Signers at Work: A Glass Ceiling for Deaf People

There is an important point to be explored that our mystery shopper made. There needs to be another look at the trend of falling of standards in interpreter provision that is clearly apparent and why this trend needs to be reversed.

It used to be the norm that an agency would provide a registered and therefore appropriately qualified interpreter for important jobs at the very least. I include in this not just courts and police but, and this is not an exhaustive list: tribunals, mental health, child protection, the trickier medical jobs and important workplace assignments such as interviews. Interviews of the kind used in the mystery survey, where so many agencies were keen to sell a Communication Support Worker (CSW) to the hearing consumer, who they offered ‘would be ‘good enough’.

We have several problems here: the ignorance of the consumer, the willingness of an agency to make the sale at the best profit possible, the lack of control of the Deaf consumer and ultimately the drop in standards we have now encountered due to these problems.

When climbing the career ladder toward registration it used to be oft repeated that registration was the ‘safe to practice’ benchmark. Somewhat like getting your driving licence. You’re supposed to know the theory of driving and have a little experience. You spend a significant amount of time after the test still learning, you can not drive every where and would not risk your life or anyone else’s by doing so. After passing your test and getting your licence you are still learning. You may decide to do some motorway lessons or take an advanced driving qualification but you would not attempt to drive round Brands Hatch without a crash helmet or an experienced tutor in tow. And you wouldn’t do that straight after your test. Agencies are providing, for job interviews, signers who have barely started their lessons and haven’t been on the road long enough to do justice to a Deaf person in an interview. Some of these agencies, Deaf-led.

Now signers: once registered you are signed up to a Code of Conduct that says you should not accept work for which you do not have the skills. It happens to all of us that once in a while we do a less than fantastic job but it is not acceptable to accept jobs and put people at risk knowingly. Through strong networks of support future interpreters could tap into that knowledge and throughout their study it was drummed into them that they should not work in certain areas. Why is that message not getting through? Is it the economic climate that takes precedent? Of course people need to work. The common term in the community was ‘cowboy interpreter’. Perhaps we should resurrect that phrase as it needs no further explanation. In a small community many future interpreters were concerned about taking on jobs for fear of ruining their future reputation. Perhaps this is less of a worry when you are given an endless stream of jobs by agencies who flout the conventions held up by the community for so long. There is now less motive to actually do more qualifications with a goal to becoming registered.

So why in the mystery shoppers survey did so many agencies recommend a CSW for a job interview and why are the Deaf community not up in arms about this?

Cost.

The myth is that the interpreter is expensive. No. Agencies are. The consumer pays more and quite frequently gets a reduction in quality of service provision as made apparent from the amount of agencies providing a CSW for a job interview.

At the higher cost end of the spectrum it was clear that many spoken language agencies were ripping off the consumer with a ridiculous profit margin. If they source an unqualified signer it would cost them in the region of £50. A 250% mark up. At least.

What is also apparent from the cheaper end of the spectrum is that you get what you pay for. Some agencies with cheaper costs are the ones taking advantage of the market to squeeze interpreters’ fees. All the Deaf person is going to get is someone with less experience. In some cases you do not get much for what you pay for. With a £5 difference per hour between a CSW and a registered interpreter it is clear which one is more value for money.

It is about time we saw a shift in the general mentality from ‘interpreters are too expensive’ to ‘my interpreter costs X because they are brilliant, reflect me well and I am more likely to get the job/get a promotion’. Until the whole of the Deaf community get behind the need for standards, for value for money, for regulation of interpreters and the right to quality then the whole system is in danger of imploding in on itself.

There is not enough space here to go into the problems of Access to Work budgets, that is a separate issue. There is not enough time to go into the problems we have with the current system. There is a clear need for real solutions. What we must not lose sight of is the following:

The government agenda within Access to Work is about right to control. In this situation the Deaf client had no control. The point that is oft repeated by ASLI’s Access to Work group to the DWP when representing ASLI members is that Deaf people should have the right to control, not from anyone in a free (mostly black) market but from a pool of registered and safe interpreters. That is the point of registration and the fact the consumer then has some kind of protection. When the booking is made by someone else, in this case the hearing consumer, all control is lost to the agency and consumer protection no longer exists.

