Category Archives: Access

This Saturday, I’m going to be a ‘book’ and I can’t wait!

The Human Library is a project, now a global movement, that seeks to challenge stereotypes and encourage dialogue. The idea is simple; a ‘reader’ can go into the Human Library, browse a catalogue and borrow a ‘book’, the twist is that the ‘book’ is a living, breathing individual with a story to tell.

All the ‘books’ are volunteers, drawn from as wide a background as possible, reflecting various cultural, religious and ethnic identities as well as differing viewpoints, in short, people who can be misrepresented and misunderstood.

I think it’s a brilliant idea; a safe environment in which people can ask their books things they may have wanted to know but never had the opportunity. What could be a safer and more calming environment than a library? The metaphor is extended as far as it will go, and I love it, from the rules for the ‘reader’: “the book has the right to be returned in the same condition in which it was lent” to creating a ‘catalogue reference’.

The project was created for the Roskilde Festival in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000 by a group called Stop the Violence, and seeing its success and realising its potential, they set about promoting it around the world. Skip forward thirteen years and the Human Library has been put on in over 30 countries; the list is truly dizzying.

And on 16th and 17th November, the Human Library is coming to Bristol! It’s being run by Wunderbar, it’ll be held at the Parlour Showrooms opposite College Green, and yours truly is going to be a ‘book’! I got lucky; a BSL interpreter friend let me know about the project and offered to interpret should I be chosen. I applied, explaining that as a deaf person (with a punk hairdo, no less) I often felt that there are a lot of misperceptions and a lot of barriers for deaf people out there that hearing people are just not aware of. I wanted to bring it out into the open, try and raise awareness in my own way. It must have been a good enough pitch as I got in!

The preparation workshop was an eye-opener, I suspect as much for them as it was for me. I loved the enthusiasm, the organisers created a very easy-going atmosphere, and it’s possibly the widest variety of people I’ve ever shared a room with. This Human Library should be good, and I’m not just saying that!

That friend came good and so Kyra Pollitt will be my interpreter for my ‘book in translation’, a phrase she came up with and I’ve shamelessly borrowed, as you’ll see in my catalogue reference. It feels good to be part of a global project to challenge prejudices and it’s great to be flying the flag for the deaf community!

However, remember when I said it may have been an eye-opener for them as much as it was for me? It seems that the organisers fell into the trap that many have fallen into before; simply not considering what they would do if a deaf person came to the project. Another example of deafness as the ‘invisible disability’… To give them credit, once the oversight was realised, the organisers were more than happy to do all they could to fix it, and I think this is something they’ll take forward into any future Human Libraries – making sure that deaf people, so often an excluded minority – are catered for. For the time being, they’ve done something creative with their funds and are prepared to negotiate for a couple of hours of general terping for the event.

So I’m putting a shout out – if there are any terps out there who have an hour or two free this weekend who’d like to be part of this project, please contact Ilana at Wunderbar at ilana@wunderbar.org.uk. Please. Pretty please. If it helps, think of it as a birthday present to me! (Genuinely, it was my birthday yesterday.) Please, please, please.

Ahem. At time of writing, there’s no access for my fellow deaf human to take part in a project I’m involved in and yes I do find it a little incongruous, I think it’s the first time it’s happened. However, as I’ve said, the organisers are learning fast and I think they’ll be taking this forward into future events; certainly I want to go to any future Human Libraries as a ‘reader’. It’s such a cool project and deserves wider recognition!

In the meantime, if you’re up for an interesting conversation that will almost certainly challenge one of your worldviews, rock on down to the Parlour Showrooms this weekend!

In a way, I’d like to think I’ve already fulfilled my purpose as a ‘book’ in that by my presence I’ve spread a little awareness and made people think, and the Human Library has gained a new dimension. If I can do that this weekend, just make people aware and make them think about deaf people and our place in society, I’ll consider this entire project worthwhile.

For the curious, here’s my catalogue reference:

Title: I’m not deaf, just ignoring you… oh wait, I am deaf.

Date and place of publication: 1983, Surrey

Dedications: Kyra Pollitt, the translator for this ‘book in translation’

Synopsis: People often think I’m ignoring them, but I feel I am the one who is ignored. There are an estimated 9 million (one in seven) hard of hearing or deaf people in the UK, yet access and awareness are a constant uphill battle, for even the simplest things. I’m a poet, writer, traveller, performer; I just want the same freedom as hearing people to enjoy and live my life, however random it may be.

Notes: This is a 3D book in translation, featuring British Sign Language. Please do not be alarmed if it makes sudden movements.

Please handle the book binding carefully: it features a textured blue mohican.

