Post-truth. Alternative facts. Brexit is Brexit, and statutory regulation is statutory regulation.
You have to wonder whether those interpreters and agency owners enthusing about the Uber/Airbnb/Etsy model of commerce – “disrupting the market” with a “digital revolution” – have actually ever experienced life as an Uber driver themselves.
The virtual offer
Another academic year has begun, and we’ve finally reached the start of the legal requirement to give deaf and disabled students in Further Education an EHC (Education, Health & Care) Plan rather than the former Statement of Special Educational Need. “Statements” might still be used with existing primary and secondary school students until 2018. It is probably my imagination but things seem even more frantic than usual for this time of year. The service I work for is seeing deaf student enrolment way down at some colleges and surprisingly high at others; some of the colleges themselves still feel a bit like the Marie Celeste for anyone that was working in them five years ago, while others appear to be thriving. “Austerity” continues to nobble course subsidies, all the way down to Level 1.
Regarding the Local Offer (see Day 0 & Day 1), I’ve still seen nothing to indicate that the predicted explosion of choice and personalised services has kicked in for deaf students or their parents and guardians. It was insisted all through the planning and “Pathfinder” stages that the Offer would not just be a “directory”. But in my home borough and its neighbours, in my field, that is precisely what it is: almost completely a list of national charities and local voluntary groups, barely different from typing “deaf [my council]” into Google. The public sector service I work for is listed in its own borough’s Offer, but as far as I’m aware its clients remain only the FE colleges themselves, still the brokers of the funding.
I was unable to attend Signature’s statutory regulation meeting in January due to being unexpectedly hospitalised (I’m fine now). While waiting for my belly-button to resume normal service, I did a little bit of reading and uncovered a range of interesting and depressing responses to the statutory regulation struggle in the annals of several other professions. Many of these are the kind of practitioner-focused issues that have so far (to my knowledge) been absent from dialogue. This is a long post so let’s start with the main shakedown and then move on to the sources.
Key issues raised
- Statutory regulation encourages “medical model” approaches to practice which even healthcare professionals may find oppressive, let alone those in occupations which are patently not healthcare.
- Excessive regulation – increased inspection regimes, measurements and managerialism – can lead to increased “reactivity”, a term which describes practitioners feeling a pressure to select “easy wins”, reject more difficult work, abandon more difficult clients and “cover their backs” instead of acting from best professional judgement.
- Campaigns to promote statutory regulation above self-regulation have historically resulted in schisms and increased disunity within various professions. Almost all the campaigns resulted in failure and wasted resources, even for professions between thirty and two hundred times the size of BSL/English interpreting.
- A political will is required to take up the cause of state regulation, which brings with it political scrutiny, which entails unpredictable effects such as sudden reversals of support or unexpected spotlights on bad training/practice. Statutory regulation can stop being statutory at any time should political will or public support be withdrawn: the fight to keep your status may be even more effort than that expended to attain it. The current political will is opposed to statutory regulation even for highly specialist and expert clinical professions taught over and above postgraduate level, let alone social/linguist ones with a mixed bag of vocational qualifications that verify skills instead of teaching them.
- Meta-regulators such as the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) and its predecessor the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) have long asserted that regulation must be based on empirical assessment of “actual harm” and not “possible risk”, i.e. regulation must be proportionate to the problem it is trying to solve. A regulator that creates sledgehammer/nut issues is incompetent.
- Given that absolutely none of above is even acknowledged, let alone addressed, by Signature’s meandering rationale for pursuing statutory regulation, it becomes necessary to ask whether the current governance of their “NRCPD service” is fit for purpose and their personnel are qualified to decide our profession’s future. Who watches the watchers?
- Finally, the concept of principled non-compliance may offer some solutions, or at least traction, to those with doubts and fears about the path ahead, while those who favour statutory regulation have a paradox to resolve.
There have been some good blog posts recently on the topic of LAMs – “Look At Me” interpreters. Gird your loins before reading Ariel Baker-Gibbs’s When the interpreter is taking selfies on-stage. For theatre interpreters, there’s We are (not) rockstars: honouring the performance without overpowering it by Auslan Stage Left.
I’ve talked before about how uncomfortable I am with interpreters being the public face of signed languages and my irritation at the media discourse on sign language interpreting being reliably off the mark. In recent discussions with colleagues, there have been several references to unease about interpreters using social media to show off their relationship (however brief and tangential) with “celebrities” they interpret for, posting on-stage photos of themselves at work in which the Deaf community is completely invisible, even if no overt guidance about confidentiality has technically been breached.
It’s very easy to criticise. But after I’d read the articles above, I asked myself if I’d ever been a Look At Me interpreter. Honestly? Yes, I have, and I regret it. It’s insidious.
Let’s be done with euphemism for five minutes. When we talk about statutory regulation for sign language interpreters, we are really talking about deliberately creating a new breed of criminal: we need and want more criminals. We are so desperate to be preferred that we are preparing to use the bluntest of instruments to cleave the world of community interpreting into two halves: interpreters over here, and criminals over there. With us, or against us, in the name of public protection. Because historically, black and white solutions have worked out so well.
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.)
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”
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.
discrimination (mass n)
Pronounciation: / dɪˌskrɪmɪˈneɪʃ(ə)n /
1. The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex
2. Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another
– Oxford English Dictionary, August 2014
The older you get and the more you learn, the less anything seems to make any sense at all. “Wisest is he who knows he does not know”, indeed, but it can be a proper headache.
There is a yawning divide in the UK between those who provide signed and spoken language interpreting services. We have separate qualifications, separate voluntary registers, different letters after our names and (with one recent exception) different national bodies. Yet the jobs we do are the same jobs, more or less, even if it’s one of the most varied jobs in the world.
We rarely co-operate, although when we do it’s impressive, such as the campaign against the Ministry of Justice’s decision to farm out court interpreting to Capita/ALS. But winter is coming: there are augurs that a National Framework contract for public service interpreting is in the works, in the exact model of the MoJ disaster. If so, interpreters need to brush up on their solidarity more than ever before.
So which of the above senses of the term “discrimination” is the most faithful? Are sign language interpreters really being asked to sit in a different part of the bus, or is there a genuine and well-understood difference in their work that necessitates the silos? Perhaps it isn’t actually about the “professionals” at all, but all about their clients?
Here are some viewpoints – some of them are more opinion than fact, and I don’t necessarily buy them all in their entirety. Do you?