Why do we need a #platformcoop to deliver interpreting services for Deaf people?

This article was first posted on’s blog publication via Medium on 24th July. I’ve been rather quiet on this blog and elsewhere due to the ongoing work building this organisation and the platform that will go with it. If you are interested please read on, follow us on social media and sign up for our newsletter.

Our user-led platform coop has been borne out of a need to fix a broken system of how services like the NHS buy and agencies deliver (or rather don’t deliver!) interpreting services.

Ask any Deaf person about their access to health around the country and you’ll get a postcode lottery of answers. Ask anyone on Merseyside and you’ll find a shocking lack of provision and, where there is some kind of service in place, it’s generally not a very good one. A long list of agencies have been given contracts across the area but are mostly not specialists, the interpreters won’t work for them and the Deaf community do not know if there’ll be an interpreter there when they turn up for an appointment or even which agencies hold contracts.

There are some shocking stories where Deaf people are left without any interpreter at all and zero access to information. This is despite the NHS Accessible Information Standard now being in place. This impacts upon patient outcomes and can lead to serious implications such as misdiagnosis and treatment, and worse case scenario, preventable deaths (Sign Health’s Sick of It report, 2014).

When a Deaf person attends a medical appointment without an interpreter, they are not able to gain sufficient information to give consent, therefore any healthcare professional that carries out medical or surgical procedures without consent, could be charged with the crime of assault.

We’ve all been involved in different Deaf community organisations, interpreting organisations, the interpreters’ Union, NUBSLI, and been involved in campaigns work. We’ve had those conversations with national and local statutory organisations about the problems with the system and know that the best way of fixing this is by creating an alternative that can deliver, that provides social impact and that works for all users involved.

The only way an alternative will work is by creating a co-operative with both Deaf people and interpreters as members, and by working with services to co-create a digital platform that works for all three user groups.

Digital platform co-operatives have been gaining in popularity since 2015 as a way to use technology for good, to reinvent the internet and use platforms that serve workers and users rather than shareholders and provide better value for money for services and communities.

Our aim is to improve interpreting access to health for Deaf people. The long-term aim is to use profits after maintenance and development of the platform to improve standards and support within the interpreting profession. So as we improve access to health for Deaf people, the access they get will continue to get better and interpreters will be better supported.

Co-operatives UK and The Hive logos

We have been successful in getting support from The Hive via Co-operatives UK to get our governance, membership structures and finances in order and get incorporated. We are so passionate and excited about this venture. If you are too, you can show your support by sharing on social media, sign up for updates or send us a message.

