Emily Howlett: Do we appreciate sign language interpreters enough?

Posted on November 2, 2015

We all like a good interpreter, don’t we? Who isn’t instantly uplifted upon meeting their communication assistant and realising that they not only know their stuff, they know yours too?

Recently, I have worked with a number of interpreters I had never met before. This is due to a number of reasons, none of them particularly interesting, but what is interesting is the huge amount of differences between each one.

Everyone who is a qualified British Sign Language interpreter, or communication support worker, has achieved a certain level of skill in both their understanding and usage of the language.

They will all have been trained in deaf awareness, interpreting, effective communication and confidentiality. And yet they are like snowflakes; no two are the same.

A short time ago, I was working on a television film set. The interpreter was somebody I had never heard of, drafted in at the last minute when the company realised I really was deaf and not just trying to claim extra expenses.

She walked in and within minutes we were gossiping about the famous faces around us and being mutually horrified by the behaviour of some of the assistants. Within hours (television stuff takes forever and a day to complete) we had covered the whole of the Roman Empire, via Coronation Street and the current (crappy) Governmental attitude towards disabled people. I was genuinely sad to say my thanks and goodbyes at the end.

Even less time ago, I was asked to cover an English lesson (I know; deaf teaching English? There should be laws against it!) for a class of college students who were all hearing.

I have two interpreters I usually call on for these classes, but both were busy (damn them to Hell). The man who came instead was fully qualified and lovely. But I couldn’t work with him. There was literally no relationship between us, and his style of signing was jerky and, to me, distracting.

I actually found myself thinking, “How on earth is this man an interpreter? He’s not even interested in working with me; he’s just some kind of language robot!”

How self-centred is that?

This man, who would have gone through several years and considerable personal expense to become qualified to help anybody with a hearing loss who needed him – I was writing him off because I didn’t think he was making an effort? Because he signed in a different way to me, he was useless?

I reckon that’s probably equal to refusing to work with someone from Newcastle, because you don’t like listening to a Geordie accent and therefore don’t hear the genius in what they’re saying.

I understand that there are certain circumstances where we need specific interpreters, or people we know. I have a friend who simply insists on having nobody other than her most favourite interpreter go with her when she needs fitting for bras (she ended up marrying him actually, though I’m sure that’s unrelated). But I also think there’s a lovely element of surprise in working with new, different people with their new, different styles.

Plus, the more fantastic interpreters you work with, the more people you have to call on when you need assistance. Even though they might not all make that instant connection with you, they’ve chosen this career for a reason. It’s probably nice to be thankful for them. Occasionally.

And, you never know; you might learn something new from them. Signs for Roman Legion General, anyone?

Emily Howlett 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.

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