There it is, wonder how many ‘readers’ I can tempt? 🙂

Wunderbar’s creative director Ilana Mitchell kindly agreed to answer a few questions, to give an extra insight into the project and the motivations behind it.

How did you / Wunderbar get involved in the Human Library?

I saw a Human Library in Canada when I was visiting in 2010, and was really inspired by the project. At that event I met a “Book” who was Québécois who had taught himself about 10 languages and worked as a translator during many wars and conflicts.

When I came home I researched the project and found out more about how it started, and its aims to create a space for challenging stereotypes, a space for asking difficult questions. This and its playfulness all fitted really well with Wunderbar’s aims.

What elements attracted you to the project most?

I love how simple the concept is and at the same time its pretty powerful. Every time we’ve done it the workshops have been very inspiring. The Books all get to make friends and support each other – somehow the safety in the space to be open about yourself and whatever stereotype you might fit with allows for some great camaraderie. And I think it boosts the confidence of the Books both to be part of the project and beyond.

The other bit I like is the catalogue and the readers’ reviews – you’ll get to see these on Saturday. Each time a Book is read is a personal experience, shared between Book and Reader. Through the writing in the catalogues and the reviews these get shared more widely, and they are so often really warm and friendly, it’s like the conversations continue on paper.

Am I the first deaf person to be involved in the Human Library in the UK and has my involvement changed how Wunderbar will approach future installations of the Human Library?

I don’t know in the UK, but first for us. Though in our last festival in 2011 we did a very challenging project which attempted to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We learnt a lot about how hard it is to be truly accessible. I had lots of assumptions I had never considered as such – like English being a second language to people for whom BSL is a first, or how strong regional dialects are.

Sadly, the artist we worked with on the UDHR project died earlier this year, though not before the UN accepted and now host on their website an official BSL translation. I’m really keen to build on both that project and now since meeting with you, working out how best to go forward to make all our projects as accessible as possible.

I’m looking forward to having further conversations with you, and hopefully others. I’d like to think that in coming from both the deaf and the hearing side we can make good arguments for how to best work together to bridge the gaps, that we can help each other understand the difficulties and challenges we face and come up with some positive suggestions which we can share more widely.

I mentioned the challenge of funding when we met – this is a dull subject but one it’s important to tackle. Human Library is full of volunteer books, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have costs. As very enthusiastic arts practitioners, we’ll always squeeze far more out of a budget than is actually really practically covered in costs. It’s both admirable and naive: that make do / make happen attitude is in many ways a privilege of those who can function most “normally” in society. To make access equitable needs money not to be an object – which is easier said than done.

I very much hope you agree and are up for this quest! I think that’s important for all our projects, not just Human Library, and everyone else’s too!

Big thanks to Ilana for her insightful and great answers – I didn’t realise Wunderbar had been involved in the translation of Universal Declaration of Human Rights into BSL, fabulous stuff! Brilliant to be involved with them and definitely will be keeping in touch – that’s a quest well worth going on!

Now… who’s coming to the Human Library? Spread the word! 🙂

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The BBC are treating me like a second class Doctor Who fan

(originally published on the Limping Chicken)

Recently, there was a post on Pesky People, ‘Silence has fallen at the BBC’ written by a fellow Doctor Who fan, describing their troubles with trying to get a ticket to the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebration Convention. It’s quite the saga, it goes on for several blog posts, with various back and forth responses between Samantha and the BBC. But in short, the BBC have been so bloody-minded and inaccessible that they are causing a lifelong fan of the show to fall out of love with it.

Look at her pics. She is totally dedicated. This is the kind of fan that the BBC should be bending over backwards to accommodate, not driving away.

Sadly though, the Beeb seem not to share this view. No doubt they would much prefer it if she disappeared quietly into the ether and stopped making a fuss. That’s certainly been my impression from my dealings with the BBC when it comes to Doctor Who.

In short, the BBC is treating deaf and disabled Whovians like second class Doctor Who fans. And I don’t appreciate it. Not one bit.

Sometimes, though, the BBC can get it right. Check out this interview between Alison (director of Pesky People) and Samantha herself, at ‘Disability meets Digital’ in March, where they discuss the issues they’ve had with Doctor Who events, but when the BBC gets it right, they can get it really right. At 11 mins 30, they discuss the Doctor Who Theatre Experience, which not only had well-trained actors, they even had a set of actors who could use BSL, so if a deaf person came, they could sign the entire performance.

Samantha really hits it on the head when she says that “it really shows what really can be achieved when the will is there” (13.50). Unfortunately, when it comes to certain areas of the Doctor Who franchise, that will seems to be entirely absent.

