Market Solutions Part 1: Protecting the Profession

There has been much criticism of the outsourcing of interpreting services to private agencies and the problems it causes for the profession on this blog. There have not been many recommendations offered. There will be, over time, a series of blogposts on the solutions we could put in place to counteract negative changes in the market and the subsequent decline in standards in some areas of work.

The most obvious answer to what is happening is to protect the title of interpreter. As a profession of Sign Language Interpreters we seem to bring up this topic every few years but have yet to get to the stage where we can submit an application for a variety of reasons.

Protection of title would mean in order to work legally as an interpreter you must be a Registered Sign Language Interpreter (RSLI). In the same way you can not work as a Social Worker or any number of health professionals unless you are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. You can not work as a Doctor unless you are able to register with the General Medical Council having completed the relevant training. To call yourself an Interpreter without being registered would incur a warning, a fine and a possible prison sentence.

How can we as interpreters apply for legal status and therefore protect the title of interpreter?
There is much work to do in one sense if we consider the financial climate and the unwillingness to use interpreters who have achieved standards in some areas, especially medical. The NHS has outsourced much of its interpreting services with dire consequences for Deaf people in areas where the contracts provide unregistered signers. In some ways we could get there relatively quickly if we pull together.

One way towards protection of title would be to become a Chartered body. This could be done by NRCPD or even, ASLI.

In order to do so an organisation needs to apply to the Privy Council for a Royal Charter. An example of chartered organisations, whose members are protected, are Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Institution of Engineering Designers (IED), Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) and Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL).

The steps we need to take and the comments on our progress are below:

(a) the institution concerned should comprise members of a unique profession, and should have as members most of the eligible field for membership, without significant overlap with other bodies.
The NRCPD has the majority of qualified interpreters on the register. More interpreters should become members of ASLI if they wish to work towards becoming protected. Strength in numbers is key.

(b) corporate members of the institution should be qualified to at least first degree level in a relevant discipline;
We can consider this point achieved.

(c) the institution should be financially sound and able to demonstrate a track record of achievement over a number of years;
Whether we are talking about NRCPD or ASLI this is true. Again, there could be more growth and achievement if every interpreter became a member of ASLI.

(d) incorporation by Charter is a form of Government regulation as future amendments to the Charter and by-laws of the body require Privy Council (ie Government) approval. There therefore needs to be a convincing case that it would be in the public interest to regulate the body in this way;
We have all experienced the damage that unregistered and unqualified interpreters can do. It is most definitely within the Deaf community’s interest and the wider public interest in ensuring there are only bona fide interpreters used. For example in the areas of medical, legal and social care where damage can be done to people’s lives or significant costs incurred by the state. Think miscommunication, think misdiagnosis, think mistrials.

(e) the institution is normally expected to be of substantial size (5,000 members or more).
Sign Language Interpreters can not fulfil this criteria at present so we would have to either:
– put the point across that we are a niche profession and apply to be accepted for Royal Charter on the basis of having 1,000 or so either on the register or in training.
– join together with spoken language interpreters in order to bolster our number although any interpreters or membership of an interpreting organisation would still need to adhere to the above criteria.

Another way of protecting the profession through regulation by government is by getting the use of Registered Interpreters into law. It is already a ‘reasonable adjustment’ under the Equality Act 2010 to provide an interpreter. Many organisation are using budgets as a way to renege on their responsibilities and to say it is not a ‘reasonable adjustment’ if they do not have the funds to pay for one. A more guaranteed way is to propose a BSL Bill and incoporate access into the bill as it is in the current BSL Bill being proposed to the Scottish Parliament.

Worth also noting is the current government steer is to ensure all professions in health are protected titles via the HCPC and this extends to anyone who may ‘touch’ the patient. As interpreters we might have to tap the client on the arm to get their attention, we may be doing hands-on interpreting for a Deafblind client or an elderly client may lean on an interpreter or grab their hand for support. For registration we need not only the correct qualifications proving we have reached the National Occupational Standards in Interpreting but also the essentials any professional should have: an enhanced CRB check, professional indemnity insurance, a Code of Conduct and a way for people to complain should you not be providing a good service. Allowing unregistered interpreters to be near the patient exposes them to people who do not have these safeguards. Allowing agencies, via outsourcing, to provide unregistered interpreters means that the government goes against its own agenda, no just for health but in other areas.

