Interpreting for deaf jurors (BSL version)

Jury service in adversarial court systems is an important civic duty and responsibility. Jurors have to understand and weigh up evidence presented, assess the credibility of witnesses and decide on the likelihood of certain events having occurred in the light of their own personal experiences.

There has been increasing interest in whether deaf sign language users should be permitted to serve as jurors. In the USA deaf people have been serving as jurors in criminal trials since 1979. Legal challenges in the UK and Ireland have established that deaf people have the capacity to make decisions as jurors, and can sufficiently comprehend courtroom discourse and jury deliberations through a sign language interpreter (Heffernan, 2010). A deaf woman served on an inquest jury in the UK in 2011, and in Ireland they have increased the pool of potential jurors, but deaf people still cannot serve as jurors in criminal trials in either country (Farrell, 2013).

In early 2014, Gaye Lyons in Australia lost her discrimination case for being turned away from jury service, and may take a complaint to the United Nations. On a positive note, more recently Drisana Levitzke-Gray was the first deaf sign language user in Australia to participate in the jury selection process with an interpreter, although she did not get selected onto the final jury. This month a deaf woman in Scotland has been summoned for jury service and intends to ask for an interpreter.

The sticking point is the long-held common law that there cannot be a non-juror ‘stranger’ (i.e., an interpreter) as a 13th person in the jury room. The main concern has been that interpreters would inappropriately participate in confidential jury deliberations. As interpreters, we know that we are bound by a code of ethics, which requires us to remain impartial and uphold confidentiality.

There is no evidence for the impact that an interpreter may have as 13th person in the jury room on the sanctity of jury deliberations, either negative or positive. The only empirical research on deaf jurors to date has been conducted by Jemina Napier and David Spencer (2006, 2008), which has provided evidence that deaf and hearing jurors equally misunderstood content of jury instructions, and therefore deaf people are not disadvantaged by relying on sign language interpreters; and that legal professionals and sign language interpreters surveyed perceive that with supportive and clear policies and guidelines, and sufficient training for interpreters and court staff/stakeholders, deaf people can successfully serve as jurors (Napier, 2013).

Yet there is a lack of evidence for what actually happens in the jury deliberation room, and whether the assumption that the presence of an interpreter could impact (negatively) on the deliberation process is valid. Currently, Jemina Napier and David Spencer are working with a bigger team of experts in interpreting and law research, including Sandra Hale, Debra Russell and Mehera San Roque, on an Australian Research Council funded project to conduct a case study of a mock- criminal trial and jury deliberations with a deaf juror and interpreters to focus specifically on the analysis of interactions in the jury deliberation room.

The outcomes of this research have the potential to pioneer law reform worldwide, and have an impact on the provision of interpreting services in courts for deaf people. Watch this space…

Author: Jemina Napier

Sign language brokering experiences in the Deaf community

Many people will have seen the video of the cute young girl Claire Koch singing Christmas carols and simultaneously signing the songs in American Sign Language for her deaf parents that went viral in December 2013. The general response was the feel good factor – how amazing, considerate and talented this little girl is.

Children like Claire are often referred to as ‘Children of Deaf Adults’ – Codas. This term is typically used as an overarching term for people of any age whose parents are (or were) deaf; sometimes, however, the term Koda (i.e., Kids of Deaf Adults) is used to distinguish between adults and young people.

Apart from her obviously impressive bilingual skills, the video also highlights one aspect of society that is often hidden from public view – the fact that young bilingual children often function as ‘language brokers’ for their parents or family members. What this little girl was doing was ‘brokering’ to help her parents understand a message that they would not otherwise have been able to access.

Language brokering

The term ‘brokering’ (rather than ‘interpreting’) is used specifically in relation to the experience of children assisting their parents with communication as it “focuses attention on the whole cultural meaning of such an event, in which any interpretation is simply a part” (Hall, 2004, p.285). There is a range of research studies that have explored ‘child language brokering’ experiences with immigrant children in different countries, that reveal how children will often broker for their parents in a range of contexts, and may feel empowered and at other times burdened (Orellana, Dorner & Pulido, 2003) by the experience.