First, let’s establish my Doctor Who fan credentials; this is my morning coffee cup…

Dr who cup

This is me at the Doctor Who exhibition at Land’s End a few years ago…

Me + TARDIS

This is my official bag from the convention in Cardiff last year, which still hangs proudly in my room…

Dr Who bag

Anyone remember the BSL interpreter on stage for the cast panel? And the make-up workshop? That was me and my good friend in the front row; I was the one mainlining Mentos to stay awake; I’d just got back from America two days before and was horrendously jetlagged. Dragging myself out of bed that morning, I felt like I was dragging myself out of a coma. I still made it. I had to eat a lot of Mentos to get through the day, but I made it.

Me and Ood Dr Who Convention

That’s how much I love Doctor Who.

I haven’t even got to my DVD collection (growing steadily as Amazon keeps telling me when Doctor Who DVDs are on special offer. Oh Amazon, you know me too well) or my various toys. Or my favourite T-shirt with a Dalek silhouette print. Or my planned sci-fi themed fancy dress birthday party in November, where I will most likely be a Doctor.

In summary, I really love Doctor Who.

So imagine my outrage when last year, the Doctor Who Christmas Special, ‘The Snowmen’ wasn’t subtitled on iPlayer. I missed the original broadcast as I was staying with friends and their TV signal was buggered. I tried threatening them, but it didn’t work. I had my heart set on watching the special on iPlayer that night, and I wasn’t prepared to listen to any excuses about the wifi and how long it would take to download; in the end, it took over three hours. Very kind of them to invite me over and everything. Love you, guys.

It wasn’t subtitled. It wasn’t bleeding subtitled!

Every day and night I went back to check. Still not subtitled. Still not subtitled. Still not subtitled. Still not subtitled. Have you ever seen a junkie that can see a fix; it’s so close they can smell it and touch it, but someone keeps dangling it just out of reach? For me, that someone was the BBC. Eventually, after four long days, the BBC deigned to subtitle the Christmas Special of one of their most popular shows of all time. By that point, I was like this:

smashed-computer

I tried contacting them, believe me. I sent them constant error reports, I emailed them, nothing. For four days, nothing. And then eventually, a few days later, a pathetic email apologising for the inconvenience. The inconvenience? Did they have any idea of what they’d done? That they had effectively withheld a stonking episode from me for days, whilst the hearing population could watch it at any time? Discrimination. I had to watch the special another few times before I calmed down. Ah, the power of the fix…

But this is not what’s got me wound up. This was just one incident in a long line. The two prequels to The Snowmen, The Great Detective and Madame Vastra Investigates, were not subtitled.

I commented on the videos on YouTube and emailed the webmaster on the BBC official Doctor Who website, to no avail. I got zero reply. I found this incredibly annoying on several levels, but mainly that these were prequels intended to tantalise fans, to whet their appetites. All they did for me taunt me; that here was an official canon Doctor Who clip, possibly filled with verbal clues, that I could not access. I had no idea what any of them were saying.

This wasn’t the first time the BBC had pulled this stunt. When they released a prequel for The Big Bang, with Rory tearfully talking to Amy’s lifeless form, that wasn’t subtitled either. I tweeted and commented on that occasion too, and got nothing. In fact, a big fat nothing has been the BBC’s M.O. thus far.

It gets worse. This is the BBC official Doctor Who website. Click on ‘clips’. Click on a clip. Any clip. Pick one. It doesn’t matter which you pick, because not a goddamned one is subtitled. I’m sure ‘Songtaran Carols’ is funny as hell, but to me, without subtitles, it’s worse than meaningless. This has been a source of frustration for a while, and believe me I have tried everything I can think of to attract the BBC’s attention to this.

I left comments (under DeafFirefly) on YouTube videos linked to the Doctor Who website, with no reply, I used the Doctor Who website contact form to send a message to the webmaster, twice, with no reply, I emailed the BBC accessibility team at accessibilityteam@bbc.co.uk twice, with no reply, and most recently, I went through a phase where I tweeted the official @bbcdoctorwho account every day for two weeks to complain about the lack of subtitles, with no reply, and at one point comparing the @bbdoctorwho overseers to Tivolians (A reference to a species famed for their cowardice and lack of will) again with no reply. Every single attempt I have made to raise this issue has been totally ignored.

In the end, I begged a kind geek, Chakoteya, who does transcripts of Doctor Who episodes voluntarily, to do transcripts for the prequels for me. This she did and I thank her wholeheartedly, it really helped, at least now I knew what they were saying. She has continued to do transcripts for canon prequels, they’re available with all her other transcripts in episode order. Thanks Chakoteya! Really, really appreciate it.

