Hearing Staff in Deaf Services

Deaf services often have a considerable number of policies regarding communication. These documents are intended to cover a variety of needs, but the one thing they all have in common is the access to information and discussion for the staff and client groups with their variety of communication modalities, registers and systems.

Often, however, the assumptions held by staff - and the culture and attitude of the institution - fail to yield the equal access to information and discussion which we would like to believe we foster.

The main area in which we fail is the use of interpreters in meetings.

Staff always try hard to make sure enough communication support is provided by interpreters. This of course is great, and we pride ourselves on this and criticise other services for not providing interpreters themselves. However the way in which we use interpreters gives rise to a major problem which is an inconsistency between philosophy and practice:

1 Hearing staff believe that, regardless of their level of BSL competence, the presence of an interpreter allows them to ignore the signing policy - which usually states, in its simplest form, that all staff should sign when a deaf person is present. Rarely does it say that staff may disregard the signing policy in this instance. So despite the presence of an interpreter all staff should aim to sign in the company of a deaf person.

2 Unfortunately, the vast majority of qualified staff are usually hearing. Thus, the discussion is inevitably led by hearing staff. A problem arises when

i) Those hearing staff are not signing and

ii) They are not respecting “interpreter-time” (the delay between the endings of the spoken utterance and the signed translation). In failing to respect interpreter-time, hearing staff respond to each other immediately after the other person has stopped speaking. This means the deaf people present are not able to contribute to the discussion on equal terms with the speaking people. This is why I am making a distinction between access to the information and access to the discussion. Current practice allows deaf people access to the information, but it is impossible for deaf staff to access and contribute to discussions to the same extent as staff who are not signing.

3 On those occasions that deaf staff do contribute, it is equally important for them to respect interpreter time to allow equal access to those who do not sign.

4 Signing policies often state that everyone’s choice of communication modality and system should be respected. However it is extremely difficult for hearing staff who may want to sign to do so. There are a number of reasons for this:

i) In any meeting there will be hearing staff with a range of signing competencies, and so most staff will be in the presence of others whose signing skills far outshine their own. When those (usually senior) staff refuse to sign, the person who wishes to follow policy and sign for themselves is made to feel ridiculous as they are singling themselves out. Also they inevitably wonder whether their beliefs about signing for themselves are correct - after all senior staff with advanced signing qualifications are not doing so.

ii) When other staff members who can sign are not doing so, a person who believes that he or she should be signing for themselves may often think that the other staff members feel the same, but have other reasons to avoid signing themselves. In my experience a hearing staff member signing for him/herself can project their anger that other people are not signing onto the other staff, and this is then experienced as extreme hostility from the signing hearing staff who choose not to sign. This feeling can be enough to stop the person signing for themselves. It is also possible that other staff actually are hostile to the signing hearing staff member, as they are being confronted with their own guilt about not signing, or their own fears that their signing is not very good.

iii) It inevitably feels strange to sign to a hearing person who does not sign and so does not directly understand what is being said. This is especially so for signing hearing staff. This feeling is compounded by being the only one.

iv) Initially it is difficult to sign while listening to one’s own signing being voiced over as this is both distracting and can be perceived as providing immediate feedback about the quality of one’s signing. However, ignoring the voice over is a skill which is quickly learnt.

5 When hearing staff avoid signing in meetings, their signing skills will suffer.

i) In mental health care most deaf staff are Health Care Assistants and work shifts, so the majority of staff in a meeting will be hearing. Meetings are one of the few places where staff could, in principle, observe their peers signing and this would make the different competencies and styles of signing within the staff group more transparent. In this way staff would be able to realistically appraise their own signing skills. When the only staff seen signing are deaf native signers, one’s confidence inevitably vanishes. With our confidence goes our inclination to sign at all, and an environment is established in which it is impossible to gauge one’s own signing competence by comparison with hearing staff.

ii) Equally, it is impossible for staff to receive objective feedback about their signing competence from the rest of the staff group. Such feedback would be both positive and negative, but both forms are constructive and lead to increased signing competence, increased signing confidence, and increased signing. In this way the vicious circle of lack of feedback leading to decreased confidence leading to less signing leading to less feedback can be reversed into a positive cycle of objective appraisal leading to increased competence leading to increased confidence leading to increased visible signing leading to further appraisal.

What can be done about this?

In my opinion this can lead to an anti-sign culture which is both oppressive and disheartening. Seeing others signing can enable everyone to feel confident about their skills, and to realistically appraise their own weak areas.

There will inevitably always be a number of staff who correctly feel they cannot sign in these situations - but interpreters are available to allow those people access to the meetings. At the moment interpreters are used to avoid exposing our signing skills to peer-review, to (consciously or not) oppress the deaf staff and clients, and to pretend that we are enabling equal access when in fact we are not. We should be using interpreters solely to support those staff who do not yet sign, and we should respect interpreter time in order that those staff have equal access to both the information and the discussion.

It is my view that:

  • All staff who can sign, should sign at all times.
  • Staff who cannot sign should be trained appropriately and supported.

Therefore all staff who are not attending, or who are not about to attend, a signing course, should be signing for themselves. If they are not, that person’s line manager should address the issues which prevent him or her from signing. This means that all staff with advanced or confident signing skills should be obliged to sign. All other staff should be encouraged to sign - both directly through line management, and indirectly by the culture and attitude of the unit shifting to enable everyone to feel safe enough to sign.
Jim CromwellComment