Sign of the times: why we’re seeing more sign language interpreters on our screens

By Hannah James 4 August 2020
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There are good reasons why we’re seeing more sign language interpreters on our TV screens.

IN THE CHAOS and despair of the most recent notable chapter in Australian history – the bushfire disaster followed so closely by the COVID-19 pandemic – many of us have found comfort from an unexpected source. At government press conferences and during emergency news broadcasts, it’s increasingly common to see the reassuring presence of an Auslan interpreter signing the crucial information to people in the deaf community.

If the true measure of any society is found in how it treats its most vulnerable members, then perhaps we find the interpreters comforting because they indicate our society is functioning well, even in what are repeatedly referred to as “unprecedented times”.

The interpreters’ presence can be even better than comforting: it can provide some welcome light relief. During a media appearance by the premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, in April, interpreter Dianne Prior had to convey a shout of support from a passer-by. The difficulty lay in the swear word the fan used, as he dropped what’s more politely referred to as the f-bomb. Without missing a beat, Dianne duly conveyed his enthusiasm. “The way I signed it was a bit of tongue in cheek, a bit of fun,” Dianne told ABC Radio National. It was a bit of fun we all needed, and one that was soon broadcast around the world.

Dianne isn’t the only interpreter whose tricky moment at work found unintended fame on social media. “I didn’t even know what TikTok was when I became a TikTok,” says Julie Judd, chairperson of the Australian Sign Language Interpreters’ Association (ASLIA) and an interpreter for more than 30 years. Her appearance on the social media video platform, consisting of footage of her interpreting on TV for Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, clocked up half a million views in just a couple of days.

“It was right at the beginning [of the pandemic], when we weren’t aware of how serious the disease could be, and it was a grab of me signing very graphically about the seriousness of being put in intensive care,” Julie explains. “It was so visual that someone put it to music.”

Behind the funny moments, though, lies a serious intent. Plenty of people in Australia rely on Auslan interpreters such as Dianne and Julie for crucial information. “There are roughly 4 million Australians who have some degree of hearing loss – that’s almost the population of Melbourne,” says Todd Wright, chairman of Deaf Australia, the country’s peak organisation representing deaf people.

It’s harder to pin down the number of people who use Auslan, but in the 2016 census, Todd says, 11,600 people recorded Auslan as their primary language. And that number is growing. More recently, he adds, data from the National Disability Insurance Scheme showed that about 14,000 deaf people are registered with the scheme.

Todd Wright of Deaf Australia converses in Auslan over a coffee with friend
David Parker and Todd’s wife, Sue Wright. (Image credit: Michael Amendolia)

First European deaf person in Australia

The first European deaf person in Australia, Elizabeth Steel, was a convict who arrived in 1790 with the Second Fleet. It’s not recorded if she used sign language, but we do know that later deaf immigrants certainly brought it with them from the old country where informal sign languages had been in use for centuries.

A series of books published in the early 17th century by English physician John Bulwer explored hand gestures as a means of communication, and his later studies advocated for formal education for deaf people.

Over time, Bulwer’s codification of gestures and fingerspellings formed the basis of what was officially recognised as British Sign Language (BSL) in the UK in 2003 but which had been widely taught in dedicated schools for the deaf since the late 1700s. “Auslan uses the same two-handed alphabet you see in BSL,” Todd explains. “I’d say roughly 50 to 60 per cent of Auslan is similar still to BSL. And probably 80 to 90 per cent of Auslan is similar to New Zealand Sign Language – just because of the history of the two countries.”

During the decades, Auslan has evolved into its own language, with its own grammar, syntax and vocabulary. It was recognised as a community language (along with other spoken languages) by the government’s National Policy on Languages in 1987. “The deaf community really celebrated that moment,” Todd says, “because we all as a community knew the richness of our language, but the recognition of government really made it more official to many people. So it was quite a momentous time.”

A church in Sydney provides a sign language interpreter for its
hearing-impaired community members back in 1931. Australian sign language, or Auslan, evolved from the British Sign Language system. (Image credit: Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Auslan got its name in 1989 when linguistics professor Dr Trevor Johnston created the first Auslan-English dictionary. Yet deaf people still encountered barriers to interacting with, and learning about, the wider world. In 1992 closed captioning was made mandatory during news broadcasts, which was initially greeted with joy by deaf people. “That was a breakthrough moment where I personally was able to really access the news,” Todd remembers.

But captioning of live broadcasts is often littered with mistakes. Place names are often spelt incorrectly (which has obvious hazards when reporting on natural disasters such as bushfires); a change in speakers isn’t signalled, making it difficult to work out who’s saying what; there’s a time lag between the speaker and the caption, meaning the images aren’t synchronised with the caption; or elements of the broadcast are missed out altogether.