In all honesty, though, it’s not the same as watching a clip with subtitles; with a transcript one has to either remember the dialogue while watching the clip and match it to any visible lip movements (panning shots, ha!) or flick constantly back and forth between transcript and clip, making a supposedly enjoyable experience hard work.

It would be much easier to watch a subtitled clip and thus enjoy full and equal access to what the hearing Doctor Who fans are getting. This is the BBC’s job. Why am I having to ask kind people to do transcripts for me when the BBC surely has enough resources at its disposal to provide access themselves? How unreasonable is it to expect the BBC’s biggest internationally-selling show to subtitle a few videos?

(*cough* Equality Act, reasonable adjustments *cough*)

In sticking it to loyal fans like this, not only is the BBC doing deaf and HOH Doctor Who fans and themselves a great disservice, they’re also flouting Ofcom’s Codes on Television Access Services, and their own policies on accessibility. The BBC accessibility policy even includes this great piece of lip service:

“This is an area of importance for the BBC. In keeping with our public-service remit, and our obligations under the Equality Act, we are committed to ensuring that BBC digital services are as accessible to disabled and elderly people as reasonably possible. We aim for a consistently high level of usability for our entire audience across all of our websites, following best-practice accessibility guidelines. We engage with disabled, non-disabled and elderly people throughout website development to fully understand user requirements and ensure we produce sites that meet these.”

As lip service is indeed all it is.

I’ve had a look at BBC accessibility help and found this page that proudly boasts that among other shows, online content for Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood, both Doctor Who spin-offs, are subtitled. Irony, anyone?

You think this post is long? You should see the formal complaint that I’ve written, for the attention of the BBC Trust. It goes to three pages, which I managed to achieve by shuffling the margins a little to squeeze it all in. Three chock-full pages of quotes from BBC access policy, subtitling guidelines, codes of practice and Ofcom. Let’s see them ignore that.

I really did not want to have to do this. I tried all the methods I could think to contact the BBC so we could sort it out like reasonable people. But that’s impossible when one side of the dialogue is apparently a brick wall.

I did not want to have to write a formal complaint, quote the BBC’s own policies at them, nor tell them that if I do not receive a satisfactory response within 10 days, my next step is a formal complaint to Ofcom and to explore other options. Not to my favourite show. Look what they made me do.

Whilst I’m not yet falling out of love with Doctor Who, the BBC are severely testing my patience.

I love Doctor Who, but I really don’t like being treated like a second class Doctor Who fan.

Access to Justice, my foot.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

A while ago I blogged about the Ministry of Justice’s decision to give the entire court interpreting contract to a certain company called Applied Language Solutions. Applied are a ‘one-stop shop’ of the kind beloved by the Anonymous Interpreter. Things were not going well.

They’re still not going well.

They’re going so badly in fact, that the Commons Justice Select Committee and the National Audit Office have confirmed they may investigate Applied, and the Crown Prosecution Service have delayed signing up fully to the framework agreement under which Applied supply interpreters.

I wonder why things aren’t going well. Maybe we can ask Jajo the Rabbit or Alexander Orlov the KGB Meerkat, both of whom are registered Applied interpreters. Oh, wait.

It seems that their human companions put their details onto a registration form for Applied as an experiment, and both have been sent invitations to an assessment, and regular job updates, despite not yet having attended said assessments, or indeed provided any documentation proving their credentials.

I’m sure it’s OK, no doubt there’s someone out there who really needs their trial translated into fluent nose-twitching and carrot-nibbling. And apparently, despite the stories of these non-human terps going public, they’re still registered and still getting emails.

This stringent adherence to only recruiting the best, most qualified interpreters and quick reactions to potentially embarrassing problems may have something to do with Applied’s woes.

Or it could be that Applied keep sending the wrong interpreter for the language requested; Czech for Slovakian, Latvian for Lithuanian, Somali for Kurdish Sorani, etc.

Or it could be that they think multiple defendants only need one interpreter.

Or it could be that they think that all languages can be found within a 25 mile radius.

Or it could be that the interpreters keep turning up late.

Or it could be that their interpreters sometimes don’t turn up at all.

And the Ministry of Justice have said they are now going to monitor the situation. Wait. Weren’t they monitoring it before?

No.

It seems that Applied have been allowed to monitor their own performance and set their own performance indicators. As the MOJ said in the above article:

“The definitions of whether interpreters completed or not were decided by the company itself”

Under what circumstances does a contractor give a job to a sub-contractor, whilst saying:

“Here’s the money, and don’t forget to monitor your own performance so we don’t have to.”?