Professional sign language interpreters have, until relatively recently, traditionally been Codas (Napier, McKee & Goswell, 2010), and some will have brokered from a young age. Since the introduction of professional sign language interpreting services, people often assume that children no longer need to interpret for their deaf parents. However, based on anecdotal observation, and Jemina Napier’s preliminary research (in press) with deaf and hearing people that have deaf parents, this is not the case. Napier’s international survey of 240 deaf and hearing Codas revealed that their experience mirrors those of spoken language child brokers: many of them had brokered from as early as 4 or 5 years old, and they felt their brokering experiences contributed to their positive self-esteem.

Claire’s father was quick to clarify in a Vlog post that they do not expect their 5-year old daughter to interpret for them, and that there was in fact a professional interpreter present at the Christmas concert, but their daughter wanted her parents to watch her directly.

For many years, deaf people have asserted their right to a professional interpreter and assured themselves and others that they do not ask their children to interpret for them. Perhaps not, but the video of Claire supports Napier’s research in revealing that Codas still broker for their parents, and they may not have been asked – they volunteer.

Desire to help

The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and his colleagues have produced various articles (e.g., 20112013) that indicate that toddlers and young children have a natural instinct to want to help others, and they go to great lengths to cooperate with adults. This may explain why Codas still offer to broker for their deaf parents, even when it is not required of them: the children know that their parents cannot hear what is being said, so it is a natural instinct for them to want to help their parents to understand by signing for them.

Professional signed language interpreters have traditionally ‘evolved’ from the Deaf community (Cokely, 2005), but since the introduction of formal interpreter training programs anyone can choose to be a sign language interpreter (Stone, 2008) and be ‘schooled’ into the profession. Fewer Codas seem to be choosing to work as professional interpreters, or we are experiencing attrition from interpreter education programs as Codas do not complete the course of study, meaning that fewer interpreters come from the Deaf community (Cokely, 2005). So what happens to the earlier ‘desire to help’ that can be seen in young Kodas?

There are still huge supply and demand imbalances in the signed language interpreting sector worldwide, so more people need to be attracted to the profession, regardless of whether they are Codas or not. Many Codas still continue to broker for their parents when they are adults, even if other professional interpreters are available, because it is the only legitimate option due to the family member being the only professional interpreter that can understand the deaf person, for example, due to onset of dementia (Major, 2013).

Plus Codas who work as professional interpreters still feel undervalued in terms of what they bring to the profession, and want to have it recognized that although they may have grown up doing language brokering, they have still worked hard to develop their professional interpreting skills (Williamson, 2012), and can “bring value” to the profession (Colonomos, 2013), but should not be automatically valorised.

Thus it is vital to explore the nature of language brokering that is performed by Codas for several reasons:

(i)  to gain a clearer picture of the interpreting needs of the Deaf community, to account for interpreting demand that may currently be ‘masked’ by the fact that supply is met by children rather than professional interpreters;

(ii) to ascertain how the Coda brokering experience can be harnessed into positive linguistic and social competence, and mentor Codas into becoming professional interpreters and translators (such as Angelelli 2010 suggests for young spoken language bilinguals); and

(iii)  to draw parallels with the experience of immigrant children to inform community interpreting policy and practice more generally for all languages in the UK, Europe and internationally.

Although Napier’s initial survey study was useful for “sketching the broad contours of the [brokering] practice” (Orellana, 2010, p.51), more research is needed to further contribute to the body of child language brokering research and explore “how adults narrate their experiences as child language brokers, and how their perspectives on their language brokering experience change as they grow from children into adults” (Bauer, 2010, p.127). Furthermore, it is also necessary to explore the language brokering experiences from the young Codas themselves, and deaf parents’ and other stakeholders perceptions of their language brokering experiences (as Cirillo & Torresi, 2010 did in Italy regarding institutional expectations with spoken language brokers). Thus further replication of spoken CLB research is needed.

The next step will be to replicate the work of Valdes et al (2003) with Latino children, and conduct a qualitative, ethnographic study involving interviews, focus groups, non-participant observations and simulated interpreting tasks to observe ‘language brokering in action’ (Orellana, 2009, 2010). This approach will enable us to examine sign language brokering experiences of Codas in more depth, and from different perspectives, and build upon the findings of Napier’s survey study.