“It’s not very accessible if they’re talking about quite complex ideas or quite complex medical terms,” Todd adds. Captioning can be tricky to understand even for those who read English well. “Unfortunately, many deaf people actually aren’t fluent in English, as many don’t have full access to education through their language, Auslan. So it is quite difficult to keep across the news.”

This is inconvenient at the best of times. But in emergencies, Todd says, “These situations are life and death, fundamentally. With the bushfires, there were deaf people who were affected by not understanding information. And we are put in a situation where we could die from misunderstanding.” The presence of Auslan interpreters on the news, then, isn’t just nice to have, it’s quite literally life-saving.

Interpreter Julie Judd grew up using Auslan as her first language because both her parents are deaf, and she is passionate about deaf people having access to emergency news. “It’s actually about deaf people being able to activate their citizenship of this country,” she says.

“In the last few months I’ve often seen broadcasts without interpreters, and politicians saying, ‘All of you, every single one of you in Australia, we thank you.’ Or, ‘We really need you all to work together.’ And I think, ‘Except deaf people, because you have not included them by providing interpreting.’”

Yet with the recent back-to-back crises, as well as an increasing number of Auslan users in Australia, we are seeing more interpreters on our screens. “There have been many, many years of campaigning not only by Deaf Australia, but by the deaf community,” Todd says. “Last year, in particular, the deaf community established a group called Auslan Media Access – it was a social media campaign that was really successful in raising awareness.”

The campaign focused not only on explaining to broadcasters the importance of employing Auslan interpreters. It also highlighted the need to ensure the interpreter was kept in shot. They’re often cut out on screens when broadcasters switch to close-ups of the speaker, or put logos or banners on the screen that obscure the interpreter.

Interpreters can be hard to come by, however. “We really don’t have enough accredited interpreters in Australia,” Todd says. “It’s fantastic that we’re seeing more interpreters on our TV screens, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into there being a lot of interpreters on the ground for everyday needs.”

Beyond emergencies, interpreters are needed for doctors’ appointments, legal matters and, increasingly, occasions such as church services and community events. “We do need the help of government to grow the number of accredited interpreters and help people identify it as a genuine career pathway,” Todd says.

There are currently 961 certified Auslan interpreters in Australia, although only one-third are actively working. Just 103 interpreters are certified at the higher levels that allow them to work on TV. “You could spend six to eight years studying to become an interpreter, depending on how long it takes you to become fluent,” Julie says.

Aspiring interpreters must take a two-year TAFE course to learn Auslan, or do an assessment if they are already fluent, then take an interpreting training course before passing an exam set by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters to become a provisional interpreter. They can then go on to reach the two higher levels, certified and conference. Only three people in Australia have reached conference level, one of whom is Julie.

In the past, interpreters were mostly women. “The history of interpreting has been that it was welfare workers who performed that task, or missionaries,” Julie says, and welfare workers were often women. “It’s [now] considered by some as a ‘helping profession’, and I think that could be the reason why we see so many females – a bit like nursing. But that’s starting to change.”

It used to be that having deaf family members or friends prompted people to become interpreters, but that’s also changing as more people, both hearing and deaf, learn Auslan formally as a second language. In 2018 in Victoria, for example, 17,000 children were learning Auslan at school.

Deaf children learn Auslan in the same way as hearing children learn spoken English – by imitating adults, gradually acquiring language comprehension, and practising until they are fluent. They acquire language at roughly the same rate as hearing children, ‘babbling’ with their hands from six months, and making their first real sign at about 12 months of age. So, it’s usually recommended they, and their parents, learn Auslan as early as possible. There’s even an app to help families learn the language.

When it comes to education, there are schools that cater solely for deaf children, with small classes taught by specially trained teachers for the deaf. Parents can also send children to a mainstream school with a deaf facility, where, depending on their needs, children split their time between mainstream classes  (with an Auslan interpreter if required) and lessons taught by a teacher for the deaf. Some mainstream schools without deaf facilities can still provide learning support for deaf children, which can vary from live captioning to special software. These specialised solutions are very much needed: according to the Australian

Network on Disability, one in six Australians has hearing loss, and there are about 30,000 deaf Auslan users with total hearing loss.

Deaf people are hoping to see many more interpreters employed both during emergencies and in everyday life, as the deaf community grows in number and ramps up its advocacy. “It’s unfortunate that it takes an emergency or a national disaster to occur for recognition that information being accessible in Auslan is important,” Todd says. “It should be happening all the time. But beggars can’t be choosers. Deaf people are appreciative of the information they have access to in a national disaster – but it shouldn’t stop there.”