The irony here is that a google search for Paul Pindar (the CEO of Capita, the company that now owns Applied) throws up a link to an interview in the Independent, where he’s asked what the first thing he learned in business was. His response:

“One of the early ones was that if there’s an issue to be tackled then you should do it straight away. I’m a great believer that a small problem today becomes a big problem tomorrow. Fix challenges as soon as possible and then, hopefully, none of the problems will get out of control.”

That’s a lesson he would do well to pay attention to today.

Because amongst other horror stories at RPSI Linguist Lounge, there are several of court cases going ahead anyway, despite the lack of or incompetence of an interpreter.

Eventually some solicitor or barrister is going to check the Crown Prosecution Service’s legal guidance on having interpreters for defendants, which states:

“If a defendant requires an interpreter to interpret the proceedings, it is the responsibility of the court to arrange for the attendance and payment of an independent interpreter. See Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 section 19(3)(b) (Archbold 6-39). Where there is more than one defendant, each should have a separate interpreter.

A plea is uninformed if the defendant has not fully understood the nature of the case to which he is pleading because of his inadequate understanding of the language and because of the inadequate explanation given by his legal representative See Cuscani v UK (2002 All ER (D) 139 (Sep).”

I… I’ve just had a vision of the future! I can see… I can see the Court of Appeal, absolutely snowed under by all the appeals under ‘uninformed plea’ arguments. Long, expensive, unprofitable appeals. Small problems turning into big problems, anyone?

Truly, I am a prophet.

But to be fair, Capita (or ‘Crapita’ as they’re known to the Private Eye) are no stranger to problems, so even the deluge of appeals may not be enough to shake Applied and their backers.

Geoffrey Buckingham, the Chairman of the Association of Court and Police Interpreters, has written dozens of letters (some of which I’ve seen, and he presents a very good case – well, he would) to the Minister for Justice, to Capita, to Applied, to just about everyone and has campaigned against the MOJ contract, and earlier this month he delivered a damning speech about the situation for a ‘Training for the Future’ workshop in Helsinki, where he systematically pulled apart the MOJ’s and Applied’s mistakes. Read it, it’s a good speech. He finished by saying that if you don’t speak English, there will be no justice for you in the UK.

For my part, I understand English perfectly. I just don’t always understand it very well when it’s spoken at me, especially across an echoey court from 20 feet away. One of these days, someone might push me too far with daft questions about whether I can drive or whether I can read, and I’m going to give them a slap.

I almost certainly won’t understand my rights when they’re read to me as I’m arrested, which in itself was enough for a case against a deaf man to be thrown out a few months ago. Imagine I get dragged into a court. Most decent interpreters, and this includes Sign Language interpreters, won’t touch Applied with a bargepole. Most likely, I’ll end up with a ‘CSW’ with basic level one BSL. Will I understand the slightest thing? Unlikely.

Justice served? It won’t matter. If I’m found not guilty or the case is dismissed due to crap interpreting, I’ll skip away scot-free while blogging about the uselessness of the interpreter.

If I’m found guilty, I’ll just appeal on the grounds of the useless interpreter, then claim compensation. It’s win-win.

Now think of all the defendants that have been let down by Applied, which according to their own figures runs into the thousands. How many solicitors will start to think along the same lines?

Someone better tell the Court of Appeal to get ready.

Letter to Ofsted

Dear Ofsted,

Where do I start? I am a deaf BSL user, and until two days ago, I appreciated that Ofsted has a difficult job to do, but I hoped they were doing it competently. Then I saw Ofsted’s online consultation documents for ‘Inspection of adoption support agencies’ and today, I saw the consultation documents for ‘Inspection of local authority voluntary adoption agencies’. Specifically, I refer to the ‘BSL-based symbols’ ‘translation’ of the documents.

http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/inspection-of-local-authority-and-voluntary-adoption-agencies

http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/inspection-of-adoption-support-agencies

I wish to complain – strongly – about these ‘BSL-based’ documents, on several grounds.

British Sign Language is a language in its own right, with a clear grammatical structure, and was formally recognised as a language of the United Kingdom in March 2003. It continues to be the subject of linguistic research, and all of this research verifies that it is a complete language, with all the attendant features.

It is a living, breathing, beautiful language, that relies on movement, handshapes, context, facial expression, eyegaze, non-manual features, etc and has been used to create poetry and translate Shakespeare.

Reducing it to cartoons for the purposes of serious consultation documents – indeed for any purpose – is incredible. The fact that it is a government agency doing so, eight years after the formal recognition of BSL, is stunning. These cartoons are vague, and bear little relation to the signs they represent, and one or two are borderline offensive, for example the pictogram for ‘about’ on page 5 of the ‘BSL-based’ PDF of ‘Inspection of adoption support agencies’ looks like the sign for ‘camp’ or in the hands of less nice people, ‘poof’. The pictogram for ‘should’ on the same page looks like ‘damn’.

