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Let your fingers do the talking - sign up for job that gives voice to deaf community


It is a job which too few people consider training for and yet it comes with great rewards. There is also no shortage of work due in no small part to the chronic scarcity of sign language interpreters, which is having a major impact on the quality of life of Northern Ireland's deaf community.

Indeed, the scale of the problem nationwide has reached such an extent that the Government has been urged to act on it by numerous deaf lobbying groups.

In Northern Ireland, around 5,000 people use sign language, yet there are only 28 skilled British Sign Language interpreters and only three Irish Sign Language interpreters, making it virtually impossible to get someone at short notice.

All of which can cause a myriad of problems for deaf people in everyday life.

Here, two local sign language interpreters talk about their job and give an insight to what it is like as a career and why they opted for a role which makes a huge difference to the quality of life for the deaf community.

Jeff: We help in situations which would otherwise be challenging

Jeff McConnell (46), from Carrickfergus, was a bricklayer, who retrained to become a sign language interpreter 16 years ago. Jeff's parents are both profoundly deaf, so he grew up with signing as his first language and English as his second.

Married to nursery school teacher Roisin, he is a father of two boys, Ben (15) and Ethan (12). Even though signing was second nature to Jeff, when he decided to change careers, he had to study sign language up to level three and do a two-year interpreting course in England before he could qualify.

He says: "It is a bit like doing a driving test after 30 years of driving, you have to unlearn all of your bad habits. I had signed since I was a boy, but that didn't qualify me to interpret.

"Basically, I had got bored with working as a bricklayer and decided to become an interpreter because of my parents. Nowadays at work, no two days are the same and every day is rewarding."

Growing up with deaf parents, Jeff is all too aware of the many obstacles facing deaf people in society if they don't have the benefit of someone to interpret.

It was brought home many times to him as a boy, but one incident in particular, which left his mother traumatised, is still sadly one that many deaf people face today.

He explains: "It was about 35 years ago when mum was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital with a brain tumour.

"There were no interpreters at all then and even though her consultant was very good, she knew she was very ill, but had no idea of the extent.

"She spent 40 hours in theatre and if you can imagine being taken into hospital with severe headaches with no idea why and then suddenly you are being operated on. She was traumatised.

"The consultant tried to relay as much as he could through my granny, but she only finger spelt, so was very limited in what she could explain. It was very, very difficult. Thankfully, mum did get over it."

Jeff also points out another major barrier for deaf people which hearing people often wouldn't consider - while the doctor tried to explain his mum's condition by writing it down, he says like many deaf people, her English is also limited, creating challenges for communicating in this way.

He says: "From an early age, as a hearing person, you are hearing words all the time and taking them in subconsciously and you don't even think about it. It could be listening to the radio, TV or other people's conversations.

"Deaf people don't have that, so their English can be quite limited. It's not that they can't read or write, but there will be a lot of words they haven't heard.

"Of course, everyone is different, depending on where and how they were educated, but for some it can be quite frustrating in many ways. For example, even when it comes to dealing with letters from the bank, there may be words they don't know."

As Jeff goes on to outline more illustrations of the challenges facing deaf people, he also gives an indication of the demand for his services - and the lack of interpreters. Indeed, in the week we are talking, Jeff had to turn down up to 30 bookings. One booking is usually a two-hour period of his time.

Most interpreters will develop a speciality and for Jeff that is working in the court system with the police and in the area of mental health.

He says: "I could be faced with anything from the cradle to the grave, but most interpreters will develop their skills in different areas over time.

"Hearing people don't hold the monopoly on going to court and I would cover family court, magistrates and high court and it could be because a deaf person is a witness or a defendant or maybe going through a divorce.

"Being able to provide assistance is very rewarding and every day we are able to help in situations which would otherwise be challenging for a deaf person.

"I could be in a hospital setting with someone getting results. You are there to provide access for a deaf person to information they need, which a hearing person can access 24-7."

While Jeff has personal reasons for wanting to do the job he does, he believes that it is a career with a lot to offer in terms of satisfaction and job security.

He adds: "I do it because I have seen the issues my own parents have faced, but I could never understand why it is not promoted as a career option.

"It is very satisfying and we are kept very busy. We are all freelance and I've been at it 16 years now. Of course, there have been days when I haven't been busy, but I have never been out of work."

James: I feel privileged to be part of so many people's lives

James Bailey (39), from Lisburn, has been an interpreter for 19 years and works mainly in the political arena, interpreting at party conferences, events at Stormont and for individuals.

Married to Jo, he has two children, Zara (9) and Ethan (15), and managed a restaurant before taking a job as a trainee interpreter with a charity for the deaf.

James also works with deaf teachers to deliver training to medical students at Queen's University Belfast. In the past five years, as a team they have facilitated meetings between deaf patients and 1,300 medical students.

During this time, 200 students have achieved part of the level one in British Sign Language and have had more than 60 hours each on deaf and sign language-related issues.

Like Jeff, James also grew up in a household with deaf parents and signing was his first language. It is a skill that he has now passed on to his daughter.

He says: "I think it is only natural when you have your baby that you communicate with them in whatever way you communicate naturally, so signing was my first language.

"We also signed to our daughter since she was born and her first words were thank you in sign language."

James recalls that when he was a child, there were no interpreters at all. "Even when I qualified in 2003, I was just the sixth in Northern Ireland," he reveals.

"It was normal for deaf people not to have access to an interpreter and it just shows how things have progressed, even though today demand far outstrips supply.

"My wife commented to me that when my mum was going through childbirth all those years ago, she never had an interpreter. It would be a bit like a hearing person going into labour in China and no one there being able to speak a word of English.

"I think in every aspect of life - work, education and health - deaf people cannot empower themselves if they don't have access to an interpreter."

A benefit of choosing sign language as a career option is that you can specialise in areas that interest you.

In James' case, this was politics and he has interpreted at the Labour party conference as well as at events in Stormont.

His job has taken him all over the UK and he enjoys getting to meet people from so many different walks of life.

And while he tends to specialise in politics, he has interpreted in many different situations, including at the panto for audiences at Belfast Opera House, for people at job interviews and medical appointments.

With a shortage of interpreters, demand is such that he too is having to turn work away on a daily basis and has bookings right up until Christmas.

Although his job enables barriers to be broken down for deaf people, he doesn't see his role as anything special, rather a necessity.

He says: "As a career, it is a job that presents great opportunities. I've been fortunate to have opportunities to travel around the UK and meet lots of people. No two weeks are the same; in fact, no two days are the same.

"But I honestly don't feel that I do anything special. I am just a tool that people can use to empower themselves to effect change. If someone gets a job and I have interpreted at the interview, it's not because of anything I have done, but because of the answers they gave. I just provide the opportunity for people to make themselves heard.

"I help hearing people to understand sign language and deaf people to understand English."

James adds: "I feel privileged to be part of so many people's lives and it can be a very personal thing. If you are deaf and going to the doctor and need an interpreter, you have to give up some personal and confidential information, so it can be quite intrusive for the deaf person and that's the privileged part for me."

Interested in a career as a sign language interpreter? You'll need a degree or level 6 award in both BSL and interpreting. You could take BSL qualifications at a lower level and work your way up. You'll also need to register with the National Registers of Communications Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind people (NRCPD). For further information, visit

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