2014 and beyond

Therefore as of 2014, Jemina Napier and her research team in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University will begin the next phase of research to explore sign language brokering experiences in the Deaf community. The research will build on the initial survey study, and involve focus groups with deaf parents, Codas/ Kodas, sign language interpreters and hearing service providers.

The research team includes people that represent each of the key stakeholder groups: (1) Professor Jemina Napier, who is a Coda and interpreter; (2) Clare Canton is a deaf parent of three hearing Codas and a qualified deaf interpreter, who is a PhD student on the project; and (3) Yvonne Waddell, who is a hearing (non-Coda) qualified interpreter and is also a PhD student on the project. See: for a profile of each member of the research team, and also the BSL teaching and research team at Heriot-Watt University.

It is envisaged that the project will be carried out in collaboration with key organisations who represent the Deaf, sign language interpreting and Coda communities. It is vital to carry out this project in collaboration with the Deaf community, deaf parents and sign language interpreters in order to ensure that the communities can directly benefit from the research findings.

To see a summary of this article in International Sign click here

For more information, or to participate in the project, please contact Jemina Napier:

Email –

Facebook – Jemina Napier

Twitter – @JeminaNapier

Who's who in BSL at Heriot-Watt University

Welcome to the 4th BSL blog on lifelinlincs

After the last three weeks where you have seen discussion of sign language-related topics, in the blog for this week we thought we would take the opportunity to do a profile of the BSL team at Heriot-Watt University – a who’s who of the ten members of the team, and to give an overview of what we do here and our research interests.

Below you will see a short profile of each staff member and PhD student in the BSL team, with links to webpages that provide further information about their work where possible. If you click on the link attached to their name, you can also watch their bio presented in sign language.

The most recently appointed member of staff is Professor Jemina Napier, Chair of Intercultural Communication. She is a signed language interpreter who grew up and worked in London before moving to Australia, where she lived for 15 years and began her career in teaching and research. She recently returned to the UK to take up her position at Heriot-Watt University, where she teaches in the BSL/English Interpreting 4-year undergraduate programme on courses including ‘Deaf People in Society’ (covering topics such as Deafhood, Deaf identity and culture) and practical interpreting and translation skills. She also teaches in the European Masters of Sign Language Interpreting (EUMASLI) programme, which is offered jointly between Heriot-Watt University, Magdeburg University in Germany and Humak University in Finland. EUMASLI has 24 deaf and hearing students from all over the world who are already seasoned interpreters, and have enrolled in the programme to explore and examine signed language interpreting at an advanced level. Jemina’s research interests focus on signed language interpreting, and deaf-hearing cross-cultural communication. She has conducted research on legal, medical and educational interpreting (for more information on her research and publications see her web research profile) and will be commencing two new key projects over the next coming year: (1) Justisigns, in collaboration with universities in Ireland, Belgium and Switzerland, to focus on legal interpreting across Europe, and (2) Examining experiences of deaf and hearing children when engaging in language brokering  (non-professional interpreting) for Deaf members of their family in comparison with young people and spoken languages. She is also keen to explore other opportunities for research on deaf-hearing relations and comparing spoken and signed language interpreting.

Rita McDade is a Teaching Fellow and the longest standing member of the BSL team at Heriot-Watt. Rita began her work in the Deaf community in 1985 as a Liaison Officer in a Deaf organization, and worked in various roles until she developed a keen interest in teaching and learning, especially in relation to languages, linguistics, translation and interpreting. Rita was one of the first people in Scotland to be involved in teaching deaf (relay) interpreters, and also to work as a deaf interpreter, and she is still very passionate about that work. Her research interests focus on intersections between language and culture and power dynamics in cross-cultural communication that influence sociolinguistic variation in how signs are produced. Although she has an interest in many issues in relation to deaf-hearing cross-cultural communication, she focuses most closely on research on teaching and learning and in particular on how students begin to learn early on in their course, which cements their future learning and development. At Heriot-Watt University Rita teaches in the undergraduate BSL/English interpreting programme, and five years ago she initiated offering BSL classes as an elective to any student who is interested in taking the course. Those courses are very popular and well attended by students from across the university, so it is Rita’s hope that both the BSL elective courses and the BSL undergraduate programme will grow and develop.

