Dear Auslan Interpreters

Image is of an Auslan interpreter interpreting a COVID update.

Hello old friends, the Terps. It has been such a long time between breaks. This year I have hardly booked an Auslan interpreter at all. It’s a far cry from the heady days where I was at the NDIS. I could have an Auslan interpreter twice a day. Indeed, I and Michael spent $84 grand on interpreting inside 12 months. My employer was always accommodating, but even they asked if there was a way we could cut it back somehow. Why have I hardly used you this year? More on that later.

I told my NDIS employer to cut back on endless and unnecessary team meetings. I said we could probably do them once a month rather than fortnightly. To my surprise they agreed to this. It’s not that I don’t think that you Terps are worth it, its just that somehow we have to keep costs to a sustainable level.

And you know Terps, cost has always been such a big thing in delivering Auslan interpreting. In my work life a big focus has been on reducing costs of interpreters as much as possible. When I started work at the University of Ballarat my job had me covering nearly half of Victoria. From Ballarat to Mildura, to Geelong right down to Portland. My coverage was immense.

This was in 2003. In 2003 to access an interpreter I had to have an interpreter physically there. For me to attend a workshop in Warnambool, that might go for over two hours, I needed two interpreters. The closest interpreter to Warnambool was based in Geelong. If I couldn’t get them, I would have to access interpreters from Melbourne.

It was an expensive business. We had the standard two hour fee for two interpreters and their travel time to get there. This simple meeting would set my employer back near or over 2 grand. 4 hours of interpreting plus 10 hours travel time for the two interpreters to get there – Do the maths!

Luckily for me, I had a really supportive employer in the University of Ballarat. I can tell you my work budget, along with $ 6000 Auslan for employment, ran out after 4 months. For the next 8 months my employer simply covered the cost from their central budget. My boss said they did it because they thought I was worth it. Again let me tell you Terps, I think you were worth it. BUT – To make things sustainable I had to find another way.

So I began to explore Video Relay Interpreting. Back in 2003 we couldn’t do this by Internet. We had to do it by teleconference using the old Polycom system. We could deliver Video Relay Interpreting via the phone line, but we needed a minimum of three lines. One hour was around $548 for the phone plus extra for the interpreter time. In the country this still worked out cheaper than getting interpreters physically there.

Over time the internet began to improve. It got a bit stronger. Over time we got access to remote WiFi through the dongle. We had 3G, oh wow were we excited. A dongle was about $80 a month for something like 4 GB of data. It was a godsend. So I began to experiment with delivering interpreters to my laptop via the dongle.

It wasn’t always great. Drop outs were common. Audio was crap. But I persisted. I got some funding to buy a couple of Macs and a couple of dongles. For a year we experimented using the dongle to deliver Video Relay Interpreting. As time went on the dongle became more reliable. The possibility of ongoing VRI became a reality. I even had a Deaf student experiment having her school class interpreted with the dongle and it went ok.

It wasn’t always brilliant, but what it showed was the potential. From this project I printed a manual as to how to effectively use Skype for Video Relay Interpreting. The manual covered how set up the room and how to maximise the dongle . I recall sitting near a window was one of the tips. We experimented with Bluetooth microphones to deliver sound direct to the laptop to maximise the audio. All of this was detailed in the manual.

These were heady days. Even now as I write this I get a bit emotional. Through these experiments I increasingly accessed interpreters remotely and cut the cost for my employer by a considerable amount. Interestingly, there was resistance. Some said interpreting wasn’t possible by VRI. The 2D format would not work they said. Others said without visual cues they couldn’t interpret. Some said VRI was soulless and took away the personal touch.

Look at us now, we even have Convo delivering interpreting to our mobiles whenever we need it, paid for by our NDIS. If you have not already guessed, I am very proud of this body of work. I look at the world now and I am so glad that I persisted. I am so glad that Terps persisted. I am so glad that the Deaf community persisted. We are all better for it today.

But you know, I didnt stop there. I experimented with what I called pre-recorded interpreters. Universities and TAFE were all saying that the cost of interpreting was not sustainable. So I said, why not try some pre-recorded stuff. I believed that there was core learning that you could film and add interpreters to it. You could place this online and deaf students could access it whenever. My argument was that by having some core learning online, and accessible, it could cut costs for interpreting as well as making learning more flexible for everyone.

Core stuff that never changes like Pavlov’s dribbling dog. Or making a cappuccino. Or stocking a freezer room. You could film these lectures and add interpreters later with little boxes or via Green Screen. I argued that it didnt need to be expensive. You could do it with your basic MacPro editing software.

