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?
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.

CSWs – Register your Disinterest for proper Deaf access

We have an established register for interpreters, the NRCPD. Though not everyone has faith in that register. I would suggest that is partly due to interpreters regularly accepting work for which they are not skilled enough which has brought about the misconception that the RSLI standard is not good enough. I’d suggest it is in most cases but that interpreters need to be supported to gain experience gradually and safely. There has, as yet, been no moves towards creating a category for senior practitioners to distinguish the more experienced from those that have just started. There is in short no advanced driver equivalent as yet.
A recent letter from the NRPSI, the register for spoken language interpreters, asked for continued support from interpreters to strengthen the register and stated that they were working towards publicising the register.
Where there is little support for the NRCPD I suspect there are a few reasons:
1) Scant work to publicise to service users or commissioners that registration is of the utmost importance.
2) No regulation of agencies – a charter mark guaranteeing quality and adherence to standards would be a start.
3) The previously stated perception that standards have slipped.
4) The removal of the Code of Ethics. We have a weaker Code of Conduct. This was to bring us in line with others on the register. I’d suggest rather than weakening our Code, other professionals should have had the opportunity to abide by an ethical code rather than a pared down, prescriptive, behavioural code. Recent emails on e-groups have shown some interpreters barely understand the Code they purport to follow.
I think, just like the statement by NRPSI, that interpreters should support their register. If we are to be united, especially without a union, this is the only way. One caveat. For the register to be supported those that run it need to listen to the interpreters on that register and work towards making it as robust as possible i.e. if you are not on the register, you can not work as an interpreter.
The latest news and the subject which gets me blogging is astounding. It has been mooted for years and is incredibly unpopular with interpreters: the establishment of a register for CSWs. A letter and a proposal has been forwarded to NRCPD and a process is underway to develop a proposal and take this to further consultation.
I’d urge the NRCPD to think carefully about the disastrous effects this will have on Deaf students. Interpreters, once qualified and working for a few years, understand the difficulty of the job. It can not be done by those not yet assessed as fluent in BSL i.e those with level 2 and 3 qualifications.
Those that run CSW organisations, run training courses for CSWs or agencies that use CSWs usually have a vested interest: money or status. The only training CSWs should be doing is not how to perfect their interpreting into English or courses in international sign. There should be a single focus on the main language and interpreting qualifications in order to make them ‘safe’ and get people to the point where they can register for the sake of students and the wider Deaf community.
Use of CSWs rather than interpreters was only ever a stop gap in the 1980’s, and one which was supposed to be temporary. Harrington’s excellent paper The Rise, Fall and Re-invention of the Communicator: re-defining roles and responsibilities in educational interpreting still makes for interesting reading. This is the history of the CSW and one which various people with those vested interests have worked hard to continue. It is not in our interests to have those working with low fluency in BSL with Deaf children. Many Interpreters around the country who do not have enough work would jump at the chance to be Educational Interpreters. Anyone who supports the Deaf community knows that is what Deaf children and students deserve: proper access to their education.
For too long CSWs have been expected to fulfil the roles of interpreter, tutor, classroom assistant as Harrington states. I started my interpreting career as a CSW. I do not speak from a position of elitism. I speak as someone who understands the CSW as inadequately trained, as an influent and untrained pseudo-interpreter, as someone who is expected to do 80% plus of their work acting as an interpreter but who is ill-prepared and ill-trained.
The CSW course I experienced over nine months had little language training, no interpreter training and was, for me, a disappointment, a waste of time and a waste of money. Most people worked with little support and some were encouraged at the time of the promise of a career that they carried on in the route of interpreting until realising there were never going to be fluent enough to achieve registered interpreter status and eventually either gave up or remained as influent untrained pseudo-interpreters.
Not only do we miss the chance to increase standards for Deaf students but a CSW register puts a proverbial nail in the coffin for anyone campaigning for higher standards of access in schools. The names of CSWs will not be used for education only but agencies will access them as lists of cheap labour to do the job of interpreting in hospitals, in councils, in offices. There is enough confusion surrounding standards and registration categories as it is, a confusion most of us work towards alleviating.
I can see the benefits to the NRCPD of ensuring this proposal goes through: increased revenue from registrations, increased use of the registers by those involved with the Deaf community, an increased profile extended to schools, colleges, universities and all those agencies that will continue to use CSWs to fulfil bookings. I also understand the NRCPD may have to entertain proposals and be seen to be giving ideas a fair hearing without seriously considering the setting up of such a register.
In my opinion these are the risks if the NRCPD decides to go ahead with this proposal:
1) Of 1,082 professionals on the NRCPD registers, 977 are either Registered Interpreters, Translators or Trainees. In other words 90% of the registers. I can not imagine that many of that 90% would agree with a CSW register and would possibly add that to one of the above possible reasons for the NRCPD not getting their full support. Interpreters have already lost out to a weakened Code and some have felt they have not been listened to in previous consultations. It would not be wise to take an unpopular decision at this stage.
2) Signature would make less money from NVQ qualifications were people allowed or encouraged to go on a register and then not further develop their skills by achieving the National Occupational Standards in Interpreting.
3) Allowing a CSW register takes work away from interpreters at a time when they need the register to fight for them. If interpreters do not have enough work, they will not support or pay for continued registration.
4) A CSW register ignores the campaign work Deaf people and interpreters have done for over 25 years to raise standards. It is not a way to get buy-in from the community for whom you are supposed to be registering professionals.
5) It will negate any further campaign efforts by the community to raise standards in schools such as the parents who successfully campaigned the school their child was at and at the time managed to get agreement for a Trainee Interpreter.
There is more to say, these are just some initial thoughts. I await this news to hit the interpreting and Deaf communities with interest.