I would be very interested to know whose idea it was to reduce a full, complete language to a few drawings, when there are any number of interpreting / translation agencies and freelance BSL interpreters out there who could have translated this document for Ofsted into complete, proper BSL, and the video file of the translation put on the website.

Does Ofsted really have such a low opinion of the mental capacity of children and young people who use BSL as a first language? I refer here to the wide discrepancy between the level of language used in the word document explaining the consultation, which according to the data at the bottom of the first page, is aimed at 0-17 age group, and the ‘BSL-based’ translation, supposedly aimed at the same age group. I can only imagine that the word document was aimed at 0-17 year olds, whilst the ‘BSL-based’ document was aimed at 0-17 months. For the record, deafness is not a learning disability, it is if anything a sensory disability. Deafness has no effect on mental capacity, and I can name several deaf people who hold Ph.Ds, and I myself am currently studying an MA.

The closest analogy I can find for how ridiculous these ‘BSL-based’ documents are would be if I started writing this email completely phonetically.

Fff          Orr         Eks         arm        pul          duh        sss          me         rrr           eye         t              een        ev     err          eee        w            er           d             ll             eye         ke           th           ees         ay           d             u      too        arn         der         sss          tah         nn           dd?

Breaking down a complete sentence into separate little cartoonish blocks that will in and of themselves need explaining when it is possible to have a full and complete BSL translation rendered is self-defeating and unnecessary.

On Makaton.org’s own website, it states:

“Makaton is designed to help hearing people with learning or communication difficulties.  It uses signs and symbols, with speech, in spoken word order.

BSL is the language of the deaf community in the UK.  It is a naturally evolving language, with its own grammar, word order and has regional variations.”

BSL cannot be treated like Makaton, and in fact Sign Languages already have their own recognised system of notation, colloquially called ‘Stokoe Notation’ after the inventor; a phonemic system that records handshapes, orientation of the handshape and direction of movement of the hand/s. The results look rather like WingDings font, and would be completely incomprehensible to those who do not have the appropriate linguistic background. The idea of using these cartoons to express a complex language should have been laughed out of the room.

Furthermore, quite apart from the issues of breaking down a complete sentence into separate cartoons – and I notice that Ofsted has also used picture symbols that bear no relation to any sign whatsoever in their ‘BSL-based’ documents – and the issue of how simple Ofsted apparently believes those who use BSL need information to be, exactly how was a child or young person responding to this document supposed to do so? By simply circling a pictogram or asking an adult to help them write further responses? (page 10) Does this mean that there was no option for those who use BSL to respond in BSL i.e. by way of recording themselves replying in BSL? Or were they to rely on English when, as the document seemingly presumes, English is not their strongest language? Or were they to draw their own cartoons by way of a response? I would be fascinated to know if anyone did in fact use these ‘BSL-based’ documents, and what they thought of them.

In summary, I would like very much to know why Ofsted, a government agency, thought it would be appropriate to use cartoons to express complex concepts and call it ‘BSL-based’, when the results bear little to no relation to BSL at all, and why this approach was chosen over simply having the document translated into BSL.

Was any agency that represents the interests of deaf people such as the British Deaf Association or Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) or any member of the deaf community consulted before these ‘BSL-based’ documents were produced? I would be very surprised, indeed astonished if they were, and if so, please can you let me know who it was?

Thank you for your time in reading this, I look forward  to a reply.

Regards,

Donna Williams

Laugh or Cry?

Sometimes all we can do is point and laugh.

If we didn’t, we’d weep for the ignorance of those whose job it is (supposedly) to know what they’re talking about.

Yesterday, this came to my attention.

Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, produced a consultation document aimed at children and young people to give them a say in how Ofsted inspects Adoption Support Agencies.

So far, so good.

Then they produced a BSL-based version. Jolly good. Was it a video produced by Remark!, scripted by Ofsted? Was it a video of Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman translating the document to the tune of humming guitars? Was it a video of the consultation document lovingly translated into sign language poetry by yours truly? No.

It was cartoons.

No word of a lie, they attempted to translate the consultation document into cartoons, and called it BSL-based. Look at it.

In case it’s not clear why this is so tragi-comic, let me explain. British Sign Language is a living, breathing language, relying as much on movement as it does on ‘gestures’. Pictures – or cartoons – of signs next to each other don’t really mean much without context – or movement. It’s like writing down a sentence phonetically in the belief that this will help someone to understand it.

