As the government ramps up its Disability Confident campaign which is supposed to eliminate barriers faced by deaf and disabled jobseekers, deaf people who rely on Access to Work to employ communication support, say that cuts to the scheme threaten their ability to work.
Users of Access to Work (ATW) who require more than 30 hours support from interpreters and note takers, are being told that their employers must now pay for someone to provide that support instead. Jenny Sealey, creative director of the Paralympic Games opening ceremony and Artistic Director of Theatre Company Graeae, says that the government has indicated that it would expect the salary for interpreters to be £30-35 thousand. But they earn £250-275 a day now and she doubts that they will be prepared to work for less money.
Having to employ one interpreter would, according to Sealey, deny her the flexibility to cope with her demanding schedule. “I use different interpreters for different work because of the varied nature of my position at Graeae. For board finance meetings I will select an interpreter who is good communicating that type of information and operates well in a business like setting; for a schools workshop I will book an interpreter who is comfortable around young people and understands the dynamics of that environment. From my 25 year’s experience working in the arts, I can safely say that different interpreters have different skills, and it is virtually impossible to find an interpreter who is ideal in every situation.”
Sealey, who is also the spokeswoman for the Stop Changes to Access to Work campaign, adds: “There are some parts of the day, like when I am answering emails, when I do not use an interpreter and there are other days or parts of the day like rehearsals/workshops, when I require two. How is this meant to work if I have one interpreter working a standard 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday week? They would spend some time doing nothing and other times being over-stretched. Also, I often work evenings and weekends. Is someone going to sign on to work with me at whatever hours I request? Are they always going to take their annual leave when I do, or are they going to sit around doing nothing while I’m out of the office?”
Other people are not prepared to speak about their situation publicly for fear of losing ATW support. One deaf businessman, who asked not to be named and who employs several deaf people, says that it’s ‘seriously questionable’ whether his business can survive. He is angry that the government has introduced cuts without consulting ATW users but is appealing against moves to cut his budget. “We used to win a lot of big contracts because of our competitive bids but we’ve been losing contracts during the last few months because of the additional costs we have to include in our service. The companies who have been winning those bids are not run by deaf people and don’t employ deaf people like we do. So they don’t have those additional costs. I think we’re going to have to let people go.”
A BSL user, who also asked not to be named, says that ATW has been pivotal in her career progression. “It has allowed me to climb up the career ladder, reaching my maximum potential in each and every job role. Without access to phone calls, emails and speaking at meetings, I wouldn’t be where I am. Every job needs communication; from cleaners to CEOs, communication with managers, relaying job tasks, colleague support in times of dilemmas and problem solving and team work.”
She has negotiated a compromise with ATW. But there was a six-week period when she had to reapply for support after starting a new job when she was left without a BSL interpreter. It’s fair to say that many other people would not have had the resilience to negotiate the bureaucracy. “It reduced me to being unemployable, unable to meet my targets and deliver my knowledge/skills to my best ability. A lot of sleepless nights and a daily battle with Access to Work who became more of a hindrance than a help, it really sucked a lot of energy out of me and I struggled to focus on my targets and tasks as part of my new role. I emailed Access to Work every day through those six weeks.”
The campaign has parliamentary backing from Teresa Pearce MP who is on the Work and Pensions Committee and who has pledged to raise the profile of the campaign in the Commons.