“Access” that isn’t meaningful, isn’t accessible

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There have been some major public events in Irish life in the headlines recently, relating to Deaf people, interpreters, visibility and access. I’m going to hold my hand up and say (as many of you already know) that I have been that interpreter on some of those occasions – some very visible, high profile events. Nonetheless I’m going to (hopefully) talk very generically about these kinds of events, despite our treasured prizing of confidentiality. Because there is a perhaps more important set of points that needs to be made about these events, about interpretation at them, and our own role as professionals.

As interpreters, we all have criteria that we use when we decide to take on jobs. We all have those little lists and questions that guide us in taking an assignment, or not. (The fact that we decide, the fact that we choose whether or not to do an interpreting job, is extremely important – I’ll get to that later.)

My checklist is pretty much the same as most other interpreters, I reckon. Co-interpreter needed, and provided? Proper breaks assured? Prep available and sent in good time? Outline of the day? These, and a few other nuggets of info, are generally all we need to say, at least for the time being, ‘yeah, put me down for that.’

Well, as of this week I am adding another criteria for myself:

Will I be providing meaningful access?

If not, I will be turning the assignment down – regardless of any of the other criteria being in place.


It is essential we really consider the twisted, barrier-filled landscape of provision of interpreting services for Deaf people in Ireland today. Some of the features of that are:

  • There aren’t enough interpreters;
  • the ones we have are mostly in Dublin;
  • there’s every chance your ‘interpreter’ may be a full-on cowboy, or worse, a ‘communication assistant’ or ‘communication support worker’, essentially someone the same task but doing it dreadfully and harmfully, getting crap pay and having zero qualifications;
  • interpreting agency complaints processes are confusing, difficult to access and seemingly toothless;
  • agencies often blatantly disregard best practice on how many interpreters you need, what level of skill they should have, and how often they should have a break;
  • those agencies often have a contract with a court or hospital that you have to utilise, and the  contract can’t be sidestepped;
  • if you know, trust and want a particular interpreter, the agency that you must use can refuse to work with that interpreter – or any of the ones you are looking for – or indeed any qualified interpreters at all, and nothing can be done about it;
  • procurement processes used to award these contracts are completely opaque to Deaf people and interpreters alike, and to the best of my knowledge, involve exactly zero consultation with representatives of interpreters or Deaf people.

And it goes without saying; no hearing interpreter has to put up with any of this absolute nonsense for a second when we, as ourselves, as hearing taxpayers and citizens, need to visit the hospital or go to court or give a Garda statement. This wreck of a ‘system’ is a painful mess, one which arises when you leave the ‘free market’ to commodify on a competitive basis, to present as a ‘communications solution’, what people should have access to as a service by right.

But there is another side of the coin; the PR jobs.

We are booked and paid (often quite well) to do what we so love doing – what we were trained to do – to a room of people who don’t understand it, because there are no Deaf people there and no Deaf people have been invited.

Or we interpret towards a camera that may broadcast or record the footage – but no Deaf person will ever see it, because the people that own the footage don’t know how to tell them it’s there, don’t bother to tell them, or don’t show or make it available at all.

Or even worse, a camera that desperately tries to avoid you. Directors and producers who obsess, openly, in front of you, about how they can best make sure you are not in shot. How the language that you learned for years and love with a bright passion, is best hidden away so as not to spoil things for the hearing viewer.

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Interpreter on right. Far, far away on the very very edge of things. No, a bit further than that

And if you obey, if you step away from the camera, out of frame, into the corner, out of the light: are you complicit? Can you truly support #StopHidingISL when, by meekly going along with it, like the neutral, approachable language professional that you are, you help to hide it?

It’s a cliché for interpreters to say that we love our job. But, I do. I don’t want to take away from anyone who feels the excitement and fulfilment of interpreting. But how many of us genuinely feel this, when we do these jobs, where we do it for nobody? When the only feedback we get is well-meaning, know-nothing comments from hearing people, who tell you how brilliant you are, how they had a daughter who learnt Lámh, and by the way, is sign language universal, or is it – ah, here, you guys know the drill. Fill in the blanks.

Did we train for years for that? Is that the feeling of pride that we seek in our work?

Right now in Ireland we are faced with a post-ISL Act landscape that is not encouraging. You hear whispers that the courts and others are already dismissing calls to pay for interpretation, as the Act is not yet commenced; loopholes and excuses are brandished not twelve months since that glorious December, when this new legislation was first passed. And while the amount of interpreting work has burgeoned, the PR jobs are still there. In force. It may be motivated by the Act or other legislation or regulation, but too often feels like tokenism. Like box ticking.

Real discussion about what Deaf people want is lacklustre, or absent. Interpreters are booked ‘in case any of our attendees require the service’ with no attempt to ascertain whether they are in fact, Deaf or not. Wealthy organisers of conferences or commemorations spend hundreds, even thousands, of euro on multi-interpreter teams, on the offchance someone may require it. Meanwhile down the road, an important court hearing gets adjourned – again – for lack of an interpreter, despite the fact the court knows the defendant is Deaf, has known for months, and yet only calls an agency to book one a day beforehand.

The fact there is only about 80 of us working in the country for a Deaf population of about 5,000, the fact that we are a resource that is rare and precious and necessary to ensure justice and good health and access is considered abstract; annoying; but not a factor in an overwhelmingly commercial decision. Tick that box.

