I have been a Deaf Professional now for nearly 30 years. I commenced my career in 1989 at the Royal South Australian Deaf Society. This was at a time when communication support at work such as Auslan interpreting was almost non existent. I started work as an Employment Officer. I had to cold canvass employers to find jobs for Deaf people. This was also at a time before the National Relay Service. To make phone calls I had to book Barb the accountant, who was a CODA. She would interpret call after call for me. If it was not her it was John. Between them they interpreted literally thousands of calls for me. Sometimes John would interpret meetings for me but mostly I got by with lipreading and pen and paper. It was a tough gig.
When I started studying social work at the University of South Australia I did not have interpreters either. I had buddy note-takers. For a time I taped lectures and gave them to a lady in admin who transcribed them for me, usually two weeks after the lecture. I can tell you now, being that far behind with your notes is not conductive to good results.
At university I used to dread that someone would ask me a question. In social work there is a topic called Group Work. Group work is typically used by support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. There is a strategy in group work known as opening and closing the gate. Closing the gate is where someone is dominating a discussion. You close the gate by saying something like, ” Aden, thank you for your input, is their anyone else in the group that agrees or disagrees with Aden?” Opening the gate is where someone is not actively involved. They might be shy but you can see from their body language that they have something to say. In such cases you might say, “Finlay, I can see you look concerned by that statement, would you like to share your thoughts.”
Of course when you are the only deaf person in the group, with no interpreter, you are naturally very quiet. What would happen is that an aspiring social worker, who was wanting to milk marks from the lecturer, would inevitably beam in on me and try to “Open the Gate”. I would actually be in a cold sweat. I would virtually pray that no one would do this. Nine times out of ten it would happen – “I note you are very quiet and looking anxious, do you have a view Gary?” When it happened I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me.
My experience at university was the start of my long involvement in campaigning for communication support such as interpreting ( and later captioning ) for people who are deaf. Of course over the years things have changed and made the life of the Deaf Professional so much easier. The National Relay Service was the start. Then came the Internet and technology so that communication became even easier. This opened many doors for deaf people.
In Australia the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) is considered very much a toothless and ineffective law. This is ironic because when the DDA was introduced in 1992 it was the catalyst to a lot of change. Access to interpreting was one such change. The consequence of this is that more and more deaf people began to graduate and take up professional jobs. Of course these jobs required communication access in the form of interpreting.
Government agencies such as Centrelink, hospitals and the courts began to understand they had an obligation to provide communication support. Of course in 2006 the Government set up the Auslan For Employment Scheme to pay for interpreting in the workplace. This has added even more demand to an under-supplied market. Demand for interpreters went through the roof. Interpreting, previously just a community service of Deaf Societies, became big business.
Provision of interpreting is complex. Interpreters need to be looked after. Client confidentiality needs to be protected. Interpreters are professionals carrying out a skilled job and need to be paid accordingly. Demand for interpreting is so high that agencies have been established to meet the demand for bookings. Not only do agencies do the bookings they ensure interpreters are looked after, are qualified, meet the needs of the customers and are paid. But these agencies need to survive too. It is not enough for them to just cover their costs, they have to make make a profit. Not only that, interpreter costs that consider travel and time lost between jobs needs to be factored in.
What this has meant is that interpreting costs have become astronomical. This is not a criticism of anyone. No one wants interpreters to be underpaid. No one wants interpreters to get injured. Interpreting work is often seasonal. During holidays, for example, there is often no income for any but the most highly qualified interpreters. As a result many interpreters have actually quit the profession. This has placed even greater demand on an under-supplied market.
It seems to me that the provision of interpreting access has actually come full circle. We have come from a time where interpreting was just a community service of Deaf Society’s to a time where it is now a multi-million dollar industry. We have come to a time where the rapid development and cost of interpreting is actually restricting access for many people who are deaf.
The cost of interpreting, as it is now, means that only organisations that are extremely well resourced can afford it. I am lucky. I work for one such organisation and my access is never denied. As I see it, it is only organisations like large places of learning, government agencies and multinationals who can really afford the cost of interpreting on an on going basis.
Interpreting costs are a particular problem if you live outside the metro area. If you are a deaf person living in the country and need access to an interpreter the cost is much, much higher than for deaf people living in the city. There are very few interpreters that live in the country. This means that many must be sourced from the city. The cost to provide an interpreter to the country is mind blowing. Interpreters are paid a two hour minimum. That is standard. They then charge Kms traveled in their car. To top this off they then charge the full rate of interpreting for the time they travel.
Let’s say, for example, an interpreter is needed in Warrnambool, about three hours from Melbourne. There is no local interpreter. Interpreters must be sourced from Melbourne. The job is one hour. This is the cost break down:
- Two hour minimum payment – $86 an hour – $ 172.00
- Kms on the car @ 47 cents km @ 540 kms $ 253.80
- Time traveled on road $86 an hour @ 6 hours $ 516.00
Total: $ 941.80
If you are a deaf worker employed in the city your employer will fork out $172.00, which is quite considerable for a one hour job. At $941.80 the cost for an employer in Warrnambool is five and a half times more than for an employer in Melbourne. God forbid if the meeting goes for two hours then the employer will need two interpreters and the cost is almost $2 000. This is clearly not sustainable.
Some people might say that the deaf employee has $6 000 from the Auslan For Employment Scheme. At these costs this will be used up in no time. What if you are a small community organisation providing local training? What if you are a little neighborhood house that wants to provide parenting courses to local people and a deaf person would like to attend? What if a funeral is local? I can tell you if you are deaf and living in the country your chance of getting funding for the cost of interpreting for these things is very slim. If you were Tony Abbott you might call living in the country a “Life Style” choice. Of course this is nonsense.
Clearly we have got to a point where the cost of interpreting access is becoming a barrier. The cost of access for many, particularly in the country, is simply too high. Put simply the cost of access is pricing many deaf people out of the market and something needs to be done. Some will say that organisations should budget ahead to meet these needs but this is not realistic. If you are a locally based agency, small and on a limited budget no amount of forward planning will meet this type of cost. The result? Many valuable locally based services are simply not accessible to deaf people. This means deaf people are increasingly isolated. This is true for both the country and the city.
This is not anyone’s fault. I don’t blame the interpreters, they need to be paid appropriately. I don’t blame the agencies they need to make a profit. Interpreter conditions have been developed to ensure the ongoing health and well being of interpreters and should not be compromised. But clearly we have a problem and need to start thinking about how we can resolve it.
What are the answers? Perhaps we need governments to recognise the issue and offer more funding similar to the way interpreters are provided through NABS. Perhaps when the NDIS is fully rolled out these costs will be met. If this is the case then the Deaf community needs to be loud and vocal in ensuring that the NDIS is rolled out to its full capacity and not just see it as a thing for those other disabled people.
Perhaps we need more training and acceptance of what technology can do to beat the demons of distance and demand. Certainly, providing more interpreting through means like Skype will cut travel costs and time and make more interpreting hours available. Perhaps there is some scope to make online interpreting cheaper than live interpreting because of the reduced cost in providing it. We also need to consider the fact that any strategy that increases access might place more stress on an already under-supplied market.
What is clear is that the landscape for the provision of interpreting is changing. As it stands too many people who are deaf are being priced out of access. Surely it is unfair that people like myself should get the lions share of access simply because I have an employer that has the resources to provide it. Access should be for everyone but this is not happening now. It is time for us all to put our collective thinking caps on so that access is for all deaf people and not just for a privileged few.