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.
“Character-forming” is a euphemism
It was at about this time last year – early summer 2015 – that the full extent of my failure was finally confirmed. For five months, a suspicion had been growing that the Signature unit I had been persuaded to run, BSI423 “Introduction to Interpreting”, was not only prescriptive and very narrow in scope when it should have been a light and sweeping tour, but was quite literally unassessable as well. Like a painting by numbers kit with all the numbers missing and an unexpected last minute bill for fifty gallons of battleship grey.
Five months went by during which I played voice-mail table tennis, wrote many increasingly strident e-mails and did a lot of rocking back and forth in the corner of the shower crooning “Gov’mint come’n took mah baby” in order to establish that absolutely no-one involved in delivering this brand new course – myself, the centre, the awarding body – had much more than the faintest inkling of how it was actually supposed to be completed. Collectively, we all failed a small group of colleagues who were honestly trying to develop as new interpreters. (Fortunately all of them have great potential and I expect amazing things from them, regardless.)
The final deal-breaker was a suggestion, made to me by a member of staff at the awarding body, that if an assessment wasn’t working out then I might have to “make it up” a bit by asking leading questions. That’s really when I started walking away. I’m still walking.
Why is this kind of thing happening in the first place? First, we should explore what “standards” actually are. At this point you might want to supply your own Bagpuss-like wibbly-wobbly dissolve with a surreal harp scale, indicating that we are phasing into the recall of events from earlier in time or some kind of reverie.
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.
About a year ago I wrote some bits and pieces about the incoming changes to how support for children and young people with “special educational needs” is funded. I gave an overview of the preceding disability politics background and the potential for a new market where families with Deaf and disabled children will apparently pick their own support from a menu-which-is-not-a-menu (the Local Offer) or elsewhere. I also described how I felt that the professional sphere of BSL/English interpreting has completely failed to engage with what should have been the biggest changes to Deaf Education for thirty years. There’s been no improvement there, that I’m aware of, in the 11 months since: that sphere orbits some other, slower, planet.
What I completely failed to anticipate is the possibility that there will be little or no Further Education (FE) for young Deaf people to go to, whatever their support funding. The irony is that by the time SEN support has completed its reform, perhaps there won’t be anywhere near as much to support with.
It has been about a year since my decision to voluntarily leave the NRCPD register and I’ve done no freelance work during that time. All of the BSL/English interpreting work I’ve done since then has been through a public sector employer (this actually provides “consumers” with a higher level of scrutiny, support and accountability than any voluntary regulator can muster). Now that I’ve completed another degree and have more time to work again, it recently crossed my mind that I could re-register. And then today, NRCPD did three things:
- Announced a formal statement of regulatory intent, in which they set out their long-term but short-on-details plan to criminalise unregistered community interpreters
- Published a new Code of Conduct and complaints process
- Revamped their website slightly (I’d feel bad if I didn’t point out that they’ve stealthily removed all previously published correspondence between registrants and the Board) (Further note, 20/11/2015: the missing correspondence has now reappeared elsewhere on the site, prompting us all to remember the importance of Hanlon’s Razor.)
What do I make of all this? More below the break.
I’m a little shell-shocked at the moment after completing my second round of post-graduate study and learning that my MSc dissertation (on the sociolinguistic variation of fingerspelling in the BSL Corpus) won a prize. This would not have been possible without the support, encouragement, challenges and insights imparted to me by all the members of the BSL Corpus team at DCAL. I’m really going to miss having that expertise on tap. I’m also privileged enough to have friends, colleagues, vaguely benevolent acquaintances and a partner who feed me, inspire me, tolerate me and kiss it all better (respectively).
Having said that, one of the best things about the BSL Corpus is that anyone can make use of it: video data and gloss annotations are available for download for various elicitation tasks for each of the 249 participants across 8 cities. Furthermore, both of the specialist software tools I used in my project (ELAN for annotation, searching and export, R for statistical analysis) are completely free for non-commercial use: neither of them are notably user-friendly but there is a wealth of support resources and a community of users out there on the ‘net to help you get to grips with them. Meanwhile BSL SignBank, based in large part on data from the Corpus, is also free to use: among other things, it acts as the lexical database reference for the corpus ID glosses (the unique text strings assigned to each signed utterance in the Corpus, which help to make it machine-searchable). It’s the first (and only?) online BSL dictionary to be both research- and usage-based, which makes it both a work in progress and very much a living dictionary: it needs input from the BSL-using community to thrive.
And this is the general point: research should not be thought of as an activity that’s owned by an elite group of career academics, hearing or Deaf. Anyone can get stuck in. Obviously it helps to have a mighty institution and its resources around you, but it’s not necessary. You will learn something by doing even quite dodgy research, even if your main take-home bullet point is just how not to cock it up next time: research betters you. It’s also an opportunity to work with others: my work ends up stronger and better when it’s open to challenges and other perspectives and I have juicy brains to pick. Nor does it have to be on a hugely weighty issue or be a mammoth undertaking: a project can last an hour or a lifetime, be relevant to just one individual or a universe. Interpreters have picked CPD and reflective practice off the shelf, both of which are forms of research in a way, research into our own practice, our own strengths and weaknesses: but do we really support each other to look outward as well?
My feeling is that too often, the (hyper)professional interpreting environment lacks a grounding in research, home-grown or otherwise. In the last few years we have repeatedly seen decisions being made about our work with little transparency and no evidence base, almost as though they are whims or at best hunches, with next to no input from either the academic or practitioner fields. The good news is that ultimately, it doesn’t matter. We own our work, both the bad and the good. We make it what it is, but we have the power and skills to demonstrate why it should be so, and my feeling is that this should be a responsibility, part of our sense of integrity.
If you’re not already a researcher-practitioner, ask yourself and your colleagues what’s stopping you.
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.
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”