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.
My employer is described as potentially offering interpreters as well as CSWs, but to my current knowledge they have exactly 0.8 FTE qualified interpreters on their books (0.6 of which is me) and maybe three or four TSLIs, and a pool of about fifty “casual” (i.e. zero-hour) CSWs. Very few of us work for the service full-time and many only work a handful of hours. That said, while our service isn’t perfect, I think it does many things very well indeed, and I’m constantly impressed by the talent, dedication and mindfulness to be found in our team. To use the expected terminology, we help to get “good outcomes”, if that gives you any comfort. As to whether deaf children and young adults are being empowered to use the potential “Health” and “Care” components of their Plans in any kind of self-directed way, I have absolutely no idea, but if the “Education” element is representative, it seems unlikely.
But there are glimmers, pockets. I recently encountered a student support service where all the professionals involved – I mean CSWs – are treated as such. They are organising controlled, monitored, DPA-governed access for all support staff to EHC plans and student learning goals, because you can be a CSW/terp and an education professional. This means that when they are sent to support a student who is a BSL/SSE user but also has additional needs, they will be prepared for it. If only this model were more prevalent. A top priority of EHC plans was supposed to be cutting out all the endless repeating of stories deaf and/or disabled people and their families have to do.
It would be a tragedy if all those years of work on the Local Offer turned out to be simply replacing one postcode lottery with another, or it becomes just another vehicle for “austerity”.
Like many other naive hearing persons dabbling in Deaf Studies, I drew a lot of inspiration from writers like Paddy Ladd and Harlan Lane exploring the (capital D) Deaf self-identification not being that of “disability” but as cultural-linguistic minority, perhaps even an “ethnicity” (in the cultural sense rather than racial) that has been “colonised”. Politically, this has been a useful and vaguely successful model of identity, perhaps more so in the USA than the UK. As in the social model of disability, we use “disabled” only as the past participle of a verb. The Deaf are disabled by the hearing, by the oblivious, endless construction of hearing spaces. “Disability” is a status imposed by an ignorant majority, rather than it being an innate property of the Deaf person.
Which is great, and a useful compass for an Ausländer like myself. Except, of course, when it excludes those left outside that definition, who are physically or cognitively disabled and also deaf, who may self-identify as disabled or who have internalised that label, who may have other identities (disabled, black, gay, woman) which may override any amount of academic capital letter usage, or who don’t care for or know about any of these labels at all but are simply asking for help because they need help. At which point, as a public servant, I get very little utility out of any of this theorising (or indeed the dead hand of deontological interpreting codes of conduct). Hello, intersectionality. The world, and the people in it, are more complex than you first thought: who knew? And yet so much of interpreting discussion seems to assume that all the participants are always autonomous adults with the mental capacity to make critical decisions. Newsflash: we have all been vulnerable, it is not a dirty word.
I was recently sent to work across a couple of weeks with much younger students than I’m used to, around 13-14, in a total communication secondary school. It was amazing and I loved every minute. I feel like I developed more in those handful of days than from all of last year’s work. It is not unusual for deaf teens to be behaviourally or cognitively immature or delayed if benchmarked against their hearing peers (and that’s a whole other gripe): language deprivation is the common cause. Research suggests that that an early lack of exposure to complex adult language can delay children’s development of theory of mind (e.g. Meristo, Hjelmquist & Morgan 2012), which in turn might delay the acquisition of social skills like empathy and turn-taking (and my personal belief is that it’s key for pragmatic competence, a lack of which can also produce relatively weak interpreters). To give you some idea, this school regularly runs classes titled “Emotions”. They are experiencing higher intakes of students with complex needs and/or challenging behaviours on top of their auditory/communication needs, which are themselves as broad-ranging across the “deafness” continuum as they could possibly be.
