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Lynn Stewart-Taylor - Where is The Interpreter campaign

CN: lack of interpreters, discrimination, issues with government, daily briefings, COVID-19, lockdown, isolation, Deaf organisations, Bristol Pride, support from Hearing people


Lynn Stewart-Taylor is a Deaf activist and campaigner; she is the founder of the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign.

A cartoon graphic of a white woman wearing denim dungarees and holding up her left arm to show muscle. At the top, in white writing reads "#WhereIsTheInterpreter" in caps lock.
Lynn Stewart-Taylor - alt text included

You’ve started the campaign #WhereIsTheInterpreter, which I think is fantastic! Can you tell me about why you started it?

Before the campaign, I would say that Deaf people were used to being left out, receiving the information later on. People have asked me why I am campaigning now and not previously. Well because that was a way of life; we have limitations on our access. It is important for the Hearing community to be aware what it's been like because there’s been some confusion. Obviously, we've not really had a life-and-death situation like we’re having now. Right now, I'm only getting a little bit of information. Some might say it was the wrong time to bring up such a challenge to the government but actually it was the right time! It was March 9th when I started to realise that things were getting quite serious in Britain. I was watching the BBC News, and I was thinking what’s going on? Where’s the interpreter? That’s when I did my first video and that’s when the first hashtag went out on Twitter [link]. At that time, it wasn't my intention to start a massive campaign, it was a gut reaction really. We deserve to be the same as everybody else, we should be getting access to this information the same as the Hearing community is, and I just felt like it’s 2020, and this is not acceptable.

I felt like I had no choice, but to do something. My mum said “I raised you to be equal to everybody else, you fight for what you believe in and if this is what you want, you stand up for what you believe in! If you step down now, you won’t know whether you could have achieved it or not”. You know, she's always said “stand up for yourself!” and I would always go you know, “okay mum”, you know. Actually, this time she’s right. I feel like this was just a step too far. I felt like I was being discriminated against one too many times, and this has happened so many times over the years, and we never really got anywhere. It is just time to put a full stop on it, really. That’s all I want - the same access as Hearing people, I want to get the same information as everybody else so I can just enjoy life.

Your campaign has had a massive social media impact – how did the hashtag #WhereIsTheInterpreter come about?

Over the years, there have been many campaigns and people have fought on an individual and collective basis, but the difference this time is that we haven't had access to Twitter or a pandemic like this before. Twitter has been fantastic at raising the profile and spreading awareness! Many organisations and Deaf people have become involved and then gone “yeah, I feel like that too”. The majority of us have been used to being neglected from society for such a long time. As I've got older, I started to see Hearing people getting a better perspective and a better understanding of situations, and they can receive information from a range of different media: the newspapers, the news, hundreds of TV channels, they can listen to the radio, they can pick it up peripherally even going out and about. Since lockdown, I can't get information from my Deaf friends to clarify things, I can't ask my family to explain what's happening so my avenues for getting information became so much more limited. We do have access on the BBC News channel with an interpreter – but it is only for the briefing which is one hour a day. So, I started to ask Hearing people what the most valuable bit of information was, and they said actually it’s the bit before the briefing and the bit after, the briefing itself is actually not always that valuable. Obviously there’s questions from reporters and so on, but beforehand and particularly afterwards, you get a breakdown of the briefing, you get the Q&A, and that’s the stuff that we really want to know about too. So then the campaign started to adapt and evolve and that's really the sort of overriding theme that makes it not acceptable. So that’s where #WhereIsTheInterpreter came from.

From the campaign what is it you want to achieve as a result, from the government and public?

I mean there is a really simple solution, I don't why it’s become so complicated. All we need to do is move the interpreter from BBC News onto BBC One; that's the most traditional television channel, everybody knows that number, everybody’s got the same access. We get an interpreter at Downing Street where there are already three people, this is just one more person, we get that recorded onto the BBC One channel and it can be disseminated and shown on any channel, any social media platform and includes the interpreter. So it’s a really reasonable, straight forward solution.

At the moment, they're using one camera at number 10 Downing Street where the three podiums are for the briefing. The interpreters are in a separate building, they’re in a separate studio and they're being filmed on a separate camera that's recorded; but it’s only shown on the BBC News channel for the one hour briefing. When it gets disseminated to the other broadcasters, the interpreters are not included, they’re cut off. I don't understand why that is.

When you see the response [link] about PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], they’re saying you know “oh we can't have an extra interpreter in the room because of the PPE and 2m distancing, the room is too small”. Really?! In other countries they're doing it, I'm sure there are plenty of other rooms that could be used, it can't be that difficult. They’ve got the budget for it, they could film it somewhere else. They keep saying “oh no, we can't because of this” - they're not accepting responsibility is the bottom line.

