A partnership between Deaf people and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters could be set to transform the future of interpreting across the UK.
Leading Deaf figures are supporting a new co-operative that is developing an online platform that they hope will “revolutionise” the booking of interpreters, “take control” from profit-making agencies and deliver “real and long-lasting social change”.
They have already raised more than £240,000 for Signalise through a community share offer which closes on 14 June, with the hope of raising at least £300,000.
They hope eventually to compete for public sector contracts with the larger interpreter agencies, with locally-run services delivered through a national structure, and a central role for Deaf people and interpreters in running local services.
They believe this will ensure that qualified BSL interpreters are paid a fair rate for their work, while Deaf service-users will be able to access a high-quality service.
One of the co-operative’s highest-profile supporters is Jenny Sealey, chief executive and artistic director of Graeae Theatre Company, who was co-director of the London 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony.
She said: “My work as the artistic director of Graeae Theatre Company is all about inclusion and bringing people together.
“The ethos of a co-operative where Deaf people and BSL interpreters work together to innovate and develop a service that meets everyone’s needs, fits perfectly with this.
“I fully endorse this initiative and hope that we see it replicated in many other areas of need.
“I urge everyone to support Signalise and this model of collective working.
“It does much more than merely provide a service when people come together – it is a powerful source of societal change for the common good.”
Kerena Marchant, who stood for Labour at the last general election, said that Deaf people and interpreters had lost out in recent years through the emergence of profit-making BSL agencies which have taken over services previously provided by local councils.
She said: “There has been a decline in working practices and standard of provision.
“With most video relay interpreting companies becoming part of American companies, the Deaf community face a potential further deterioration in interpreting services and interpreters in working practices.
“Signalise is the future of interpreting – both the Deaf community and the interpreters can benefit, with dividends being put back into the Deaf community and ‘continuing professional development’ for interpreters.
“Deaf users can also have more say in how their service is provided and how their needs are met.”
Deaf campaigner Geraldine O’Halloran, one of Signalise’s directors, said: “I have used BSL interpreters for over 30 years now, and there has never been an opportunity like this one: to become a member of a co-operative and make a mark on the BSL interpreting service.”
She said it was important that Signalise was a partnership between Deaf people and BSL interpreters, which would ensure that Deaf people’s ideas, opinions and suggestions were treated equally to those of interpreters.
She said that Deaf people who were members of the co-operative would be able to “feel a sense of ownership and empowerment”.
O’Halloran added: “Signalise is not a group of passive receivers of BSL communication services, but active members who can support and influence the work of Signalise.
“To me, that has to be worth having.”
Another Signalise director, BSL interpreter Nicky Evans, said: “Over the past decade we have seen the larger spoken language agencies taking over who have no knowledge or experience in working with Deaf people and don’t understand the community’s needs.”
She said the tender process for these contracts had excluded Deaf people and interpreters.
Evans said: “In a co-operative model, it is very clear who owns and runs the company and it is run for the benefit of the community.
“We have been talking about the possibility of a co-operative for some time but felt that the traditional model wouldn’t work.”
Evans said that Signalise’s online model would allow the service “to be accessible and ensure it reaches everyone”.
She added: “There are so many possibilities for creating real and long-lasting social change.
“We are all very excited by this.”