Jacqui Beckford: An insight into an evolving Sign Language Interpreting Community
Published: May 14th, 2019
I have worked as a sign language interpreter for approximately 25 years on and off (pre and post qualification) as I raised my children and did work unrelated to the profession. One could say that I stumbled and tripped my way into the profession. Being quite poor, I waited for training opportunities to come along that did not involve me having to pay. My career formally began as a CSW – Communication Support Worker at the City Literary Institute in 1993. I supported Deaf students at FE and HE institutes around London. I am proud to see many of these students today working as professionals and contributing to their community and the wider society.
So, where did I stumble and trip from? I was the second-born of six children. My parents are hard-working Jamaican immigrants who arrived in Britain during the 1950’s and met each other in London. Their first child is my sister Yvonne. We are only 18 months apart and very close. Yvonne became Deaf at 3 years old after a year spent in Jamaica with our grandparents; I was there too. My parents sent us so that they could work every available hour in order to save enough money to buy a house, which I am happy to say they achieved. Many African and African Caribbean people faced racial discrimination in the early 60’s. When it came to renting accommodation the racism was overt. There would be, “room to rent” notices/posters on windows and doors, but often they would also say, “no Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. This all preceded the 1968 “Rivers Of Blood” speech made by Enoch Powell. It was a horrible time for my family and others like them (Windrush Generation), who were invited to Britain and came in search of a better life for themselves and for their children. I have digressed, so now will return to my stumble-and-trip story.
During my teenage years, whilst still at school, I went for an audition at the Laban and was awarded an Inner London Education Authority scholarship to study contemporary dance. It was a wonderfully exciting time with many possibilities. I convinced my parents that I would be able to study dance alongside my ‘A’ Levels – or, so my immature self thought. The reality was that any opportunities for a black female dancer was going to be limited. Although my mother’s dream for me was to follow a traditional teacher training path, she was supportive. My father, in particular, felt that my ‘prancing around’, as he put it, would be a waste of time. In any event, due to a significant change in my family circumstances my dance trajectory, sadly, came to an end. Fast forward several years and my older sister, who is Deaf, suggested that I might want to consider becoming an interpreter as I was already ‘interpreting’ for her and our Deaf friends, without any BSL language qualifications and without being paid!
At that time, my sister and I shared a flat; it was like a Deaf club. On several occasions we even had Deaf visitors from abroad who would just turn up with a suitcase. This was in the late 80’s early 90’s so there were no mobile phones and no social media. People just arrived at the front doorstep!
Looking back at those early days when I worked for City Lit., I could not possibly have predicted where the profession would be now. It has changed a great deal. Or, perhaps a more appropriate word to use, rather than ‘change’, would be, ‘developed’ and most definitely for the better. When I decided to seriously embark upon my career, there were very little resources to assist burgeoning interpreters with their language & knowledge development. Some of the resources that I would frequently use were –
- The BDA – London Deaf Video Library – during the VHS era (near Trafalgar Square, London and later when the office moved to Moorgate, London).
- The RNID (now Action on Hearing Loss) library, which is still based at the Royal National Ear Nose & Throat hospital, Grays Inn Road, London. This library proved invaluable during my three years on the RNID “Interpreter Training Programme”.
- E-Newsli also served for a time. I unsubscribed in 2003, although in light of a recent debate I was told about race – I may re-register. It is still relevant today for many of my colleagues.
- BASLIN – the Black and Asian Sign Language Interpreters’ Network was set up by Hetty May Bailey (who is no longer a practicing professional) was a very valuable and very specific resource. Sadly, BASLIN has not existed for years. In view of the phone calls and messages I receive, I sense there is an urgency to set up something similar.
Between 2000 and 2005 a Deaf charity and a mainstream television broadcaster had research and development teams that were exploring the use of Avatars to replace some interpreter duties. At the time, technology would not allow for minute subtleties in facial expressions to be captured. That might have changed now. Gallaudet University spearheaded research into Avatars but that was linked to the education of Deaf children. Anyway, enough talk of Robots.
Now of course, we see technological advancements that enable a greater sharing of experience amongst professionals and faster visual communication with the Deaf community we support. Apps have taken communication to another level. Sign Video and Interpreter Now apps have had a big impact – others such as WhatsApp, have enabled professionals and the Deaf Community to take back a degree of control from some agencies who have no vested interest in the Deaf Community other than a financial one. Interpreters, with the support of their clients, seek to cover short notice bookings thus cutting out agency fees. With apps in development constantly, I believe (a little birdie told me) a small revolution is just around the corner.
Technology has also allowed for greater flexibility around location of work (live chat). I have supported several Deaf clients in their own homes and had the good fortune, on a few occasions, to remain in my own home whilst supporting clients. Of course, with this flexibility unforeseen dilemmas can arise – not always for the better.
As of April 2019, within the ASLI membership there are approximately 20 (trained/qualified) professional Supervisors in the UK and approximately 30 ASLI trained mentors. Increasingly, interpreters see the value of being a member of a peer-support group. This means the profession is well placed to support its members. I must admit ignorance when it comes to what VLP are doing to support its members. VLP undoubtedly will have an equally supportive structure in place.