I think it’s really tackling an important access issue that not many Hearing people have been aware of before now. How can others get involved and support the campaign?

If we go back a little bit, we need to remember that English and British Sign Language (BSL) are two very different languages, just like another spoken language. It is not the same structure, doesn’t have the same syntax, or the same grammatical compounds. BSL is a language within its own right so is very, very different from spoken English and written English. Obviously, BSL is a visual language, there is no written form, there is no comparison between sign language and subtitles, so that might give Hearing people something to think about. They are two completely different languages and therefore overreliance on subtitles is not going to be a one size fits all. Remember that this is the fourth recognised language in the UK, it has been recognised in 2003 as an official language [link]. It has been recognised, it’s official and is also the first or preferred language [for a lot] of the Deaf community and yet the government aren't prepared to offer us the information in our preferred language.

If a Hearing person had to watch the programme without sound, there would be uproar, there would be an uprising about it, wouldn’t there? They can get every single channel in their preferred language at any time. We have a language which is official but we can't do the same, we have no parity at all. If I was abroad, maybe in Spain for instance, I would understand that because, well Spanish isn’t my first language and of course I am in a different country, so I don't have the same rights. I would be expected to learn Spanish or Spanish Sign Language. But I’m in my own country, it is a recognised language and I’m fighting for access, it just doesn't make sense.

It’s not really an issue but it’s worth raising: we’re taxpayers, we live here, we pay the full amount for a TV licence. It is a very small point, but the main matter is the fact that we are the fourth recognised language so that should be it. That should be final.

I have tried reading about coronavirus – but why are we forced to read something if that's not our preferred method of communication? It would be like telling a Hearing person: “turn off the sound on all of your channels, subtitles off and have interpreters on all of the channels apart from the 5 o'clock until 6 o'clock news, you can have sound for that one hour”. How would that make a Hearing person feel? Surely it would heighten your anxiety, you’d be worried, you would be trying to contact people to get more information about was going on.

So really for a Hearing person, it would be good to consider that before voicing an opinion. If you were not getting something in your preferred language, you had no control, you would feel anxious, you may feel frustrated. Support could come in that form; with that empathy and understanding really, and it is getting that information at the same time as everybody else. We’re all human, we all want to support each other, we all want to listen and respect each other, and that means respecting people's language choices. When you’ve got language, you have access – although we have language, but we are still not getting access, and that doesn't make sense. It feels like we’re being discriminated against, it's as simple as that.

For some reason, people aren’t taking it seriously, as if we [Deaf people] are not that important. We’re protected under the Equality Act, you know?

It is interesting that you were saying we’re a protected characteristic. Yes, we are as a disabled person. However, it is a very weak policy, it is not robust enough to protect the language elements and that's when there's a loophole, there's a gap in the policy, and that’s something we really need to think about. Over the years, the British Deaf Association (BDA) and other organisations have campaigned in Parliament and tried to consult with them talking about the Equality Act not protecting the language [link], so it has been discussed but nothing seems to have been identified. In Scotland, we have to applaud them because they have the BSL Act [link], which means that they can use that really strongly. In England it is very wishy-washy, it’s very weak; they get around it by saying “oh well, it’s a reasonable adjustment” and then say Ofcom must provide 25% of programs to be accessible. Well, we’re in the 21st century, why is it only 25%? I don't think that's acceptable, you know, as a British citizen to accept that - I would like 100%.

Growing up all of my life, I have faced many barriers, and I appreciate my friends so much; I appreciate my Hearing friends and interpreters, I learned so much from them. I’ve learnt about their lives. Obviously, we all have issues through life no matter what community you come from, but the Deaf community? We always face barriers of communication, we are always the last to know information, and I just feel like enough’s enough. I would like to just enjoy life and not have to worry about these things. I mean I’m not doing this campaigning because I'm bored twiddling my thumbs – I’m doing it because I feel like a second-class citizen and I’ve had enough of that. I'm scared, I am constantly having to try and research to find anything that is in sign language, and I can go “okay, all right I understand what I need to do” – but if I’m doing that, how many Deaf people are having to do that? I’m constantly worried about other members of the Deaf community as well, so I'm determined to do this for everybody.

Now there’s your campaign, and there’s also the petition to the government. Can you tell me a bit about the differences?

There are about 5 or 6 I believe doing the petitions, which was run by other individuals [link]. It would be best to discuss directly with the person who made the petition!

#WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign is working with Fry Law [link], a legal case that seeks to ensure that BSL English Interpreters are provided live at daily briefings on BBC One [link]. I talked about "well okay, so the interpreter can't be in the room; other countries (Scotland, Wales) are doing it [link], so why can't you do it?" In our legal case we got 260 cases from Fry Law, and that’s from members of the community, and 21 organisations working collectively to support the campaign, lobbying the government on their cases to say that they’ve missed nine different occasions where there were no interpreters available. The thing that really hit me was when Boris Johnson made the announcement about the lockdown, so on the 16th and the 23rd of March, there was no interpreter at all. On the 16th of March, the Prime Minister announced a series of restrictions on movement to the general public, and there was no BSL/English Interpreter. I felt so excluded and discriminated. No interpreter. It made me so anxious. So, our legal team are saying well where are the interpreters of these critical announcements?

We were more about “well what about these gaps”, where many times when there were no interpreters, and we expect more than that. Now obviously that’s in the past, it's too late now. We can still complain about it, but it's in the past. So now our campaign is focusing on "let's have it on the BBC One channel and for the full length of the whole news bulletin" and we’re waiting for a response on that.

I’ve noticed, in response to the campaign that a lot of people have said: “oh you know, you’ve got captions, you’ve got these specific channels, what's the issue?”

That’s really because they’ve not thought about the issues, they’ve not thought about the fact that it is just one channel – and it’s only for an hour. I’m not sure if they’ve really sat down and thought about what that's like. They’re saying “oh well you've got…”, but if we say “what have you got?”, they’ve got such a privileged position, because they can watch at any time, any channel, they can listen to the radio. I have to sit down, I have to make sure I am available, I had to clear my diary. I’m being controlled! I get 5 o’clock to 6 o'clock and that’s it. You know, seriously! Hearing people are in such a privileged position, and have a choice, why can’t I have a choice too? Saying things like that is maybe trying to be helpful to say we've got subtitles, you’ve got the BBC News Channel - but if you've never been in that situation, please don’t argue about it, please don't keep challenging it. Please be considerate; have some empathy and understanding, be kind, be supportive.

I think people don’t realise that the Deaf community is not a one size fits all, we also have different communication needs.

You’re right. It’s not a one size fits all at all. Some Deaf people do prefer subtitles, and I'm delighted for them, but they have complained too. There's always a time delay on the subtitles, they seem to jump, there are so many errors in them - so they are still missing information! So, for us to try and watch the subtitles in a different language with no interpreter, that further delays the situation for us. For Deaf people who are happy to use the subtitles, I'm delighted that they've got access but we really need to think about those of us who don't have that. Subtitles are in a different language, they’re in English. As I mentioned before BSL is a visual language, so why should we be forced to read something that is not our language?

The government have recently responded to the petition run by someone else, what are your thoughts to their maybe somewhat limited response – the kind of issues that are mentioned and why an interpreter isn't being provided, like not having enough space?

Yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous. There was a concern about PPE as well, they were talking about how they assessed under the PHE [Public Health England] guidelines and said they [the interpreter] wouldn’t be able to be included safely in the room without potentially putting them and others at risk, but there are already 3 people in the room and a cameraman. I can't believe that they have to have three people on a podium all the time. Scotland and Wales don’t. Well, it makes me laugh really, it’s a ridiculous response, it’s not really a response at all. Do they think we’re just going to go “okay then” and just give up? No chance.

In Wales, they have an interpreter, and in Scotland, surely England can have an interpreter. Or is it that they are too lazy to find a solution?

So apart from difficulties getting guidance information, there’s been lots of issues during lockdown. Can you tell me about how Deaf people been affected during lockdown?

At the start it was horrific, everybody was kind of drowning, you know, really not understanding things. I had so much on my mind, there was a lack of access. I couldn’t have an interpreter face-to-face back then, older people being in lockdown - they can't go out, they can’t communicate; what’s going to happen with our wellbeing? How are we going to feel? Because Deaf people getting together is a big part, kind of shoring up our wellbeing as it were, we face difficulties in life but we always can get together as one and that helps us feel a bit more settled. I was thinking oh my goodness I can't get access to information, I can't see my family, I can't have access to interpreters…

Our mental health, the numbers of people with mental health [issues] are going to be significantly higher, they already are compared to the Hearing community which we’ve kind of accepted I suppose. However now with all these added pressures, it’s going to go up dramatically, I was panicking myself, I was desperate for information.

