Sean Nicholson: Video Interpreting Services – good for the Deaf community or a threat to the BSL interpreting profession?

Posted on November 9, 2017

Sean Nicholson is the CEO of Sign Solutions (who are a supporter of this site) and a Registered Sign Language Interpreter. Sign Solutions provide a video relay and video remote interpreting service in British Sign Language called InterpretersLive!

I have worked as a Sign Language Interpreter for 27 years. Travelling has always, for me, been a large part of the job. To be honest I have enjoyed visiting the major towns and cities in the UK and meeting a whole range of deaf people in a variety of interpreting scenarios.

However, as the roads became more congested, and rail prices escalated, I began to resent the hours wasted stuck on the motorways.   Often jobs were cancelled, sometimes en-route and for short medical appointments, or short meetings, it just didn’t make sense.

Today we hear of interpreters sat in offices all day, paid by ATW, just doing a couple of calls all day or traveling for two hours to ask three questions prior to a flu jab. It pays the bills, but is it value for money and is it what interpreters trained for?

I travelled to the US to see the universal video relay service in action and how it had transformed Deaf people’s lives.

At that time there was only really Jeff Mc Whinney of Sign Video with a service in the UK and the Deaf organisations were busy lobbying parliament demanding an equivalent UK service.

It looked like it was going to happen and the American VRS company Sorenson, seeing what they thought was a business opportunity, arrived in the UK publicising themselves with, no doubt, the aim of running the show.

That never happened and Sorenson went back to the States. The government decided it should be the private sector and individual public services that had the responsibility to provide this access and, while that is happening, it is a slow process.

It was, and is, clear that making a video call from home, or having an interpreter provided where one was not previously available, is fantastic. Deaf people in the US just expect to be able to make those calls and it is part of everyday life.

Here in the UK many Deaf people love making video calls to haggle for a new phone contract, or are liberated by having the interpreter on an iPad by their bed in hospital.

Who wants to type a whole conversation on Typetalk when you can use BSL and use the extra time for something better?  However, even today it is not everyone that uses the services and, until they have done it, many are often uneasy about doing so.

Interpreters are worried as they have seen their fees eroded and the NHS refusing to pay a three hour minimum for a short appointment. They fear that they will be replaced by a video interpreter that can do lots of appointments in one day.

Much of the NHS, despite the Accessible Information Standard, is still dragging its heels about providing these services for the Deaf community. It is outrageous that a hospital will give a discharge letter after an operation with a phone number to ring if you experience complications. Until these numbers, along with 999, are accessible directly, for the whole Deaf community, we have a long, long way to go.

We have produced a video that we hope will help, in a light-hearted way, add weight to the campaign for these services and allay some of the concerns and fears of Deaf people and interpreters.

Video interpreters are not the replacement for face to face BSL interpreters but they do allow access to be provided in scenarios where interpreters are just not available. There are many positives that are happening and all the VRS companies are now having more successes in making the service commonplace, not the exception.

Virgin Media will be providing interpreters in all their stores in addition to their online services. THREE, we hope, will extend their trial in stores to the whole of the UK.

We want A & E departments to all have the service so that instant access can be provided on arrival or even when an interpreter has to leave for another appointment. This has proved invaluable when people have had to stay in hospital longer than expected.

Councils such as York, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Devon can take calls on a whole range of issues and also allow you to drop in when it is convenient to you, not just when an interpreter is available.

Working on the service as an interpreter I love the variety of calls and knowing I will not be stuck on the M25 on a Friday night.

We cover 8am until midnight, 7 days a week allowing interpreters to work flexibly and around care or study commitments. I think it will create better, and more, working opportunities for interpreters and ultimately provide sustained employment around face to face bookings.

For the Deaf community I am still as passionate as ever that this service can empower Deaf people and create greater access than was never before achievable.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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