Russell Aldersson: Who are sign language interpreters for?

Posted on January 10, 2016

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A recent report by BBC South highlighted the difficulties West Sussex Deaf couple Rachel and Russell Fowler are having with their son’s school.

The school say they can’t provide interpreters for parents evenings or school meetings, as they don’t have the financial resources.

A similar thing happened to a Deaf colleague that I work with regularly who wanted to attend a conference. He was told that they could not make provision for interpreters (the irony was that the conference gave focus to language and interpreting/translation).

To give them their credit, the organisers eventually did agree to make provision but it wasn’t without conveying to my colleague that it was a sacrifice of biblical proportions and that part of the programme had had to to be cut to make provision for him.

Another Deaf gentleman that I work with who has to attend a four day meeting every few months in his role as a consultant (with no renumeration, he volunteers his time) has to constantly fight his corner and argue his need for interpreters. It is always put to him that he can read the speech-to-text reporting that they provide.

The underlying message is that those who need interpreters are an inconvenience and that somehow they have created a scenario where they have deliberately made themselves Deaf with the sole purpose of making life difficult for schools, conferences, organisers of public meetings and so on.

Of course, it’s not all quite so bleak, and many make great efforts to provide access in a world of funding cuts.

For me, as someone who has been working as a BSL / English interpreter for a number of years (I’m not going to say how many because in my head I’m still 25), it raises a bigger issue – just who is the interpreter for?

Often we are called ‘signers’ – a term that many of us get our knickers in a twist about because those unfamiliar with what it is that we actually do see us as the person in the periphery moving his or her hands around.

The reality is, the vast majority of us are dialogue or liaison interpreters, working from and into both languages in community settings.

It could be argued that we are not there for specific individuals. We are there to ensure that effective communication takes place between all parties, we are there for the setting and all the participants within it.

Perhaps then, in light of that fact, Deaf people need to employ a new strategy. When told that it is not possible to provide an interpreter to meet “their” communication needs, Let’s imagine this scenario:

A Deaf person attends a meeting where the organisers have told him or her that they can’t provide an interpreter.

So the Deaf person brings their own interpreter but instructs the interpreter to interpret only from spoken English to BSL.

Because here’s the thing, Deaf people don’t need an interpreter to send the message do they? It’s the hearing person that needs the interpreter to decode it and render the message effectively in spoken English.

The meeting will be entirely accessible for the Deaf person because their communication needs will be met by the interpreter working from English into BSL.

When they subsequently contribute to the discussion using BSL they can then act bewildered and nonplussed when it transpires that the hearing person cannot follow what has been said.

So go to the conference and read the captions as they suggest and then ask a question during the Q & A. Make a lovely long winded point in a workshop. Go to the interview with a volunteer interpreter (I’m up for it) and give your answers in BSL but let them all squirm. Let the reality dawn on them that actually, they need the interpreter too.

Rachel and Russell Fowler’s case is being discussed all over Facebook. Everyone has something to say. Some are in defence of the school stating that speakers of other languages can’t get interpreters for school meetings.

And yet of course, Deaf people can’t learn how to hear like speakers of other languages can learn English so it’s a flawed and moot point. I’m loath to get into the relentless debate about whether or not Deaf people constitute a group who have a disability or a linguistic minority and yet if we insist that it’s only the latter, it becomes problematic when pursuing a legal case under the auspices of the equality act.

I’m sure there are enough interpreters out there who would be willing to volunteer their services agreeing to work one way into BSL to raise awareness. It would highlight our cause too – and address the reality that we are there for everyone.

 Russell Aldersson lives in London and works as a freelance interpreter when not busy teaching English to Deaf Adults at the City Lit.

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