Whether we apply for Royal Charter, have interpreting and access as part of a BSL Bill or lobby for specific legislation to cover interpreting legally, government regulation of the Sign Language Interpreting profession fits in with government steer and parts of current legislation. This posting touches the tip of a legal iceberg. With the decline in standards in the provision of interpreting seen over the last two years, the disservice done by the government to Deaf people and the lack of cohesion amongst some groups of interpreters, whichever way we do it, it is about time we put protecting the title of interpreter back on the agenda.


The Importance of CPD

CPD has divided the profession, if we are to believe that this was the real reason why an alternative membership organisation was set up.

In reality CPD was voted in by members of ASLI. I voted for it. Erroneously I believe now but only because it took so long for the NRCPD to make it mandatory. Though it was not really a mistake. If ASLI had not have done it first if may have taken many more years.

Why is CPD, as a mandatory requirement of registration, so important?

1) A registration body who has CPD as a requirement is taken much more seriously as upholding the standards of a profession. We would never gain protection of title without it. By that I mean it would be illegal to call yourself and work as an interpreter if you are not a Registered Interpreter. That is the one thing we should be aiming towards. Together.

2) One argument against compulsory CPD is that many interpreters say they do it anyway. Then it is easy. All that needs to be done is record it. Why wouldn’t you want to prove your learning, your commitment to the profession?

3) Another is that it is too expensive. CPD does not just come in the guise of training courses which are often expensive and not always guaranteed to be of good quality. There are plenty of organisations who churn out less than interesting courses with dubious trainers. You can get free or heavily discounted training as an ASLI member too. Another blogpost follows this one which categories some of the many alternatives to expensive CPD.

4) Occasionally one comes across an interpreter who qualified years ago and has done nothing since. They can be hard to work with, it may be hard to even discuss how to work together on an assignment and as result of no learning, they could be out of date, deskilled and unsafe. That, in my opinion, is one of the best reasons for having CPD. Deaf people deserve to have committed professionals of quality, not another category of people making money off the back of the Deaf community.

5) Some interpreters object to the compulsory part, calling it dictatorial and authoritarian. For reasons discussed in point 4, it has to be that way. Some, unfortunately, have to be made to complete any kind of professional development. From another perspective if you are doing it anyway then no-one is forcing you to complete it. You are only being asked to record what you have done and provide evidence.

There were other arguments against CPD when it was being mooted at the time, which are no doubt out of date two years or so down the line. CPD may be relatively new for us and no doubt it will take time to bed in.

For many mandatory CPD is a must and the Institute of Continuing Professional Development sums it up perfectly:

‘Commitment to CPD is also an acknowledgement that becoming professionally qualified is not an end in itself – it is merely the beginning. Updating skills and knowledge on a continuing basis is essential to career progression, particularly given the passing of the ‘job for life’ and rigorously-defined career path cultures.’

For the Sign Language Interpreting profession in the UK, we have seen a paradigm shift, one which was repeatedly asked for and is now being established. CPD is here to stay and rightly so. Most of the profession agree, it is accepted by the majority and it will be the norm soon, if it is not considered to be so already. As always, it unfortunately takes some people longer to accept change.

Post to follow soon: CPD – Avoiding the Expense

Making a Profit: A Deaf Wage?

Although we have had a two-tier system of access for the Deaf community since the register of interpreters was started, this is getting worse in our current economic climate.

By two-tier I mean the use of registered interpreters and the continued use of the unregistered signer who has yet to acquire the National Occupational Standards in order to be able to register.

We have seen what are called CSWs (Communication Support Workers) in education for a number of years. Started to plug a gap when interpreters were low in number, they no longer are, the use of the CSWs has spun out of control with many believing they are up to the job of interpreting. Many aren’t.

The term CSW has become a way of trying to give the untrained and often not fluent signer some credence, some recognition for the job of filling the gap and an excuse for service providers to say they have made a reasonable adjustment under British Law.

