in Access to Work, deaf access

Signers at Work: A Glass Ceiling for Deaf People

There is an important point to be explored that our mystery shopper made. There needs to be another look at the trend of falling of standards in interpreter provision that is clearly apparent and why this trend needs to be reversed.
It used to be the norm that an agency would provide a registered and therefore appropriately qualified interpreter for important jobs at the very least. I include in this not just courts and police but, and this is not an exhaustive list: tribunals, mental health, child protection, the trickier medical jobs and important workplace assignments such as interviews. Interviews of the kind used in the mystery survey, where so many agencies were keen to sell a Communication Support Worker (CSW) to the hearing consumer, who they offered ‘would be ‘good enough’.
We have several problems here: the ignorance of the consumer, the willingness of an agency to make the sale at the best profit possible, the lack of control of the Deaf consumer and ultimately the drop in standards we have now encountered due to these problems.
When climbing the career ladder toward registration it used to be oft repeated that registration was the ‘safe to practice’ benchmark. Somewhat like getting your driving licence. You’re supposed to know the theory of driving and have a little experience. You spend a significant amount of time after the test still learning, you can not drive every where and would not risk your life or anyone else’s by doing so. After passing your test and getting your licence you are still learning. You may decide to do some motorway lessons or take an advanced driving qualification but you would not attempt to drive round Brands Hatch without a crash helmet or an experienced tutor in tow. And you wouldn’t do that straight after your test. Agencies are providing, for job interviews, signers who have barely started their lessons and haven’t been on the road long enough to do justice to a Deaf person in an interview. Some of these agencies, Deaf-led.
Now signers: once registered you are signed up to a Code of Conduct that says you should not accept work for which you do not have the skills. It happens to all of us that once in a while we do a less than fantastic job but it is not acceptable to accept jobs and put people at risk knowingly. Through strong networks of support future interpreters could tap into that knowledge and throughout their study it was drummed into them that they should not work in certain areas. Why is that message not getting through? Is it the economic climate that takes precedent? Of course people need to work. The common term in the community was ‘cowboy interpreter’. Perhaps we should resurrect that phrase as it needs no further explanation. In a small community many future interpreters were concerned about taking on jobs for fear of ruining their future reputation. Perhaps this is less of a worry when you are given an endless stream of jobs by agencies who flout the conventions held up by the community for so long. There is now less motive to actually do more qualifications with a goal to becoming registered.
So why in the mystery shoppers survey did so many agencies recommend a CSW for a job interview and why are the Deaf community not up in arms about this?
Cost.
The myth is that the interpreter is expensive. No. Agencies are. The consumer pays more and quite frequently gets a reduction in quality of service provision as made apparent from the amount of agencies providing a CSW for a job interview.
At the higher cost end of the spectrum it was clear that many spoken language agencies were ripping off the consumer with a ridiculous profit margin. If they source an unqualified signer it would cost them in the region of £50. A 250% mark up. At least.
What is also apparent from the cheaper end of the spectrum is that you get what you pay for. Some agencies with cheaper costs are the ones taking advantage of the market to squeeze interpreters’ fees. All the Deaf person is going to get is someone with less experience. In some cases you do not get much for what you pay for. With a £5 difference per hour between a CSW and a registered interpreter it is clear which one is more value for money.
It is about time we saw a shift in the general mentality from ‘interpreters are too expensive’ to ‘my interpreter costs X because they are brilliant, reflect me well and I am more likely to get the job/get a promotion’. Until the whole of the Deaf community get behind the need for standards, for value for money, for regulation of interpreters and the right to quality then the whole system is in danger of imploding in on itself.
There is not enough space here to go into the problems of Access to Work budgets, that is a separate issue. There is not enough time to go into the problems we have with the current system. There is a clear need for real solutions. What we must not lose sight of is the following:
The government agenda within Access to Work is about right to control. In this situation the Deaf client had no control. The point that is oft repeated by ASLI’s Access to Work group to the DWP when representing ASLI members is that Deaf people should have the right to control, not from anyone in a free (mostly black) market but from a pool of registered and safe interpreters. That is the point of registration and the fact the consumer then has some kind of protection. When the booking is made by someone else, in this case the hearing consumer, all control is lost to the agency and consumer protection no longer exists.
Where are the rights of the Deaf person? Does anyone really believe the Deaf person would have got the job in the mystery shopping scenario with a CSW trying to interpret for their interview?
No. It’s about time we shifted the focus from cost to value. All of our aspirations should be higher rather than the self-imposed glass ceiling that is evident. It would be great if more Deaf people could earn more than the average interpreter (which for most of us after expenses is not that much). There are quite a few people out there that do. I’d imagine they understand the need for an experienced interpreter that offers value for money in order to break those barriers and truly see Deaf people gain work to their full potential.

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  1. As a counterpoint to your examples… (Saying that, I’d be very interested to know what others do w.r.t. regular ‘terp bookings)
    I work for a large company that is sufficiently big enough to have a team dedicated to booking interpreters. Rare, I realise. To the best of my knowledge, they try to book freelances in order to keep costs down, and only use agencies when no freelancers are available.
    You talk about deaf people working to their full potential. Now – at the end of the day, I’m being paid to do my job which is exactly spot on. However, booking ‘terps is an exhaustive process – one that I am not being paid to do whatsoever. I spend enough time keeping an eye on the internal team at work as it is(!) and the thought of doing this all myself fills me with dread frankly 🙂
    Now – what options does a deaf person working at a smaller company have if the advice is avoid using an agency that could be capable of handling all the bookings across the board on the behalf of the deaf person. Thinking back – I used to use Ealing Council (I think it was – it seems they don’t offer this service any more), and I was lucky in that they did offer to handle all my bookings on my behalf.

    • This is all exactly why we need new solutions that put the power back into the hands of the person booking whilst saving money from budgets and getting quality interpreters.
      I don’t claim to have the answers yet but they’ll be some more posts on this in the future.