After 20 years of working within hearing organisations and programs, I am back. Back in the Deaf sector and loving it. The last Deaf and HoH program I worked on was back in 2002. That was with the wonderful Successful Adults in Life Program for young people with a sensory disability – Deaf, HoH, Blind, Vision Impaired and Deafblind. I was privileged to lead a team what was wholly formed with people who had a disability. Probably one of the few teams like it in Australia at that time. How things have changed.
Since that time I have worked mostly as an National Disability Coordination Officer. Other jobs in this 20 years included an access coordinator, NDIA Senior Planner, Senior Local Area Coordinator and as an advocate. Of course, the biggest challenge for me in the last 20 years was communication.
For many years I required Auslan interpreters. My experience in advocating for Auslan interpreters has been well documented within these pages. Suffice to say it was a constant struggle. I saw today that Australia has 571 qualified Auslan interpreters to service the Deaf community. That is covering work, education, health, courts, weddings, funerals and the many situations that Deaf people use interpreters for with their NDIS plans.
Not surprisingly, the supply of interpreters nowhere meets demand. It is probably worse now than it has ever been. In years gone by it was difficult to source interpreters, but now as the Deaf community uses NDIS funding, as more Deaf people move into professional roles and as more Deaf people begin to source tertiary education the demand is sky high. Booking agencies are struggling to meet demand. Add Convo Australia to the mix, now providing online interpreting 24/7, you begin to see that the demand for Auslan interpreting has never been higher.
In my 20 years out of the Deaf sector this is, perhaps, the biggest change that I have seen. Going back 20 years, I think it was easier to source an Auslan Interpreter. You always needed to book in advance, but you probably had more chance of getting an Auslan interpreter 20 years ago than you do now. Australia simply cannot train enough interpreters to the level required to meet the rapidly increasing demand. The consequence of this is that many miss out.
Working within hearing programs and hearing organisations for the last 20 years I have been fortunate that where ever I have worked, my employer has never baulked at providing me with the access that I required. I mean, the Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL), where I worked as a Senior Local Area Coordinator, once called me in to find out if there was a way to reduce interpreting costs. I and one other Deaf employee managed to spend $84 000 in 8 months. Even though the costs was high, BSL still provided for my and the other Deaf employees every communication need.
But the thing with working in a hearing organisation is the need for immediate communication. As a senior you have to respond to situations. Workers will come into the office with a problem and you have to communicate with them there and now. Clients will come in and need advice and there is a need to be able to respond to them as well. Up until a few years ago, all I could do in those situations was make do as best I could. I had to be incredibly innovative and resilient.
Sometimes I would grab a work colleague to scribe for me. Sometimes I would write notes. Sometimes, if I was lucky, the person might be easy to lipread and I could make do. Often it was hard. Accents, beards, mumblers and the like, all came into the mix. Nevertheless, I had to meet the challenge. Immediacy of communication was just me and them, making do the best we could.
Overtime things have changed. Email, SMS, live text chat etc, all these things made communication easier for me. I well recall a client coming in very distressed and I could not lipread them. It was a busy period and I couldn’t grab a colleague to scribe. I asked the person if they had Facebook Messenger and they did. I grabbed a spare laptop and had them sign in. Across the table we communicated successfully Via Facebook messenger. That was how it was sometimes.
Later, I discovered that Live Remote Captioning was generally more available. I began to use that more. Sometimes a client would call and ask if they could come in in a couple of hours. I would know the chances of getting an Auslan interpreter were zilch. I would get a hold of Barney and say I need someone in two hours, can you serve? Barney would check and get back to me within ten minutes. (I usually sent these requests through Facebook messenger) Nine times out of ten Barney would find me a captioner at short notice. Once Barny let me know someone was available, I would go online and confirm the booking.