So I started to share information as I found it and I set up two Facebook groups: one called Deaf stay-at-home [link] and the other one was Deaf translation and BSL response group [link]. So the Deaf stay-at-home group really was kind of like a virtual Deaf pub, so that we can help - any briefing information regarding anything we saw translated into sign language, I would put it all in one place. That meant we can support each other, face time each other, look after our wellbeing, we can discuss any kind of concerns that we had. The other group was about access and that was very challenging in the beginning. I got so many people contacting me: “I need to phone my mum, she’s in a care home”, “I need to phone the doctors” - constantly I was bombarded. I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I was spending hours trying to just assist people online. Thankfully, I had somebody else who came on board with me at the same time when we set this page – Lisa Groves. She’s an interpreter, a great friend of mine so we kind of worked together. She volunteered, I was volunteering, we supported each other to try to get over some of these issues that we were seeing people have.

There are so many times I’m so thankful that I can see people were able to contact their GP because obviously in lockdown they were taking phone calls only. Telephone appointments to Deaf people which they just could not access. So we were able to put solutions in place, lots of people saying “if I go to hospital, how am I going to communicate?” There was so much uncertainty out there. We set the group up and that really helped kind of plug the gaps and offer reassurance. So obviously these organisations didn't seem to be stepping up to the mark, so I was trying to say “hang on, how can you help with this?” I really appreciated SignHealth [link], Deaf4Deaf [link], Royal Association for Deaf people (RAD) [link], Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI) [link] and UK Council on Deafness (UKCOD) [link]. They really supported us – obviously there were many more – but they were the main ones that really engaged on this and really got together to try and work out how we can support the community.

I know they’re all charities and they've all got their own thing going on and actually sometimes they’re competing against each other, but at times like these, we just needed people to not have their own agendas or issues. We just want everybody to come together and work collaboratively and it’s been fantastic because we were able to allocate this to SignHealth, for instance. They were in the process of setting up what to do if a Deaf person went to hospital and how they would communicate because everybody is in full PPE so they set up BSL Health Access [link] which was amazing and that really helped nationally.

Then another issue was if anyone was having issues with their benefits. For instance, their money had stopped, they were worried about how to claim benefits, or as a self-employed person not knowing how to claim. So, then we could use RAD who were fantastic for sorting out that. They’re a great organisation you know, they put all of their other work on hold and they really focused on the current events and I just can't appreciate enough really, they were fantastic. As were ASLI and Deaf4Deaf, they really thought about how they could support in so many different ways. So many other organisations like the National Deaf Children's Society/NDCS [link] who stayed really focused on children who are isolated at home, they were trying to think about how they could help with schooling on Zoom. I would have been here for weeks trying to sort everything out, so the reliance on that group is becoming less because we are getting more informed that these other organisations got all these amazing things in place.

Sometimes I get maybe a query about online food shopping, or usually stuff about contacting a family member, and sadly I've had quite a lot of enquiries about funerals so the barriers are far and wide and I really appreciate the support I've had from all the other groups and all the other organisations, they've been fantastic at [this] support. So now the organisations are also disseminating #WhereIsTheInterpreter and getting really on board with the campaign.

I know that one solution that has come about around wearing PPE has been that masks have been created with a clear panel across the face for lipreading. How do you feel about this?

It’s a really difficult one - there are barriers with the mask for lipreading and BSL has an integral part of lip pattern and facial expressions for us to enable us to communicate. I’m not a lipreader, so I can't speak for lip readers or people who communicate using oral speech. The barrier is still big for the Deaf community, seeing somebody with a mask on.

I had to go to the GP myself recently and I had an interpreter. They had a faced mask on, face shield, gloves, it was terrifying! Also, we had to stand 2m apart so we couldn’t write anything down or touch the piece of paper. I was trying to type on my phone to show them and then hold my phone, it would have been impossible! So for a Deaf sign language user, they may be able to access with a mask; with the clear panel [link], that's a great idea but they do steam up, because obviously when you’re talking - it looks like it’s been raining to be fair!

I really appreciate the fact that people need face masks, I absolutely understand that, and that this is an issue. As part of the easing of lockdown restrictions, we have got to have face masks, but we are going to have to really think about how we can solve that issue, and that’s a separate thing from sign language to lipreading visually. There are a few organisations like SignHealth and the NDCS that are trying to support on that particular point, they're campaigning on that [link].

I would wear a mask, if I had an interpreter I would get the interpreter to wear a mask too because our health comes first, but there are ways of being able to make yourself understood. Obviously now we’re using technology so you don't have to be in the room and then you don't have to have the mask, but there is a lot to think about and there are going to be lots of changes to the way we live. The future is going to be challenging for the Deaf community. It’s not about looking for problems, because we understand that we need PPE to protect ourselves and protect others, it is about trying to find solutions and these things are evolving. We could probably get to some workable and usable solution, it is just going to take a bit of effort.