Jen Smith, Nicky Evans, Kate Boddy and Wes Mehaffy

The Team

Market Solutions Part 2: Co-operatives

The rise of outsourcing of interpreters, a triple dip economy, a lack of service user involvement and a battle of the more unscrupulous agencies fighting to supply the cheapest have left us with a situation akin to the recent horse meat found in burgers scandal.
Professional Interpreters and service users have been left out in the cold with little say in quality and standards, the NHS and the Ministry of Justice being the worst culprits by far. With little monitoring and a lack of standards written into the contracts, this leaves us with little quality control and a sour taste in our mouths.
The first solution to the current market proposed on this blog was the most important: protection of the title of Interpreter making it illegal for anyone to call themselves an interpreter unless they had reached the appropriate standards such as those upheld by the national registers: NRPSI for spoken language interpreters and NRCPD for sign language interpreters.
The next solution proposed is the greater use of co-operatives. They are a British invention, examples including, The Co-operative Group and John Lewis. They have been proven  to work time and time again. There are over 5,000 in the UK already and it is increasingly the business model of choice as an antidote to the economy.
For years we have already had various networks, national and regional, formal and informal, and we need these more than ever if we are to protect our profession.
At the most basic level interpreters already pass work to trusted colleagues and have done for years. Many interpreters get several calls a week for work which they can not accept due to full diaries or other commitments. Many refer callers to the directories on the ASLI or NRCPD websites. For Deaf people asking, many interpreters go the extra distance. We often recommend someone we know who would be good for the job and may have other advantages such as living nearby, works in a particular specialty or would have a good rapport with the person asking. Sometimes we may even send out a text to our local network to see if someone is free or ask other local ASLI members.
Another example of local networks are websites that advertise the names of interpreters, some complete with testimonials and bios. Examples are BSL Interpreters in London and Conversant in Brighton. Ones that are run by trusted interpreters and that only advertise the details of NRCPD Registered Sign Language Interpreters (RSLIs) are obviously better. There are some terrible examples of websites of people saying they are experienced in interpreting but they do not have the safeguards in place that come with registration such as the right qualifications, professional indemnity insurance, CRB checks, adherence to a Code of Conduct and being subject to a complaints procedure.
Co-operatives take this to the next level and there is talk of a few being set up in order to combat the economic position we are left in. These would especially suit interpreters covering small geographical areas who have been hit by the worst contracting decisions leaving experienced interpreters with a shortage of work in favour of the barely fluent and untrained so-called signers.
The Co-operative Group states that,
‘A co-operative is a group of people acting together to meet the common needs and aspirations of its members, sharing ownership and making decisions democratically. 

Co-operatives are not about making big profits for shareholders, but creating value for customers – this is what gives co-operatives a unique character, and influences our values and principles.’
In short, setting up such a business would involve getting together with colleagues, creating a business plan and legal structure, discussing the hiring of staff and whether you would also want to bid for contracts. The sky is the limit.
With local interpreters on the board and the potential to consult with service users, co-operatives could provide the answer to many of the issues of outsourcing. It is not just about protecting the jobs of professional interpreters but the standards long fought for and protecting consumers of interpreting services. Users of languages other than English are now left out, unable to request the interpreters they want and often too disempowered to be able to complain. Contracts are between service providers and agencies. If a service user requests a particular interpreter this request can only be passed to the agency, often to be ignored. If there is a complaint, this too may be passed to the agency who may not do anything to resolve the issue. As far as both service provider and agency are concerned, they sourced an ‘interpreter’, job done. Stretched personnel such as hospital administrators, nurses, court clerks or judges do not have time to chase up complaints, check on standards or monitor contracts. Commissioners and government departments are allowing contract holders to do their own monitoring leaving us wide open to scandalous wastes of money.
Co-operatives have the potential to provide some real advantages to working interpreters and users of interpreting services including the following:

  • Members are more in control of local work.
  • Service users could have greater power in requesting interpreters.
  • Contracts can be gained along with all the advantages that brings for interpreters and local communities.
  • Greater protection of interpreting standards.
  • Keeps local interpreters working locally without having to travel further distances.
  • Co-operatives are social enterprises and can reinvest in local community projects.
  • Mitigates economic risk.

As with anything, there are some disadvantages:

  • Just as in a new business, setting up a co-operative can be hard work and requires the work of all of its members.
  • There are associated start up costs which need to be agreed and financed, though these can be kept to a minimum.
  • Potential conflict between members.
  • Needs all members to participate and share workload.

It would be nice to think this blogpost has inspired more interpreters to move on from networks to establishing co-operatives. This would go some way to better guarantee that the interpreters working with Deaf people in all areas, and especially courts and health services, can continue to work in their desired profession and are delivering a greater quality of service sandwiched between their hands.
More tips on setting up a co-operative can be found at the following websites:
Co-operatives UK – What is a Co-operative?
Bectu – New Guidance on Setting up a Co-op
The Ecologist – How to Start a Co-operative in Five Easy Steps
The Guardian – How to set up a co-operative – part one
The Guardian – How to set up a co-operative – part two
The Guardian – How to set up a co-operative – part three
The Guardian – Live Q&A: Starting up a co-operative
Seeds for Change – Worker Co-operatives Code of Conduct