Roger Beeson British Sign Language Interpreter – A Personal Journey

Published: Jan 15th, 2013

Roger BeesonMy 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.

Roger Beeson Interpreting at Deaf Unity LaunchOver 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.


20 Responses to “Roger Beeson British Sign Language Interpreter – A Personal Journey”

  1. Jan and Morag Talkwithsign says:

    Very interesting read. We know a young lady (hearing) who grew up with Deaf parents, she often interpreted for them. Would you say this is right? How did you feel about interpreting for your parents? We believe that all Deaf people should have access to an interpreter when required. However, I have heard of Deaf people being in hospital for operations and not having an interpreter.

  2. Sarah Playforth says:

    Yes it is essential to move with the times and if VRS is one of the ways to do this, then Deaf people need to support its development. In reference to the Access to Work fraud issues, I believe part of the problem stems from too much emphasis on profit & think that agencies set up to provide interpreting should be social enterprises with all profits fed back in. I am disturbed by the poor pay & conditions offered to interpreters by some agencies (including some that are Deaf led) in the frantic quest to secure contracts with government bodies etc. These organisations often have no real idea what is needed & do not involve local Deaf service users in commissioning who could tell them.

  3. John Walker says:

    Lovely article. I am interested in the transition from CODA to teacher to interpreter. What has been your personal journey to alter how you relate to Deaf people to allow you to do your job?

    You mentioned that if there isn’t a reasonable ‘pay off’ for extensive training, perhaps the SLI market will include only CODAs. From my own personal experience, I have found myself working with non-CODAs and CODAs equitably because of their innate capacity in either language. Often, non-CODAs into English and CODAs into BSL. In a conference, the best combination is when I have one of each. Overall, what is most important is that the interpreter is ‘trained’ regardless of what skills they have acquired in formative years. I think there is always a space for all sorts of people to become SLIs but what we can lose is the HE interpreting programmes. For someone in my role, I need an interpreter who has the capacity to stretch themselves and be well resourced to cope with many situations.

  4. David Møller says:

    Very interesting reading indeed. I do hope that the dearth of properly qualified SLIs, rather than profit motivated agencies using dubious methods and unqualified SLIs could be dangerous for the Deaf community with misinterpretations, etc.

  5. Obed Mambwe says:

    Interesting article! Well written! The BSL Interpreting story, especially the status quo where there’s fragmentation in the D/deaf community, low and even unwillingness to pay SLIs, and unqualified SLIs, sounds more like here in Zambia, Africa, where I’ve been interpreting for a paltry 4 years. Though not a CODA, I’m passionate about SLI. If UK, one of world’s advanced and economic giants is facing degradation of SLI standards, where will Zambia, one of world’s poorest and least developed, be?

  6. Kyra Pollitt says:

    Great to see these concerns in print, Roger. I’ve lately been having discussions with more than a few highly talented and very experienced interpreters who are finding they are no longer able to make a living or find a personally sustaining career in the UK, myself included. Sad days.

  7. Katarzyna says:

    You say in your post: “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.”

    What research is this assertion based upon?

    • RB says:

      Common sense rather than research leads to my assertion. Community language interpreters almost always come from families where the other language is spoken, whilst at the same time growing up in a society where the dominant language is used. They are native bilinguals. Interpreters in the major European languages usually study the language at school, at university, and are able to practice the other language by living and studying abroad. The majority of sign language interpreters do not begin to study sign language until after leaving school. Opportunities to practise BSL are limited. As a result, the path of BSL acquisition is much longer, and relatively few achieve fluency. Children of Sign Language parents are in the minority of BSL interpreters. Time spent acquiring BSL costs!

      • Dr Zuzana Windle says:

        I have just only come across a comment from RB in January 2013, in which he states that “Community Language Interpreters almost always come from families where another language is spoken and are therefore bilingual by nature. I am not sure whether to laugh or cry as this comment which is not only completely inaccurate, but also based on a stereotypical pre-conception on what constitutes a foreign language interpreter. Of the 100+ languages listed on the NRPSI, only a handful fit into the category described by RB. These are the languages spoken by the ethnic minorities which settled in this country many decades ago. RB forgot to consider all the other languages which do not fall into this category; interpreters, who practise in these other languages either have to learn English as a foreign language from scratch or, if they are native speakers of English, learn the target language from scratch to a level in which they can interpret. As a qualified modern language teacher, I can assure RB that it would take a native speaker of English many years to acquire relevant qualifications to be able to interpret in German, French, Spanish, Portuguese or Russian, not to mention Arabic, Korean or Japanese. I do not know any interpreters in these languages who fall into the category of “bilingual community language interpreters” referred to by RB. Unlike RB, I HAVE carried out a research into the BSLI/FLI issues and I can confidently assure him that according to the data I obtained through my research, it takes far longer to learn a foreign language from scratch than it takes to learn BSL.I wonder if I could challenge RB to achieve NVQ level 6 in Polish or Arabic or my two languages – Czech or Slovak in the 880 hours stipulated by Signature.