At the moment, lots of people are organising events online, like Zoom meets and other events. What can organisers do who maybe have a limited budget or aren’t that Deaf aware to improve access?

Every organisation or event holder needs to think about accessibility. In theory, they should think about that in their budget and having accessibility already built into their budget, they really should. Whether that's for subtitles/captioning, interpreters, both - they really should think about that. So if you are in work, they would provide an interpreter who would be paid for so I don't see why that’s any different when the event is held on Zoom. So, lots of Deaf people already have an access budget so if it's a work event that should be okay. For those that don't have access to a budget I would recommend that they contact Access to Work [link], so they can maintain getting a lipspeaker, a palantypist, PA, an interpreter - whatever your communication choice is.

If it’s a social event, it becomes a bit more problematic. They’re usually run by a small charity, they have a limited budget, sometimes it's people volunteering, that’s a bit more tricky. We do have a few very generous interpreters who are willing to volunteer their time for those things. It is worth when you're setting up a service, an event or an organisation - really worth thinking about how you can build accessibility into your budget. Captioning/subtitles are not one size fits all, you know like we say, it suits some people but they are forgetting BSL, so it should be built into the budget. For example, Bristol Pride event is a charity [link], they were fantastic applying for funding for accessibility which paid for interpreters throughout the day, so if they can do it, why can’t other people do it? They were an absolute beacon of good practice! They are a charity, they don't get funding, but they can apply for grants and really thought ahead, they were at the forefront, really thinking about access. They also had a Deaf coordinator so it was somebody who knew what the Deaf community needed, understood how to get interpreters to match performance, they had Deaf performers – so that was fantastic. It can be done, you just need to plan ahead and think about the funding really, and apply for grants just to make sure that you can get that accessibility.

I think one of the concerns as well was people might at some point have to go to hospital if they are showing symptoms, which for Deaf people can be a bit of a nightmare. Should we be preparing ourselves for that situation, and are there ways to make it easier?

So BSL Health Access [link] is in conjunction with InterpreterNow [link] and that's 24/7. They can help with hospitals, paramedics, chemists, GPs - all of that. I would recommend that everybody downloads that app in advance and use it to be familiar with this layout. Before the lockdown, there's always been issues with people going in an emergency situation, going to hospital with the lack of access, usually relying on a family member or friend to assist so they can speak for them. But this, nobody’s allowed in with you! You can't have a family member in with you, that’s massive! So we really have to think about that, we have to take responsibility for that.

BSL Health Access have really taken that on board so we know that we’ve got somebody that we can access via the app in sign language who communicate for us with the paramedics before we even get to hospital.

Secondly, I would advise that you have a form that you’ve written down your name, your address, your age, any medication, you've got your next-of-kin (somebody who would want to be contacted). You need to write down that you’re Deaf, your communication preferences and also put down information about the BSL Health Access on the form so that you've got that ready, so people know that you’re a Deaf person.

Thirdly, a really good tip I got from somebody else, if you know you're going to hospital, you know you're not well, write in felt tip pen on your hand that you’re Deaf on both hands, because you may well end up being unconscious or whatever; because people will just rely on communicating to you verbally. It makes people understand that actually, okay we need to communicate differently.

Also, it is a really small thing but make sure that you have the plug for your phone charger – I can’t live without my phone! That’s how we communicate, that’s my lifeline for access to communicating and if you're having problems with technology, then you can always text the BSL interpreters group or the Deaf stay-at-home group to just say “I need help”.

Lastly, what would be your one take away message for people to take from this, about the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign in terms of their support, what would that be?

I would just hope for people’s empathy and understanding of what we’re going through. Be kind to each other, support each other - we are one community, we should be coming to each other. I hope the people reading this article will understand the challenges. We understand that we have loved ones, families, children - you know, you can have a Deaf person in your family or you may come across a Deaf person. Being Deaf is a wonderful thing, I'm really proud to be Deaf. I love my language, I love my culture, I wouldn’t change that.

For me, I would just hope that people would maybe understand that we’re asking for help, for having parity to a Hearing person. I probably draw comparisons with the suffragettes and how they fought for equality, that's kind of how it feels. We need to respect that, we just want equality, we want to be the same. It would be great to get the equality and the parity with Hearing people; so they could help us and then we can stay safe and we can keep other people safe. And think about our loved ones of course, we need to protect the NHS.

Thank you so much for doing this, I think the campaign is fantastic, I’ve been following it all on Twitter for a while. I hope that this article will maybe show more Hearing people to understand the campaign and because I think, we need Hearing people’s support too!

You can follow Lynn on twitter @jerseysnail

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