Professor Graham Turner is head of the BSL section and Chair of Translation. He has been at Heriot-Watt since 2005. At that time, the BSL work that had been initiated by others in the Department (see overview below on the History of BSL at Heriot-Watt) was still on a small scale, so his goal was to grow the area of BSL and sign language research at the university. Over the last eight years since his arrival the  BSL section has grown significantly in size, and now includes ten different members (as you will see featured in this blog post). Graham works with the team on various research projects on sign language, signed language interpreting and translation, Deaf culture and heritage, and a range of other topics. For more information about Graham’s research and publications, see his research web profile.

Gary Quinn is a Teaching Fellow and Coordinator of the BSL/English Interpreting undergraduate honours/MA programme. At Heriot-Watt he teaches BSL and sign linguistics, and in previous years was also responsible for teaching two cohorts in the Training of Trainers (TOT) course, to train deaf people as BSL teachers. He is currently conducting his PhD research on BSL grounding, examining how deaf people align with one another in signed interaction and engage in turn-taking appropriately. See his research web profile for other publications. Gary has been one of the key investigators on a research project conducted in collaboration with Rachel O’Neill and Audrey Cameron and the Scottish Sensory Centre, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh in the development of science signs for deaf school children. Click here to see Gary talking about the project in BSL (with captions).

Dr Svenja Wurm is a Lecturer in BSL and Translation Studies and is coordinator of the EUMASLI programme. She grew up in Germany and has been living in the UK for 15 years after coming initially to study in the BSL/English Interpreting programme at Wolverhampton University. Rather than working professionally as a signed language interpreter, she decided to pursue her interests in translation theory and research, and enrolled in an MSc in Translation Studies at Edinburgh University. In 2005 she commenced her PhD studies at Heriot-Watt where she explored the process of signed language translation from written English into BSL. In her role as Lecturer, in addition to coordinating the EUMASLI programme, she teaches in the undergraduate programme: Translation & Interpreting Studies, Subtitling and English/BSL Translation Skills. Svenja also coordinates the EdSign Lecture Series, which is co-hosted by three universities in Edinburgh (Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh University and Queen Margaret University) and delivers a programme of lectures on a range of Deaf and Interpreting Studies topics that are open to the Deaf community, interpreters and BSL and interpreting students. Svenja’s research interests focus on English/BSL translation and interpreting processes, and a newer area of interest is in relation to multimodality and how people communicate using different modes of speech, sign and written text. She is also interested in deaf literacy and the various ways that deaf people communicate in BSL or English. For an overview of her publications, see her research web profile.

We also have 5 PhD students who are all investigating aspects of signed language interpreting:

Robyn Dean is a third year PhD student from Rochester, New York in the USA, and has been a practicing interpreter for 25 years, specializing in medical and mental health interpreting. Her work as an interpreter educator has focused on ethical decision-making (and she developed the Demand-Control Schema with her collaborator Robert Q. Pollard). Robyn’s PhD research is also exploring ethical decision-making for interpreters, and she is being supervised by Graham Turner, Svenja Wurm and Jemina Napier.

Xiao Zhao is a second year PhD student from China and is being supervised by Graham Turner and Svenja Wurm. (She is learning BSL and has basic Chinese Sign Language skills). Her research interest is in signed language interpreting on television in China, and the different perceptions of different stakeholders (e.g., the media, deaf people and signed language interpreters in China). Xiao chose to come to Heriot-Watt is that she felt that it is one of the few places in the world where one can conduct research on signed language interpreting that is relevant to your home country. The reason she has an interest in this area of research is because signed language interpreting in China is growing exponentially and there are many discussions of the importance of this provision in China, but they do not have enough resources to train interpreters, and not enough knowledge about best practice in signed language interpreting for the Chinese context. Therefore she sees this as an opportunity to immerse herself in a new field of study in order to learn something.

Yvonne Waddell is a first year PhD student from Scotland and is being supervised by Jemina Napier and Isabelle Perez. She has been qualified as a BSL/English interpreter for 3 years, and works in a variety of community and educational settings. She sees the need for more research on signed language interpreting in order to inform and influence best practice in signed language interpreting, which is why she has chosen to come to Heriot-Watt to undertake a PhD. Her research interest is to examine how behavioural decisions made by interpreters in different situations are perceived by hearing professionals and the consequent impact on deaf participants in interaction.

