Recently there’s been a digital fuss about Mark Cave, an Auslan interpreter, uncomfortably dubbed #signguy by people with smartphones. He is the latest in a line of interpreters in recent years who have lingered for their fifteen minutes of limelight, following Lydia Callis, Jonathan Lamberton and (in a very different category) diagnosed schizophrenic and alleged murderer Thamsanqa Jantjie. Depressingly, the story is rarely about what is really happening, but about people’s reaction to it. Tweets used to react to news media stories, but now they are the stories. (Updated 17/3/2015: a mere three weeks later, we can now add Tommy Krångh to the list, a Swedish interpreter whose TV performance triggered a social media reaction which virtually eclipsed the original artists.)
Happy New Year to all the diligent interpreting robots out there accessing T9000 via their cranial hypernet implants. I hope you are all managing to “adhere strictly” to the rules (they are sticky, which helps with the adhering) and are continuously “raising standards” in a small way every day. If you ever feel like this is a futile task, don’t worry: in the alternative future dystopia that T9000 originates from, the world energy crisis has been solved by hooking up a generator to a perpetual motion machine made entirely from crystallised standards. [Read more…]
I was a bit blown away by the interest in my Great Flounce – in just five days, it had double the total traffic of the last ten months – a little nerve-wracking. Some very fair criticisms were made: I agree completely with those who pointed out that it isn’t especially helpful to dismantle things without offering any kind of solution. This post is an attempt to redress that, pulling together bits and pieces I’ve rambled about here over the last year.
Here’s what would bring me back into the loving arms of my comrades, if a register (or equivalent) could manage it. It’s not a shopping list: they are my terms, which sounds super-butch but has that faint implication of compromise. Most of them (except possibly the first) have been talked through by others for decades, and they all overlap to some extent. If you don’t like longform (essay-length) blogs, here’s a quick list with soundbites.
- A twenty-first century register: the register as a “really useful” public-facing database interface, emphasising specific competencies
- Certification to work in critical domains: the death of the “pancake profession”, the birth of structure and progression
- Pupillage/internships: mandatory hours of supervised work experience for full registration status, post-qualification
- An end to deontology: no more stone tablets which contradict contemporary research and cripple us with dissonance
- Evidence-based decisions and practice: a permanent ban on blind faith and “off-the-shelf professionalism”
This wasn’t an easy decision. You could choose to look at it as though I were leaving a profession. If you really want to think that, I can’t stop you. But to me, it feels like I’ve decided to join one.
Graduating as a qualified interpreter was one of the proudest days of my life. I got to surround myself with the most important people to me, the ones to whom I owe everything and who have put up with all manner of crap over the years, while shuffling around in a Harry Potter costume. I was called up onto a stage, saluted by men carrying giant sceptres, and shook hands with a very important personage in gold-threaded robes (I don’t even remember who she was, just that she was venerable and illustrious and vaguely beneficent). We were flanked by my academic superiors, arranged in tiers of increasing breadth and floppiness of hat, looking on with weary approval. Hundreds of strangers applauded, there were drinks and flashing cameras and a thousand permutations of mutual congratulation. We were the very last BSL/English interpreters to graduate from the University of Leeds MA programme, a course that was axed without even a whimper from sign language interpreting professional membership bodies.
The same month, my yellow NRCPD badge arrived in the post, and everything went downhill rapidly from there.
How many interpreters does it take to change a lightbulb? It depends.
In part 1, we looked at a few distinct ways in which people fail to make sense, and what we (as interpreters) can do about it, if anything. Some themes cropped up more than once:
- That we need to be able to “see with the mind’s eye” what things mean, either as an actual visualisation or as an abstraction (like the hovering multicoloured towers of Lego that followed me around and haunted my dreams when I was a programmer), and that if we can’t do that – if the input doesn’t create anything we can understand in languageless terms – we probably can’t produce anything very meaningful in the target language. One of the situations in which interpreters stop making sense is when they start acting as a conveyor belt, a translation machine that only works on a lexical level: a participant in a study I worked on expressed this as interpreters who “pass the parcel”.
- Following from that, we also need to understand language as discourse: where is it going, what is the point? Preparing for an interpreting assignment by looking up words, doing background research and making glossaries is all fine and good, but it might not be enough if we don’t understand why language is being uttered.
- That sometimes people don’t make sense on purpose, and we might need to collaborate with that aim. Interpreters are typically “explainers”: but sometimes a speaker needs to baffle, challenge, test their audience.
To explore some of these ideas in practice, I offer up a failure as example: a totally awful interpretation I was recently responsible for. I completely cocked it up and it was mostly my fault. But I learned something.