How did CSWs who were deemed suitable for education in the 1980’s become a stop gap for other areas such as community bookings and employment (funded by the government through its Access to Work scheme)?

Even some agencies who state they only use reigstered interpreters use them in other areas. Two I know use them for office interpreting with Deaf staff and one uses them both for their education service and as employment consultants. Whichever way you couch it the work this personnel is doing is interpreting i.e. translating from Sign Language to English or English to Sign Language. As much as an agency can say it only uses registered interpreters, it does not if it only adheres to those standards for certain areas.

So why does this two-tier system exist? Mainly profit and a few myths in existence which now no longer apply:

There are not enough interpreters… We have more interpreters on the register than ever and some are struggling to find work.

Interpreters are expensive…

a) The truth is that many agencies are expensive with some charging 50% more than the fee an interpreter charges. When you use an agency for your Access to Work interpreting it is your budget that is being eaten away in fees to that middle man.

b) CSWs are cheaper and more flexible. Many are not and charge similar prices to interpreters. Someone told me recently of someone with level 2 earning £40k a year by their own admission. Not bad for a GCSE qualification and someone is paying them. That does not constitue value for money by anyone’s standards.

Using agencies for public service contracts will save money…

Many signers are working at community bookings, mostly at the hands of spoken language agencies (one previous example I
have quoted of a level 3 signer in court was a spoken language agency). Having been successful in winning a contract or even a sub-contract many agencies find their profit margin decreases so they must squeeze the fees of the interpreter. FOI requests show per booking the cost of providing a signer was no cheaper than a registered interpreter. The cost of having to book an interpreter, often to repair the damage a signer did, can be worse. Use a cowboy, you usually then have to spend more to fix it.

In this two-tier market there are agencies and CSWs who continue to make a living out of the Deaf community without care or concern for the potential damage they do or the reduction in choice for the Deaf client.

There has been a phrase that Deaf people have used to denote a living someone makes from the Deaf community by someone that gives nothing back. It has been said that the person is making a ‘Deaf wage’.

Regardless of whether your marketing suggests you give something back, if you or your business make a profit by supporting this two-tier system, I suggest you could be deemed as earning a Deaf wage.

Interpreting by Numbers

Some interesting stats:

1000 Sign Language Interpreters on the NRCPD register (I include Trainee Interpreters who are not registered as such).

400 who could register but don’t, a guesstimate.

250 on the register who are not members of ASLI, the professional Association for Sign Language Interpreters in the UK.

Before I extrapolate, some general comments:

There are other registers. If you are going to comment on this please do so by providing the number of sign language interpreters who are on other registers such as ITI or NRPSI and provide details of how they are accessible for Deaf people to make complaints. It would be genuinely interesting to find out more.

Some people believe ASLI and NRCPD should join together or at least have a joint fee. Many more don’t and rightly so. As interpreters we need a separate registration body and one which we can hold to account.

So why don’t those 400 or so interpreters register? A lack of faith? Too expensive? Or is it that they can still get work without being registered and thereby save themselves the current fee of £165?

I met one such interpreter last year. She stated she worked in two different schools supporting Deaf students with additional ad hoc work. She could be a Trainee for the purposes of the register but couldn’t see the point as her employers were not going to pay for it and she was freelance. As someone who is self-employed you can claim registration fees against your tax. Even if you feel its expensive, registration is still important. It shows respect for the profession and for Deaf people, who will not be able to complain should they receive a sub-standard service.

For every unregistered interpreter who struggles to get work there are many more who successfully work. Why? Unregulated agencies making extra profit by using anyone with a sign language qualification on the presumption they can interpret effectively. A new agency pops up every week and many do not know what they are doing. If you are the client and you’re booking a signer rather than a Registered Interpreter it is unlikely you are getting value for money.