And I did. I filmed myself making cheese on Toast. In a funny skit I forgot to plug in the toaster, burnt myself and I dropped the toast, much to the dogs glee. I added myself later, interpreting myself via Green screen using a green blanket hanging in the background.

My boys, Tyler and Finlay, filmed it for me on a cheap bloggy camera that I brought from JB HiFi. I used the video as an awareness tool for universities to highlight what was possible and to show it didnt need to be expensive. Unbeknown to me the lads had found the skit hilarious and could be heard chortling loudly in the background as they filmed me. It was such enormous fun.

And look where we are today. Every Sunday we have interpreted ABC news. We have endless Auslan announcements on Facebook. Emergency announcements are sometimes made with Interpreters superimposed later in the day and placed online. Video Relay Interpreting is common place. I feel very proud to have played my little part with you wonderful Terps and with the wonderful people at Auslan Services in making some of this possible.

So given this history, how did I get to the point today that I hardly use you Terps anymore? Well, it’s not because I don’t love you all, cos I do. Its just that captioning technology has boomed since COVID and everything went online. Automatic captioning has become incredibly accurate. I mean, bloody hell, I have a captioned mobile now courtesy of Android 12.

What I have now is immediacy. If I need to communicate with someone here and now, I can do it. I don’t need to book interpreters three weeks in advance. I can get online and manage my team all day using the automatic captioning. Clients call me and I call clients. Just in the middle of this blog my property manager rang and we had a chat about the tenants leaving and getting hold of the keys. No relay service, no interpreter – just me and my strange pommy deaf accent. But it works.

So I don’t book interpreters very much any more. But thats just for me. I have recognisable speech and that helps. I know that not all Deaf people do and they prefer you Terps. You Terps are still absolutely essential and I still use you for big gatherings and meetings. I just have less need day to day cos I now have immediacy of access. I had to wait til the 57th year of my life, but now I have it!

It’s a good thing. Because when people like me use the technology it takes away some of the demand on the system. It means that more Terps are available to interpret where they are needed. At hospitals, In courts, at universities at funerals and so on. I see me using the technology for my needs as a way to help the community get better and more access to Terps for essential things. God knows, I have hogged you Terps enough over the years.

So my my Terp Friends. I just wanted you to know that I still love you, I still value you and most of all I know you are still absolutely essential. So when you see me plugging the technology, its not cos I am trying to do you out of a job, it’s cos I truly believe that through people like me using the technology, the valuable resource that you Terps are can be more available for those people that need it for essential things. Most of all, because Auslan is the first language of many in the Deaf community and they have the right to access it.

Rock On Y’All

Dear Bill

Image is of Bill Shorten and an NDIS campaigner. He is wearing a suit and a red tie. He is sitting next to the campaigner who is wearing a white T-shirt with the slogan of which Defend NDIS can be read.

Welcome back Bill. I think most of us in the disability community have been hoping, praying, screaming and demanding for your return to the helm of the NDIS. A succession of Liberal Ministers proved to be pretty clueless, even heartless. We even had one accusing people with a disability of wasting millions on prostitutes, remember that one? Linda Reynolds tried hard but ultimately wasted $41 million on legal fees trying to claw back money from people with disabilities who had received sub-standard and inadequate plans. Nine years of Liberal cluelessness, it wasn’t a great time. I really mean it when I say welcome back!

And what a task you have. It’s a mess isn’t it? I note that one of your first media releases was about going after corrupt service providers. Service providers who are overcharging and are sometimes negligent. It’s a good move and I support this. I particularly hope that you can improve the standards of care and accountability so that cases like Anne-Marie Smith never happen again. I note two directors of that company have been arrested. I am not after revenge, I just want people with a disability treated fairly and kept safe.

You know what Bill? People with a disability are not innocent either. Some are corrupt and abuse their plans. Not on yachts and prostitutes, mind you, but they spend their plans on inappropriate things. They get gardeners and cleaners in through their core, even though they have no such need for these services.

There was one really appalling case that I hope was reported. In this case a “service provider” took a spa off the hands of an NDIS client. (Yes you read that right.) The client was chucking it out. “The service provider” asked if they could have it. So they took it home and found that it didn’t fit. To get rid of it they asked the client if they could charge them three hours of service to pay for a rubbish removal company to remove it. Allegedly, they got the rubbish removalist to take it away, paid for it and then charged the client a few hours to cover the cost of the removalist. Yep, this sort of corrupt behaviour happens, I hope you can clean it up.

I am really pleased that you are looking at advocacy for clients so that they can be assisted at all levels of the NDIS process and not just for reviews and appeals. I am pleased that you have recognised that navigating the NDIS and getting a fair go is hard for many people. It is hard, stressful and often traumatic. Advocacy is often needed at initial planning meetings and scheduled reviews. Currently, this isn’t funded. It needs to be so that NDIS participants get help to understand and develop plans that best meet their needs. This sort of funded advocacy cannot come soon enough.