Some might say, but if you do these ‘PR jobs’, isn’t there an element of Deaf awareness involved in that? There may be no Deaf people present, but there are hearing people there – who will see ISL being used, and realise that this is a service that is available, and provided even when there are no Deaf attendees – in the name of access. Surely that’s not all bad?

I sympathise somewhat with the latter point of view. But I am no longer convinced by it. I think that there may indeed be something more unsettling going on; less about Deaf awareness, and more about the influence of bad example. Hearing attendees see that even in times of severe interpreter shortage. That it’s okay to squander resources on booking interpreters as a frill, that provides access to nobody. They learn that interpreters getting paid to do absolutely anything they want with their hands in the absence of Deaf attendees is not just okay, but to be encouraged. Getting a hand-flapper on the stage is more important than real consultation with Deaf people, to ensure they are at the event. Just sign that cheque, and tick that box.

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Money is spent on an indigenous language – and then hidden from view – in this country of ours, and thus it becomes, in effect, hush money. It’s great that our national broadcaster is meeting a 3% quota of ISL signed programmes, but it seems odd that those programmes are picked by RTE without consultation with Deaf people; that they are televised in the middle of the night, or on unwieldy online players. But never on mainstream TV, at a time when Deaf people may be awake.

And when the national anthem of this country in ISL is deliberately ignored and suppressed at our biggest national sporting events, when over 7,500 people can sign a petition to request a change, but are ignored, and the quota-meeting is trotted out as an excuse – that’s when you can taste the box-ticking in the air.


I realise that, even if you agree with my sentiments, many of you may not agree wholeheartedly with my formulation. Some of you might say, these structures are nothing to do with us; others might say that wanting to be active about it interferes with the famed ‘neutrality’ that interpreters are meant to cling to.

Some of you may declare that if we go this direction, that it’s time to rewrite the Code of Ethics to square with the apparently very different way we will be working. Some of you may well feel that this fairly heartfelt, pretty honest quasi-rant, is in itself a betrayal of neutrality, an unprofessional and unprincipled confession.

But most of us who have read a book about sign language interpreting in the last 20 years would put up our hands and admit that we are not neutral – in either linguistic or interactional senses (Cynthia Roy and Melanie Metzger and many others taught us that) – and that we in fact possess and wield much power in our interactions as interpreters.

I see a huge amount of power in one very simple facet of our work: we choose what we do. The vast majority of us are freelance. No manager assigns us work that we have to take on. We decide if we want to take work on that day of the week, from this agency, in that area of the country. We can say we will never step foot inside a courtroom – and make good on that promise. No one forces us to take on work; they simply can’t.

And conversely, when few agencies seem to care about who ends up interpreting what, we can decide to take stuff that we’re no bloody good at, and keep getting that work. And no matter how brutally bad we are, there are no good outside mechanisms that exist to make sure we don’t get that work again. And again. And again and again.

The simple power of yes and no to an agency or client, on the phone and by text and by email, therefore has enormous power over the lives of Deaf people; far, far more power than we could ever exert on the hearing world. And all of us hold this power. How can we wield it better?

Well – I humbly suggest – we could make a start by asking the question I ask above; will I be providing meaningful access? It’s a question that I will be asking all the time, in future. And it’s a question that, if I get an unsatisfactory answer to it, I will no longer be available or willing to do that work.

If conference organisers or broadcasters or political parties are dismissive of Deaf people and refuse to actively try to get them at their events – or if they are ashamed and offended by the idea that someone at home may actually see a flicker of sign language on their TV screens – let them at it; let the Deaf community continue to fight to change minds and attitudes. But I won’t be playing ball. You won’t tick those boxes with me.

I don’t expect every other interpreter to follow my example. That’s fine. All I can do is focus on and amend my own work practice. It’s possible some of you do this yourselves already. The comments section is open below, and I’d love to generate conversation around this topic.

Thanks for reading.

Cormac

3 responses

  1. Very interesting piece Cormac and sounds like an admirable decision on your part. But how will it work practically speaking? How will you know before you agree to a job whether it will be meaningful access that you’re providing? I know in some cases it’s obvious, for example recently when RTE were very blunt in stating they would only be broadcasting seconds of the anthem but I can’t imagine the person/company/agency who books you will always be that forthcoming. People are great at talking the talking especially when trying to avoid seeming discriminatory. And if you do take on a job that turns out to be a farce when you arrive and you’re hidden away to the far side of the far side, what then? Can you walk away? Or are you contracted in at that point and all you can do is push for better positioning? I really do think it’s an admirable aim to only option to provide meaningful access but I’m curious how often you know for sure before you take a job how things are going to be on that job and also what questions you would now ask beforehand to help determine that.

  2. Thank you Cormac for raising this important issue. I don’t have a quick and fast answer for things but I agree that these things need to be discussed between deaf people and the profession (and people in the middle of the Venn diagram ;-)). Is it OK to interpret to thin air? Does the PR benefit outweigh things? Who is paying for this? Is it a good use of resource? Etc etc. But there is also a separate but parallel issue – in deaf education. Do interpreters collude in the dismantling of deaf education by agreeing to interpret in mainstream settings? Is the collusion to accept this kind of work the same as accepting assignments where there are no deaf people?

  3. Hi Cormac. I had a similar experience interpreting here in the US. I was hired for a public event, only to be shooed out of the camera frame (and, as it happened, into the rain). It definitely got me thinking about what, or who, I was there for.

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