Lina Cankas: A Deaf perspective on differences in interpreting services in England and Lithuania

Posted on September 26, 2016

In Lithuania, all interpreters are provided by a centralised Interpreting Centre in the heart of each of the major towns and cities.

Government funded, these Centres provide free interpreters for all of the Deaf community’s needs: social, education, medical, employment, and personal.

They provide a one-stop-shop where Deaf people can either attend face-to-face or call via Skype to book their interpreter. They are the only place where interpreters can be booked, so knowing where to go and how to book isn’t a barrier for the Lithuanian Deaf community.

In contrast, the English BSL interpreting service is not so clear-cut.

There is no centralised place where interpreters can be found. They must be sought out by following a huge range of differing, and often mind-boggling, processes.

Some GPs are happy to book an interpreter for you in advance, some ‘don’t have the funds’. Some public services providers have a pool of interpreters to call on whenever they are requested, others don’t seem to know where or how to find communication professionals.

The English system is so varied, and so complicated, that even the service providers aren’t sure what to do.

For Deaf people who don’t know the system, or who can’t speak or read English, securing an interpreter can be a frightening, frustrating and confusing process.

It’s not only the immigrant Deaf community who are lost in the system, it’s English young Deaf people without life experience, or Deaf people with less knowledge of how the world works, who are often left without communication support.

In Lithuania, interpreters are provided for free for any private or social business, such as reading and translating documents, speaking to family and so on.

In England, there is little or no free support for Deaf people who cannot read or write English. Anyone wanting to write a letter, read a book or phone family is expected to pay for their interpreters themselves.

Although there is some benefits funding available for Deaf people, this isn’t enough and many Deaf people don’t qualify for the help. Services such as SignVideo make the process of making phone-calls home easy for Deaf people, but they are sadly not funded to provide them for free.

Having said that, SignVideo have made huge in-roads into making the world more accessible for Deaf people through their partnerships with big brands such as the O2, Barclays and others.

In terms of the workplace, the majority of Deaf people in Lithuania are employed in manual jobs such as carpentry, factory work, farming and so on. As such, there is little need for interpreters in the workplace and, although the interpreters at the Interpreting Centres are allowed to interpret for a Deaf person at work, they are rarely called upon for this purpose. Deaf people are often asked to bring friends or family or just try to understand their boss or colleagues the best they can.

In England, Deaf people can access Government funded interpreters through the Access To Work scheme. Fully qualified, registered and independent interpreters can be with the Deaf person every day at their work place providing true equality for the Deaf and hearing staff.

In Lithuania, there is a shortage of qualified interpreters with most having only the equivalent of Level 3. Because of the ease in which Deaf Lithuanians can book free interpreters, there has been little incentive for them to complain about the low numbers or lack of skills in their interpreters. However, as Deaf Lithuanians travel more, and as more Deaf people from around the world visit Lithuania, the Deaf community is becoming more politicised and learning more about their communication rights.

A great example of this is the cinema in Lithuania. Because most films shown are in spoken English, they have Lithuanian subtitles anyway. Unlike in England, there has been no need for Deaf Lithuanians to campaign for cinema access; they have it by default. However, now that cinema technology is advancing, and dubbing is becoming the norm in Lithuanian cinemas, Deaf people are suddenly finding that the subtitles aren’t there anymore.

They are having to find an assertive, collective campaigning spirit that they’ve never had before. The last thing they want is to only be able to go to the cinema on certain days of the month – along with the entire Deaf community – to watch a film they don’t really want to see or that came out weeks ago, like is the norm in England.

This also plays havoc with the English Deaf community’s love life: it’s practically impossible to go on a first date to the cinema – if it’s the only subtitled film on that month, you’ll be spotted by every Deaf Tom, Dick and Harry!

The sheer volume of BSL interpreters in England leads to healthy competition as no-one can get lazy or complacent with a whole group of newly qualified interpreters coming up behind them. This is great for ensuring skill sets are kept at a high level, however, this can also lead to some unethical behaviour by unregulated interpreting agencies who use the numbers of interpreters to play them off against each other to cut fees and lower working conditions.

In contrast to the Government run monopoly on interpreting services in Lithuania, England has a huge number of unregulated, independent interpreting agencies. Some are BSL specialists, whilst the majority are spoken language interpreting agencies who have added on BSL as a lucrative sideline.

Some agencies provide an excellent, ethical service to all parties involved, but sadly many do not. With big contracts up for grabs, many agencies try to undercut each other which then leads to retrospective fee cuts for interpreters.

The only way that these contracts can be met is by either the agency taking a smaller cut of the profits or by the interpreter cutting their fees to often sustainable levels below a living wage. Sadly, this often leads either to the Deaf person being left without an interpreter, or being supplied with an unqualified or inexperienced ‘signer’.

I would always advise Deaf people who are having interpreters provided by an agency to ask for the interpreter’s name and check for them on the NRCPD database of registered communication professionals ( If they are not there, ask for someone who is. This is particularly important if you need an interpreter for a police interview or in court. This should be a specialist interpreter who has passed additional training and has security clearance. Always ask friends and interpreters for recommendations of ethical agencies.

There are also lots of ways to get access to interpreters in England, either face to face or via technology such as Skype or via SignVideo. Many websites now provide subtitled or BSL interpreted clips and allow phone calls to their Customer Service departments via videophone, website app or Skype.

There are also in-vision interpreters on a range of television daily, not like in Lithuania where interpreters are only provided for Government television programmes.

Professional Deaf or Disabled theatre companies such as Deafinitely Theatre, FingerSmiths or Graeae are unheard of in Lithuania and, although you can book a Government-provided interpreter to accompany you to the theatre, there is no general provision of interpreters at events or shows.

There are pros and cons to both the English and Lithuanian systems; from the reliable, straightforward booking system of Lithuania that provides under-skilled staff to the complicated and confusing but much more varied English system, it seems neither country has quite cracked the interpreter situation.

For those living in England I have this advice:

  • If you want to work, make sure you apply for Access to Work.
  • If your potential employer is concerned about costs, reassure them that they can be met – atleast in part – by AtW.
  • If you want to go to an event, ask them to provide an interpreter.
  • You have a right to an interpreter in a medical appointment, don’t let them say no.
  • Contact a company like SignVideo to ask them about the contracts they offer to enable you to make phone calls.
  • If you book an interpreter through an agency, ask for their name and make sure they are registered with NRCPD.

As a Lithuanian living and working in England, I have been provided with an excellent interpreting service. However, I often wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t started work in an interpreting agency, if I hadn’t been privy to all the insider information about how the system works, if I hadn’t had a pool of qualified, registered interpreters to guide me through the quagmire of the English system. Who would have explained all the idiosyncrasies of the various processes and hoops I’ve had to jump through?

The one thing lacking here, in my opinion, is a one stop shop for Deaf sign language users. A clear, simple website where all the different rules and systems and processes are explained in layman terms for us to understand.

How else will Deaf people ever gain equality? We can’t ever have full access to English life if we spend half our time trying to work out which form to fill in or being passed from pillar to post when asking for a simple thing like an interpreter.

How can we open doors, if we don’t know which doors to knock on?

Lina Kankeviciute, aka Lina Cankas is a Deaf Lithuanian living in London. She is currently studying Parapsychology. She is the founder of Lithuanian Deaf spiritual and Lithuanian sign language/politics groups in Lithuania, enjoys nature, travel, books, performing arts, photography, and orienteering sport. She is a strong supporter of Deaf and human rights.

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