The Northern Territory will soon be without a single full-time Auslan interpreter, stranding the deaf community – and particularly its Indigenous members – without the support they need to navigate the health and legal systems. By Kylie Stevenson and Tamara Howie.

Shortage of Auslan interpreters in NT

Amid the usual Friday night din of the Darwin Trailer Boat Club, a dozen people sit in complete silence, gesturing intensely; multiple conversations flow around the long table.

There is a mix of people here for the monthly meeting of the Auslan social club – deaf, hard of hearing and parents of deaf children, some whose first language is Auslan and others who are still learning.

Among them is Liz Temple, who, for the past 11 years, has worked as an Auslan interpreter – travelling across the Northern Territory to assist deaf and hard of hearing people with legal and medical appointments, among other things.

But last week Temple resigned from her position and she will not be replaced because the government is winding back funding. This means there will soon be no Auslan interpreter employed full-time in the Northern Territory.

Most of Temple’s clients are Indigenous, and advocates fear her departure will leave deaf Indigenous people in the Northern Territory without the support they need to navigate the health and legal systems.

According to the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience some of the highest levels of hearing loss in the world, with rates up to 10 times higher than those for non-Indigenous Australians.

National Auslan Interpreter Booking and Payment Service manager Keri Gilbert says the Commonwealth government has been winding back funding since the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and a Commonwealth contract is not guaranteed past June 30, 2020.

She says the full-time Auslan interpreter position held by Temple, who is based in Darwin and finishes her role on November 1, will no longer be funded by the Commonwealth government.

“They’ve been reducing funding every 12 months – they say as the block funding decreases, the NDIS uptake should increase,” she says.

But Gilbert says that is not necessarily the case, because many deaf people are not being allocated funding in their plans for interpreters, despite needing them. She also claims the NDIS is notoriously difficult for deaf people to navigate.

Then there is the problem of funds in plans running out, creating a gap before a review can be arranged. This leaves some deaf participants without NDIS funds for interpreting at their medical appointments.

“The majority of deaf people have low English literacy levels and lack a wider understanding of systems and processes,” Gilbert says. “Aboriginal deaf people have a whole other layer of issues and of disadvantage.”

Temple says 80 to 90 per cent of her clients are Indigenous, and she interprets for a range of appointments, including legal, medical and employment.

But most Indigenous people who use her services aren’t fluent in Auslan and English isn’t their first language. Many have additional communication complexities due to cultural, linguistic and additional cognitive issues such as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and mental health issues.

Temple says interpreters from elsewhere often don’t have adequate cultural and linguistic training to work effectively with Indigenous clients.

Throughout her time in the NT, Temple has been supported on an ongoing basis by interpreters at the Aboriginal Interpreter Service.

“A lot of insights have come from them; we often work together to ensure best-practice interpreting and local knowledge come together for the client,” she says.

She believes there needs to be greater awareness, not only for the interpreters but also for the deaf community and service providers who may not understand the benefits of using an interpreter.

Deaf Indigenous community consultant Jody Barney says she worked closely with Temple over many years to guide her in cultural protocols and lore.

“The use of interpreters without adequate training or awareness will cause an influx of many being incarcerated at a high rate or being hospitalised due to family violence, due to poor access to justice needs as deaf Aboriginal people,” Barney says. “If interpreters aren’t familiar [with these needs], they can do more harm than good.”

Barney says most deaf people in the NT are Indigenous and not afforded the luxury of moving to another state to access interpreters or using technology to access them.

Without an interpreter to attend in person, deaf people in the NT seeking interpreting services would be offered video remote interpreting services (VRI), which Temple says comes with further difficulties in an Indigenous context.

“There is a high need to develop a relationship with a client for them to feel comfortable,” Temple says.

“Often Aboriginal people use very subtle facial cues and hand movements and these can be difficult if you aren’t familiar with them to understand and interpret their meaning, and that can have a profound effect on the meaningfulness and accuracy of the interpretation.”

And then there are the challenges of wrangling technology in remote communities.

“It’s really difficult if the screen is small or broadband’s not good, or there’s a storm and it’s fuzzy and keeps freezing,” Temple says. “It’s also visually tricky, for example, if the client is wearing a black shirt, and the clearness of facial expressions over video can be difficult. People connect better in person.”

While she uses tele-interpreters herself, Barney says the availability, accessibility and acceptance of such technology is met with reluctance in many parts of the NT. “Many deaf Indigenous people will be very challenged by this technology as the Auslan interpreter will struggle to understand their preferred signing systems,” she says.

“Losing Ms Temple is a huge disappointment in accessing a professional-level interpreter in many roles, especially justice and mental health.

“Many deaf Indigenous clients using [her services] will struggle with new people, new systems and communication as the built relationships have now disappeared.”

Paula Thornton, a third-generation deaf woman and co-ordinator for DeafNT, which advocates for and assists the deaf community, says Temple’s position coming to an end is a blow to deaf people in the NT, many of whom have not yet accessed the NDIS.

“Anyone who is not on the NDIS, or who runs out of money for interpreting in their plan, is left having to fork out money for interpreters for things like medical appointments,” she says.

“Most will just do without and will have to book a long appointment and type to doctor on a device.”

While Thornton regularly uses VRI services, she says it is not ideal for some bookings, such as the Auslan social club and group meetings. She says it is likely many other service providers are struggling with similar funding cuts from the government due to the NDIS.

“I hope this will open up for other interpreting agencies to think about whether they want to employ more interpreters based here in Darwin,” Thornton says. “I believe this is what the government wanted to see when they introduced NDIS.”

But until other services appear, there is just one part-time Auslan interpreter to service the whole Northern Territory.

“I only can hope that interpreters elsewhere might want a life change and move to Darwin,” Thornton says.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 26, 2019 as "Deafening silence".

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Kylie Stevenson is a Walkley Award-winning freelance journalist based in Darwin.

Tamara Howie is a Darwin-based journalist, artist and arts producer.

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