  8. Lynne Graham says:

    Here in Australia we have free interpreters for some medical situations but not others. It’s frustrating at times. Some hospitals are great and really Deaf friendly others …. well leave much to be desired!
    I too am concerned about the qualifications of interpreters. Our only interpreter training program in Victoria has been cut due to government funding. This means in a couple of years time we will be even more short of interpreters than we are now!
    It puts Deaf even more at disadvantage when companies are willing to employ interpreters but they can’t be found. So frustrating….

  9. Beth Abbott says:

    Wonderful article! Thank you Roger; lots I didn’t know and much that I agree with entirely. Hope to see you interpreting at a conference or meeting I’m attending soon 🙂

  10. Pam Spicer says:

    It’s wonderfully interesting to see your journey Roger. I too am from the “old school” … earning my Para-Professional Accreditation in 1984, and Professional Accreditation in 1987 (Australian system). I’ve loved my job from the beginning (volunteering in the early 80’s when there was no such thing as paid “Interpreters”), right up to this day … when this year I am semi-retiring. Yes, can’t completely give up interpreting ! I have had the most amazing assignments working over the years with the most amazing Deaf people. Yes, things have changed, and are still changing. I am sure many Deaf people will keep up with technology but I do fear, however, for those who are not well educated, who are unemployed (or under-employed) or isolated. I hope that “financial constraints” do not leave these people behind for support and interpreting services.

  11. Liana says:

    Such a thoughtful article Roger and one that seems to very eloquently bring together all the issues and questions of the day linked to our profession. It will be very interesting to see how this develops. It was also fascinating to read about your path to becoming an interpreter. Thank you! 🙂

  12. Sandra Dowe says:

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have BSL used with all chilldren and staff in schools so that direct communication and an understanding of Deaf Culture could be appreciated by everyone! Roger is lucky being exposed to signing from childhood, I hope many others will have such an opportunity now that BSL is recognised as a language and should be available to all who wish to use it. Interpreters can help by sharing their skillls and knowledge of BSL with those who wish to have conversations directly with Deaf signers.

  13. Linda Richards says:

    If I may, I would like to add to Roger’s memories of his interpreter training. The courses for ‘Interpreters of known ability’ were established under CACDP in order to start the Register whilst developing new curricula for sign language learners which would take time to deliver and would not see interpreters materialise from this for at least four years as they progressed through each stage. Ruth Roberts (or Sutcliffe as she was then) was part of the first cohort and I was part of the second cohort. This training (which ran for three years with three or possibly four intakes) delivered training to people who were already recognised in this field (including those employed as social workers with the deaf who also did interpreting). We were taught by a variety of people including well known Deaf people from all over the UK and former DWEB (Deaf Welfare Examination Board) ‘interpreters’ and trainers. It still culminated in a tough examination comprising no less than eleven parts! In one day! Later, Ruth and I worked together on developing a new interpreter training programme which included the theoretical studies of the time …. Seleskovitch was one such name that came to roll off our lips! Our proposals and course content were approved by CACDP and others and with funding from the GLC (infamously abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1987), I set up CITI Services and Ruth and I delivered the first interpreter training programmes in the UK. This allowed a completely new intake to join the then Register of Interpreters for the Deaf (a name Ruth and I also worked to change!) Roger was one of nine students on the first course we delivered. Part of his coursework and eligibility to go forward for the examination included doing a written assignment, job interviews, and two observed interpreting assignments. Just to add to Roger’s account, there were several different components to the examination for (his) entry to the RID including the interpreting of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ BSL and English so was substantially more than his ‘four’ components might suggest. It certainly wasn’t an easy ride by any means and a ‘pass’ was not a given. Roger did exceptionally well and has not only enjoyed great longevity in this field but demonstrated great passion about, and commitment to, the profession.

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  15. Siddika Kargi says:

    You have had an interesting path and the your journey is one that is positive, nicely written, I must say and thought provoking of course.

    It’s true what you say about the interpreting climate and how things are changing, isn’t this what always happens? I agree with you that the Deaf community in some part is suffering at the moment with the underlying control of the DWP /government and funds that that they are clawing back from the access budget for the Deaf community and trying to introduce a single contracted interpreter per individual. Is this a good thing for the community? well I do know that people are up in arms about it …

    Anyway a very good read.

  16. Suzie Jones says:

    Love it Roger – spoken from the heart – can we have some of your energy to support those who don’t use BSL too – cos they have been victims as well … there is no pot of gold for communication support – yet we all flourish when we get it.

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  18. Jim Dunne says:

    Great article, Roger. Also highlights the reasons I retired.

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