Helping social work practitioners communicate with deaf children

As part of Deaf Awareness Week Professor Alys Young discusses working with sign language interpreters in child protection, and offers advice for practitioners

Children talking to adult Those of us who are multilingual, regularly using more than one language in our personal or professional lives, know some things are better expressed in one language than another. Subtitles are often “lost in translation”.

However, there’s far less acknowledgement that our abilities, understanding and skills as child protection professionals, may also suffer when we’re working across languages with an interpreter.

As an academic and social work professional, working with deaf people who use sign language, this topic is of primary interest to me.

British Sign Language

Despite centuries of use amongst deaf people, British Sign Language (BSL) was only officially recognised as an indigenous language of the UK in 2003.

BSL isn’t just a visual version of spoken English; it’s a separate, fully grammatical living language with no vocal element.

Not all deaf children will grow up to be BSL users. Many have experiences of signed and spoken languages. Some use different languages in different contexts (eg spoken language at home, sign language in school).

Signing social workers

When a safeguarding concern arises with a deaf child or young person, and social workers become involved, it’s usually with a sign language interpreter.

This wasn’t always the case.

There was a long and proud tradition of specialist, signing social workers; many were deaf themselves.

However, the reorganisation of children and adults’ social service structures in England prompted many local authorities to dismantle specialist sensory or deaf teams.

Today, few specialist workers remain. It’s much more usual for children and families teams to address safeguarding issues.

Research studies show the vast majority of professionals in these teams have little or no experience of deaf child development, BSL or deaf cultural competence.

Working with sign language interpreters

Social workers get little support or training before working with sign language interpreters.

Often, it’s assumed the interpreter will solve the communication problem. But when direct interaction and communication is removed from a situation, there are consequences for the skills, competencies and contribution of all parties concerned.

This is highly significant for such sensitive and detailed activities as child and family assessment, where the meaningful participation of children and young people is paramount.

Interpreters and child protection work

Working with sign language interpreters in safeguarding and child protection has 4 key consequences for social work practice.

Out of sync
In an interpreted interaction, there’s always a delay of around 1.5 seconds: what’s said/signed is out of sync with the child’s facial expressions, body language and demeanour. As social workers, we rely on an accurate sense of the “whole person” not just what they say. The same is true the other way round; the child’s sense of the professional is filtered by similar mismatches between how you look and what you say.

Sign language interpreters are highly skilled professionals who undergo years of training. They’re required to be registered and maintain their registration with a national body (this is not true of most community spoken language interpreters). However, many sign language interpreters will be totally unused to working in safeguarding and child protection situations. They may understand the vocabulary, but not the intent and underlying meaning of terms common to social work. This affects how those words are interpreted and can easily lead to misunderstanding. It’s very important for social workers and interpreters to spend time together preparing, sharing concepts with a particular meaning, given the context, and to feel comfortable working together.

Joint practice
It’s highly likely that sign language interpreters will be more familiar with deaf culture than most social workers. They understand the social, linguistic and cultural context that underpins the deaf community’s world-view. For example, if you asked a deaf child what time it was when a particular incident happened, the child might reply by showing you where the sun was in the sky. You may conclude the child doesn’t know how to tell the time: someone with cultural competence understands that this visual representation will be highly accurate because of the specificity of a signed language and a deaf child’s enhanced visual spatial abilities. This illustrates that an interpreter isn’t simply a conduit of language exchange - that’s an out-dated approach. Increasingly, a model of the sign language interpreter as a practice professional is being adopted. The interpreter is part of the team and may act as cultural broker, ensuring optimal understanding and participation. From this viewpoint we’re “working with” a practice professional, rather than “using” an interpreter.

Prioritising direct interaction
It’s important to ask whether an assessment or interaction is better without a third party. Do you think a deaf child would rather sign directly to a trusted individual, or have a third party in the room to facilitate communication with someone who has never interacted with a deaf child before? Even when a deaf child can use spoken language, it’s important to consider if this is the method of communication they’re most comfortable with. Often, deaf children try to match the needs of the person they’re communicating with, rather than using their own preferred means of expression. This is not an empowering position for a deaf child or young person. There are skilled social work professionals out there, many of whom are deaf, using BSL with high-level bilingual and bicultural skills – and direct, rather than mediated communication, may be better when a deaf child is involved in a safeguarding concern.

Tips for working with interpreters

There are no ideal solutions in facilitating interactions between safeguarding professionals and deaf children: every child is different and every family is complex in its own way.

But here are some tips to try:

  • become more aware of the complexities of working alongside interpreters who are practice professionals in their own right
  • improve joint working skills
  • reflect on your own language limitations; don’t assume you can communicate “well enough”
  • always put the child’s strengths, requirements and needs at the centre of your practice, whether or not you work with an interpreter.

Have you worked with interpreters?

Are you an interpreter who works in child protection? Or a social worker who uses BSL? Share your experiences with us or ask for advice.

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