Why is there a shortage of Sign interpreters?

Could it be that there aren’t enough teachers of BSL? Is the shortage more severe in different parts of the country?

Robert G. Lee is a Senior Lecturer in BSL & Deaf Studies at the University of Central Lancashire. He has noticed the dearth of interpreters:

“There’s not enough interpreters and sign language teachers to meet the needs of the community, especially in rural areas there might be very few interpreters or teachers. London, Manchester and other big cities have a higher percentage of Deaf people partly because there are more services but there still aren’t enough interpreters in the right place and the right time. In a rural area there might be a more limited range of interpreters not all qualified to interpret the range of things Deaf people might need, so you might have interpreters good with community work but not legal work so if you needed a solicitor it would be difficult to find the right interpreter.”

Of course, this is true for everyone, cities have always had better public services and more jobs, hence only 6% of British people live in the countryside.

Robert doesn’t think interpreters are badly paid:

“Before I can teach someone to interpret they have to be bilingual and so we need to have a greater number of qualified BSL teachers out there teaching the language. I think interpreting is a fairly well paid job for the level of education required, but not hugely rich.”

Robert pointed out that the decline of Deaf clubs has made it harder for interpreters to learn the full range of BSL. This is because Deaf clubs tend to be attended by Deaf people from all age groups, but since the internet revolutionised social gatherings, Deaf people only tend to hang out with people their own age, limiting the vocabulary that potential interpreters can learn.

A spokesman for SignHealth confirmed that it was very difficult to book interpreters which suggests that there is a shortage.

According to the national union of British Sign Language interpreters (NUBSLI), wages for interpreters have been forced down by government policy. Their committee said:

“We do not believe that the perceived shortage would be the only factor in Deaf people not having access to interpreters, in fact it would be the national framework agreements the current government enforce on public services such as the NHS. These frameworks have forced interpreters’ fees, terms and conditions down to such an extreme that many professionals are unable to accept the work, not that they are not available or prepared to work.”

Logically, the ideal solution would be if the Deaf community all lived together in a few areas. That way they could maximise their political and economic bargaining power. Under first past the post, politicians have little incentive to pay attention to minorities unless they are concentrated in a few constituencies. Maybe that’s utopian and they shouldn’t have to, but those are the cards we are playing with.

Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.


  1. If you want to be a teacher of BSL you need the qualifications ! As the system is mostly controlled by hearing people the DEAF PEOPLE are not in a system. DEAF CHILDREN are not even put into an education system that teaches them to become TEACHERS of BRITISH SIGN LANGUAGE WHY CANT HEARING PEOPLE HEAR ?

  2. As a hearing person who has learned BSL I have to disagree ,The schools who teach BSL are very expensive and only have Deaf people teaching in my experience .Which is fine but not what Miriam Davies is saying . I wanted to learn and I have encouraged my Grandchildren to learn also .After it costing nearly £1200 for two grandaughters and myself to do level 1 and over £1000 for me and one 12 year old grandaughter to successfully learn level 2. I now want to do level three but the cost is out of my reach .It is very expensive and sad that a child who is willing to do this at evening classes after a school day is prevented by the high cost .

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