I love technology. I love the people that invent it. I love how I can use it and it has opened up the world to me. Captions give me access to the television and now even the theatre if I so desire. An assortment of mobile phones have given me access to the phone network at any time by text and email. I can even talk on the phone if I want and have whatever the person on the other end is saying captioned. The Internet has given me access to free video conferencing. I can now beam up sign language interpreters to my laptop almost anywhere in Australia saving me thousands of dollars and making my life so much easier. if I so wish I could probably make arrangements to have an interpreter beamed to an Iphone using Facetime. I just need to get an Iphone or even an Ipad. For the hard of hearing digital hearing aids, powerful in the ear canal aids, cochlear implants and even blue tooth have opened up the world to them. In short because of technology the barriers that we all faced in years gone by have been rapidly knocked down.
Yet despite all he benefits there is still an interesting resistance to technology. The Deaf community for years have been resistant to Cochlear Implants and often justifiably so. The Cochlear Implant is wonderful technology but it is so often spouted as THE ANSWER and the MIRACLE cure that it isn’t. It has great benefits and many limitations and Deaf people have been oppressed with HEARING values for so long to great disadvantage that they have rightly been resistant. Thankfully the Deaf community is now more accepting of Cochlear Implants, indeed many young people who have implants have become active members of the Deaf community. BUT misinformation about the Cochlear Implant continues and the Deaf community remain wary, and so they should.
Hearing technology aside I have noticed an interesting resistance to new video technology in the Deaf community. Many have embraced it but many are concerned of its rapid introduction. I write this only as a personal observation as I have noticed that in the teaching of sign language and in the sign language interpreting fraternity that there is a great deal of caution about the introduction of video technology. A lot of it is justified so I write this in an effort to make sense of the resistance.
Recently a friend put up a Facebook stream asking peoples views on the teaching of Auslan online using video technology and online technology. He basically wanted to know what people felt were the benefits and disadvantages. I confess I believe that video technology CAN and should be used to teach sign language. There were many comments on my friends stream that also put forward the positives of teaching sign language online but there was some very strong resistance towards it.
Many on the stream felt that sign language SHOULD only be taught face to face and in a classroom setting. They felt that interaction was important. That only by regular face to face interaction could sign language be taught properly. Online teaching, it was argued, did not allow this. The argument was that online teaching of sign language was too passive and did not allow for the essential interaction that was necessary to develop proficiency in the language. The other argument was that teaching online through video was essentially two dimensional and that it did not allow the learner to see the full shape of signs nor fully understand the use of space and subtle expressions that were an integral component of the grammar of sign language.
I personally felt that these arguments tended to be a little negative. In this I mean people were looking at it in negative and overly resistant way rather than looking at possible solutions. I am a strong advocate of online teaching of sign language. Living in a rural area I am fully aware of just how difficult it is to access support in the learning of sign language. Smaller populations, lack of qualified teachers and distance are all enormous barriers. What this means is that a parent of a newly born child diagnosed with deafness has virtually no access to good quality teaching of sign language that could greatly benefit their child. I also feel that by providing access online you can create a spark in someone that can lead to them becoming interpreters or taking their learning even further. Then, of course, it also creates awareness and interest among people that might not ever have considered learning sign language. More compellingly, we live in a time hungry society and online learning offers participants an alternative to learn in their own time frames and at their own pace.
I believe we need to be innovative. Online learning of sign language does not need to be passive. It can be interactive. For example a special Facebook page can be set up for participants of a course. They can make videos and post them to Facebook and other participants would then watch and try to make sense of what people were saying. The instructor could also gauge what learners were learning and offer feed back by posting this on the page for all to see. Why not use Skype or Ovoo where participants can connect with each other, including with the instructor, to practice conversations and seek clarification. With innovation there is absolutely no reason why online learning need be restrictive. I have found most ADSL connections to be suitable. One barrier is the technology of the participants. For good video and Skype connections the technology needs to be top of the range, this is something not all participants will have. With the introduction of the National Broadband Network online options will only become more desirable. Perhaps now is the time to develop protocols and teaching methods so that the NBN can be utilised to the maximum.