Then in 2018 things changed dramatically. Android introduced Live Transcribe. Live Transcribe is a free app that basically is voice recognition technology. Someone told me about it and I was very skeptical. To my surprise, it was very accurate. In 2018 it was far from perfect, but it was usable. Colleagues would come to my desk, and if they were hard to lipread, I would switch it on. Presto immediate communication.
I began to use Live Transcribe in meetings where I could not get interpreters. Or when clients walked in and needed immediate advice. As I said, it wasn’t perfect, but it was usable. It meant I was able to flexibly address a variety of work situations there and then. Indeed, overtime Live Transcribe became better and more accurate. It was a bit of a godsend.
Then Covid hit. By this time I was back working as an NDCO. When I won the NDCO role I was interviewed over Zoom. This was 2019 and I had never heard of Zoom at the time. I still required interpreters because Live Transcribe on my phone didn’t really pick up computer generated voices very well. Then one day I experimented using a tablet rather than the phone. The Tablet worked immensely better.
What I would do was set up the tablet on a stand next to my computer. I would dial in and I would access the meeting that way. I was very fortunate to have very savvy colleagues. They made sure they only spoke one at a time. If they ever forgot, I would just hold up my hands and a chorus of apologies would ensue.
Of course Live Transcribe would sometimes get the phonetics wrong. If this happened I would stop the meeting and read out what had been transcribed and my colleagues would then let me know what they had said. Sometimes it was hilarious. Like when the USEP program got transcribed as the New Sex Program. We had many a laugh over these phonetic errors.
Then one day I discovered another program, Microsoft Group Transcribe. This was only available on Apple devices. I uploaded it to my iPad. Blimey, it was even better than Live Transcribe. It was more accurate and you could even use it with the TV. It would transcribe what was being said on TV. Live Transcribe, at least I found, was not so good with the TV and was, overall, less accurate than Microsoft Group Transcribe.
All of this happened within a couple of years. Then Zoom and Teams video conference platforms introduced automatic captioning. At first I found Teams and Zoom automatic captioning a bit clunky and stayed with Microsoft Group Transcribe. But like with any technology, it got better over time. It got to a point where a colleague would want to discuss something with me. They would call me on Teams, I would turn on the captions, I had immediate communication.
It drops out sometimes or the captions are wrong sometimes, but generally the accuracy is outstanding. In fact, so good is this technology that for the last two years I have not spent all of my Auslan For Employment budget. Previously the paltry $6000 that was provided would be wiped out within the first two or three months.
Then Android 12 gave us the captioned mobile. I’ve written about this before, but now I can make and receive calls. I don’t need a go between or a National Relay Service, I have immediate access to the phone 24/7. All of these developments in the last two years, it is incredible .
I am well aware that I have usable speech which makes all of this technology possible. Not every Deaf person is in the same boat. I am determined to lessen my demand on Auslan interpreters through this technology. Not because of the cost, but so that the short supply of interpreters can be directed to Deaf people that really prefer and require it.
So here I am, back in the Deaf sector. I am at an organisation where 95% of my colleagues all use Auslan. Those that don’t are quickly learning it. It’s refreshing to be able to meet someone in the kitchen and just strike up a conversation without having to switch on my iPad to access captioning. It really is wonderful to just be able to relax and converse with nearly everyone. I think for the first time for many years, I am actually excited to go to work.
That is not to say past workmates didn’t go out of their way to facilitate communication. They did, I was very fortunate. But I look back over twenty years and I see how much more access I have through this technology and it never fails to blow my mind. I mean, two of my current team are learning Auslan and the technology facilitates communication for us until they develop some proficiency in Auslan. It’s kind of weird calling your colleague at the next desk on Teams so as to access captioning but hey, whatever works.
The last 20 years out of the Deaf sector have made me a better and more resilient professional. I’m glad I did it and it taught me so much. Thanks to all my past work colleagues who made my working life such a wonderful and inclusive one, I will never forget you.
But I’m back now, and loving it! Here is to the next chapter.