The true value of interpreters
Here in Brighton, sign language interpreter services are under attack. Various NHS services have decided to pool interpreter contracts into a ‘single agency’, to cover all languages including British Sign Language. They (the agencies I was in communication with) have stated their terms: £30 ph, minimum call out charge of 2 hours, no travel expenses, no travel time, and cancellation charges only allowed within 24 hours.
In response, I made an immediate investigation into the impact of these diminished terms and conditions and discovered that 17/20 interpreters consider this terms to be ‘adversely different’ from their own whereas the remaining 3/20 consider the terms to be just ‘different’. This means that 6 interpreters out of 7 may need to consider a different stream of income because they just can not afford to work as an interpreter in this setting, if these imposed rates persist.
The simplistic argument is £30 per hour is a fair salary and no one gets paid for travel from home to work anyway – why should interpreters get special treatment? The answer may lie in some crucial points:
The cost of training as an interpreter
The journey from a sign language learner to a sign language interpreter is not cheap. The cost of a course increases exponentially from level 1 to level 6, starting at £500 at the lower level and ending at £3000 for a one year course. Teaching a language is expensive because it is heavily dependent on technology, resources and excellent networks with the community. When a student has completed their highest qualification in BSL and English, they then need to qualify as an interpreter. University courses have risen from £1500 to £9000 per annum in the last 5 years and interpreting is a post graduate level of study; today, it takes £30k plus for a student to train as an interpreter (slightly less if following the NVQ route). Consequently, interpreters are keen to recuperate their costs by attaining a job with a modest salary; if a suitable salary can not be attained, then the end will not justify the means.
The cost of maintaining a professional status
Retaining a professional status is dependent on a essential list of requirements: professional indemnity insurance; registration with NRCPD, the registering body; training to maintain continuous professional development; checks with the Criminal Records Bureau; membership of a professional body such as ASLI. All of these costs money.
Additional to this, 70% of interpreters are freelancers and need to earn enough money for their ‘on’ and ‘off’ time. Due to the availability of work, interpreters will find themselves busy one day and not so busy the next – they have no control over how often the work comes in. When there is down time, interpreters have administrative tasks to complete, such as following up booking requests, requesting for preparation materials, creating invoices and chasing payments. The interpreter will need to save money for a rainy day, when they are ill or on holiday. Suddenly, £30 per hour at a minimum call out of 2 hours doesn’t seem that much any more.
In fact, the equivalent relative salary of an interpreter is £25k per annum. It is not an incredibly high salary for someone who holds a post graduate qualification (calculated from ASLI Fees and Salaries report), and without career structure or prospects of earning a higher income.
The cost of diminished terms and conditions
In the report I mentioned earlier, the interpreters surveyed said they will ensue their terms and conditions. If they can not have their terms respected, they will not accept this type of work. It is not surprising, when you consider the costs implications of the imposed terms. Lets say one is booked for a two hour appointment at a location one hour away from home. The interpreter will earn just £60 and their travel costs will be taken off this sum (so minus £15 train ticket). If the booking is from 9 to 11am, then there is a possibility that the interpreter can accept another booking in the afternoon. But if it is between 11am and 1pm, they may not. The interpreter will earn £33 after tax. The interpreter will need to save a sum towards costs to maintain their professional status, so at best, the interpreter may earn £25 for one day’s work. This is why these imposed rates are ‘adverse’.
Therefore, the only response to these diminished terms is that these bookings will only be accepted if they are: last minute, round the corner, not complicated, limited to a two hour slot at the right time of the day. Consequently, it will be more challenging for agencies to secure bookings. In particular, the 24 hour cancellation charge allows for interpreters to walk away for a booking with more favourable terms and conditions, because the agency bookings do not provide guaranteed income. Agencies have an impossible task to ensure supply and still make a profit.
The cost of this policy
The only people who can afford these terms and conditions are people who are not committed to their professional status; people who do not hold professional registration, insurance, CRB checks, CPD records, or appropriate qualifications. They are people who hold a qualification in sign language at lower levels but has yet to achieve competency in either English or BSL, and not even competency in interpreting. They have not been trained to evaluate their limitations and reduce the likelihood of harm; unknowingly, these individuals could have a detrimental affect on their clients. There is a potential for these individuals to do harm.
In these settings, harm is possible. The current contract reviews have occurred across the sector due to the austerity programme led by the government. They affect legal and health settings; ranging from meeting with a consultant to inpatient care, from a police interview to a case at the Crown Court. A mistake from an individual, acting as an interpreter, could affect a Deaf person’s freedom and health.
The Office of Disability Issues has shown interest in the ‘right to choice and control’ and it is creating another dynamic. Previously, the quality of service from an interpreter was essential to ensure Deaf people had quality care; the information from a doctor was interpreted by an equally professional interpreter. The system is very simple: a doctor is registered with GMC and interpreter with NRCPD – they both set the minimum standards and have a complaints board. The new agenda will move the onus on quality to the Deaf person as they are allowed to pick who they prefer regardless of professional status, so access will largely depend on who the Deaf person prefers. It gives permission for Deaf people to choose family members, friends and lower qualified ‘communicators’, and claim it is their choice. This policy has fiscal benefits because ‘family members’ will not be paid or paid much less, while the Deaf person is still ‘happy’. Remember, a Deaf person is unable to check if the interpreter is doing a good job because they can not hear the source or the voice over. Therefore, the Deaf person will use other measures to identify a ‘good interpreter’, such as how friendly they are or the extra services the individual provides.
This agenda is more about the deregulation of the interpreter profession than about providing Deaf people with a choice. David Cameron, our Prime Minister, proposed greater deregulation of the private sector (BBC News, 2nd March 2012) and proposed to the EU to deregulated a number of professions on their list, in order to free up the market. Despite the push from the interpreter profession and NRCPD to have greater regulation of the interpreter profession, to ensure standards, the government is working in the opposite direction.
The cost Deaf people have to pay
The quality of life, for a Deaf person in society, is only as good as the competency of the interpreter. As soon as the standards start to fall, the occurrences of misunderstanding, discrimination and exclusion will become more evident. A more assertive Deaf person would be able to take control of their situation and appropriate the right services but a Deaf person who is less assertive would be even more vulnerable. The trends will move into a two-tier Deaf community, where the most vulnerable Deaf people will be more disabled.
The government’s austerity programme will not create a ‘cheaper or more flexible’ workforce, despite popular opinion, and the pool of supply will reduce and the quality of service will diminish. It will become harder for a Deaf person to receive the service they need and other means will be used. Deaf people will find it harder to impress their employer at work or defend their case in court. In time, Deaf people will face further difficulties and see their careers, their homes and livelihoods at risk.
Already, there is a higher incidence of mental health problems in the Deaf community, it is not hard to envisage that the austerity programme will be detrimental to Deaf people’s health and wellbeing. It is also hard to see where the savings will be made. Appointments may be missed or a diagnosis/treatment may be misunderstood and, in the long term, Deaf people will run into more severe health problems which might otherwise have been prevented. Court cases may be poorly tried and result with cases being retrialed, or court cases would be deemed too expensive and left permanently deferred; Deaf people will end up on the periphery of the legal system and reduced to second class citizens.
In the context of the current attack on the economic capital of the Deaf community, is this a heavy cost for Deaf people to bear?