A Band-Aid on a gunshot wound? Sign language interpreting and the illusion of inclusion

by Maartje De Meulder and Hilde Haualand

This is a blog post about a longer article (Open Access):
De Meulder, M., & Haualand, H. (2019) Sign language interpreting services: A quick fix for inclusion? Translation and Interpreting Studies. First published online September 2019.

In Spring 2019, deaf access to National Health Services in the UK became an urgent issue after several deaf men died by suicide after struggling to access mental health care services. It led to a debate in Westminster parliament, interpreted in BSL.

In the same month, the Flemish sign language interpreter agency CAB posted a message on Facebook warning about the shortage in the number of Flemish Sign Language interpreters to provide deaf children access to education, deaf people access to work and health care, etc. They claimed that although the Flemish government provided a budget for interpreting in those contexts, there were not enough interpreters to fill in all the hours that were budgeted.

Recently, deaf community and policy makers in the Netherlands announced that a proposal for the legal recognition of Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT) will soon be introduced. When discussing what legal recognition of NGT would mean, policy makers almost invariably referred to the availability of sign language interpreters, for situations such as the weekly press conference of the prime minister, the weekly discussion in the chamber, the King’s Christmas speech, and emergency communication.

The examples above reveal a few patterns:

  • Public authorities’ common belief that the availability of interpreters is the only, and sufficient way to secure access for deaf people;
  • Lack of awareness of service providers such as hospitals and mental health services about sign language interpreting (its potentials and constraints);
  • The need for language-concordant services where ‘client’ and service provider speak the same language, i.e. both sign. Lack of awareness of service providers about why these services are important: both disability and specific sign language legislation seem to favour giving access to public services through sign language interpreting services (SLIS) instead of through language-concordant services;
  • A shortage of qualified, professional sign language interpreters, which means meeting even minimum needs for SLIS is problematic, although the funding to provide them is available.

In many contexts, sign language interpreters have become the normative solution to provide access for deaf people, even if some deaf people prefer, in some contexts, to not work with interpreters. Also, despite the provision of sign language interpreters in different settings, deaf people continue to experience barriers, and (hearing) service providers continue to experience challenges in their communication with deaf people.

In many countries (mostly in northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America) institutionalized SLIS have now existed for more than four decades. They have evolved from charity and pastoral work to well-established social institutions and professional services, backed by funding, research, power, and legal mandates, and interacting on a systemic level with other social institutions like education and health care. They are enabling services: they are not just services in their own right but also function as a means to provide access to other services, because most service providers do not sign.

The institutionalization of SLIS has been instrumental in the emergence of ideologies around the provision of ‘access’ for and ‘inclusion’ of deaf people in society, public services, justice, employment, etc. These ideologies have led to a dominant discourse developing, both within Western deaf communities and on an institutional level, that relies on what we consider to be a problematic assumption that ‘access’ for deaf people is tantamount to availability of sign language interpreters. Meaning: if interpreters are provided, access is achieved. The often uncritically proposed and largely accepted solution at the institutional level to lack of access seems to be increasing the number of interpreters. In light of the existing research on the shortcomings and limitations of what a sign language interpreters can do, the choice to (only) hire interpreters to provide access, could be considered a ‘band aid’ solution, or offer an ‘illusion of inclusion’  rather than a genuine effort to resolve the need for deaf signers to access language-concordant services.

The solution to provide access to public services is not always more interpreters, and we encourage policy makers, researchers and deaf associations to sometimes step back and look at how SLIS as a system interacts with other services, and what contextual language and communication choices deaf people make beyond the use of interpreters. Moreover, since interpreter-mediated interactions currently are the institutionally normative solution to provide ‘access’, this access is most often guaranteed for those deaf people with certain ‘interpreter-related privileges’. Such privileges include knowledge about who the ‘best’ interpreters are, long experience of working with interpreters, as well as the possession of multilingual and multimodal resources. 

It is timely and crucial to address the consequences of current ideologies, discourses, and practices related to access and SLIS. These services, at least in the global North, now appear to be self-sufficient, institutionalized services which seem to be taken for granted by most actors involved, including most deaf people. Since SLIS have become determining political and social factors for public service provision and access to education for deaf people, they thus need to be investigated as social and political constructs that inform service provision. Also, research from various public service sectors reveals considerable challenges and shortcomings related to the use of sign language interpreters and highlights concerns that arise when SLIS become a prerequisite for public service provision. This research highlights that sign language interpreters are not only part of the solution to provide access for deaf people, but also can become part of the problem, especially when teachers, service providers, parents, policy makers, and even some interpreters and deaf people themselves confuse the presence of an interpreter with ‘access’.

We are aware that this call for more scrutiny of sign language interpreting services as a social institution and critical analysis of how different kinds of ‘accesses’ can be implemented beyond interpreters, has a potential policy impact. We do not want this to be a call for authorities to cut in funding for sign language interpreting services, and we do not underestimate the problematic shortage of qualified interpreters and funding for interpreting services in most countries. Sign language interpreting services are and should stay a crucial part of creating an inclusive society but we need to scrutinize how different kinds of ‘accesses’ can be implemented, beyond interpreting as such.  This means broadening the discussion about what ‘accessibility’ means. It also has implications for research, training, and advocacy. There is a need for more empirical research looking at contextual language and modality choices deaf people make. The training of sign language interpreters should include awareness about their responsibility as a professional group, and sign languages should be made available in the training of public service professionals. National and international deaf associations also have a role to play. Instead of advocating for perpetually more interpreters, they can also advocate for language-concordant services.

** The first paragraph of this blog has been edited on 17 September 2019.

Maartje De Meulder is a Honorary Research Fellow at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. She specializes in Deaf Studies and applied language studies. Within Deaf Studies she is primarily interested in language and communication, and within applied language studies she engages with Deaf Studies perspectives. She’s on Twitter as @mdemeulder

Hilde Haualand is Associate Professor at the Department of International studies and Interpreting at Oslo Metropolitan University. Her publications cover topics such as sign language interpreters and professionalism, sign language interpreting services, the politics of video interpreting, and deaf transnational connections. She is co-editor of Tolking – språkarbeid og profesjonsutøvelse (Interpreting – language work and professional practice) (Gyldendal, 2019). She’s on Twitter as @hildemh

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