Much has been said about the national shortage of British Sign Language/English Interpreters compared to countries such as Finland. Over the years, there have been various initiatives to increase their numbers and improve professional regulation. In Scotland, there are around 80 BSL/English interpreters registered with either NRCPD or SASLI, covering approximately 13,000 BSL users.
Action on Hearing Loss (AoHL) estimates that there around 850,000 people with a hearing loss in Scotland. The majority of these communicate using English. They rely upon communication support provided by speech to text reporters (STTRs), electronic or manual notetakers, and lipspeakers.
Collectively, this group is known as Access to Communication in English (ACE) professionals. NRCPD is the only body which holds a register for all of the ACE professions.
So there are lots of registered ACE professionals, aren’t there? In fact, there are only three registered ACE professionals for the whole of Scotland. That is equivalent to one registered electronic notetaker or lipspeaker for every 283,000 D/deaf people.
A further eight are eligible, but not registered with NRCPD. The figures are similar for Northern Ireland and Wales, with only a moderate improvement for England. Deaf English users are unable to access registered communication professionals when and how they need to.
Signature withdrew its entire portfolio of ACE qualifications in 2011. Since then, there has been no training pathway towards NRCPD registration for notetakers or lipspeakers anywhere in the UK. To compound the problem, NRCPD no longer recognises the old Level 2 lipspeaking or electronic/manual notetaking awards for the purposes of registration. There is a new Signature lipspeaking course due to be launched soon.
For electronic notetaking however, the only formal qualification available is an Open College Network Award. This is run by training centres in London (City Lit) and Manchester. This award has still not been accredited by NRCPD and does not lead to registration status.
Why is registration important? NRCPD registration ensures that you have met the national occupational standards (NOS). Registrants agree to adhere to a code of conduct and abide by a formal complaints procedure. This protects service users and ensures that confidentiality will be maintained. Registrants must also hold professional indemnity insurance, have undergone criminal records checks and commit to at least 30 hours of continuous professional development each year.
In Scotland, there are no registered verbatim speech to text reporters. Therefore, electronic notetakers provide a non-verbatim communication service. They work in the same domains as BSL/English interpreters. This includes all levels of court, tribunals, police interviews and medical settings.
The Scottish legal system largely recognises the importance of using qualified, registered BSL interpreters. However, this is not the case with electronic notetakers. The emergence of “Remote Respeakers” is set to complicate matters further still.
Remote respeakers use voice recognition technology to produce live captions at meetings and events. Currently there is no recognised respeaker training programme that leads to NRCPD registration.
For BSL interpreters, there is a risk of co-working with unqualified, unregistered electronic notetakers or respeakers. Each of these produce a permanent record of the interpreter’s English interpretation. Most of these people are not registered so if there is any dubiety over what appears in the transcript, then it’s the SLI who is more likely to be sanctioned since only the interpreter will be registered. Many interpreters do not seem to realise that the Electronic Notetakers are unregistered, or in some cases, unqualified. Increasingly, they are expected to provide a transcript of the discussion not just to clients but event organisers. The transcript might then be shared with a wider audience or even published online.
If a complaint is made to a registration panel about the accuracy of an interpreter’s words in a transcript, only the registered communication professional can be disciplined. How would this affect the interpreter’s insurance cover? This has yet to be tested.
What can be done to address this situation? Deaf people should be able to access communication in their own language. Whenever, and however they need it. If booking an electronic notetaker or lipspeaker, ask if they are qualified. Ask if the communication professional is registered with NRCPD. Ask if they hold any qualifications. And if not, why not.