You know Bill, there are funded advocates that assist with unscheduled reviews and AAT appeals. The agencies that provide this service are swamped. They have huge waiting lists and often have to deny support. AAT appeals are the worst. Imagine being a participant trying to win an AAT appeal without support. They have to deal with qualified and highly paid NDIS lawyers, many who are subcontracted. It is intimidating and stressful.

AAT cases go on for a very long time too. The NDIA are unwavering and attempts at conciliation between participant and NDIA, more often than not, hit a brick wall. It ends up as a Directions Hearing. It’s laughable because the participant is then expected to fill in a “Hearing Certificate”. In this certificate they have to outline who their witness are and which of the NDIA witnesses they want “CROSS EXAMINE”. Yup, your every day participant, many without representation, are expected to navigate this. I am sure that you will agree that this is incredibly unfair. The extra funding for advocates cannot come soon enough.

But Bill, despite all of the above, the biggest problem that you have is the NDIA workforce. Hard working as they are, there are way too many that don’t understand disability. There are way too many that are gathering information and developing plans who really do not understand the issues and needs of disability. They rely on algorithms on computers to spit out plans that are often incredibly inadequate. Far too often, these plans come back for reviews.

This highlights the next problem. The reviews are often overseen by delegates and executives who also do not understand disability. The reviews are denied and they end up as AAT appeals that take months and months. There is a reason reviews and appeals went up 400%, its because way too many people in decision making roles have no clue as to what they are doing.

Do you know what that means? It means hours of people time, millions in resources, millions in legal fees and it all adds up to waste. $41 million in legal fees probably pales into insignificance to the amount of time and money wasted internally because inexperienced delegates, LACS and management are developing plans that do not meet the needs of participants. That’s a 400% increase Bill. That is time and money wasted.

The worst thing though, Bill, is the stress and trauma that all of this causes people with a disability. The stress of appealing. The stress of receiving inadequate plans. The trauma at receiving a plan that has been so drastically cut that the participant can barely function. This is happening everyday Bill. It is not just trauma, it is outright abuse.

I cannot emphasise enough just how important fixing the workforce issue is. It’s not just getting more people in to deal with the demand, its getting people in that know what they are doing. This means that more people with a disability need to be at management and executive level. More people with a disability need to be in decision making roles. More people that “GET IT” need to be employed. To my mind, that is your biggest priority!

Thanks for listening Bill. As I said, I am so glad that you are back. The NDIS is a world leading scheme. When it works, its fantastic. But, when it doesn’t it can cause great harm to people with a disability. I can confirm that thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts have happened because of decisions that are made by the NDIA. It’s just wrong.

Good luck Bill, give me a buzz if I can help.

DDA – Destitute Discrimination Act

Photo is of Graeme Innes. He is wearing a dark suit with a white tie. He has a small badge on his jacket lapel. He is sitting with his black guide dog.

Graeme Innes is a legend in the disability sector. He has been a committed and tough advocate for people with a disability. He was one of the prime drivers of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). He is often the DDA’s strongest advocate , encouraging the Disability community to make complaints and set precedents. At the moment he is very angry. You can read why HERE.

Recently, Mr Innes had an awful experience at the Adelaide Airport. Mr Innes uses a guide dog. A security guard made things difficult for Mr Innes. To cut a very long story short, Mr Innes had to get through a security lane that used a body scanner. He did this to avoid long lines which his guide dog found difficult to navigate. As he made his way through security, Innes was told his dog was not allowed in the lane. In Mr Innes own words:

“We put bags and metal on the belt and walked to the scanner. The male security guard said aggressively you can’t come through this lane with the dog. I explained that at GC airport where I live there are only body scanners, and I do it every time I travel – regularly. He refused. I explained I would sit the dog, be scanned, and call her through. She would trigger, I would not, and she gets pat-down. She loves, I do not. Again refused.”

Apparently, by this time the guard had turned his back on Mr Innes. Being blind, he did not know this, but his friend told him. Eventually, Mr Innes got through the security but not before at first being humiliated and treated like a second class citizen. All Mr Innes wants is a system that treats everyone equally and not differently. He is sick of being singled out. I can only empathise with him.

The airlines industry in Australia has a long history of disability discrimination. Their rules will only allow two people with physical disabilities to fly at any one time. Kurt Fearnley famously crawled through an airport, rather than being forced to be pushed around the airport in a standard wheelchair. Many people with disabilities receive no assistance to leave their seat. We often hear stories of valuable mobility equipment being damaged in the cargo hold or worse, lost. Inflight entertainment is often inaccessible with no captions or audio description. Australia’s airline industry and their treatment of people with disabilities has been, historically, lousy.

