On 20 January 2020 the UK hosted the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London. The Summit was presented and hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The summit brought together businesses, governments, and international institutions to showcase and promote the breadth and quality of investment opportunities across Africa. The Summit strengthened the UK’s partnership with African nations to build a secure and prosperous future for all our citizens. It also mobilised new and substantial investments to create jobs and boost mutual prosperity.
Given the importance of Africa and its resources to the world, alongside African nations growing economic and political links to China, this is an important event for the UK and its citizens. However, why did Boris Johnson refuse to have his presentation interpreted into BSL but not other spoken languages, for example, French? Why did he feel it was appropriate to ask for his presentation to not be interpreted into British Sign Language?
Did he not want deaf people to have access to his presentation? Did he think deaf people could access it via the English (second language for a deaf person) subtitles? Did he think the deaf people could lip-read what he was sharing? Did he think as it was going out through speakers in the room the deaf people would be able to hear his presentation at that volume?
Whatever his reason it shows a lack of deaf awareness. People often believe they do not need a BSL interpreter. This deprives the people who need that access to know and understand the information that is being shared. He didn’t deprive the people in attendance who spoke French. They were entitled to access. What class system is this creating? Those who use a spoken language can have access and those without can’t?
Sometimes Deaf people will agree that they understand something written or that they have been able to lip-read because they do not want to be a problem. However, this does not mean that they would not benefit from using an interpreter. Have you tried to keep up with reading subtitles? Now, have you tried to keep up with reading subtitles in another language, and understand that it is not merely read the words!
Using an interpreter shows that you are recognizing the deaf person as a citizen of the country and that you respect them enough that you want them to have complete access so as to be completely included and not included to the extent that they can lip-read or read in a second language. How good is your French? Would you understand and be able to access subtitles to a speech written in French?
Other countries have a Sign Language interpreter interpreting all their news outputs not merely from 1pm – 1.30pm. The USA, in particular, is a great example of this. We need to promote the use of interpreters and to use them when they are available.
We understand that sometimes there is a clash between hearing and deaf culture. Hearing people tend to have very little facial expressions. Deaf people in their language use facial expressions to communicate. At times as an interpreter I will have hearing people saying phrases or words or sentences just to see how it will be signed and to see how I will react. The fact that what you are saying will be expressed in a different mode to what you are used to is not a reason not to allow others access to it due to your lack of deaf awareness. If a BSL interpreter did not use facial expressions they would be missing out on a fifth of the ways that structure/grammar/meaning is expressed in that language. It would be equivalent to not being able to use any adjectives, adverbs, intonation, or expression of character.
We all have to rely on others to do a professional job. Like other professions, BSL Interpreters have to spend many years learning the language and how to interpret. They should be respected and trusted that they will produce a good interpretation of what is being delivered. They must keep their skills up to date and record the Continued Professional Training they attend each year. As well as being part of a professional body.
Let’s all go forward and make the best use of the interpreters that we have available and aim to educate those who don’t realise the benefit the interpreter can provide to a smooth communication for both parties.
Let’s hope Boris recognizes his error as clearly he understands the value of having spoken interpreters interpreting his speeches or investing and partnering with African nations. Let’s pave the way forward to an accessible future.