Interestingly there has also been resistance to the provision of sign language interpreting online by some elements of the interpreting fraternity. As an avid user of Skype to beam sign language interpreters to many remote areas of Victoria, thus saving my employer thousands of dollars, I am surprisingly more understanding of this resistance. Lets start with the arguments for Skype and online interpreting.
Skype has been a wonderful innovation for me. I have been lucky to have a good relationship with Auslan Services and they have been innovative in establishing a Skype interpreting service. The benefits for me have been enormous. I live in the country and my role covers an area that is almost half of Victoria. I must have meetings in remote places and if I were to transport sign language interpreters to all of these areas there would be nothing left in my work budget, and this is even with the Government subsidy. Skype has reduced my interpreting bill by over 75 %. It has made my job just so much easier. Even when interpreters in Victoria were booked out I have managed, through Auslan Services, to source interpreters in Sydney or Adelaide. It has been a godsend. I strongly believe that online interpreting will continue to grow. I can see interpreters setting up in their own homes and delivering the bulk of their interpreting online. I have used mobile modems at around 90% success rate. Where I can get access to Ethernet or wireless my success rate has been 100%. I have had meetings one on one or where the group has been up to 20 participants. I even used Skype interpreting in Canberra for a video shoot.
In the not to distant future online interpreting is going to provide MORE access. Where interpreting time was chewed up in interpreters travelling on the road this is now going to be reduced meaning more time is available to interpret. Deaf people are going to take their laptops to the doctor and have interpreters beamed up for their consultations. Universities and places of learning, foresee-ably, will set up booths, and interpreters will be beamed to lecture theatres and tutorials. The sky really is the limit. Again, because we will soon have the NBN, now is the time to explore possibilities and set up protocols. Time is of the essence.
BUT, despite all these benefits there is justifiable resistance. One of the worries is that any Tom Dick or Sally will set up a Skype business and work unmonitored and be totally unqualified for the work. There is a fear that Deaf people will have online interpreting forced upon them. The fear is that they will have no choice but to accept online interpreting, even though they prefer face to face interpreting. God forbid if they do not have the required technology and interpreters become cushy stay at home workers who do not want to travel. The possibility is that access will be reduced for many rather than enhanced.
Most of all online interpreting IS NOT suitable for everything and everyone. At the Deaf Australia conferences in Hobart this year Jemina Napier and Marcel Lenehan gave a paper on the issue of online interpreting in the NSW court system, particularly to remote areas. The NSW court system is keen to set up online interpreting and commissioned a study into its use. Macquarie University, where Ms Napier and Mr Leneham are based, carried out the study. The results were not positive. A court structure is not well set up for online interpreting, positioning of cameras, location of the witness box, the dock, court personnel and the like gave rise to a myriad of difficulties in conveying information. A court is not a flexible place and the study highlighted situations that potentially could put the Deaf person at extreme disadvantage. This clearly is not acceptable when mis-communication could be the difference between gaol or freedom. The recommendation was that in the current climate online interpreting not be used in court situations. Despite the recommendation the NSW courts are apparently pushing on in exploring how online interpreting be used in court situations. This is just one example where online interpreting could potentially cause more problems than it solves.
Online interpreting or teaching of sign language is not the answer to everything. The rapid developments in online access is exciting but Deaf people and interpreter advocates are right to exercise caution and seek answers. I am one of those that is like a child on a lolly shop, excited at all the possibilities BUT we need to provide choice and ensure Deaf people are not disadvantaged. Often the push for online solutions is about cost and not choice, this should never be the case. Resistance is often futile but in this case it is necessary. However, lets not resist to the point where we will cut of our noses to spite our faces. Flexibility And adaptability are the key words but lets ensure choice is not compromised in our insatiable quest for progress.