Mr Innes has had enough, He wants change at policy and service level. What is also interesting is that Mr Innes had this to say – “I am publishing this on Twitter because it is now in the public domain, so it will be much harder and less relevant to settle through a confidentiality clause in an agreement. I want this in the public arena.”

Has Mr Innes, one of the staunchest advocates of the DDA and a person who encourages us all to complain through the DDA, inadvertently just admitted that the DDA is cumbersome and difficult to use to get the change that we desire?

Mr Innes has also chosen to be very public. He is even demanding compensation now, outside of the DDA process. Said Innes,

” I want policy change and more respect and flexibility for people just trying to comply with the Security process the way everyone else does. I do not want a separate system. Want this one to treat us equally. I also want $5000 compensation to a charity of my choice. Apologies made are meaningless platitudes – I want real change. I am happy to try conciliation, but will not settle for less.”

It is interesting that Mr Innes is open to conciliation. However, the whole point of the conciliation process is to negotiate a resolution. Given that Mr Innes, “…will not settle for less.”, it would seem conciliation would be pointless, unless the respondent would offer more. Highly unlikely!

Perhaps Mr Innes has already completed a DDA complaint, but judging by his comments, he does not seem to have much confidence in the process. Rather than follow the process, he has publicly slammed the respondent and demanded change and compensation. Of course, with his huge profile and following he can do this. Hopefully, he will be successful and many will benefit.

Sadly, very few of us have Mr Innes’s status and clout. In Victoria, many people with physical disabilities will not be able to get on a tram today. Either, because the tram stops are inaccessible, or because the stops are serviced by old trams which can only be accessed through steep steps. Maybe one of these disabled people will scream blue murder to the press and demand $5000 and immediate change, as Mr Innes has done. I reckon their chances of success are slim either way.

Or those Deaf and hard of hearing people receiving phone calls from the NDIS (of all organisations!). When they cannot answer, their requests for access to the NDIS are put on hold. They are sent a letter that tells them the NDIS tried to contact them and they need to contact them immediately if they still want access to the NDIS.

Or worse, the planners and LACs who refuse to book interpreters or meet on Teams. They try to do planning meetings over the phone. Or call on the phone to organise reviews. When the deaf person doesn’t answer, they simply roll over plans and sometimes with steep cuts. Maybe one of these deaf people can write a blog and demand action, change and compensation. Or they can try the NDIS complaints process along with the DDA? I can’t say I fancy either of those options leading to change either.

Or the poor student who can’t study because they have severe autoimmune issues. They want to study online. However, because COVID protocols have been removed they have been directed to study on campus. They have provided medical evidence that they cannot, and if they did that they would need to attend in PPE. They have been told bad luck, because if they help them study or attend class online, it will impact on the quality of learning of others. Given that university students studied successfully online for two years, I would say this is absolute nonsense. So four months into the term, the student can’t study and can’t get resolution.

Meanwhile, their fellow students merrily study on. Can the student do what Mr Innes did? Can they use the DDA? Can they use State Equal Opportunity law? Well they can. She might win and be able to study in 2025. Perhaps $5000 compensation will sweeten it for her. I kind of think she will be pissed off either way.

These are real life stories. What is the DDA doing to help? Precisely nothing. It is a useless law. It relies on complaints that are directed to conciliation. That respondents to complaints can refuse conciliation if they want, is a joke. More often than not, complaints need to go to court for resolution. Many people just drop things there. It is all too hard and all too stressful. It is a truism to say that the DDA is destitute.

Meanwhile, organisations run roughshod over people with a disability. They can’t get on planes. They cant get on trams. Organisations develop communication systems with no thought to deaf or hard of hearing people. Educational providers make studying an uphill battle using inherent requirements and quality of learning as an excuse to deny access for people with a disability. If they are private providers, they just claim they are too poor to provide any support.

The DDA is dead. It is long past its use by date. We can’t all go screaming to the media demanding change and compensation here and now, like Mr Innes has done. We can’t even use the DDA most times because our window of opportunity is too small. Governments stall change, claim that they are better than other States and that we should be thankful. (Yes this happened.)

Don’t get me wrong. I support Mr Innes in his quest. I hope he wins. I hope change happens. But I, like other people with a disability, have become despondent. It really is a Destitute Discrimination Act. It needs change and strengthening.

Labor claims that they want a country for all Australians. Let’s hope that they have the guts to tackle this ridiculous law and and provide people with a disability with the dignity and access that they all deserve. If they don’t, I demand $5000 now – not for charity but for an airline ticket to a country that might treat me better.