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.
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 quite capable of writing seriously and in a proper academic style. But this is a blog. If I can’t have fun and speak my mind, why bother? Despite that, I think there may be some serious points and interesting finds here. I don’t think anyone has done this before: if I’m wrong, please let me know.
This mini-project used three data sets, all available to the public. One (a portion of the 2011 National Census) has questionable data. The next (CRIDE’s 2014 survey) comes with a warning attached that it should only be used for analysis and debate rather than drawing any hard conclusions. The last (NRCPD’s May 2015 registration breakdown) only represents those interpreters who choose to register with NRCPD. Therefore the following should also be taken as an exploration – stuff that is or is not likely – rather than solid fact. I’m the first to point out other people’s terrible use of stats and I hope I’ve been equally critical and honest about my own dalliances.
If you’re already bored you can skip ahead to the pretty maps.
NRCPD recently began releasing a breakdown of qualified registered interpreters by region for the first time. When I saw this, I realised there is the potential to have a pop at some very old questions: how many BSL users per interpreter are there? and where is the most work for interpreters? and where do Deaf people compete most for interpreter availability? The answers would obviously be of interest to those invested in Deaf Industry strategy and marketing, but there are political concerns as well. For example, I regret that it has been suggested to me more than once that there are “too many interpreters” (only by interpreters, obviously).
But counting registered interpreters is the trivial part. The question of how many Deaf people there are and where they are has always been problematic, because we don’t all necessarily agree on what they are. Humans always come unstuck on methods and definitions, because words don’t mean anything in themselves. For areas, grey is the new black. Determinations of identity are always going to be muddy, because people are fabulously muddy.
But if you don’t ever try, you don’t progress. Despite these issues, there is always some kind of data. Data trumps ideology every time. You just have to pull your finger out. [Read more…]
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.
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.