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Sign language interpreters at politicians' media events: Real help for the deaf or mere virtue signalling?

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Thursday, 18 June 2020

A noticeable feature of last summer's regular bushfire press conferences, and (more recently) of politicians' (almost daily) covid19 briefings, has been the presence of an Australian Sign Language (Auslan) interpreter at televised presentations. The Australian situation mimics overseas practice, where even "Black Lives Matter" media events regularly have a sign language interpreter.

This has led me to wonder about the number of hearing impaired persons who actually understand sign language. A further issue is the extent to which such interpreting actually improves communication with the deaf, given that so much television is already closed-captioned.

There apparently are over 135 different sign languages around the world, including American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL) and Australian Sign Language (Auslan). Most countries that share a spoken language apparently do not share the same sign language. BSL is said to be far more similar to Auslan, while ASL is from a completely different language family.


It would thus appear that, for example, ASL translation in news reporting from the US will be largely unintelligible to the deaf community in Australia (and most other deaf communities outside the US and English-speaking Canada). Advocates for the deaf also claim that Australian news organisations sometimes crop Auslan interpreters out of shot (in favour of highlighting the key speaker). If this happens, deaf people miss out on some of what is said.

The direct cost of employing an Auslan interpreter itself seems to be fairly modest. The minimum cost varies from $194 to $242, and the hourly rates are about $120. Lengthy events may require more than one interpreter. Overall, we are not talking mega-dollars.

An alternative to sign language translation is lip reading. Lip reading is, however, a very imperfect art for most practitioners. By some approximations, even the most skilled lip readers can only discern 30 percent of what is being said. Another challenge of lip reading is that many things obstruct the visual cues, including accents, hand gestures, speed of speech, and mumbling. In addition, intense concentration is required in order to follow every word. In other words, lip reading is not a genuine alternative to Auslan or captioning.

Many sign languages (including Auslan, ASL and BSL) are considered endangered because of decreasing numbers of sign language users (a decrease which is projected to accelerate in coming decades with increased use of bionic hearing aids and the like among those born deaf).

In terms of numbers, the Australian Network on Disability estimates that as many as one in six Australians (or about four million) are affected by hearing loss. Of these, approximately 30,000 are said to be deaf Auslan users with total hearing loss. Thus, on these figures, about 0.12 per cent of the total Australian population (or about 0.75 per cent of our total hearing impaired population) are Auslan users. An alternative source puts a lower figure (20,000) on the number of Auslan users.

The most watched nightly TV news programmes average about 1.1 million viewers (per channel) so we are talking about maybe three million daily viewers of news bulletins in total. By my calculations, if (say) 20 per cent of Australian adults (about 3 million in total) watch the evening news, we might (at most) expect maybe 6,000 Auslan users to be watching (based on a similar proportion).


The alternative to using sign language in the media is captioning. The sound, including the dialogue, in a television programme can be shown as text on the screen (called "television captioning"). Captioning is intended to help people who have a hearing impairment and may also assist some with limited English. Closed captions can be seen only with a decoder or capable television, and can be turned on or off. For television services in Australia, closed captioning is available on most television sets. Open captions, on the other hand, are burned into the original print recording of a programme and are permanently visible on the screen.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) regulates television captioning in Australia. Free-to-air television broadcasters are required to caption all news and current affairs programmes, as well as any programme screened on their primary or main channels between 6am and midnight (unless it's music-only or not in English). Captioning requirements on subscription television channels vary according to the type of programming. All digital television receivers (including set-top boxes) that comply with Australian Standard 4933 must be able to decode and display captions.

There are three obvious negatives with using sign language interpreters at news events.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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