I wrote up a long self-reflection on this experience but can’t go into much more detail here for obvious reasons. Let’s just say that despite the very small class size, there was a great breadth of ability and need, considering they were all peers. Each of them had their own “story”, but I suspect very strongly that none of those stories had so far featured interpreters as a supporting or incidental character. To them, I was just another adult, one that can both sign and hear (but oddly, a man) who seems to be hovering around the teacher a lot. In a nutshell, these are kids with no experience of being professionally interpreted for and at least one of them was (at that time) not capable of understanding that I was actually relaying other people’s (and their own) utterances and not just talking to them directly, no matter how much I might try to indicate otherwise. Meanwhile, the school is insisting that I be called “Mr Brown”, like a teacher, with all the power/authority baggage that might entail (I confess that I enjoyed this and it made some things easier). So the school – the commissioner – is very clear about my status. Furthermore, to my surprise, the teacher and one of the TAs complimented me at the end of the day for “getting involved” – i.e. for disregarding ASLI’s unhelpful educational interpreter guidelines – and asked how I might be booked again.
And yet, and yet. I was sent into that room without knowing anything about the stories, the barriers, the labels. In a very real sense, I winged it. With some intelligence I hope, and the benefit of experience, but a non-zero helping of happenstance. Where was the Local Offer?
I did a full reflection on my behaviour in terms of Lee & Llewellyn-Jones’s three-axis model of “role space” (see Resources). The most relevant element here was the one that some interpreters are mostly likely to react against, the one that to them feels least “interpretery”, even to the extent of going into a panic if they are asked to introduce themselves by name: presentation of self, which includes what some folks call “leakage”, a visible or audible personal reaction to the content of the interpretation, but can also be simple introductions, answering direct questions, revealing personal qualities or skills or preferences or – I’m gonna say the O-word – opinions. It is also the thing I struggle most with, the outermost mask that slips if I’m tired or annoyed or amused or otherwise struggling. There are many settings where a minimal, near-zero presentation of self is probably going to be the optimal strategy: legal/police interviews, consultations with medical or other experts, most “platform” interpreting, counselling. However in this case, it was almost entirely moot. Half of those young people in the room had no understanding of whether I am or am not “presenting myself” or only “presenting” them or the teacher or somebody else, no matter what I think I’m doing. They took me as they found me, understanding me as being an autonomous adult who can solve problems, needing me to be one. The question becomes one of when, why and to what extent overt actions as an independent power-holding decision-maker with an actual personality of their own might be useful or helpful.
For example, a young disabled person is struggling with a task or their feelings or both. The go-to strategy would be to get the teacher’s attention. But they are dealing with several other challenging young people and all the rest of their work mountain, and cannot be everywhere at once. Which is more important, a preconceived and ossified idea about a faceless “role” which bears little resemblance to the expectations of interpreters in a million other places and times (e.g. escort interpreting), or the momentary need of a teen/child in a blind panic? None of this entails that your strategies at flagging up whose utterances you are relaying, and what interpreters are used for elsewhere, can’t be worked on over time. Furthermore, it seems that this approach was immediately recognised and appreciated by the other professionals. Multidisciplinary or bust.
In short, this particular “position in role space” was in the diametrically opposite corner to that of the hyperprofessionalised “conduit/robot” approach. It is not a license to “do whatever you feel like”: the name of the game is still accountability and integrity. You might argue that profound disability and/or challenging behaviour is a special case, and yet I’m noticing that this experience is influencing my work in very different settings, such as ESOL classes where the room is considerably more adult than some of the FE classrooms I attend, but with up to thirty different cultures represented within it. I love it. Everyone is feeling their way around, testing boundaries. This is a client group who understand what respect entails, and work hard. But few of these people have experienced sign languages and they may have come with different expectations of deafness or disability. Furthermore, their overriding commonality is one of class. These people are getting up at 4am to clean your office, your toilets. Again, they do not, cannot perceive me as being ye olde impartial robot but want me to be a friendly British English expert they might actually get to talk to a little, an experience they may not be getting anywhere else, not yet.
Am I supposed to slam these doors shut because of some bizarre notion about “role”? Nobody in the room wants that, hearing or deaf. I can respond to simple courtesies and still have supporting Deaf learners as my top priority. I keep reading about “professionalism” but few people bother to define it. Perhaps in some cases it’s just a matter of grace.
And hell, perhaps it’s all masks, all the way down.