I returned last night from the annual conference of the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters in Antwerp, Belgium, which was simply amazing. It was fascinating to be surrounded by so many spoken and signed languages (with participants from 25 countries, some of which represent more than one language in each modality) and hugely satisfying to meet interpreters from hundreds and thousands of miles away and immediately recognise their experiences. It was a total pleasure to leave “local concerns” behind and talk about what interpreting is for once. I’m already looking at how to get to Warsaw for the 2015 conference.
The theme of the conference was the underlying cognitive processes (“mind tricks”) that make interpretation possible – totally my cup of tea. If I were going to be constructively critical, I’d say that the only flaw in the extremely well-organised proceedings was the total onslaught of information – my brain currently resembles an over-boiled primary school dinner cauliflower, and physically I feel like I’ve spent the weekend mountain climbing. The main day was a long series of (fascinating) presentations with no “break out” exercises or workshops – although the standard was extremely high and all of the topics useful, I’d have enjoyed the opportunity to pause from passively receiving information and engage in more structured dialogue with colleagues from abroad.
Because of this, there is absolutely no way I can describe here everything I took away, and most of it hasn’t settled down yet – I expect things will continue to poke me for months to come. So the following is an almost random selection of just a few of the bitesize “messages” I found easier to process as they’ve fit with my reading and thinking so far – I should say that they do not necessarily represent the views of the presenters, and there was a metric shedload of other interesting stuff.
Can we take a break from “professionalisation”?
Peter Llewellyn-Jones, president of efsli (and my former supervisor) began and ended the conference by reminding us that while the early years of interpreting research had a notable focus on cognition, perhaps that fell by the wayside: we have collectively spent much of the last 15 years talking instead about what it means to be a “professional”. That dialogue is sometimes useful but arguably there is little point in endlessly elaborating on our status as interpreters if we do not understand how interpreting works.
A trivial bit of new knowledge on my part was finding out how interpreters are named in other languages – for example, I met Swedish, Dutch, Danish and Flemish interpreters who use some linguistic variant of the word tolker, which is best translated as “interpreter” but more literally means “talker” or “explainer” or “spokesperson”. Good luck to any statutory regulation afficionados with trademarking that title. On a related note, efsli’s long term aim (perhaps by 2020) is to create a Europe-wide register of interpreters – many countries such as Croatia and, surprisingly, Sweden do not have a national register – and I’m excited by the idea of an international register of public service interpreters set up by interpreters.
Why do we default to simultaneous interpreting?
Debra Russell gave the keynote presentation, which was a goldmine in itself and had my brain whirling before we’d even reached the first morning’s halfway mark. Evidence was highlighted which demonstrated what spoken language interpreters take for granted but sign language interpreters often completely ignore: simultaneous interpreting is worse than consecutive in terms of faithfulness, quality and, often, believability (a vital and sometimes overlooked requirement for settings such as court interpreting, business and education). In one measure of quality on the work of experienced interpreters in court settings, error percentages were worse for simultaneous interpreting by more than a decile compared to consecutive; accounts from Deaf users were highlighted, which clearly expressed that they disliked interpreting errors more than they disliked consecutive interpreting.
I’ve said this myself in my own workshops for CSWs – we “grow up” as interpreters emulating what we have seen others doing, and we think that it must be right just because that is the status quo. But the main utility of authority is that it is there to be questioned. We have successfully persuaded large sections of the community that just because bimodal interpreting can be done simultaneously without racks of specialist technology, it should be done that way, even though research shows time and again that it creates more errors and less “natural” target language renditions. Perhaps consec should be the default stance whenever possible – yes, it does have some disadvantages (lawyers don’t like it, for example, perhaps because it takes up more of their precious time), but in which situations are those disadvantages outweighed?
Discourse and what we are doing
A recurring theme in several of the presentations was that interpreters seem to struggle with maintaining the discourse functions of language, what language is doing above the word and sentence levels. Debra Russell talked about interpreters working in education, who tend to get sucked into processing language on just a lexical level but are not mindful of the discourse, where the language is headed, what the point is, even when they have actually been prepared and included in those aims as a proper colleague of the teacher (which never happens enough). Terry Janzen discussed “intersubjectivity” (a term which is ironically very hard to translate and which called to mind Robert Lee’s writing about the identity and personal history of interpreters) and communication as “construal”: the problem here is a possible tendency in interpreters for “over-contextualisation”, which I regrettably recognise in myself as an someone who started off working in the education field.