Bee     Ess     Ell     Iz     Ay     Bee     Yoo     Tee     Foo     Lah     Nnn     Gwa     Jjj

Thee     sss     Iz     Ahh     Nnn     Eeen     sss     Arr     lll     T

Or you could just SAY it. Get someone to translate the document into proper BSL and tape it. Tape it!

Without movement and context, those cartoons could mean anything. If, as this document apparently presumes, the respondents’ English is not that good, what are the cartoons meant to express? They’re not exactly clear. On page 5, ‘should’ looks like ‘damn’, ‘what’ could be ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘sky’, ‘god’, ‘up’ ‘ travelling’ – all BSL signs that use an index pointed upwards, and the cartoon for ‘about’ looks nothing like ‘about’ and in fact comes perilously close to looking like the sign for ‘camp’ or, in the hands of not-so-nice people, ‘poof’.

Is that what Ofsted is aiming for? Cartoons that look like any sign that uses that handshape, littered with potentially offensive signs? Well, congratulations. Mission accomplished.

I mean, whose idea was this?

Look at the age group they’re aiming for. Bottom of the first page. 0-17. It’s like they’ve assumed that a 17-year-old BSL user will have the same level of understanding as an infant. On behalf of teenage BSL users everywhere, consider me fucking patronised.

Are they sure they don’t mean 0 – 17 months? Compare the level of language in the ‘BSL-based’ document with the word document accompanying it. You’ll see what I mean.

And again with the patronisation on page 10. “If there is anything more you wish to say, please ask an adult to help you.” What was the age group again? 0 – 17?

They’ve clearly allowed for those children and young people with communication and learning difficulties with the Makaton, picture communication symbols and Widgit alternatives, and brilliant. Good for them. Very inclusive. Where they went wrong was thinking they could treat BSL in the same way.

Deafness is not a learning disability. BSL is a beautiful language, highly expressive, a language of poetry and creativity; we just had a Shakespeare play translated into BSL and put on at The Globe for Globe to Globe, the multi-language Shakespeare festival to rave reviews for pity’s sake.

Cartoons?

If one is aware enough to put the cartoons in the correct BSL grammatical order, then one should have enough awareness to know that BSL is not just handshapes, it’s movement and eyegaze and facial expression and direction and context.

Whose idea was this?

What was wrong with just making a proper BSL version? Just get someone to sign it properly. That way, you could ensure that BSL users would have a good chance of understanding it, instead of patronising them with cartoons that are vague enough that an adult will probably have to explain the cartoons anyway, defeating the purpose of having the bloody cartoons in the first place. Just… do it properly!

Was it too much effort? Did it cost too much to pay someone to sign it, someone to film it, and put it in a file on their website? Was it just easier to draw some cartoons? Do they really have such a low opinion and expectation of BSL users? Why couldn’t they just have it signed PROPERLY?

I need to stop now. My head is about to explode.

 

P.S. Let’s all write letters like this one and let them know our views on their ‘consultation document’…

What will it take? How about a collapsed trial?

I had originally planned to make my next blog post all about my impressions of America from a deaf perspective, but events have overtaken me somewhat. Whilst I faithfully promise to tell all about being a deaf tourist in the most deaf-aware country I have ever visited at some point, today I want to talk about the latest hoo-ha surrounding the Ministry of Justice’s wonderful new scheme for court interpreters.

Just to give some background, the system for finding an interpreter for court used to be that someone would contact some qualified interpreters from a national register who had usually also undertaken further training for legal interpreting and ask them if they were available. If they were, said interpreter would be paid a flat fee of £85, a quarter-hourly rate after three hours, and were paid for travel time and expenses.

Maybe this old system wasn’t perfect, but even the judges accepted that it worked. The problem? It was expensive. Enter Applied Language Solutions, who bid for, and remarkably, won the entire interpreting contract for the Ministry of Justice in a deal designed to save £18 million.

(Edit: I will henceforth refer to Applied Language Solutions as ‘Applied’, apologies to Accredited Language Services of New York, for inadvertently messing all over their trademark ALS for the first 12 hours this post was live. Oops. For the record, they have nothing to do with this. On with the motley!)

What did Applied do to achieve this target? They slashed interpreters’ fees to a three-tier system of hourly fees of £16, £20 and £22 with no travel payments and reduced expenses for what is, let’s face it, a very tough job. Then they wondered why nobody wanted to work for them. Indeed, the whole business with Applied has sparked protests and a campaign against them that even Unite has joined.

I first commented on this in a blog post entitled British Special Language, where I mocked a couple of large ‘one stop shop’ interpreting firms for their lack of knowledge of those they were serving, lamented the new court interpreting contract, and hoped they would sort out the mess soon.