Sometimes it’s a Deaf person using someone for a bit of communication support. I witnessed this, yet again, the other day when a Deaf advocate brought along her CSW (Communication Support Worker) to a meeting at a mental health trust. The booking had overrun by half an hour already and I stated I had to leave soon. The Deaf professional gave permission to use her support and the CSW was happy to do so. Given her level of language and her unregistered status for what was effectively a mental health appointment, this was clearly not appropriate. Many signers also charge only slightly less (some charge more) than an Interpreter so it is less value for money. Why waste public money on a lesser set of skills.

Onto interpreters who are not members of ASLI. There are 250 Registered Interpreters who are not ASLI members to which we can presumably add the majority of the 400 who could register but do not. There are many reasons people have used for not being a member. In these economic times it’s even more important that those 650 people support their profession. Why? There are 20 or so previous posts you could read through.

People state political reasons for not being a member:

1) CPD. The ASLI system has improved dramatically. Most of us complete CPD anyway as we understand the importance and to formally record it on ASLI’s database takes mere minutes. You can access heavily subsidised training via ASLI. There is also a myth that CPD has to be training. CPD comes in many guises including attending ASLI meetings, writing up a feedback session or your thoughts on an article. It needn’t be expensive.

2) Some say they do not know what ASLI does. ASLI volunteers represent members and the profession at meetings with government and recent successes include campaigning for RSLI as standard with the MoJ. ASLI has been present at many meetings with government departments and other organisations that are too numerous to mention. In fact the more members ASLI has, the more capacity it will have to do more representation and work towards protecting the profession.

3) ASLI is a company. Yes. It is a grown up association with a board, annual returns to companies house and a rather large membership. It has an office, staff and is the face of the profession. A face of the profession that has a website full of resources and someone that answers the phone. A face that people take seriously.

Some people state personal reasons:

1) ‘I don’t get any benefit from membership.’ Subsidised (sometimes free) training, regional meetings and communications (Newsli, newsletters and forums) are the three obvious benefits but then if you don’t attend or read any communications you are less likely to understand the benefits. As with most things in life, you get out what you put in. Secondly, the more intangible benefits are representation with government and organisations, having a presence, having an organisation that is there to offer advice to the general public and being part of an organisation that pushes the profession forward. Oh, and there’s also professional indemnity insurance.

2) ‘It’s too expensive.’ My personal view is that it’s great value for money when you understand the true benefits. It’s not just about the personal gain but the wider profession. And, again, you can claim it as a business expense. Even if you are employed.

3) ASLI is elitist. As someone in training I was always welcomed at meetings. Recent meetings I’ve attended have been welcoming and supportive.

In addition to the above I’ve heard some incredibly bizarre reasons and admittedly some reasons which have some credibility. Nothing is perfect. Time move on and the world of interpreting fluctuates. Currently that’s in ways that cause nausea, havoc and fear.

This is the first time in 25 years that our profession faces threat. The way to retaliate is not by blaming interpreters, the Association or the register. It is by working together to collectively come up with some answers, to join in and fight back, to use solidarity and our collective power to change the status quo.

In one way or another there are at least 1,400 of us and that has the potential to be incredibly powerful in these times. Isn’t it time we stuck together?

Inequality before the Law? It’s Reality

A Sign Language Interpreter has submitted, anonymously, this story for you all to read. Comment is made afterwards:

‘An interpreter was warned to attend court c/o ALS and its preferred supplier of Sign Language Interpreters.  The interpreter had little experience of court work generally and no knowledge of the defendant, no knowledge of the indictment and no knowledge of the type or stage in proceedings.  The booking had been made a mere two days earlier by the agency’s assessment that it was ‘straight forward, quick and well within the interpreters’ capability’.

The interpreter had been informed that a relay interpreter would attend also to facilitate communications.  They did not know the relay interpreter, had never worked with them before and actually had no idea why in fact a relay interpreter was required for the case…

The relay interpreter arrived not only late but also dressed most inappropriately for a court case.  They too had no idea of the indictment, defendant, stage of proceedings etc.  The relay interpreter immediately declared that they had never worked in a court before.  The defence lawyer had immediate and very serious concerns about the communication provision for their client.  Representations were made immediately to the court.  Meanwhile, as it is a small community, it was quickly discovered that the relay interpreter had a fairly substantial court career with a number of both recent and historic criminal convictions – with even further cases pending!

