By Claire Campbell
Brenton Peters and Deaf Can: Do’s Debbie Kennew using AUSLAN to communicate. (ABC News: Claire Campbell)
Deaf people in South Australia are reporting they are regularly forced to cancel medical appointments, delay court hearings or miss work meetings due to a dire shortage of Auslan interpreters.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme was meant to improve access to interpreters by providing clients with an interpreting package for work, life and leisure; but instead, it has increased demand and made it more difficult.
One person encountering such difficulties is Timothy Morgan, a data analyst with Housing SA.
He loves his job and has worked his way up the public service ladder over the past 19 years.
But as he gains more responsibility, he is required to attend more meetings and communicate with more people – something that is difficult when access to an Auslan interpreter is becoming harder by the day.
Speaking via an interpreter, he said he had to “control his frustrations” every time he could not secure an interpreter for work meetings.
“It can actually affect my career prospects,” he said.
“And it affects other colleagues … if there’s no access to information, then it holds them back as well.
“Ten years ago I reckon I was able to get [an interpreter] within a couple of days’ notice, but now, [the delay] seems to be a lot more severe and I need more weeks’ notice.”
Timothy Morgan has particular trouble finding an AUSLAN interpreter for work meetings. (ABC News: Claire Campbell)
In his spare time, Mr Morgan is a football umpire.
While getting an interpreter on weekends or after hours can sometimes be easier, Mr Morgan said it was often not worth the effort.
“Sometimes I have an umpiring camp but I don’t go and attend them, or presentation night, because if I don’t have an interpreter I get bored,” he said.
“I can still get involved, but sometimes it’s time-consuming or even other people get frustrated because of how long it takes to converse.”
Interpreting is offered on a first-in basis, which means last-minute or unforeseen requests — like medical appointments or funerals — are the hardest to find an interpreter for.
Year 12 student Brenton Peters, who is in the NDIS, could not get an interpreter for crucial medical appointments when he fractured his wrist.
“We saw a specialist we didn’t know when I was able to return to sport. I didn’t know whether the fracture was still there, [or] whether it had healed, so it has a big impact,” he said via an interpreter.
“I feel frustrated, I mean I just need an interpreter there.”
Brenton Peters had trouble finding an interpreter as he recovered from injury. (ABC News: Claire Campbell)
Deaf Can:Do client services manager, Debbie Kennewell, said while there was a shortage of Auslan interpreters across the nation, it was particularly bad in South Australia, where there are only about 20 to assist up to 1,000 clients.
She said there had been a significant and worrying number of interpreter requests knocked back since the NDIS was rolled out and feared it was about to get a lot worse.
“People are receiving plans and packages with interpreting services, but unfortunately, the supply just isn’t there, so we’re seeing a huge increase in demand but the supply has remained the same,” she said via an interpreter.
“We’re seeing a lot of clients unable to access medical appointments, legal appointments, workplace due to their inability to book interpreters … If that appointment has to be cancelled or postponed, it means that’s going to affect their health.”
“We see the frustrations out there, they want a solution and they want something to be done about it.”
Auslan interpreter Imran Webb is one of the only full-time male interpreters in South Australia, and said he had never seen such a dire shortage in his 12 years in the profession.
In a desperate move, he has started interpreting via Skype in emergencies, to try to help as many people as possible.
“The amount of work that I knock back is probably two to three times what I can actually do,” he said.
“We’re seeing with the NDIS roll-out that there’s more access for deaf people out there, there’s more awareness out there, so interpreting bookings are coming in thick and fast and we simply don’t have the supply to meet that demand.
“It’s frustrating that I can’t help as many people as I want to help and access for some people is limited.”
Auslan via the videophone service Skype, for Timothy Morgan and his wife Anita. (ABC News: Claire Campbell)
The ABC contacted the NDIS and the Department of Social Services for a response.
In a statement, it said the Government was offering 1,440 grants of up to $10,000 to help grow the disability provider workforce.
It said Auslan providers could apply for this funding.
Auslan communicators are desperate for more people to become interpreters.
But it takes about six years of study and a lack of government subsidies for the diploma makes it an expensive exercise.
Even those who complete the diploma often do not become interpreters, taking their skills into other professions.
“The framework of the actual study itself I think needs to be reviewed,” Mr Morgan said.
“One of my children is a qualified interpreter, the other two tried to get involved and thought it was too complicated and chose other career paths.
“There needs to be a bit of a solution to the problem.”