Yes, interpreters are “explainers”, but perhaps it is more common than we realise for a speaker to need to leave things unexplained, to be obscure on purpose, at least for the time being. Discourse is co-constructed: we all unconsciously probe each other’s understanding all the time, and maybe an interpreter who is driven to make everything crystal clear, to the lowest common denominator of meaning, is completely screwing up that everyday process. In education, it is common and important for a teacher to “test” learners by saying things s/he expects to not be understood. So how can you interpret something “faithfully” if you don’t know why it was said? When interlocutors complain that they didn’t understand the interpreter, do we have the courage to tell them, when it’s true, that they weren’t supposed to? These themes kept bothering me all the way through my training – all these wonderful models and diagrams about interpreter-mediated communication seem to assume that people make sense all the time. They don’t. They frequently talk a load of crap. We should recognise and indeed celebrate that.
What I found fascinating is that as frequent as these ideas about discourse, goals, construal etc. were across the presentations, there seemed to be many colleagues present (both from abroad and home) who seemed to find it all quite new, and there were even suggestions that it needed more of a focus in interpreter training. I was a bit surprised and disappointed to find out that people aren’t really being taught this stuff. Pragmatics, discourse and illocution – functional/purposeful approaches – were introduced on day one of my own interpreter education, but (for example) I don’t see them prominently listed in Signature’s NVQ curriculum.
There was so much more – you’d need a short-ish book to properly cover everything that came up – but I’ll stop there for a lie down: the over-boiled cauliflower needs time to cool off. Thanks to all the organisers and participants for an amazing experience.
The most important reforms to deaf education since 1996 came into force today, completely unremarked upon by interpreting associations and the voluntary regulator, even though the changes won’t stop there.
Earlier in the year, I wrote about interpreters in the Local Offer and gave a very rough and ready background to the incoming Special Educational Needs (SEN) reforms – the headline was that SEN Statements are being replaced with something called an Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan, but there’s a lot more to it than that (NDCS have good summaries and FAQs available). Months have passed, and it’s now the notional start of the new academic year. Like a lot of much younger people, I’m excited and a bit nervous about going back to school.
Today is also the date that local authorities were obliged to have published their Local Offer by. However, of the six London Boroughs that I work in with my education hat on, so far only three have done so. The other three may now be in breach of statutory duty. They are far from alone, according to a list compiled by grassroots organisation Bringing Us Together – at the time of writing, 91 out of 152 local authorities (almost 60%) present every appearance of failing to meet the deadline.
There is much to celebrate about the reforms and they present new opportunities, which Steve Broach at Rightsinreality and Martin McLean at Limping Chicken explain better than I can. But inevitably, there are flaws. The Local Offer was originally intended to be a formal statement from councils that indicated exactly what services will available to young people with special educational needs within the council’s catchment area, so that they, their families and carers would be more able to make informed decisions about their support. That’s vital, as some families will now have the choice of being directly involved in planning the use of a “personal budget” under the more unified “single assessment” approach to support in education, health and care (despite some serious legal loopholes which might allow authorities to wriggle out of it). From now on, it’s possible that parents and young people could be directly involved in recruiting, managing and financing the communication support for deaf school and college kids and teenagers, either by accessing local service providers or, in theory, bypassing them completely. It’s going to be a new market – the question is, who or what is going to control that market? Freelance interpreters? The “regulator”? Public sector services? Or, as usual, the private Deaf Industry?
Despite much insistence that the Local Offer is “not just a directory”, that appears in most cases to be exactly what it is. Somewhere along the line, the senses of obligation, duty, and social justice have ebbed: the rhetoric is peppered with qualifiers such as “hoped that”, “intended to” and the brassily optimistic “expected that”. Councils can list resources, services and “outcomes” which voluntary sector organisations provide with no funding or other input from the local authority and whose prospects for continued existence are entirely unmonitored and not guaranteed, and then count that as a service that “is provided”. There is also nothing to stop a Local Offer describing something which should or could exist but, in reality, doesn’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s impossible for families to access a non-existent professional or service because they have no automatic right to access any specific service anyway: welcome to the psychotic logic of the Big Society.
The empty category
Top of the list of things that don’t really exist are qualified interpreters in deaf education. Here is a comprehensive list of links to what the voluntary register, professional associations and union branch for sign language interpreters have to offer, outside of any paywalls, on the incoming changes in working conditions for professional interpreters in person-centred education, and general information or campaigns about interpreting in education:
|Organisation||Resources on SEN reform/
educational interpreting in general
|The National Register of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD)||Nothing|
|The Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI)||Nothing|
|Visual Language Professionals (VLP)||Nothing|
|The National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI)||Nothing|
Barring a muffled squeak or two about “standards”, all of the organisations listed above are completely uninvolved. Their collective influence in the education field is utterly marginal, their “standards” are completely unrecognised, and it would make no difference to deaf education services if they all disappeared off the face of the earth tomorrow (something which more than one of them appears hell-bent on achieving).
