My first interaction with a Deaf person is one I do not want to repeat. Entering the Access Plus WA Deaf office for the first time, it does not cross my mind that I may have to try to communicate with a Deaf staff member. I walk up to the reception ready to introduce myself and ask for Jayde Perry, who I had organised to interview.
However, upon greeting the lady at reception, I quickly realise she is deaf, and can’t understand what I’m saying. I feel awkward and flustered and, like most hearing people I go into panic mode and do what comes naturally – repeat the question slowly and loudly. As if that will make a difference. Thankfully Linda at reception gestures to a whiteboard and I proceed to communicate with her in writing.
This lack of awareness is part of the reason members of our Australian Deaf community are left wanting amid a national shortage of Auslan – English interpreters.
For example, in the last financial year Access Plus WA Deaf (formerly the WA Deaf Society) could not provide interpreting services for 892 jobs, totalling more than 2000 hours of work and approximately 21 per cent of total jobs serviced that year.
Auslan, short for Australian sign language, was formally recognised as a language and community in 1991. Based on the 2016 National Census there are 11 682 people who use the language, growing from 9 723 in 2011 and 6 944 in 2006.
Azita Samandari, a member of the WA Deaf community, has been deaf since she was four-years-old.
She explains interpreters provide the link between her world and the hearing world.
“Why do I need an interpreter? Really to access the community, to understand what’s going on, what hearing people are saying, to really make sure I’m included,” she says. “It really allows me to express myself in my most comfortable language which is Auslan, if I didn’t have that I’d feel stuck, limited and frustrated.”
More access, less availability: The aftermath of the NDIS
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was established to provide more funding and access to services to the approximately 4.3 million people in Australia living with disability, including deaf Australians.
The national rollout began in 2016, giving Deaf people more access to interpreters than ever before.
Ryan Gook, cofounder and chief executive of national interpreting agency Auslan Services, says the NDIS has dramatically increased demand for interpreters.
“Our demand is 30 per cent more than last year, and the year before that was 30 per cent higher, and the year before that was 30 per cent (exact figures are 29 per cent, 30 per cent, 31 per cent respectively) and that can only really be attributed to NDIS,” he says.
“That’s such a significant factor when we run our reports and we look at the monthly distribution of where the hours are going of interpreting. The NDIS three years ago was, on the list of 20 different types of bookings, sitting at about 17, it went up to about eight the year after then it was second just under university and now it’s top of the list.”
They cannot access exact figures, but Gook says there a several interpreting jobs per day that Auslan Services are unable to service nationwide.
And as members of the Deaf community continue to become more comfortable using their NDIS packages, Gook predicts the demand for their services will continue to grow in the years to come.
“The NDIS has been a great thing for the Deaf community,” he says.
“It enabled them to get access to interpreters for many things that they would never have been able to enjoy, lifestyle type things; birthdays, weddings, christenings etcetera.
“The demand for interpreting is going to get higher. There’s nothing that I can foresee that’s going to reduce the demand for interpreting, there’s still a lot of Deaf people that aren’t maximising their NDIS packages.”
Access Plus WA Deaf has also been hit with overwhelming demand for their interpreting services following the NDIS.
Access Plus WA Deaf general manager service delivery Jayde Perry says interpreting agencies and organisations couldn’t have prepared for the influx of demand created by the NDIS.
“We knew it was coming but no one knew how it was going to impact our community, and the powers that be didn’t really think about forward thinking and upskilling enough people to become interpreters,” she says.
Another interpreting agency, Vital Interpreting Personnel, was not able to service 9.8 per cent of job requests between August 2018 and August 2019.
‘Postponing, postponing, postponing’
As a result of the shortage, members of the Deaf community such as Azita Samandari must schedule their lives around the availability of interpreters.
Through an interpreter, Samandari, 34, expresses the difficulty of trying to manage her life without easy access to interpreters.
“Postponing, postponing, postponing for appointments, I don’t have the patience or the time for them to have them keep going forward and forward, I really want the appointment over with and yet I’ve got to do things like take time off work,” she says.
Dylan Malden, 26, is also a member of the WA Deaf Community and has been deaf since birth.
He echoes these frustrations, telling me through an interpreter that it’s almost impossible to book appointments without weeks of notice.
“I really just want to book a specific time and lock it in and not have it move and move because of the availability of the interpreters, that’s a big frustration for me,” he says.
“It’s so hard and takes forever (to book an interpreter). You have to book so far in the future, three to four weeks, so if I’m sick and need to go to the doctor in one or two days, too bad.