The relay interpreter admitted, to the hearing interpreter, that there were many reasons why they must not and should not work in court or other legal settings.  The relay interpreter stated it had ‘been a mistake’ to accept the job from the agency, but that no CRB clearance had been requested and no proof of experience had been required.  The relay interpreter, instead of reporting to the usher, decided to leave the building with no explanation to the court whatsoever.

The hearing interpreter entered the courtroom and explained to the judge that they had no choice but to withdraw from the assignment.  The withdrawal was put on the following grounds that: 1. they had been falsely warned to the assignment; 2. they were unable to function effectively alone; 3. they would not be able to perform the task satisfactorily unto the language need and complexity of the case and 4. that it would put justice in too greater jeopardy.  The interpreter further disclosed to the court the full details of the concerns pertaining to the equally inappropriate and dangerous relay interpreter.

The judge thanked the interpreter for their honesty and integrity.   They made a note of the necessary details to be referred to the court presiders regarding the enormous danger that the defendant had faced unto ALS and its’ preferred supplier.’

Some extrapolation from the above:
– Readers of this blog, be it sign language interpreters or users of services, may not fully understand the reality of outsourcing and the resulting situation we are faced with. This is an additional, and altogether more serious, example to the ones on the previous post.
– Many booking co-ordinators, especially ones at less than reputable agencies, can not necessarily be relied upon to have specialist knowledge.
– Interpreters should accept assignments for which they are prepared, skilled, ready… As the interpreter, the buck stops with you.

– Court or Police work is not glamourous and does not afford an interpreter extra status or kudos. Your work could be held up to account, may be examined by an expert witness, investigated by defence teams and you could find yourself in a situation where you are being called as a witness.

– It is highly likely that a three hour training course will not be sufficient to ensure you are fully competent to work in a court. Even if it contains in the title the word ‘Masterclass’. Try some shadowing first. And a mentor. Or better still don’t work for the company that everyone loves, with good reason, to hate.

If you are witness to anything, wish to write a guest blog post or wish to send something in for further comment please email to

A big thank you to our anonymous poster.

Using a Professional is the Only Safeguard – Part 1

This post is part one of two. The first part will explain generally what a profession is and make distinctions between what some may consider a profession and what is truly a profession. The second post will consider the current comments of government surrounding the MoJ and other contracts to further highlight the fallacy behind outsourcing for those that should be considered professionals and the risks the government are incurring with this strategy.

The term profession is often bandied about. Anyone can call themselves a professional: marketeers, IT personnel, plumbers.

Let’s be clear. There is something beyond these albeit worthy roles. This is about a professional. One who has a Code of Ethics or Professional Conduct, a CRB check, has a high level of training, alongside specialised knowledge and skills, belongs to an organised regulator and has responsibility to a community and is concerned with its welfare above all else.

Teachers will tell you the supply teacher is all but gone in the UK. Rather than employ a qualified teacher to plug any gaps in timetables it is the new employee at the front of the class: one who is on a Registered Teacher Programme (RTP), who is not as yet qualified to teach. Or worse, sometimes it is the Teaching Assistant who is left holding the fort.

Psychologists will tell you that work previously done by highly qualified and trained Psychologists is now being done by those trained in IAPT: Improving Access to Psychological Therapies. You now need to pass a one year course to deliver CBT.

Nurses will tell you a lot of their work is now done by Health Care Assistants.

There are many similarities between the above three professions and interpreting, whether spoken or for sign language. You should be bound by a Code of Ethics or Professional Conduct, have an enhanced CRB check, professional insurance, be accessing supervision and be registered with the appropriate professional body in order to work. In fact all the criteria mentioned at the start of this article.

What is different with interpreting and what Sign Language interpreters have been discussing for a long time is the lack of legal protection. Were interpreters to be legally protected, it would be illegal to work as an interpreter unless you were a registered professional in the same way you can not legally work as a doctor if you are struck off the medical register held by the GMC.

Why? This goes back to the list of what it is to be a professional and the responsibility we have to the community we serve. Over the last 25-30 years we have witnessed and heard terrible stories of what happens when you do not have a registered interpreter. We have fought as a profession to raise and safeguard those standards and to continue to develop the profession.

