Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 26, 2013
Members of the deaf community say they are too often left with unqualified sign language interpreters, which can lead to numerous risks – including ones to their health.
OTTAWA — Elaine Monica Campbell says her “biggest fear” involves medical treatment.
It’s not the treatment itself that worries Campbell, who’s a palliative and long-term care volunteer, it’s finding herself in a situation where she can’t communicate with her caregivers because there isn’t a qualified sign-language interpreter. “It’s very distressing,” she said.
Campbell is deaf. She can read lips and speaks aloud.
“If I’m quite sick, I can’t lip read so well. If the hospital provides me a non-qualified interpreter, I would become ill at ease.”
It’s a reality that she sees regularly in her work with the deaf community and it translates into “a sense of loss of control,” she said.
Sign language has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, after an interpreter at a memorial for Nelson Mandela signed what amounted to gibberish during the speeches of world leaders.
However, that event may have been a blessing in disguise, said Laura Nimigan, the vice-president of the Sign Language Interpreters of the National Capital, because it raises awareness of an ongoing issue.
“When you have these individual, one-time doctor appointments, it becomes one person trying to fight a system that’s not working for them. This has definitely brought some great public notice to something that has been happening for a long time, just undetected,” Nimigan said.
Difficulties with communication in hospitals is just one of the experiences that members of the Ottawa deaf community have had when dealing with sign language interpreters.
Speaking to the Citizen recently through Christine Wilson, a qualified interpreter, several deaf people from the Ottawa area described the difficulties they face using sign language – a minority and unrecognized language in Canada.
They say it has led to failed job searches, frustrating medical encounters and trouble in university courses.
Krishna Madaparthi, 26, a computer and information technology student in Ottawa, said that last year, when he interviewed for a job at his school’s disability awareness centre, the interpreter was a student who wasn’t able to communicate his answers to questions.
“I was quite keen on the job,” he said. “(The interpreter was) just learning sign language and certainly shouldn’t have been the interpreter for my job interview.”
Jonathan Poulin-Desbiens, 22, said he was not given a proper interpreter during his classes in a college social work program. In one instance, it was just a person who had a deaf friend and could sign.
“She was not a professional interpreter, but here she was, going to be my interpreter. She had no training and an incomprehensible accent in her signing, it was like she was just signing signs with no meaning,” he said.
Poulin-Desbiens said he “lost the life dream” of studying social work and is now studying criminology and social sciences at the University of Ottawa.
Paula Bath, a freelance sign language interpreter in Ottawa, said that while there are several different institutions where interpretation has been an issue, medical care is of particular concern. “There is a petition being circulated in the deaf community, and it is to medical professionals and to hospitals specifically. That is really high on their agenda at the moment,” Bath said.
Denise DeShaw said the difference between a properly accredited interpreter and someone who is not, is whether they have the proper qualifications and are able to accurately translate the message from sign language into English, since both have distinct grammatical and sentence structures.
“The might be able to sign, but they aren’t a professional interpreter,” DeShaw said, also noting that following official ethical guidelines, for example, are the “hallmarks of interpreting.”
There is an official training process in Canada, with diploma interpreter education programs offered at a number of colleges and universities around Canada. There is both an academic side, and a practical side with mentorship and time spent on apprenticeship. There is also an evaluation process, offered by the national organization for interpreters, the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada. In Ontario, many interpreters work through the Ontario Interpreting Service, which is offered by the Canadian Hearing Society.
For deaf people in the capital, the issue can be even more complicated because in addition to American Sign Language, or ASL, there is also a Quebec variant: LSQ, or langue des signes québécoise.
Poulin-Desbiens said he has had ASL interpreters show up to his classes because school officials assumed that there was only one sign language.
The law on when interpreters must be provided is pretty clear, said David Baker, a lawyer who worked on the landmark Supreme Court of Canada case that mandated that hospitals and medical professionals provide interpretation services when they’re needed.
“The court was clear that using friends and relations raises conflict-of-interest problems, and using unqualified interpreters raises legal and ethical problems in terms of accuracy,” Baker said.
The only instances where the law may not apply, Baker said, is in situations where there may be no time to summon an interpreter – such as the case of an emergency – or perhaps in a non-treatment scenario where an exchange of notes could suffice.
Part of the problem arises from institutional hurdles to retaining sign language interpreters.
It costs money to hire interpreters and employers may not know where to go to find properly certified interpreters.
Ottawa hospitals, for their part, do say they have programs in place to ensure that they can communicate with deaf and hearing-impaired patients. The Ottawa Hospital uses a contract interpretation service, according to Arran McAffee, the chief of audiology, though she noted that it is a struggle to keep all staff aware of how the interpretation service ought to be used. Calline Au, a communications officer at the Queensway- Carleton Hospital, said they use an American translation service, where an interpreter communicates with the patient through a laptop.
This requires some degree of preparation, as an interpreter needs to be scheduled for the appointment. Au said that it saves the hospital quite a bit of money, because it was very expensive to bring in live interpreters.
“It’s working out for us so far. We’ve had to use it on a number of occasions already, and it seems to be beneficial for both the staff and the patients,” Au said.
While Todd Tobin, a member of the deaf community, said that the system worked well for him when he was in hospital, all those who spoke to the Citizen agreed that having a qualified interpreter in the room is the better option, especially in the instance of a major medical problem.
There can be a great deal of nuance lost without a live translator, because qualified interpreters in the room can have an instinctual understanding of what the deaf person is trying to say.
“What would be missing might be what we call ‘deafhood,’ which is a profound understanding of deaf culture, ASL linguistics and interpreting theory to understand what the deaf person is saying,” DeShaw said.
Moving forward, they all said, was that it is important to realize that access to interpreters is not just for the benefit of the deaf because it also allows hearing people to communicate. It is a way for both groups to engage with each other.
“We do not have equal opportunity in society to become full-fledged citizens. If we get access to education, health care, job interviews, and all of these key fundamental points of our life now, we will be able to become things such as deaf doctors, deaf lawyers, or the first deaf prime minister of Canada, for all I know,” Poulin-Desbiens said.