How many interpreters are regularly at work in the education field? We know from CRIDE‘s work that the total number of “full time equivalent posts” in communication support for compulsory education is reported by local authorities to be in the low hundreds, against a sign language using student population of roughly 3,300 – but we don’t know how many of those students are currently going without any human communication support at all. CRIDE uses an extremely broad category for “communication support”, but we can legitimately extrapolate from the BATOD Deaf Education Support Forum’s research in 2010 that less than 1% of the staff working with students at that time were fully qualified interpreters (and that was back when the term “austerity” was more closely associated with interior design than anything else). We also know from CRIDE and NRCPD’s statistics that deaf sign language users in compulsory education currently outnumber registered interpreters by about three to one, and that’s not counting anyone in Further and Higher Education (literally: no-one counts them).
So in the mid twenty-teens, the real graft is being thanklessly done with scant resources, as it ever was, by Teachers of the Deaf, note-takers and the black sheep of the interpreting family, Communication Support Workers.
Tic-tac-toe with WOPR on the Kobayashi Maru
CSWs can essentially do nothing right: the interpreting elite have had them running back and forth for about 20 years, like runty kittens trying to catch a sadist’s laser pointer. CSWs approached professional associations for support, and were told to go away and come back when they’d trained as interpreters, which is essentially what they were asking for support with. After having the door shut in their faces, they were then smeared for not having professional representation or national support networks, so they set those up and were then slated for that. They endured constant criticism for not having any “standards” or regulation, but when they tried to work with awarding bodies and regulators towards achieving it, it was suddenly the wrong thing to do. They are completely misrepresented as not undertaking any CPD, supervision or reflective practice, despite the fact that CSWs are public sector workers in education, the field which practically invented those things (in all their performative glory); furthermore CSWs are far more likely to have been undertaking them as a compulsory condition of their employment (and since well before the current voluntary regulator was a gleam in anyone’s eye) than many contract-shunning freelance interpreters.
There are a handful of axe-grinding interpreters, and even the occasional Deaf politician, who would like nothing better than to exterminate CSWs, but strangely these people have absolutely nothing to say on the practical issue of where we might find the approximately £15-20 million in start-up costs it would cost to issue every Deaf student in compulsory education with their own brand new qualified interpreter (at current industry rates, and assuming that there are 3,300 people with a Level 3 BSL certificate just hanging around waiting to begin two or more years of training – I suppose you might get it down into the single digit millions if you cut a lot of corners).
For a long time, all this institutionalised bullying seemed unfair to me and it was the source of a lot of anger and self-esteem issues, and I know I’m far from alone in experiencing that. Those feelings actually got worse when I became a qualified interpreter. Today my reaction to it is much simpler: I feel relief. It’s because the deck is stacked against CSWs, because the double standards are so blatantly obvious, that I am morally free to simply disengage from the neurotic world of hyperprofessionalised interpreters and leave them to turn on each other. In some games, the only winning move is not to play by other people’s rules.
Like it or not, CSWs are the future. Fortunately there are some interpreters who are ready to knuckle down with joining them and supporting them. I expect that the Local Offer will be even slower to depart than it was to arrive: thanks to the current and previous governments, the marketisation of the public sector is clearly here to stay, and in education it will be the experts – experienced CSWs – who will be smugly picked off the shelf while interpreters are still running around splitting themselves into ever-smaller factions.
And even if you couldn’t give two hoots about education, just remember that the SEN reforms, with their Education, Health and Care Plans, are a unified approach to social services, and now apply up to age 25. It’s not the speediest of reforms – all students currently in receipt of support need to be on an EHC Plan by April 2018, except for those currently in Further Education, where government wants it done by September 2016 (source: DfE guidance).
We need to wake up. This isn’t going to be just about education for much longer.
If you want to know what it’s like to be measured, observed, judged, ask a teacher. They will tell you that we have turned professionalism into a circus.
Teachers are usually interesting: teachers of teachers, squared. Recently I’ve been lucky enough to work with an exceptionally knowledgeable bunch. They introduced me to Professor Stephen Ball, well known in the field for his work on the sociology of education, national and international education policy, and performativity, a word my spell-checker is petulant about but which I first encountered decades ago when I was a (useless) gay activist. Perhaps this work could give us a glimpse into the future of the interpreting industry.
