Brett Best: Why Access to Work cuts are pulling us all down a slippery slope

Posted on May 14, 2014

Some have recently suggested that the solution to the problem with Access to Work is simply that interpreters should significantly reduce their rates. I would not reject sensible discussions about ATW rates outright, but I feel that before we all collectively acquiesce to the de-professionalisation of BSL interpreting by an external, uninformed entity, we need to take into account some bigger considerations.

The overall concern is not for the immediate hit interpreters’ bank accounts may suffer if rates are reduced yet further, but for the future of the interpreting profession in general and, in particular, the impact it will eventually have on consumers of interpreting services.

BSL interpreting has reached a certain level of professionalisation that enables the public to trust that they will receive a minimum standard of quality when they hire an interpreter. Unfortunately, recent decisions by the DWP are threatening the assuredness of quality that may be expected when hiring an interpreter. Responding to DWP cuts or changes to Access to Work by paying interpreters sub-standard rates may likely have unintended unfortunate consequences for Deaf workers and their hearing colleagues who use interpreting services.

Brett Best

First, I would argue that agencies exert far more control over the market than interpreters do. Typically, an agency will take the interpreter’s fee and then add charges that may take it to the maximum allowed under the Access to Work scheme.

Given this reality, asking interpreters to accept less remuneration will not alleviate the problem if an agency continues to charge the maximum allowed. Agency integrity will, therefore, need to be an important part of the solution.

It is also worth noting that there are plenty of individuals working as BSL interpreters in the UK that are able to secure work without any type of professional alignments. In other words, anyone can call themselves an interpreter without ASLI or NRCPD membership.

It is likely that if working wages are driven down in a certain sector like Access to Work, then it may no longer be feasible for those qualified practitioners who do have these professional memberships to continue working in that sector.

The remaining pool of candidates would be those that are unqualified, forcing consumers to accept lower quality services. By lowering wages, more employment opportunity is being created for these unqualified practitioners. This availability of work will also lessen the incentive for these practitioners to become qualified. Furthermore, once it happens in one sector, it will more easily happen in another. In fact, it is already happening. We have seen legal interpreters forced to leave their specialisation when their earnings were driven down to the point where employment in that sector was no longer sustainable.

Essentially, by backtracking on the progress of the professionalisation of BSL interpreting in the UK, consumers will ultimately be receiving sub-optimal services.

The motive inspiring many who become qualified interpreters is usually not money, so it is not necessary that the financial incentive be so great that it is what drives people to become qualified interpreters. However, it is important that the profession is financially viable as an option to both future and current practitioners and that it justifies the investments of time, effort, and money necessary to enter it and practice it well. If it is not, consumers will eventually lose out when there becomes a shortage of skilled interpreters.

Unfortunately, those making the decisions at ATW are not knowledgeable about interpreting and they have neglected to adequately consult with professionals or consumers.

Many interpreters are willing to make adjustments on fees for certain individuals and situations. What I hope is clear is that the depth of the issue isn’t as easy as interpreters’ wages. To expect that both consumers and interpreters unquestioningly comply with across the board mandates made by an entity that underwent no significant effort to consult with either, both jeopardises and undermines the professionalism that has thus far been achieved.

That doesn’t just affect interpreter’s wages; it potentially affects the quality of interpreters that Deaf and hearing consumers will have in the future. We all need to continue to campaign against these changes.

In conclusion, Deaf workers, interpreters, and agencies should all work together by lobbying as a united front for Deaf people to be able to perform their jobs and for interpreters to be able to continue theirs as well. Stakeholder organisations need to obtain a more accurate understanding of the expertise professional interpreters exercise and respect this accordingly.

Above all, interpreters and consumers absolutely must be consulted in decisions impacting all of us.  While BSL interpreting has made significant strides toward professionalisation, resulting in higher quality services for consumers, that professionalisation is being yanked from our grasp and placed on the edges of a very slippery slope. When it starts to slide, the quality of interpreters eventually will too.

Brett Best is a professional interpreter with over a decade of experience interpreting worldwide with specialisations in ASL and BSL. She holds degrees in Interpreting, Deaf Education, Deaf Studies, and is currently studying toward a European MSc in Sign Language Interpreting. Brett is especially interested in strategies for consumer-interpreter collaboration.

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