“Sometimes I book in advance and the date comes up and there’s no interpreters available, so I need to book another three to four weeks in advance.”
Costs and stigma: why aren’t more people studying Auslan?
After my embarrassing initial experience at Access Plus…I realised how I ignorant I was to Deaf culture and Auslan and decided to take a basic Auslan class.
Once I started my Auslan classes I wondered why more people didn’t study the language and become interpreters. The language itself is unique and beautiful. The other people studying the language came from diverse and interesting backgrounds, and everyone was supportive.
However, I quickly learned that becoming a fully qualified Auslan – English interpreter is no easy feat.
In WA, starting with no knowledge of the language, you need to complete Cert Two, Three and Four courses at TAFE, which all run for one semester. This is then followed by a Diploma of Auslan, which is another semester. You then need to complete your Diploma of Interpreting (Auslan-English), which until next year runs as an 18-month course. Once you have completed that, you need to pass a nationally accredited NAATI exam that would see you become an interpreter.
Completing all these courses is not only time-consuming, but also expensive, as government assistance VET fee help is only available to nominated students who are completing the Cert Four and above.
North Metropolitan TAFE head of programs (Auslan) Jo Riley says the cost of its courses deters a lot of students from pursuing a career in the language.
“They (the courses) usually start off quite cheap but by the time you get to Diploma you’re paying quite a bit of money, so you need to have that dedication and know that you need to get a job out of it,” she says.
Riley also points to other factors such as the stigma around going to TAFE instead of university as a barrier in encouraging school students to study Auslan.
“Unless you’re going to do a trade like electricians you shouldn’t go to TAFE. There is the stigma involved in coming to TAFE,” she says.
The trickle-down effect
With such an imbalance in the supply and demand of Auslan – English interpreters, the consequences can go much deeper than a deaf person not being able to make an appointment.
Jayde Perry has been working with the Deaf community for many years, managing interpreting services in her current and previous role at Access Plus WA Deaf.
She has noticed that some interpreters take advantage of the fact that they have the power in the current climate.
“It’s definitely an interpreters’ market at the moment, so while interpreters are dedicated to the profession we are seeing that there are individuals who feel they don’t necessarily need to go and do professional development, they don’t necessarily need to engage in reflective practice because the work will always be there at the current moment,” she says.
“They feel ‘oh well it’s okay I can be fussy I can pick and choose where I can go, not I’m not going to travel that far’ or ‘no I’m not going to do that type of work’ and while we always encourage interpreters to pick jobs and accept jobs that meet their skill set there isn’t a lot of boundary pushing at the moment because there doesn’t need to be.
“On the flipside were also seeing some interpreters who know that they probably shouldn’t do that type of work but because no one will do it they’re going to go and do it anyway.”
‘There are more bad interpreters’
Samandari has firsthand experience with interpreters who are inadequately trained or experienced.
She says there are some situations where interpreters don’t respect the limitations of their role.
“I feel like there are good interpreters and bad interpreters, but at the moment there are more bad interpreters than good interpreters, (partly) because of interpreters not having awareness of boundaries,” she says.
“They start acting like a support worker when really they should stick to being an interpreter.”
Samandari also says some interpreters cannot interpret accurately, leading to miscommunication with the hearing person.
“Explaining things from a hearing persons perspective and a deaf person’s perspective, it’s two different cultures, so being the middle person can change the whole conversation if the interpreter isn’t giving the right perspective of what the deaf person is saying,” she says.
And in the worst cases, Samandari says there are interpreters who think it’s easier to speak on behalf of the Deaf person.
“That’s awful. They try and take control and because they think they know the Deaf person’s background, they think they know what’s happened previously so the interpreter feels they have the right to be able to speak on their behalf,” she says.
Future of communication
Fortunately, steps are being taken to encourage people to enter the field. For example, TAFE has reduced its Diploma of Interpreting (Auslan – English) course from 18 months to one semester.
Access Plus WA Deaf has revamped its basic and intermediate Auslan courses to align them with the skills you need to become an interpreter. They have also introduced an advanced Auslan course which teaches more about the structure of Auslan as a language, providing a better foundation to do further study of the language.
However, Malden says a simple part of the solution is hearing people showing more interest in understanding their community.
“I think we need more education for hearing people across the board about Deaf culture,” he says. “Hopefully we can have some more awareness, more understanding about the culture and then people will be more interested in what’s happening and be more involved in our community.”