NUBSLI (union) has been a fantastic development and has made me very proud to be a member of this profession. The founding members are very brave, passionate, intelligent and committed individuals. We have much to thank them for. Although our union is relatively small, it became the fastest growing union in the history of Unite the Union; its umbrella organisation. https://nubsli.com/ I hope that in time many more interpreters will join.
It is difficult to express to those joining the profession now the benefits of joining a union. This is understandable because they have perhaps not yet been on a journey of witnessing the threat of negative changes around them, such as the ‘Framework’ agreement and erosion of interpreter fees. Big contracts awarded to commercial agencies have in recent years compromised our autonomy to negotiate our own fees. Roger Beeson wrote about this in his Blog on the London BSL Interpreters website, October 2016.
There are many challenges facing the profession now. One of which is the lack of pathways to progression. As I see it, the pathways are limited to: Academia, lecturing, Supervising, Mentoring or setting up an Interpreting agency.
A distinct area that sets our profession apart from other professions is the absence of remuneration, differentiated by experience and years of service. A new/qualified interpreter can and often will charge the same as, in some cases more than, experienced long established interpreters who may have specialisms in mental health or legal, for example.
In the early days, because I was heavily involved in the Deaf Community, practically all of the Black people that I interpreted for were all known to me and as you can imagine there was much familiarity. I do not ever recall anyone being delighted to see me because I was Black. However, there is something to be said for affirmation. By this I mean the Black Deaf person, or, should that be the Deaf Black person – intersectional – again. Let me start again. For example, my presence in the interview room is two-fold, I affirm their legitimacy (causing stress to dissipate) and as one client told me, “you get me”. This was not in reference to my receptive skills.
Throughout my life, for some people my skin colour has represented otherness. These instances have been numerous. I shall set out two of my experiences whilst working as an interpreter, where the racism was indisputable.
- Circa 2001, working for RNID, I had a booking for an Oncology appointment. I was seated in the waiting area when, a Deaf [white] woman who appeared to be in her 50’s approached the receptionist, who smiled at her and pointed in my direction. Out of respect, I got up to introduce myself as the interpreter. Before I had even finished my spelling my name, her response was, “don’t want black”. My façade denied the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I maintained my professional composure and told the receptionist that she did not want me as her interpreter. The receptionist called the Oncologist, who appeared a couple of minutes later to speak with me about the importance of the Deaf woman learning about the results of her test. He [an Asian man] and I approached the Deaf patient to explain the importance of the consultation. Her response was, “don’t want Indian”, at which point the Dr. left asking me to persuade her. I was left to explain how important it was for her to see the Dr. Eventually, the patient reluctantly went into the consultation room with me and the Dr. By the end of her appointment she had invited me to have a cup of tea with her in the hospital café. Although, I had concerns about getting to another appointment on time, I agreed. I learnt from her in the 10 minutes we sat drinking tea, that she was South African and her son had sent for her to join him in London after Apartheid had been dismantled. She said her son never visited her and, therefore, felt abandoned by him in a strange country.
- Circa 2002, working for RNID, I had a GP booking. I walked into the GP’s consulting room with the elderly Deaf [male] patient, said good afternoon to the GP, introducing myself as the SLI. I asked, of course politely, if I could reposition a chair so that the patient could see me in the same eye-line as the GP. The GP’s response was to swivel around in his chair, lean forward with his back to his patient and looking me up and down, said, “You’re an interpreter? How comes?” I went on to remind the GP that this was not my appointment, his patient was waiting and I had another booking to attend. All of this whilst trying to covey our conversation to the patient! Similar scenarios occurred many times.
One of the benefits of working for the RNID was regular supervision. However, I never once brought these issues to supervision because, even as experienced professionals, I felt my experiences would be lost on them as white colleagues. Peers that I spoke to about such incidences usually responded by saying things like, “Deaf people are blunt – I’ve been called fat”. Or, “I’ve also had outside professionals question how I became an interpreter”. I honestly do not believe that my peers intended to minimise my experience but, put simply, the privileged prism through which they viewed the world meant they could not appreciate the full weight of what I was sharing with them.
The issue of race/colour is and has been a much more active discussion amongst our counterparts in America. What tends to happen in the UK is that these discussions – when they take place – are more than likely (POC) peer to peer rather than in a public domain.
Working in the realm of the arts has equipped me with developing skills I had never anticipated. Around 15 years ago, I was forced to take a step back and question the nature of the theatre interpreting work I was being asked to undertake; predominantly, this work was seen as ‘Black’ theatre/arts. Then and now approximately 90% of the theatre work I receive is due to word of mouth. I, therefore, on one level felt honoured my services were being sought. However, that led to a conundrum: should I take work from theatre companies who would only contact me when putting on a ‘Black’ production, but never book me for any other production? My analysis of the situation was this: these theatre companies sought my services because:-
1) There was a very small pool of BAME interpreters and an even smaller pool when it came to those with the relevant theatre skill and experience. Even though there has been a swelling of the BAME interpreter pool over the past 10 years, I struggle to find BAME interpreters who are willing to explore the idea of delving into the domain of theatre interpreting, despite enjoying theatre as an audience member. Conversely, white peers that I have spoken to tend to be more prepared to give it a go. This of course is my general observation, having never undertaken any quantitative studies.
