Sign language degree opens opportunities

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A chronic UK-wide shortage of British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters led Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh to launch Scotland’s first BSL degree course in 2012 to equip students with the skills they require for a career in translation and interpretation.

The first cohort graduated in June with many going straight into jobs as a result of the high demand for BSL interpreters.

There’s a very good prospect of employment and it’s improving.

Many interpreters are self employed, working freelance and using agencies to source work within the deaf community.

Others go into salaried employment, as Sam Rojas, 21, did with North East Sensory Services (NESS) in Aberdeen after graduating from Heriot-Watt.

The degree is the only course in the UK from which students graduate as fully-qualified sign language interpreters, meaning they can start work immediately and are automatically able to register with the NRCPD (the National Registers of Communications Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People).

“It’s quite unusual to get a job in your field so quickly after graduating but I think it highlights the real need for sign language interpreters,” says Rojas.

He is originally from Lima in Peru and offers the rare combination of being able to sign in French and Spanish as well as English.

“There’s so much work out there and not enough people to do it. Having this extra influx of interpreters in Scotland is quite valuable,” he adds.

The youngest student in the first intake on the degree programme, Rojas applied straight from school after taking an evening class in BSL.

The course attracts a mix of ages as the field has only existed since the early 1980s and many people consider BSL as a career change, having encountered it over the course of their working life.

“In the past, because sign language has not been available to study at school level, it has meant that the only people likely to encounter sign language at that age are those people who have friends and family who are sign language users,” says Professor Graham Turner, director of the Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies in Scotland and a lecturer at Heriot-Watt.

“There have historically been very few opportunities for that age group. Most people now who are sign language interpreters encountered the language once they were at working age themselves. It has often been a profession for mature students.”

As a result of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015, job opportunities are predicted to increase further over the next few years.

“The act commits the Scottish Government to promoting the use and understanding of BSL,” says Turner.

“It’s clear that if you are going to promote the understanding and use of sign language then that’s going to require interpreters to enable interaction with the deaf community across the public sphere.”

Scotland’s population is frequently compared to that of Finland and with that in mind, it’s clear how much of a need there is for people with the relevant training.

“In Finland there are at least 500 sign language interpreters on the register whereas the Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (SASLI) has fewer than 100 interpreters practising at any one time,” says Turner.

“The argument, therefore, is often that until we get to the point where we have a Finnish-sized population of sign language interpreters, we have got an ongoing problem.

“There’s a very good prospect of employment at the end of the course and it’s improving.”

The role of a BSL interpreter can be highly varied, which is partly what attracted Rojas to it as a career option.

At Heriot-Watt, the course involves intensive BSL training as students may or may not have experience of sign language at the beginning.

Much like a modern language degree, the third year is spent away from the university working with a deaf organisation in order to make contacts and gain real-life experience.

Rojas’s job can involve anything from interpreting medical appointments to forensics lectures.

“I really like the variety day to day because I always thought I wouldn’t like to be in an office doing the same things all the time,” he says.

“In a lot of cases it’s not just about your skills but you need to get on with the deaf community.

“You are often there in quite private parts of their lives like medical appointments or at the dentist. They might be going to see a social worker or filling in a benefits form.

“The most interesting part of the course was the interpreting itself because that was really useful but the people you are working with have to be able to trust you and trust that you will be confidential and empathetic.”

Learning sign language is not like learning any other language and requires a certain mindset as well as an ability to be as visual as possible.

“BSL is structured completely differently from English,” explains Turner.

“It requires a kind of mindset that is quite different from using the spoken language.

“In sign language you can, and do, use multiple articulators, for example you have two hands and your facial expression.”