Wednesday 05 December 2018
In October 2016 Disability Rights UK (DR UK) commissioned Traverse to help them demonstrate the impact of their personal budgets helpline.
Sign language rights for all – What that really means
This years’ theme for international Week of the Deaf is ‘Sign Language Rights for all’, but what does ‘rights for all’ mean in practice?
Recent research alongside the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust has made it clear to me that, while there may has been a lot of progress around services for people whose preferred language is British Sign Language (BSL), a lot still needs to be done to ensure their needs are promoted and services and policies are genuinely inclusive. Below I share some reflections and evidence about where exclusion still often occurs for those who speak BSL and ways improve this.
Reflection 1: Existing provision is insufficient
The lack of BSL speakers / interpreters in the UK is one of the biggest issues that Deaf people face in accessing services, engaging with public life and fostering relationships in the workplace. Just take a read through The Department for Work and Pensions call for evidence to understand communication provisions for people who are deaf or have hearing loss (2017), where a submission from the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD, 2015) reported that there are only 908 registered sign language interpreters in the UK. This equates to approximately to 26 Deaf individuals to every registered interpreter in the UK.
There is also an unmet need for BSL interpreters in the workplace – and Deaf awareness and Deaf employees often feel isolated as a result. According to a survey of Deaf people conducted bv Action for Hearing loss (2018), 79% of those surveyed felt stressed at work due to their hearing loss, which in more than half of cases led to an early retirement. Not only this – both employers and employees were not aware of support the government Access to Work scheme could provide for those who are Deaf (36% of Deaf individuals surveyed and 63% of employers).
Outside of direct conversation, deaf individuals also face challenges in how they consume day-to-day media. Some people still assume that delivering information in text-form or ensuring that videos have subtitles counts as being inclusive. In practice it isn’t - English subtitles are no substitute for considered interpretation. Other submissions to the DWP’s call for evidence also highlighted the lack of BSL interpretation of important politics-related TV shows, or the inaccessible time slots of cinema showings for those hard of hearing – usually these are in the middle of the day!
Reflection 2: Importance of tone, expression and intent
Even with relevant service provision (i.e. Interpretation in person or through a visual relay service) social isolation can still be an issue. Communicating through the medium of an interpreter can mean that the idiosyncrasies of someone’s personality get lost in translation. We all know, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.
I have seen first-hand through undertaking research with deaf people what a difference it makes when interpreters work to convey tone, expression and the intent of an individual’s message, rather than focusing just on the content. Without this, there is still a language barrier: I don’t know how strongly people feel and individual characteristics and personalities are not shared.
To help with this, pay close attention to social cues when working with an interpreter. Make eye contact with the person you are speaking to (not the interpreter) and make sure that your interpreter is conveying more than just content, as far as possible relaying conversations verbatim and as intended.
Reflection 3: The need for Full versus formal interpretation
My experiences also align with work done by Young et al (2019) who interviewed eight hearing individuals about their experiences communicating with deaf colleagues. In most cases, they did not feel that they were able to get to know their deaf colleagues even working through interpreters. Why? – Because interpretation was only used in formal work-related instances when needed and not enlisted during informal conversations, i.e. when relationships are built. Therefore, while it helped them to communicate, the services of an interpreter did not necessarily help hearing participants get to know their deaf colleagues.
Interpretation should not be a merely transactional content-based exercise, used when ‘necessary’, i.e. to engage with public services or with formal conversations at work. A conscious effort should be made to increase awareness and use of BSL in every-day life, especially in the workplace.
Overall, a greater awareness and use of BSL is needed to ensure that important services are designed with Deaf people in mind. As reflected in this weeks’ theme, BSL should be used and celebrated as a language in its own right to promote inclusivity, and not as a ‘nice to have’ – there is still a long way to go.
If you want to understand more, take a look at the evidence review that we at Traverse (formerly called OPM) conducted for the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust. An updated version including sources up to 2019 will be posted on their website shortly.
 Young, A., Oram, R., Napier, J., (2019a). Hearing people perceiving deaf people through sign language interpreters at work: on the loss of self through interpreted communication. Journal of Applied Communication Research 47, 90–110.
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