AtW) awards still astounds me. It’s something ASLI has been flagging up for years. Deaf people need to be empowered to be able to fight to get the support they need.
      The other thing to remember is AtW is the government’s largest underspent budget. It’s sometimes a hard fight to get it but what is better… Paying a little bit less for a CSW or using a Registered Interpreter who has that flexibility, you know has standards, training and insurance and if something goes wrong you can put in a complaint?
      It could mean the difference between promotion and losing your job. I’ve been involved in four different situations in the workplace over the years where a Deaf person has been involved in a disciplinary matter or suspended when a CSW was used in the office and incorrect interpretations and cultural misunderstandings took place. It took a Registered Interpreter to sort out the mess afterwards.

  2. Interpreters need to make that clear, if they are prepared to do this. I’ve worked for deaf organisations (including in partnership with ASLI to develop a policy) and I’ve always been told that an interpreter is there to interpret. “I won’t do modification of English” etc. I’m going back as far as the 1990s, even the earlier 2000s and more recently too.
    Terps used to be quite strict about it, so the “myth” didn’t come from nowhere – it was reality. I have been a user of interpreters for 20+ years, if you’re a long term user, then it is not about what you got told last week etc. And I don’t just mean long term user as a Deaf person, I’ve also been a manager / employee of Deaf people. If the situation has indeed changed, due to more interpreters or a larger willingness to do what you describe, then this needs to be advertised (and a lot, counteracting decades of practice/policy).

    • You are right. The ‘myth’ didn’t come from nowhere.
      I think more interpreters are flexible with regard to language modification. Degrees and Masters are often called ‘Interpreting and Translation’ now.
      I can not speak for all interpreters but I know many more that will modify/edit English and transcribe directlyfrom BSL. I know a few that will not for the reasons you describe. Not everybody has the skills to do so either. Perhaps more research needs to be done so we can find out exactly what interpreters will or will not do and then this can be communicated more widely.

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