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.
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?