Clare Canton is a deaf first year PhD student from Scotland and is being supervised by Jemina Napier and Graham Turner. Clare was the first deaf person to be registered as a qualified BSL/English interpreter in Scotland, and interprets in a range of settings, including medical, mental health, with deaf migrants, and at international conferences. With her company Beyond BSL, she has provided training and support for learners of BSL in one-to-one and group contexts, as well as mentoring, for example in relation to theatre interpreting. She also delivers interpreter training on topics such as deaf-hearing interpreter co-working strategies. As a PhD student, Clare is interested in exploring language brokering experiences of deaf and hearing people in the Deaf community who have grown up brokering for family members.

Stacey Webb is also a new first year PhD student from the USA and is being supervised by Jemina Napier and Svenja Wurm. She is an ASL/English interpreter of many years experience, and also teachers interpreters in various courses. Thus her research topic focuses on interpreter education, where she hopes to explore the training of interpreters in more depth.

Influences on sign language

Click here to watch this post in BSL

Following on from Jemina Napier’s post last week I am continuing the discussion along a similar theme. Today I’m going to talk about how sign language has changed. I’ll also be talking about what factors influence sign language use, and whether those influences come from outwith or within the Deaf community. I was raised using sign language and was educated in a school environment where sign language was used routinely among the deaf children.  After leaving school I started working among hearing people but with politics not really a feature of life for Deaf people at that time, it wasn’t until I began to work with Deaf organisations that I became aware of being labelled as having a “Deaf Identity”.

I had my own thoughts on what the phrase might mean and I allowed myself to be labelled even though I assumed that my understanding of the term was possibly different to others’.  It was probably the right thing to do at the time but, over the years since I moved into teaching, working with the full range of BSL learners from beginners to interpreters as well as those within the Deaf Community, I began to notice that the term “Deaf Identity” was being applied a great deal by Interpreters and Deaf people and it moved me to discuss this with Deaf people themselves.  At the time I was putting together an article for the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) journal (McDade, 2010) and had been working on a questionnaire that I could use as supporting material for the piece.  In response to questions about the term “Deaf Identity”, most of the respondents said they were simply repeating a term they had seen being used or had been told was an appropriate description of Deaf sign language users.  They acknowledged that, although they understood the signs used to produce the term, they hadn’t really considered what the phrase meant.

This was the point at which I began to ask questions about where terms such as these originate and whether they are creations from within the Deaf community or from external sources.  My instincts tell me that the term originates from outwith the community since the word “identity” is not really found in our culture but where it is actually from is a bit of a mystery.  It is possible that it comes from Deaf professionals who may well have had more understanding of the English term and who began to introduce it into the community although the origin is still unclear.

I have read a lot of books and articles about research into BSL and was interested to note that very few had been written (or produced in sign Language) by Deaf people who were native to BSL.  Although I’m talking here about the UK and therefore British Sign Language I would think this is the same for most sign language research across the world.  Most of the sign language research is produced by hearing people who have come from outside the community or by hearing people who have grown up using sign language at home with their deaf parents.  In essence then we have people from outside the community writing about our community and culture, which is an interesting thought.  Some of those producing research have begun to ensure they have a Deaf member of the community as a co-researcher but I would query whether this is a bona fide partnership, another example of tokenism or simply an attempt by the outsider to appear to be an accepted member of the Deaf community.  Whilst there are some researchers for whom this does not apply, there are others about whom these questions have validity.

Should we have more native BSL users who understand the community and the culture leading the field (see last week’s posting and following discussion)? Why are researchers not producing work using BSL rather than writing in English?  Of course, English is a dominant language and is therefore very influential.  The Deaf community may well feel it is so powerful an influence that they have to accept it.  An example of this influence is the use of the sign commonly used to mean “access”, a sign I have seen being used for many years now.  Both Deaf people (although mainly those in professional posts) and interpreters or CSWs use this sign but, when we stop to examine it in BSL, it is practically meaningless.  We need to stop and consider where the language influences are coming from, whether we are using language as it is used by and in the community or whether the Deaf community is accepting the effects of very powerful external influences.  Despite BSL being their own language they accept external influences and this raises very interesting questions we should be debating so hopefully this vlog will stimulate some discussion.