Where are the rights of the Deaf person? Does anyone really believe the Deaf person would have got the job in the mystery shopping scenario with a CSW trying to interpret for their interview?

No. It’s about time we shifted the focus from cost to value. All of our aspirations should be higher rather than the self-imposed glass ceiling that is evident. It would be great if more Deaf people could earn more than the average interpreter (which for most of us after expenses is not that much). There are quite a few people out there that do. I’d imagine they understand the need for an experienced interpreter that offers value for money in order to break those barriers and truly see Deaf people gain work to their full potential.

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The MoJ Interpreting Contract Fiasco: Is It Over?

Anecdotal reports over the past few weeks have pointed to continued failures of provision of interpreters to the MoJ. Interpreters are still travelling from Birmingham to London for a morning’s work then failing to stay for the afternoon leaving courts stranded as the only way a ‘linguist’, i.e. untrained interpreter, can make a living is by increasing their travel expenses.

The ‘linguist’ who caused a collapsed trial to the tune of £25k was seen working in courts again despite the collapse being in the papers.

West Midlands Police are letting suspects out on bail as it is taking days to get someone to come to the station, once this reportedly included witnesses in a murder case.

Criminals who have not been CRB checked are working in courts as ‘linguists’ and are reportedly ‘helping their mates stay out of jail.’

Other reports suggest some courts have given up using the national framework agreement (FWA) altogether and are back to sourcing their own interpreters. This would be one reason that would explain, amongst others, why many more court bookings are coming through a variety of agencies for Sign Language Interpreters.

Key ALS executives, David Joseph and Richard Loyer, amongst others, who were in charge of interpreting have reportedly left and joined a translation company called Language Wire and Gavin Wheeldon no longer has ALS as current on his LinkedIn profile and is now working for a catering company.

The misinformation that has been coming out from Minsters, namely Crispin Blunt, that interpreters earned six figure salaries, that the old system was a complete mess and that the new all-singing, all-dancing systems were going to save millions was always going to be hard to counteract.

The problem for government has always been that the figures the proposed savings were calculated on were created out of thin air. This is why FOI’s have gone unanswered. There are no figures. The only figures we have were created by the company themselves. Rather than proper research, a comprehensive scoping exercise with well thought out recommendations, what really happened was the contract was given to the lowest bidder and we were left with a mess.

It may seem quiet. It isn’t. It is just that the media is waiting for the outcome of the political fight which is happening behind closed doors and about to come to fruition. Hats off to the Professional Interpreters for Justice, Unite the Union, the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance, APCI, SPSI and all the interpreters who have held firm and boycotted the contract at risk of losing their livelihoods, their homes. What we have now is stalemate.

MP Magaret Hodge took the concerns of interpreters to the National Audit Office and the contract is being investigated. Dossiers of the many failures observed by interpreters monitoring the courts when they had no work have been produced as evidence. The Public Accounts Office have been alerted. So too the Justice Select Committee. A parliamentary event for MPs is being organised.

In the contract, failure to supply results in penalties. Judges who are minded to do so when cases have been adjourned have charged ALS with wasted costs orders. The barrister costs for each time a wasted costs order is brought must be substantial. The other penalties in the form of service credits as stated in the FWA can not be profitable. The proposed figure that Capita is losing on this contract that I have heard from three difference sources is a hefty sum. Per week. Capita can afford to take the loss but why keep a contract that does not and cannot perform?

The original business model was to supply language speakers within a 25 miles radius cheaply to courts having made these potential ‘interpreters’ pay for their own assessments at £125. That got dropped within weeks of the start of the contract to ‘free’ when noone would work for this company, then the assessment was dropped altogether. ALS are reportedly now saying that they will insist their interpreters are properly qualified and they should have passed the DPSI exam. The weekly updates of proposed service improvments mean that the original business model barely exists. It can not be profitable any longer and with growing political pressure it is surely only a matter of time before talks with interpreting associations will resume and alternatives to this fiasco will be tabled.

We are looking at a real opportunity. No longer do the media label interpreters as scroungers, the courts can recognise an interpreter of quality and work can be done with government on ensuring trained, registered interpreters are in court working for fair pay, and being respected for it. And the government could save money if it learns its lesson and works with the interpreting associations rather than against. They’ll be a lot of people soon saying I told you so.