2) I was seen as the most culturally appropriate person for the production due to skin colour. Even though I am born in London of Jamaican parentage and the play is about a traditional Nigerian family set in Nigeria. The assumption was that my skin colour was the best fit despite my lack of schema and shared culture.
3) They have a diversity quota to fulfil. ‘Nuff said’
Yes, I am Black and so much more. I am also female/cis-gender, a mother, a grandmother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, able bodied, working class (although now that is arguable given my profession), of a certain age (cough), English/Caribbean and a BSL interpreter. Any one of these descriptions can be applied to me at any given time of the day and take precedence over each other dependent upon setting/participants. The many facets of Jacqui Beckford, will be perceived by others as significant or, not depending upon the prism through which they understand the world around them. For me these labels, for want of a better word, are interchangeable in order of priority dictated by whom I am relating to. From the list above, I therefore, intersect at 13 characteristics. The term “intersectionality”, which has become a buzz word in the past couple of years was coined by a Black feminist scholar, Kimberle Crenshaw in the 1989.
I am willing to and have worked across all domains. If I had to register my specialisms they would be in TV broadcasting (which I worked in for 11 years as an In-vision interpreter covering BBC news 24 and a vast array of programmes), mental health, theatre and the Arts. As you can imagine, all of these domains continuously presented challenges, nonetheless, I derive great satisfaction from working in them. One of my most enjoyable jobs was interpreting for 2 British Deaf women. One of them had won a competition for a food and wine experience in an Italian city. Their host looked after the 2 Deaf women, my co-worker and I as if we were minor royalty. We all had an amazing time.
In recent years I have become ultra selective about the type of work I accept, based upon these criteria:-
- Travelling no more than 30 minutes from home.
- Integrated theatre work.
- Creative work abroad (preferably where the sun shines).
- I have developed better business acumen so will travel beyond the previously stated 30 minutes, where it is financially lucrative.
- A topic of personal interest.
In the 80’s and early 90’s I used to travel a great deal as a member of Clapham and Croydon Deaf clubs (the latter of which no longer exist). I would travel the length and breath of the country attending Deaf discos and parties. In the summer of 1997, I, along with my sister and 4 Deaf friends, drove around Europe in a hired camper van eventually ending up in Copenhagen during July, attending the Deaflympics and hanging out socially amongst 4,000 other Deaf people from all over the world; it was fantastic! Thus began my untutored attempt at communicating by using international sign language.
Since then, I have had countless experiences via work or, socially where I have had the pleasure of meeting with Deaf communities abroad. I have worked with teams of interpreters and Deaf professionals at various mental health conferences in Europe. The American-established National Black Deaf Advocates conference held in Jamaica in 1999 left me full of vivid memories with the socialising that took place wrapped around the conference. Another memorable event was the Definitely Able Disability Arts conference in Qatar in 2015. My repeated work with a client in Canada had me once voicing-over for Deaf project participants who were using LSQ and ASL – I think I was mostly lip-reading them – mad!!!
On a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro – Brazil, I met, by chance, 3 Deaf men in a Botanical garden café, of all places. They were animatedly discussing the best position for a ‘selfie’ in relation to the sun. My husband and I were drinking coffee when I spied them out of the corner of my eyes. I wandered over and asked if they would like me to take their photo for them. They assumed I was Deaf and Brazilian. I quickly corrected them, explaining I lived in London and my parents were Jamaican. Learning that I was an interpreter from the UK, the darkest of the three men – a Black man (one had the appearance of a white European and the other was Latin looking) – stroked the back of my hand, then his and with an expression that I can only described as joyous surprise, signed, “interpreter Black same me – brilliant”. The inference I draw from this interaction was that for him it was significant to have met a Black interpreter. Perhaps it could be best explained like this…in that moment he and I both acknowledged that our skin colour carries with a history of the African diaspora and 400 years of European oppression (Atlantic slave trade). The awful history we cannot change but, we can continue to flourish knowing that our ancestors were strong and clearly survivors because we are here as a testimony to that. Put simply – affirmation. After saying farewell, I began to ponder the composition of the interpreting professionals in Brazil, Britain and indeed in any multi-ethnic countries and to what extent the interpreting profession reflects the community that it serves.
I am looking forward to attending the WASLI conference in Paris this July. I may even meet a Brazilian interpreter or two. The conference title is, “Honouring The Past, Treasuring The Present & Shaping The Future”. How apt that title is with my writing of this article.
Jacqui Beckford has worked as a professional sign language interpreter for over 25 years. She is also an established and active member of the Deaf and Signing Communities.
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