Roger Beeson British Sign Language Interpreter – A Personal Journey
Published: Jan 15th, 2013
My life as an interpreter has its roots in my childhood, growing up in a home where sign language was my parents’ language. My earliest memories in the early 1950s include being at the Deaf club in Southampton, surrounded by sign language. Later, occasionally I would interpret for one of my parents when people called at our house, or at the shops. I even interpreted in court with my dad when I was 16 or so, when he was a witness to a car crash. I had no thought of a career working with Deaf people until I graduated in Sociology, and a friend pointed out an advertisement for a job working for the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (now Action on Hearing Loss). For want of a better alternative I applied, and ended up working as a glorified enquiries boy there. I learned lots of things about education, hearing aids, special equipment for deaf people, services for deaf people, etc. But the main thing was that I learned I liked being around Deaf people and talking with them.
Old Fashioned Approach
After a couple of years I felt increasingly frustrated by the RNID’s then old-fashioned approach to things. I had two career choices: social work or teaching. I chose teaching. At the time, it was possible to go straight into a specialist course to train as a Teacher of the Deaf, without mainstream teaching experience. I qualified as a ToD in 1973, and started my 21 years as a ToD. 19 of those years were at Oak Lodge School for Deaf Children in London. The years sped past, engaging with hundreds of young Deaf people. During that time I interpreted when visitors came to speak to children. I also took part in meetings where I both contributed and interpreted, not unusual at the time.
In the latter 1980s, the CACDP (then the regulatory body for BSL interpreters) commissioned a short programme of accelerated training for “interpreters of known ability”. This was run by Ruth Roberts and Linda Richards. Up to that time the vast majority of interpreting was done by social workers, but there were an increasing number of people, like John Lee, who were full-time interpreters. I was encouraged to undertake this interpreter training, even though I was still teaching. I quickly became hooked. Interpreting combined my communication skills in English and BSL. It used all the knowledge and experience I’d gained over the years. It put me in the lives of Deaf people, enabling equality of access to communication.
Those days the CACDP exam entailed a day doing a live BSL to English interpretation, a live English to BSL interpretation, a timed BSL to English translation, and a viva on interpreting issues. By some miracle I qualified with a distinction. This was 1988.
I continued my teaching career, interpreting occasional evenings, and more during school holidays. I loved the variety and challenge of the work. I was pulled out of my comfort zone. I was interpreting at BDA conferences, disability cabaret, HIV/AIDS training, etc. Eventually I got to the point where I realized I was enjoying interpreting more than teaching, particularly as teaching was dealing with the new National Curriculum, and in my school, the break up of ILEA (the Inner
London Education Authority). This meant more meetings and more paperwork, which I hate. I left teaching in 1994, giving up my role as Deputy Head of Oak Lodge.
From Teacher to Interpreter
Luckily I had an established reputation as an interpreter, and made a smooth transition from teaching. I could not believe how lucky I was to have found a job which I enjoyed so much, and which paid much the same as I was getting in teaching. I can look back on more than 18 years with a sense of achievement, fond memories, and friendships. I count myself lucky to have worked in what may turn out to be the heyday of BSL interpreting.
Over those years, the demand for interpreting was driven by ideas about equality, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and Access to Work (the government-funded scheme that helps people with disabilities have equal access to workplaces) which started in 1994. We mustn’t forget either that interpreters on TV raised the profile of BSL, and normalized the use of BSL elsewhere. Interpreters were in demand in police stations, courts, in the work place, on training courses, and at conferences. The UK’s increasing wealth meant that there was a willingness to fund interpreting. But where were the interpreters?
The truth is that there weren’t enough interpreters. Fees rose, and even sub-standard and unqualified interpreters could make a good living. The number of agencies specializing in BSL interpreting mushroomed. To meet the demand, courses in interpreting were established in universities in Bristol, Wolverhampton, Preston, Leeds, Durham, and Edinburgh. The old CACDP exam was dropped in favour of the NVQ portfolio approach. There was an impression that the the coat had been trimmed to match the cloth; that the “qualified interpreter” standard had dropped. The BDA (British Deaf Association) mooted setting up its own assessment.
Financial crash & investigations into Access To Work
Then, in 2008, the financial crash hit the UK economy. There is no sign of better times ahead. Less money has meant unemployment for some Deaf clients, fewer training courses, fewer conferences, economies being made all over the place. All this has reduced the demand for interpreting.
On top of this, governments have striven to force new ways of delivering public services: privatization, outsourcing, block contracts. Agencies and companies with no track record in BSL interpreting have gained contracts on the basis of charging less. They have to deliver a service, sometimes delivering a body, but not a qualified or competent interpreter. This has happened in courts and in hospitals.
At a time when unity in campaigning for better standards of BSL interpreting is needed, the Deaf world seems fragmented and resigned. The holy grails of a BSL Act, and protected status for interpreters (which would only allow suitably-qualified people to call themselves ‘interpreter”) seem further away than ever.
More recently there have been several fraud investigations into the way Access to Work (AtW) has been used. Nobody in the Deaf world can have been surprised. The system has been too loosely policed, and administered by staff who haven’t understood what happens on the ground. How can anyone justify well-paid interpreters sitting in offices all day, and interpreting for a tiny part of it? Will we see tighter controls on how AtW is allocated?
I’m now in the latter part of my working life, currently aiming to work approximately 3 days a week. But even that level of activity can’t be guaranteed. I’m finding that I need to be more flexible in what I charge, particularly for short assignments. But I find the trend of agencies offering across the board £80 fees for any assignment, be it medical, mental health, or child protection meetings, very worrying. The vast majority of BSL interpreters are not native “speakers” of the language. Inevitably that means the path to qualification is longer than for most spoken language interpreters. There has to be enough return at the end to warrant the necessary investment by BSL interpreters. We could end up with an interpreting workforce made up of codas (people with Deaf parents) and those with fewer career options. This will impact on those high-flying Deaf clients who need intelligent, well-educated, and skilled professional interpreters. In this picture of doom and gloom, is there any light? Yes, I believe that remote video interpreting via the internet holds great promise for both Deaf people and interpreters.
Some of my favourite work over the past 8 years has been with a commercial video interpreting service. From an interpreting point of view it can be challenging work, but it’s been a pleasure to see how empowering it is for Deaf customers. Phone calls can be made as often and when needed. Small meetings can use video interpreting. More interpreting can be provided for more people, at less cost.
Current talks on establishing a national, funded, video interpreting service (VRS) may not deliver the 24/7/365 services or choice of providers that is demanded, but I’m certain that something will be in place in a few years. There are many challenges. Should the telcos (telephone companies) fund VRS? Or business? Or government? Or will it be a mixture of funding? What about calls which involve only one telephone, e.g. if a Deaf customer in a shop uses their phone to access a VRS, to allow them to talk to a shop assistant? What about calls made involving IP telephony, e.g. Skype?
Many things are becoming technically possible, but progress (if any) will be slow if Deaf people will not work with the new ways of decision-making and the new levers of power. I think there’s little point in wishing the clock could turn back; it won’t. The UK has changed because the world is changing. Everybody wants more for less. Deaf people must get smarter at coming up with solutions which are cheaper and practical. We interpreters stand ready behind you in this changed world.
Roger Beeson is a NRCPD Registered British Sign Language Interpreter who has been interpreting on and off since childhood, growing up in a Deaf family. Whilst working as a teacher for the Deaf for many years he qualified as a British Sign Language Interpreter in 1988. Roger is now one of the most well know interpreters in London.
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