We have heard about the level 2 ‘signer’ work in a court room (the equivalent of conversational French). We have heard about the police tape that got pulled apart by the defence team due to the sub-standard interpreting causing the eventual collapse of a case. We know the all too familiar stories of mishaps, misdiagnoses, even deaths. We all know the students who leave schools and colleges without qualifications because they didn’t understand the ‘communicator’. These aren’t the stories of yesteryear, the bad old days before we had a register and better qualifications, though both of those points are moot. These are fast becoming today’s stories.

You would not allow a Health Care Assistant to draw blood or dispense medication. You would not allow an IAPT practitioner to diagnose someone with schizophrenia. You would not allow a Teaching Assistant to deliver A Level Physics or PSHE. This creates rather than mitigates risk. Risks to standards, to service delivery, to people.

When you allow an untrained, unregistered interpreter to work in a hospital, a courtroom or a police station you play with risk, you create risk. And nobody present can monitor that.

It is why we have Codes of Ethics for professionals. Interpreters, in the same way as other professions, cannot always be monitored. They are responsible for monitoring their own actions and behaviours, to be responsible for themselves and those they serve. Codes of Ethics were borne out of the Hippocratic Oath, the fundamental principle of which is do no harm.

Employ someone who is not a professional, you no longer have those safeguards. No matter what monitoring has been added to the contract the commissioner is not omnipresent. Even if they were they would not be qualified in assessing whether that person was competent and had successfully completed their duties. Does the commissioner, judge, solicitor, doctor, nurse have access to the languages the ‘interpreter’ purports to know? Is someone unregistered really someone you can trust?

The only safeguard is simply to use a professional, one who is appropriately trained and registered. In the UK, where a framework agreement exists for interpreting that safeguard has been all but removed.

Remaining Anonymous…for Now

There has been a spate of enquiries, mutterings and one dig on an e-group as to why this blog should be anonymous.

Time to clarify the matter for those whom it sits uncomfortably with. Even though one would think it was obvious to anyone who read the first comment on the last post: Media Reports Chaos: Interpreters, Make Your Stand.

Predictably, a threat of defamation was made by ALS, which was promptly followed by support and comments from interpreters. Thank you. They called for ALS to provide evidence of their self-proclaimed exhaustive list of trained and assessed interpreters. There have been reports of the sheer amount of no-shows where requests by the courts for interpreters have remained unfilled. Other reports have filtered through of speakers of other languages turning up then trying but failing to interpret the more obvious legal jargon any court interpreter must understand.

Secondly, there is an e-group many interpreters subscribe too where a poster commented on the anonymous nature of this blog, inadvertently highlighting the other main reason for posting incognito. That particular e-group is renown for its negativity, back-biting and occasional venom. The real issues often get lost in a tide of personalities and politics with rants about perceived injustices and ‘what has happened’.

Identities will no doubt be revealed in the future, perhaps keeping the option for others to post anonymously. In the meantime it is a useful way to be able to post with the occasional in-fighting which is depressing to say the least, pointless at best. As a profession we all essentially want the same things:

  • To legally protect the profession of interpreting.
  • To maintain the standards we have strived for and to keep raising the bar.
  • To ensure we strive for professional development, individually and collectively.
  • To protect access for the Deaf/* communities we serve (*insert your language/nationality or linguistic group here if you are a spoken language colleague).
  • To protect our livelihood and to enable us to go on working in the profession we love.

Sometimes it is important to find out why people care about ‘what has happened’, whatever that is for the individual. It may help foster that much needed sense of unity or be something that helps the rest of the profession.

Sometimes, it is nothing more than hollow reasoning to justify bad behaviour towards others or opinions that are completely out of date. If ‘what has happened’ is something that could be fixed or in some way improved for others, please approach someone and talk about it, albeit in a constructive way. If ‘it’ happened more than a year or two ago, was on a larger scale or is not something anyone can remedy now, for your own sanity, the sake of others and the unity of the profession as a whole: move on, the rest of us did.