It often seems that anecdotes are conflated with “evidence” in this profession, so here’s another one for the pile.
I am a worse interpreter now than I was a year ago.
Back in my first ever job with Deaf colleagues, where I worked as an administrator, I had some responsibility for booking interpreters. I was more popular with interpreters then, oddly enough. Some terps were noted by my Deaf colleagues as asking an annoying question within the first few minutes of arriving at a booking: “Is it OK if I read/do my nails/knit this jumper when you don’t need me to interpret?” I called them “interpreters who knit” and restrained myself from sarcastically replying that yes, it does wonders for team morale to have someone who is earning quadruple your wages sit next to you reading Take A Break.
To my horror, I have slowly become what I despise: an interpreter who knits.
I’m now at the end of my first year as a qualified interpreter. In this time and as a trainee beforehand, I’ve worked more than once (ie. in what is arguably a “designated interpreter” role) for six individuals and one team of Deaf professionals who receive a roughly “full time” budget from Access to Work (ATW) for so-called “office support” interpreting. The same kind of budget that is apparently being subjected to new conditions by ATW policy changes.
But in only one of those seven regular assignments did I spend even half my time doing anything resembling interpreting. In all the others, I spent many, many hours sitting around doing absolutely nothing. In the most extreme example, I “worked” for the same person on four days spread over some time, for six hours per day, and the busiest of those days kept me occupied for 12.5% of the time (0.75/6.0 hours).
I’m sorry, but I can no longer distinguish that from fraud. I accept that jobs are not always predictable; that, depending on your role, it is not always possible to fill up your interpreter’s day; that it is not actually all about me; that there are “quiet days” when the phone does not ring and the customers do not show up and your colleagues go on annual leave. But there must be a cut-off point, an acceptable ratio of time spent sitting around knitting, and I would argue it should be considerably lower than 87.5%; furthermore, if this pattern is repeated across multiple days then you must start to question whether the full time budget is appropriate.
The one designated role where I did actually work very hard was a direct arrangement with the client, and I was paid directly by ATW. The client’s job involved frequent meetings, home visits and a great deal of written English support, something I’m suited to. I would get home absolutely exhausted but feeling like I’d earned every penny. I also learned a great deal, more than in any other interpreting work I’ve done outside of the education domain.
Compare and contrast that with the several days work I did via an agency for a team of roughly 3-4 FTE Deaf staff with a pooled ATW budget, who collectively did not even manage to use more than 20% of my time, and that’s including the time spent waiting in a queue on personal, non-work-related interpreted phone calls (most of which would have been quicker using the internet instead). I learned nothing. I was being paid to mostly sit on my arse while an agency pocketed about half the budget. My skills have stagnated and my mental well-being has dropped through the floor.
I have done other ATW-funded stuff which was more useful. Curiously, it was always with people who have a much smaller budget, and were also well supported by their employers in arranging a steady timetabled flow of meetings and commitments that could fit in with the whims of freelance interpreters. It is possible for many roles, admittedly perhaps not all; it just needs someone to lift a finger.
But I did not spend over £10,000 of my own money and years of my life qualifying as an interpreter to sit around doing nothing for hours on end; especially not while some third party makes up to £150 a day in my name from public funds for the incredibly onerous task of sending a couple of e-mails, while I watch paint dry and slowly start to question my own sanity. I have lived more than half my life and I will be damned if that is how I’m going to spend my remaining time on Earth.
According to CRIDE, there are at least 2,000 signing young people in primary and secondary school who need signed language communication support; we have about 1,000 qualified and trainee interpreters available. Qualified interpreters spend a lot of time criticising the Communication Support Workers (under-qualified interpreters) who work very hard in education, but rather less time criticising each other for sitting around knitting.
So no more generic “office support” work for me – I do have to look myself in the face every morning. Training days, meetings, appointments, visits, written English support / proof reading, are all fine. Sitting around “in case” something happens in your workplace is no longer acceptable.