Multilingualism and equal rights in the EU: the role of sign languages

1 October 2016

This week I had the privilege of being at the EU assembly on Multilingualism and equal rights in the EU: the role of sign languages. Here’s the proof – a picture taken during a break in proceedings


Seeing 31 different sign languages being interpreted was a rare treat. See for a report on the event


Many fine speeches were made in support of better sign language interpreting, the right to interpreting, recognition of sign languages, and so on. It was wonderful to see so many Deaf people gathered together. But I kept thinking about what actions on the ground were wanted. And why would any EU body feel that this was a priority, especially if extra resources are needed?


And the elephant in the room for the UK was Brexit. Diplomatically, the organisers didn’t put the UK contingent nearest the fire escape. Whatever is achieved in the EU will have little weight in the UK post-Brexit


I struggle with the idea of rights. I can’t think of any rights that are absolute. Even the right to life is compromised during war, or when the state withholds funds for life-saving treatment. For me, rights are a direction of travel towards an ideal. And rights are limited by competing rights and demands. I like the idea of setting objective standards as steps towards the ideal, against which to test reality


For example, what about the right to sign language interpreting? Is every Deaf person to have an interpreter in any situation and at any time? Clearly not (at the moment), but what are the priority situations? Health, justice, education? But what about a talk at a local museum?


How many interpreters should there be in every part of the EU? One for every 50 Deaf people? By when? What minimum standard of competence and professionalism is demanded? EFSLI is involved in moves on standards, which is good


Organisations that represent Deaf people have to knuckle down to making realistic, specific and measurable proposals. Meeting a minister, or making a speech isn’t enough


In any negotiation where there is an inequality of power, the weaker party has to look for win-win situations. What are things that the general population demands/needs? And which allies can you work with? One obvious area for maximising the use made of interpreters is the use of remote video interpreting. But broadband speeds are so poor and inconsistent in many parts of the UK (and probably across Europe), making VI impractical there. But who else rails against poor internet access speeds – a powerful rural lobby. So work with them


Over the past year or so I’ve been banging on about the parasitic nature of commercial agencies – how they drain the BSL interpreting economy without investing in developing interpreters, how they build in massive overhead costs, etc. (A future blog will expand on this). There are more efficient ways of securing interpreting services, e.g. the SnapTerp app, the BSLBeam website. And the wild west of numerous public service BSL interpreting contracts needs rationalisation, and power transferred to Deaf control.


So many actions can and should be taken to benefit Deaf people, but if I live another 10 years, will I see any improvement resulting from a thousand Deaf people and their allies gathering in Brussels? Weren’t we better off 10 or 20 years ago? Where has so much hot air and expense got us? Whatever we’ve been doing hasn’t worked that well. It’s time to work out the detail and not just the rhetoric.