Coined by Professor Judith Butler and often related to Foucault’s discourse analysis, “performativity” was a term for the process of boot-strapping identity out of behaviours (especially with regards to gender and sexual orientiation). Ball’s usage is more specific to professionalism and managerialism but I feel it does have a little of the Butlerian performativity in it, the sense that what you do shapes your idea of what you think you are and not, as is more usually assumed, the other way round. In Ball’s influential 2003 paper “The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity“, he describes performativity as “a new mode of state regulation” which “requires individual practitioners to organize themselves as a response to targets, indicators and evaluations”. What it means to be a professional teacher has become a performance: a continuous process of inspections, of evidence, of quantitative measurement. It is no longer enough to simply be a good professional: you must be seen to be one, and to achieve that we need to create deontological criteria as a quantitative substitute for the messy, human sense of quality. This leads to cyclical scrutiny and inspections (by Ofsted in the case of teachers, by Signature/NRCPD in the case of BSL/English interpreters) which breed with market forces to create a new managerialism in a process of competitive intensification: a vicious cycle of inflating workloads and targets driven by bosses, lay industrialists pitted against other lay industrialists, professionalism as Excel spreadsheet formula.
The professionals, whose behaviour is now entirely controlled by non-practitioners, have lost autonomy. They no longer decide the targets to which they work or the nature of the work itself. They are continually tempted to create fabrications of the “evidence” they don’t really care about. The “recipe” for a “successful” Ofsted inspection no longer has anything to do with mere teaching or learning: it is all about framing the data (thanks to colleague Kim for pointing this link out), something which will be familiar to anyone who has heard of p-hacking. We live in a psychedelic professional world now where basic arithmetic no longer holds: every school must be “outstanding”, everything can all be above average. This has been a T9000 theme: anything below optimal isn’t good enough.
And so the identity of the professional becomes completely “empty”, soulless, and is now only an engine of alienation and existential terror. The identity no longer contains anything in itself, it has become something purely responsive to external demands, to the ticking of boxes and the establishment and subsequent enthronement of “standards”. The sum of this process, according to Ball, is that “the policy technologies of market, management and performativity leave no space of an autonomous or collective ethical self”. The central question of ethics – what is good in my work? – is no longer really asked: we don’t have enough time to ask each other questions like that. Teachers wonder just what on Earth they are doing with their lives – who the hell did I become? – and two-fifths of new ones leave the profession.
You could replace the word “teacher” with many other UK professions in all the text above. Now, I’m all in favour of Continuous Professional Development (CPD). In 2013 I logged something like quadruple the hours I needed to renew my registration as an interpreter. I was doing CPD before I took on the identity of An Interpreter – I thought everyone thought that training was useful and enjoyable. But for what purpose did I log those hours? Am I better at my job now (not really, no), or was that not the point of the CPD ritual? Are those logs audited because it makes us better (the official reason) or because it creates the spectacle of professionalism? We know we are professionals because we have standards and professionals don’t. Therefore you stop being a professional if you don’t sign up to them: it does not seem to matter that those standards read like Dr Seuss in comparison to academic interpreting literature. Professionalism in the 21st century needs to be reified, like those Tibetan prayer wheels which, if stopped from continually turning, will result in the objective universe being snuffed out like a candle.
The ASLI conference is coming up and this year it is titled “Professionalism – Lifting the Lid on Interpreting”, as if interpreting professionalism were Schrödinger’s cat in its lead-lined box, simultaneously dead and alive and neither and both, waiting for its quantum waveform to be collapsed by a passing observer. Of course, Schrödinger was just conducting a thought experiment, he didn’t think anyone would actually ever try it. In the real world, if you wait long enough, opening the box will reveal that the cat will simply be dead, every single time. The lid will be on a coffin; the soul will have long since fled.
(Edited May 2016)
There’s clearly a lot of anger and anxiety in the Deaf community and the “interpreting world” about changes to Access to Work (ATW) policy. It’s had plenty of recent debate, criticism and activism, so I don’t need to repeat all that here.
But there is a train of other welfare reforms chugging up the line in a storm of acronyms, which get less publicity and spleen but with equally important consequences for Deaf citizens and maybe the professionals that work with them. Quite apart from the abolition of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and the introduction of Personal Independence Payment (PIP), as well as incoming changes to university students’ Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), we are about to enter the era of the Local Offer, the end of Special Educational Need (SEN) Statements and the introduction of Education, Health & Care (EHC) Plans under the new Children & Families Act. The government minister for children recently wrote to parents, teachers and colleges about these reforms.