Author: Rita McDade

Sign language research: Deaf-hearing involvement and research ethics

Click here to watch this blog post in BSL

My topic for this week, the second week of the BSL blog, is on the relationship between ethics and deaf-hearing involvement in conducting research projects. After commencing employment here at Heriot-Watt University, I recently discovered that a joint funding bid to the EU Lifelong Learning Leonardo Da Vinci programme has been successful. The project is called ‘Justisigns’ and the goal of the project is to investigate signed language interpreting in legal contexts in various countries. The partners on the project will be from universities in Belgium (Myriam Vermeerbergen), Ireland (Lorraine Leeson) and Switzerland (Tobias Haug) as well as Heriot-Watt University (Jemina Napier and Graham Turner), and we will be tasked with exploring issues and challenges for legal signed language interpreters across Europe (also with EULITA and efsli).

The success of the funding application got me thinking about the fact that the lead investigators from each of the universities are all hearing people. These people have many years of expertise between them in conducting research on sign language and interpreting, have many publications to their name, and are also involved in training signed language interpreters. There is no doubt that Deaf sign language users will be involved in carrying out the research at the various institutions involved in the project, but the fact of the matter is that the names on the funding application are all names of hearing people. And this gave me pause for thought, so I did some reading around on this issue.

I came across some publications that have emphasised the notion that to be ethical in sign language research, the research project has to be deaf ‘led’. For example, Paddy Ladd, Sarah Batterbury and Mike Gulliver (Bristol University) in their paper about ‘Sign Language Peoples as Indigenous Minorities’ stress that any research conducted with the Deaf community should be deaf-led (Batterbury, Ladd, & Gulliver, 2007). Moreover, researchers in the United States have discussed the need for ethical approaches to conducting sign language research in order to ensure that there is Deaf involvement and Deaf people’s views are taken into consideration (Harris, Holmes & Mertens, 2009; Hochgesang , Villanueva, Mathur, Lillo-Martin, 2010; Mertens, 2010). So this got me thinking even more.

I used to live and work in Australia and observed that there were very few Deaf people there involved in sign language research. Only a handful of people had PhDs or worked in the university context doing research. Even when I obtained research funding for projects, and was keen to work collaboratively with members of the Deaf community, there were only a small number of Deaf people that showed any interest in being involved. Now that I am here in the UK, I notice that although things are somewhat different—there are many more Deaf researchers—very few of them are responsible for leading or managing research projects. This leads me to ask the question why. Is it because hearing people take over? Or is it because Deaf people are uncertain whether they are ready to take on such a role?

In the future do we need to see more collaboration between deaf-hearing research teams in order to determine how best to manage and proceed with research projects. As researchers, we all have the same goals. We want our research to have an impact on, and be of benefit to, the Deaf community. Likewise, my research on signed language interpreting needs to be of benefit to interpreters. But we need to work together to make sure that happens.

I am interested in discussing why there is a lack of Deaf involvement and Deaf leadership in sign language research. Furthermore, I’d like to consider the role of hearing researchers in this context, especially for those people like myself that have grown up in the Deaf community and have close allegiances to the Deaf community and Deaf sensibilities. Does the hearing status of project leaders depend on the nature of the research? For example, whether the project focuses on sign language, Deaf culture, interpreting or translation? Should lead investigators be allocated according to the topic? Is it more appropriate for Deaf researchers to lead on some research topics, but for hearing researchers to lead on other different areas?

So these are the questions I pose to you this week, and I look forward to some discussion on the issue.

