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

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