Two months later, what’s happened? After weeks of adjournments and delays caused by no-shows or poor interpreting by those willing to take Applied’s fees, a trial has actually collapsed thanks to an interpreter supplied by Applied. It’s going to cost £25,000. Now that’s an expensive interpreter.

For me, it’s not so much that the interpreter made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. And phonetically, there’s not much difference between ‘beaten’ and ‘bitten’. No, it’s that the interpreter then admitted to the court that they had realised their mistake, but had said nothing.

They realised they had misunderstood, and interpreted something wrongly, but did nothing about it. The mistake was only discovered when the prosecution cross-examined the defendant. The judge had to order a retrial.

That has to be one of the clearest ethical breaches in interpreting that I have ever heard of. Quite apart from anything else, an interpreter in court has to swear that:

“I swear (or… promise) by Almighty God (or other god recognised by his or her religion) that I will well and truly interpret the evidence that will be given and do all other matters and things that are required of me in this case to the best of my ability.” (Evidence Act 2008, Schedule 1)

Applied seem to be employing interpreters for court who are apparently completely ignorant of “contempt of court”. For clarification, it’s:

Contempt of court is essentially where somebody is deemed to have interfered with the administration of justice. This may take several forms but each of them will result in justice itself not being properly carried out. It is for this reason that contempt of court is seen as such a serious offence and which results in possible prison sentences.”

So tell me, what does an interpreter have to do to be arrested around here? How about break an oath and cause a trial to collapse?

And what about contempt proceedings against Applied for employing hopeless interpreters? Apparently, thats not going to happen.

The Attorney General has said that Applied cannot be done for contempt, but there may be provision under the ‘wasted costs’ orders. £25,000 for a new trial seems like a wasted cost to me. And apparently, it may be possible for defendants who have had to stay in custody thanks to Applied to pursue civil claims against them. In fact, one solicitor says he has two cases where they are “discussing” pursuing false imprisonment against Applied. Dear, oh dear.

RPSI linguist lounge, a not-for-profit website run by registered public service interpreters (RPSIs) for registered public service interpreters, is awash with horror stories about Applied. The Anonymous Interpreter tells how the new system is probably saving money, but not by any ethical means.

And yet, Applied seem to be clinging on. I wonder for how much longer, and what it will take?

We’re approaching the end of April, and apparently, the Framework Agreements under which Applied has its contract will be up for review. In honour of this, RPSI have organised a demonstration on Monday 16th April outside the offices of the Ministry of Justice and the Houses of Parliament.

I’ll be following what the Ministry of Justice chooses to do about this shambles with interest, and so, I suspect, will many others.

Interpreters, whether they be for spoken or sign languages, deserve better than this. So do our courts, and the people who have to find their way through them.

The Birds! The Birds!

So I’ve been alluding to a play that I’m in later this year. I haven’t revealed much, partly because I’ve not known much myself, but last Friday and Saturday I was at a long development weekend with Disability Arts Cymru’s Unusual Stage School. I can now reveal that…

It’s called The Birds, based on a comedy by the same name by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes (and not the film by Alfred Hitchcock, in case anyone was worried). The original has the birds of the title rebelling against the evil humans who catch, torture and kill birds by creating their own city in the sky and blocking all messages to heaven, thus cutting off communication with the gods and holding humanity to ransom until their demands – generally, better treatment – are met.

Given the parallels, it probably comes as no surprise that it’s being adapted with the disabled in mind. Last Friday I saw a first draft of the script written by writer / director Cheryl Martin with (unnecessary I thought) apologies to Aristophanes; it was funny, imaginative and occasionally scathing! The read through was fun, as were the development workshops, and Cheryl’s going to revise and develop the script some more now. Certain references will probably be taken out or amended on the basis that no-one wants to be sued. It’d be great publicity but…

Actually on the other hand, maybe we should keep them in. A bit of publicity is what we need right now! Tickets have gone on sale, it’s on at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff on the 11th and 12th May; if you feel like watching a surreal, feathery subversive take on the modern world and treatment of the poor birdies / disabled, this is for you!

The theatre is accessible, guide and hearing dogs are welcome, tickets are bookable online, and for the play we’re going to have at least basics of script projected on screens all around the theatre, a BSL interpreter will be signing the whole thing, I’ll be doing visual poetry, and the director – Cheryl – has already started considering where it’s all going to fit in in terms of access and artistic flair.

Oh, if only more directors and theatres could be like that. I’m hoping this play can be held up as an example of how full access to theatre can and should be done.

We even have a great designer on board who’s taken our measurements and promised to come up with some fantastic bird costumes, so if for nothing else, come along to see me and various talented malcontents dressed up and having fun in our featheriest, birdiest finest!

And possibly saying litigious things 🙂