Emily Howlett: The “absolutely, definitely booked” interpreter. Who didn’t exist…

Posted on January 10, 2014



Ah, that happy feeling you get when you walk past the letterbox and see you have post.

That little flicker of warm humanity; somebody has taken the time to write me an actual, physical letter!

The little dance down the hallway to retrieve the letter, wondering who it could be from. Endless possibilities; the Queen offering an MBE, Colin Firth in desperate need of a bed, a dear friend informing me she is moving to live in the same country instead of being half a planet away…. Excitement!

Ah, that sinking feeling when you realise the envelope is brown. It’s a particular shade of brown, as well. Not formal HMRC or ‘Pay Us Thousands Immediately’ brown, but kind of walnut coloured. There’s only one place that sends that colour.

Looks like I’m going back to the hospital for further nefarious and evil testing; “Bring someone with you as you may be required to stay in, depending on your circumstances.”

Oh, bum. This is the first dilemma; do you take someone who can sign, and therefore condemn them to being your ‘free interpreter’, or ask an oral friend and then hope fervently for a ‘real’ interpreter to be provided?

Me? I usually take anybody who is free, which turned out to be nobody. So I emailed, texted and telephoned (very useful, these hearing family and friends) to make very, very sure that a real, qualified, amazing interpreter booked for the appointment.

Yes, I was assured, there is.

(As an aside; I am really enjoying writing this piece simply because the computer spellchecker keeps changing ‘interpreter’ to ‘interrupter’. Sort of apt, I think!)

Naturally, I rocked up to Reception, handed over my letter by way of introduction and was waved over to a seat.

I quite like those initial moments of scanning the room and trying a bit of ‘terp spotting’. You can nearly always pick them out.

This time, however, I was struggling to find anyone who looked ‘terpish’. Maybe they were late?

A lady came scuttling over with a piece of paper. Oh, joy. I know what this is. The second dilemma; we don’t have an interpreter, do you want to continue without or rebook?

I realised, in the middle of bashing my head against the wall, that I hadn’t actually answered. I just nodded wearily and followed the scuttle lady, who was indeed the doctor, into the testing room.

Here, she smiled brightly and pulled out an A4 pad. “I will write everything down,” she wrote, “as it is very complicated to explain, and I don’t want you to miss anything.” And so she did, using no less than seven pages altogether.

Now, this is my third dilemma, and the worst. I spend a lot of time with hearing and oral people. I can lip-read exceptionally well for someone with no hearing at all. I can speak and be understood.

But when someone has assumed that to write things down is the best communication, I feel uncomfortable.

It takes forever, and it’s of no help at all to a large number of deaf people who struggle with written English. Plus, it’s a doctor writing it all. Doctors’ handwriting, plus medical jargon is pretty impenetrable to anyone…

On the other hand, personally, I can cope with written English. If I lip-read, I will get the key points but there will always be something I miss out on.

But, by letting her write all this jollop down and then smile at me and do thumbs-up when I finish reading, what message am I sending?

That this will work for all deaf people? That it’s ok not to have the interpreter there?

We’ve seen too many cases where interpreters haven’t been provided, and there’s some great campaigns of awareness going on. But this means nothing when you are sitting in the waiting room, having travelled for ages, knowing that if you cancel you will have to come back again, and again… and frankly you just want the whole horrible thing over and done with.

When you’re in that situation, you know that your actions will impact, even if only in a small way, on the attitudes of the people around you. You will impact on the fight to gain true accessibility, and it might not be the right kind of impact.

But you just want to get home.

So, I let her write her seven pages of jollop. I let her smile and do the nefarious and evil testing because, really, it was easier to just go along. I couldn’t think about the impact or the way it would affect any other deaf patients to follow; I could only think about me, in that room, at that moment.

I think that’s self-preservation more than anything. But I also think it’s a massive shame. Who goes to a hospital wanting to think about self-preservation?

Hospitals are where they have the knowledge, and they can look after you. They’re excellent places, with excellent staff. But, simply by not having that one extra staff member, the interpreter, all the excellence is wasted.

And the fourth dilemma? Ah. That was what exactly to say to the receptionist who, as I left, handed me a note that said “Next time, please check we have booked the interpreter before you arrive”.

It wasn’t words I replied with, but a simple gesture…

Emily Howlett is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer, horsewoman and new mum. Emily used to be found all over the place, but motherhood has turned her into somewhat of a self-confessed homebody. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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