If you work in education or social services or healthcare settings and have any kind of contact with the parents of disabled children and young people, or if you’ve read their stories online, you’ll be aware of the continual loops of explanation they have to re-traverse with monotonous regularity. Not being a parent, I can barely imagine the frustration and fatigue of having to explain the same thing again and again to an ever-changing cast of professionals, of repeatedly taking two steps forward and then 1-3 steps back, of having your opinions and experiences continually questioned and twisted. Triple that frustration if you need support from each of the different domains of education, health and social care, who do not share information with each other (or sometimes even with themselves) and can have radically different mindsets and methods. The decades must just fly by.
This common experience seems to have been the primary engine of the various Single Assessment Process (SAP) reforms for both adults and children, perhaps with a little of the social care “personalisation agenda” sprinkled on top. The theories of SAP and personalisation are attractive and were rigorously campaigned for by the disability community for years: my understanding of the discourse that led to it is as follows. If a young person has a disability which affects their opportunities to learn, to participate in society (at large and in microcosm) and to live a comfortable and relatively healthy life – most disabilities will have consequences in several or all of those areas, to varying extents – who does it benefit for them to be continually assessed and re-assessed by different professionals, depending on the setting? Why aren’t public services more “joined up”, why the arbitrary division between health, education and care? Furthermore, should parents and young people simply accept what is handed to them by a local authority – why can’t they be directly involved in picking and choosing what kind of support they get? Aren’t disabled people experts in their own needs? You can shop for a hundred different burgers, why can’t you shop for your support workers, PAs, CSWs, deafblind communicator guides? Hence the nascent birth of the Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan.
But as Aesop said, “We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified”. Local authorities are (with varying speed and success rates) moving those in receipt of social care packages away from direct council funding and council-appointed providers, and giving disabled people a “personal budget” which they can use to purchase and manage their own support. Strangely enough, the “personal budget” can be considerably less than the budget set aside in their former care packages, despite their conditions and resulting needs remaining the same or getting worse. There is a convincing argument which holds that the disability movement’s campaigns for the last couple of decades have only been granted because it was an opportunity too good to miss: another handy mechanism for slashing welfare budgets. In addition, the support workers and professional carers themselves are likely to become freelancers or sessional staff when they are transitioned into working directly for disabled people, if they weren’t already: they can probably expect a lower rate of pay and there will be no pesky burdens for the state like supervision, pensions, training, sick pay, holiday pay, unionisation and so forth. Might sound familiar to any interpreter funded exclusively by ATW: support is disposable.
This may be a cynical view, but perhaps this is now coming to education as well. Instead of having a Statement of SEN and then other separate interventions in the health and social services domains, young people will have a single assessment – the EHC – which will determine the support they get from all three, but with education being the “trigger” for an assessment. Local councils will be obliged to publish a “Local Offer”, a list of the services it “expects to be available” in the borough or county to young disabled people with additional learning needs. I think the intention here is openness and transparency, but is also informed by the inherently consumerist ideology that shopping can solve any problem: you would be free to check what is available in neighbouring areas. Parents of young deaf and disabled people will know what support is available in schools and colleges before they get there, in theory. But that support does not have to be council-provided and central government’s ambitions here are clear: there may well be no public sector social services at all in ten years’ time. Also, the Local Offer is arguably toothless: councils are obliged to publish it but not obliged to provide anything in it to any individual.
These measures will start to take force in September 2014. So what is the medium- and long-term future for deaf kids in mainstream schools and colleges (a quarter of whom currently have a Statement), and for the Teachers of the Deaf, CSWs and interpreters who are instrumental in that future? The simple answer is that no-one seems to know despite it all starting up in scant months. I’ve been to Pathfinder briefing sessions (Pathfinders are local authorities who are involved in piloting and creating the new EHC systems) and sensory disabilities were not mentioned once in any of them. The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) are, as ever, leading the field in finding out what will happen to the education of deaf children and keeping parents informed, and even they have largely drawn a blank about what is actually going to happen in terms of change and the details of the new provision.
Speaking purely about my own erratic career, working in education is the one area I can be confident that I am working directly for the community, with automatic supervision and professional development opportunities mandated by my employer, and rampant profiteering reined in. Will that still be true when I’m part of the Local Offer? A trivial number of qualified interpreters are members of the CSW workforce – they tend to leave it as soon as they qualify, and then also tend to criticise those CSWs who stayed, for not being good enough to do the job they themselves walked away from. Will these reforms further polarise that situation or is it an opportunity for change and development?
No-one knows; few people are asking these questions.
