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What the Signalise Co-op can do for the deaf

The chaos of austerity measures that cut funding and confused responsibility for sign-language interpreters has hurt the lives of deaf people. That is why we have come together to for a new co-op that goes beyond the poor provision of today, writes JEN SMITH

DEAF British Sign Language (BSL) users and interpreters are coming together to develop Signalise, a new model of interpreting-support provision that can better meet both the communication needs of deaf people and the employment needs of interpreters.

Signalise is, as far as we know, the first platform co-operative for sign-language interpreting globally.

Our origins lie in a battered economy after the financial crisis in 2008. The drive for austerity and the shrinking of the state by government meant contracts for BSL interpreting for the public sector were worth less and less.

The profit margins got so bad that interpreters were leaving the profession, agencies were going bankrupt and the service that the public sector got became worse.

The end users in this, deaf people, were left with a postcode roulette, asking “Will I, won’t I get an interpreter today?” Imagine going to the hospital not knowing if you’ll be able to communicate with anyone there and having to leave with another appointment scheduled where they may or may not be an interpreter next time either.

In 2010, spoken-language interpreters were badly affected by the British government’s push to implement large frameworks where public-sector organisations purchased contracts with large suppliers who had no care for the interpreting profession and drove down standards and fees.

The push from the public sector for one-stop shops where BSL was included amongst many other languages saw BSL interpreting pulled into the mess and we all fought hard for standards.

For sign-language interpreters, the chaos in Britain started in Merseyside where the large frameworks were trialled as a hub where organisations bought larger contracts. They were duly deemed a success. Locally and nationally, we wondered what terms this success had been based on, because it was an utter disaster from the side of the interpreting and deaf community.

Nicky Evans, co-founder of Signalise Co-op, set up the National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI) in 2014. NUBSLI went on to establish benchmarking for fees and a drive for better standards, and started to record the poor practice and negligent effects on the deaf community from these new contracts.

Interpreters, as part of NUBSLI, had wondered about a co-op but it had not seemed like the right time when we were in the middle of the fight for standards. And no-one seemed to have the time or energy. We were all pretty busy.

But then in 2018 the platform co-operative movement caught our eye and as two of our founders had also retrained as web developers, this was the moment to start. We’ve had support from Co-ops UK, via the Hive programme and UnLtd, which meant we could incorporate, get a web presence, hold workshops, do a survey, produce a report and gather data about user requirements.

Support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation has given us the funds to start coding the platform which is well underway — and by the end of the year we’ll be testing our system in Merseyside, where we are based.

More recently we’ve had support as a community business from Power to Change which will enable us to work on our finances and governance. As a bilingual organisation we make sure we are accessible by translating materials into sign language and holding accessible meetings.

John McDonnell, who backs the project, said: “This is a brilliant initiative and has my support. This will ensure that this wonderful service is accessible to so many people that need it.”

So why a crowdfunder? The Covid-19 pandemic has meant more interpreting is taking place online for the foreseeable future and we’d like to do this properly by buying the right software.

We can pay for more software to allow for greater participation and deliver training to our communities. We’ve just passed our initial target and any extra funds we can get now will pay for extra developer time to finish the platform quicker and enable extra features.

It is time to sort out the mess that the economy has left interpreting in. The traditional agency model for booking interpreters has barely changed in decades and this fragile ecosystem, in which companies compete in a race to the bottom at risk of bankruptcy, does no one any favours.

We are a multi-stakeholder co-operative with deaf people and interpreters as members, working alongside each other to co-create a service that works for them and their services. Deaf people in a mainstream world are usually left behind: it is a privilege to start an organisation where they’ll be part of an emerging movement, at the forefront of a revolution.

The world the Signalise co-op is re-imagining is one where interpreters, passionate individuals serving the deaf community, can once again have sustainable and rewarding livelihoods.

We aim to create a society where public-sector organisations are afforded interpreting services that work alongside their wider services in a timely, cost-effective and seamless manner supplied by a safe and ethical organisation made up of the experts in their field — and deaf people are able to attend court, hospital or their workplaces with a quality of service that allows them equal participation in society, with no battle to be had.

Jen Smith is a co-founder of Signalise. Visit crowdfunder.co.uk/signalisecoop to support and signalise.coop @signalisecoop for more information.

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