Author: Jemina Napier

To charge or not to charge… That is the question

Jemina Napier:

I work here at Heriot-Watt in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies (LINCS). My expertise is in doing research on, and teaching, sign language interpreting, and I also work as a sign language interpreter. Since arriving at Heriot-Watt University I have discussed with my BSL team colleagues the idea of having a regular blog in sign language to bring key information to the Deaf community and the wider interpreting community, and also to raise issues for discussion in relation to the Deaf community, sign language and other related topics. So my deaf colleague, Rita McDade, and I agreed to make a few BSL blogs on the lifeinlincs page. Some of these blogs may be on ‘hot’ [youtube=]topics, where we pose questions for consideration by the Deaf community and interpreters in the interests of generating discussion; and at other times we may make posts about more serious, research-related issues or to share information. Today’s first blog is a ‘hot’ tongue-in-cheek topic to get you talking (or signing!) and is in relation to interpreter professionalism and what is appropriate for interpreters to claim in terms of working hours and expenses. Rita will share her view and we’re interested to hear your thoughts. You can make postings underneath our blog (in English only at the moment) here on the lifeinlincs page.

Rita McDade:

You may be wondering why I’ve chosen to address this subject but it is worth considering the possibility, as I have, that we have been rather slow in raising this issue: that we have neglected to address it.  Whether we have purposefully done so out of a desire to avoid the subject or because we have simply not considered it as yet I do not know but this is what we have done.

All disabled people in employment in our society have access to government funding through the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).  This is mediated through Job Centre Plus and is called Access to Work Funding, known as ATW.  Funding applications are assessed and granted according to the needs of each individual worker which, for people like me, means that funding for an interpreter is put in place so I can attend meetings and communicate with work colleagues who are unable to use British Sign Language (BSL).  The funding has been in place for approximately 20 years now with most disabled employees finding it beneficial.  Recently though I realised that I have been rather slow to notice something.

Those of us who are in employment will be familiar with the fact that we work according to the hours laid down for us by our employers and that, however many hours we work in our full or part time posts, we are contractually obligated to these.  One feature of this is that our lunch break is unpaid.  For over 20 years now I have been booking interpreters from agencies run by both Deaf organisations and private companies as well as freelance interpreters and have only just noticed that the hours invoiced for the interpreting service includes payment over the lunch break.  I have no quibble with the service provided or the fact that I am responsible for processing and signing off these invoices since this is indeed my responsibility.  What has come to my attention is the fact that, while those of us in employment are not paid during the lunch break, interpreters are.  So, I have begun to ask myself, why are interpreters’ lunch breaks covered as part of the overall service cost?

I believe this is a situation that needs changing.  I believe that the manner in which interpreters are paid should fall into line with the norm for other employees and that hours chargeable should be the hours worked only.  For example, a booking of 10am till 4pm requires payment for the whole day.  I believe it should be chargeable from 10am till 12 noon then 1pm till 4pm with one hour off for lunch and therefore one hour deducted from the invoice.  At the moment, the former system is the norm and nobody has challenged this.  As I said earlier, I am unsure whether this is because we have not noticed this anomaly or whether we are reluctant to address it because we do not want to disrupt the status quo given our reliance on interpreters.  It may very well be that interpreters are uneasy about raising this issue and have similarly chosen to leave it be.  One thing is, however, very clear and that is that we should be addressing this.

When we stop to consider the cost, that we are actually paying a lunch break at the current interpreter rate of between £30 and £40 per hour it seems strange.  In fact, it would be nice if I could have that luxury!  This has to change and we have to discuss it amongst the wider community.  At the moment we are either resistant to the conversation or simply have not thought about it as a concern.  My instinct tells me that there are those who have noticed this incongruity but have yet to raise it as a discussion point.  If we do as I believe we should do and begin to refuse payment for lunch breaks we may find that interpreters decline to work with us but this is a matter of principle, a matter of parity for all those in work.  Why should interpreters be treated differently to most other employees?  Why should interpreters be the only workers paid £30 to £40 per hour for doing nothing more than eating lunch?  It’s an expensive lunch and one I wish I could indulge in!

An additional issue is car parking charges added to invoices that were neither discussed nor negotiated before the assignment was accepted.  The response when challenged is based on the assumption that any money paid out by the interpreter is claimed back from the client but I would contest that assumption and argue that it is the individual’s choice to use whatever mode of transport they wish.  Costs associated with this choice should not be passed on to the client.  Those of us in work know that costs incurred in our working hours such as car parking are our own responsibility and not claimed back from our employer.  I believe it is time to have a discussion on all these points and we would be very interested to see your thoughts on this issue.