Updated (23/4/2014): For a description of tardiness, ambiguity and broken promises in the introduction of these reforms, see IPSEA’s excellent blog. For the new reality of the impact of funding changes, see this article in the Guardian by a primary school head teacher.
In early 2013 I stepped away from a local authority education service, for several reasons, but partly because the standard of information I was getting about my assignments with Deaf students had dropped to the level where I could not routinely expect to get the full names of the people I needed to ask for at reception desks, or anything more than the vaguest hint as to what kind of meeting or lesson I was going to, or a start time accurate to more than one significant figure, or a room location more accurate than a postcode. I don’t need to put up with this any more, I thought, I’m a qualified interpreter now and therefore above such things. So I walked away, and started looking for work organised by “professionals”.
How naive I was. The world outside of education is much, much worse.
When you register as a sign language interpreter with NRCPD, there is an online “profile” that you have to fill out. If you choose to advertise your services, there is a form titled “Assignments” where you tick off the settings you are competent to work in – Further Education, social services casework, physical health, police work, workplace disciplinary proceedings etc. etc. It’s quite a long (if not fully exhaustive) list. When you first enter these details, the word “Pending” is displayed next to each entry: they must be verified by a pusher of buttons somewhere, after which they show as “Active”.
But it is all completely pointless. Absolutely nothing is done with that information. It is never displayed to anyone; it is not searchable; it is left to rot in a walled-off database somewhere, gathering electronic dust. I am a former database programmer and it makes my nose bleed. To find an interpreter, you either have to know their name or you can search by postcode and get a list of very basic information. Nothing at all about specialisms and competencies: no detail at all of what they know or don’t know, can do or can’t do.
I asked NRCPD why the data is never displayed and not searchable. Five months later, I had a response: the ability to search by specific domain competence was taken away because “users” did not find it useful – I assume this means the users of the search function, not the interpreters themselves. So who are these “users”?
I’m still a relatively raw interpreter. I’ve been on the Register for sixteen months. In that time, contact from out of the blue has escalated to the point where I’m currently deleting 10-50 emails and 3-15 SMS messages requesting my services every week, plus a few voicemails. Due to my other commitments and regular clients, I can typically accept none or perhaps just one of them. Nearly all of them are from interpreting agencies – both sign language specialists and not – who have harvested my contact information from the Register and are blindly pumping out job offers. Some are in domains I have no experience of; most have very little information at all. I have devised an array of filters so that some of the worst offenders are simply dismissed automatically.
From only a couple of firms do I get anything approaching the information necessary to make an informed decision about whether I am the right interpreter for that job, a core stipulation of the interpreting Code of Conduct: it’s right here in section 2, in glorious monochrome. The rest ask me if I can do “a meeting”, “an appointment”, “a job interview”, “a training day”. How can you say you are competent when you know almost nothing about the setting, topic, content, aims, attendees? The agencies ask me to get in touch, but they rarely want to know about my experience or my specialisms, or any evidence that I know the first thing about the setting I’m bidding for. They don’t want to know much about me at all, in fact, except that I have to tell them how much I want to be paid – do not hold your breath waiting to be told what they think your time and skills are worth.
I do also get a very small handful of messages from private individuals looking to book an interpreter – something like 5% of the total requests, probably less. Those also rarely tell me anything useful, but with them, it’s excusable: they are not in the business of making money out of interpreting and do not make claims, on pretty websites drowning in stock photography of attractive grinning actors, that they are experts in the supply of quality interpreters; they are just Deaf and hearing punters. It is not their fault that most of them don’t know what an interpreter needs to know to take a job: no interpreter or organisation claiming to represent interpreting has successfully imparted that knowledge to them.
Obviously there are understandable reasons why perhaps not all of the necessary information can be revealed in an agency broadcast to freelancers. Quite apart from confidentiality concerns, the agency is also a business and therefore self-interested above anything else: it doesn’t want to tip people off to the identity of the client, not for their protection or any other moral reason, but to stop freelancers and other agencies from poaching and under-cutting the work.
And of course there is nothing to stop me from replying to each and every request with an indication that I am available and a request for sufficient information. Nothing, that is, except the hours of extra, unpaid work every week it would take to do that. As a part-time freelancer with more than enough additional admin and reporting duties in my education work, as well as a higher education course to struggle through, I simply don’t always have that time. It would not solve the problem anyway: the same fear of poaching puts us in a chicken and egg situation (do you see what I did there? Try rendering the “spirit of meaning” of that in another language without “adding” or “taking away”). I can’t accept the job until I know it is within my competence, but they can’t give me the information I need to make that decision until I accept the job.
If I were full-time, the load would likely be even higher because I would likely have actively signed up with agencies – all of the above describes only randomly broadcast spam. I have not “registered” with any private firms, just with a couple of public sector services. (Ping: as I am writing this, my phone goes off, for a job 73 miles outside of my normal radius, in a hospital. I have no real experience of the medical domain.)
Remember, all of this is happening before you’ve even accepted the job – the problems with getting adequate preparation for a difficult assignment after you’ve accepted it are another blog post entirely. It would be like getting blood out of a stone only if the blood were a teaspoon of helium Einstein-Bose condensate and the stone were a three solar mass pulsar rotating at relativistic velocity. (It is difficult.)
Given the above and that there are about a thousand registered sign language interpreters in the UK, it’s entirely feasible that the NRCPD Code of Conduct is being flaunted hundreds of times per working day and that the industry is not merely complicit with this, it unwittingly encourages it. I say unwittingly because I am not yet fully convinced that there is a widespread conscious intention to play tiddlywinks with the lives of Deaf community members and put interpreters into repeated positions of mind-imploding dissonance until they burn out or screw up so badly they can never work again, at least not in every case. It is just a zombie tendency of the zombie capitalist society we live in, where it’s acceptable for the clients of social services to be seen as just another McProduct to be flogged off by the lowest bidder. (We put our faith in ghosts. Companies and corporations have the legal status of humans: they are mythic entities we imbue with human agency and talk about in the third person singular, like Godzilla or Bagpuss, but it is hard for a myth composed of many decoherent parts to keep a grip on the social conscience and enquiring mind that attend actual humans.)
So most agency staff don’t wake up in the morning consciously deciding to encourage bad practice; they aren’t completely ignorant on purpose about what interpreters really need and do. They are just permitted, by their bosses, by government, by capitalism, by regulators and by us to continue believing that their work, the industry, is just fine. It’s not that they don’t see the big picture: they don’t even know they are in the gallery. They have not merely got the wrong end of the stick, but have a different stick entirely, or perhaps not even a stick but something very different, like a jelly, or blue. I could go on.
None of this is a problem, according to some colleagues. The Code of Conduct and the resulting complaints process exist, in part, to curb this very tendency, they say: if you accepted those informationless jobs, you’d be a bad interpreter by definition. The problem with this is that going by the volume and quality of agency job offers, the Code clearly isn’t having much of a retardant effect; those jobs will probably be accepted by someone, and unless they are an immortal soul that has stalked the Earth for millennia, drinking directly from the fountain of all human wisdom, they would be making as uninformed a decision as I. As for the rigorousness of the complaints process, the number of upheld complaints by NRCPD in 2013 was zero. In 2012 it was one. What a terrifying deterrent.
For my MA dissertation, I surveyed the attitudes of interpreters who have worked, or might be asked to work, in Sex & Relationships Education (SRE). I asked whether any of them had ever declined an SRE assignment and, separately, whether they felt well prepared to interpret SRE. 77% of them had interpreted SRE already. 60% of them were qualified interpreters. 34% said clearly that they were prepared. 11% had taken SRE-specific training. 0% of them had ever declined an assignment.
Impotent deontological codices aside, is it correct to blame interpreters and only interpreters for accepting those jobs? They have bills to pay, mouths to feed; they are pumped just as full of consumerist desire as anyone else, beamed from every available urban surface. Do the industry and the self-appointed “regulator” share none of this moral responsibility, can they fob all of the ethical burden onto our shoulders? Where is the conscientious structure that binds them?
The incredibly unfunny joke is that with a fairly trivial update to their public-facing database interface, a compulsory instruction to list specific competencies, and a pulling out of their collective fingers, NRCPD could put every shoddy agency in the country out of business and improve the general standard of interpreting and increase the job satisfaction of interpreters and halve the cost of interpreting services to commissioners by cutting out the profiteering middle-persons, all in one go, just by doing what they should be doing by the letter of their own oft-vaunted principles: enabling and encouraging people to find interpreters who have the specific linguistic and knowledge-based competence for specific domains of work. To collect that data and then deliberately not use it speaks of being totally sheltered from the real world of community sign language interpreting.
And so baby interpreters like me gawp in wonder at the amazing technicolor blizzard of spam, and read the repeated messages from professional bodies which encourage everyone to believe that registered interpreter status is the end of a journey instead of the beginning of one, and they think, I could give that unknown job a go, why the hell not? I have a pretty yellow badge now.
And then – toss a coin – they crash and burn.
None of it is good enough and we shouldn’t put up with it.