Mexican sign language interpreters navigate disability discrimination


People with hearing disabilities in Mexico suffer on two levels when it comes to access to an interpreter, one of their key rights.

One the hand, there is a shortage of certified and qualified interpreters and, on the other, the labour rights of these interpreters are not respected, further contributing to the discrimination faced by the deaf and hard of hearing.

“The [deaf and hard of hearing] are not seen as a linguistic minority. There is also a lack of training [for sign language interpreters], there is no formal qualification. It’s difficult for us to be seen as professionals,” says Erika Ordóñez, president of the Federal District Sign Language Interpreters Association (AILSDF).

There are approximately 649,000 people with hearing disabilities in Mexico, a country of 122 million people. Of that number, between 300,000 and 500,000 people communicate through Mexican sign language (LSM). Yet, there are only 42 certified LSM interpreters, plus another 200 with some degree of training, and around 150 informal interpreters. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans enduring varying levels of exclusion from essential services such as education, health care and the justice system.

In 2008, the National Council for the Standardisation and Certification of Occupational Skills (CONOCER), established the NUIPD001.01 Standard on the Provision of Mexican Sign Language Interpreting Services, stipulating all the criteria a qualified interpreter should meet.

But the standard has been given little chance to make any real impact. Aside from being out of date (it should have been updated in June 2013), this standard is seldom applied and CONOCER has, unexpectedly, stopped certifying experts, citing a “lack of interest”.

As a result, Mexico is in breach of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into effect in 2008, and the 2011 General Law for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, for which there is still no regulation.

The Convention establishes that all signatory states shall ensure that people with disabilities have access to justice on an equal basis with others in all legal
proceedings, including at investigative and other preliminary stages.

The national law, in addition, provides that people with disabilities shall be entitled to decent and appropriate treatment in all administrative and legal procedures, as well as to free legal advice and representation within the framework of such procedures, under the terms established by the respective laws.

Collective bargaining

The AILSDF is negotiating a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the High Court of the Federal District regarding the participation of interpreters in the new oral trials (which allows judges to hear arguments delivered verbally, rather than through the submission of written briefs in order to lower trial costs and avoid delays in proceedings).

The draft agreement, consulted by Equal Times, reflects the conditions affecting the work of these specialists. The pay offered is equal to five days of the general minimum wage, a level far below the amount earned by conference interpreters, for example. The daily minimum wage in Mexico is around US$5.

Moreover, the Judiciary of the Federal District, where the capital city of Mexico City is located, insists that these experts should be paid as of the start of a trial rather than from the time it reaches the court, which is the case with similar professionals.

Finally, the CBA fails to cover working conditions such as pay for the services contracted in the event of cancellation and meal times.

“It is a right that is not respected. Interpreting services are not even provided in basic areas such as health or education. Such shortfalls should not exist, because there is legislation, but it has not been respected,” says Xóchitl Rodríguez, deputy director for the course on inclusion for persons with disabilities at the state university Universidad Tecnológica Santa Catarina, in Monterrey, some 900 kilometres north of Mexico City.

This institution, founded in 2005, has 2,200 students, 250 of which have some form of disability, and works with 17 interpreters to attend to pupils in primary and secondary education as well as baccalaureate and university students.

In the state of Nuevo León, of which Monterrey is the capital, there are only three certified interpreters. They earn an average of US$13 an hour.

There has been a rise in the complaints regarding discrimination since 2013, despite the statistics being lower than they would be if more formal complaints were presented.

In 2013, the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED) opened 12 cases, nine for acts attributed to private individuals and three involving public servants. The following year it investigated ten and six cases, respectively.

Despite the fact that the National Council for the Development and Inclusion of People with Disabilities (CONADIS) has benefited from an increased budget since 2012, there has been no substantial improvement for people with hearing disabilities. In 2012, it was allocated US$240,000. The figure rose to US$1.5 million in 2013 and to over US$4 million in 2014.

“There are very few people able to assess interpreters for oral trials, and they need to be certified as legal experts. CONADIS should certify them, but it doesn’t do it,” says Ordóñez, the daughter of parents with hearing disabilities. She learned LSM as a child and interprets to Spanish, French and English.

One of the action priorities of the 2014-2018 National Programme for the Development and Inclusion of People with Disabilities refers to the massive implementation of LSM and other systems for interpreters or experts.

It also refers to promoting the availability of experts specialised in disabilities and LSM in the administration of justice, updating the regulation on occupation skills, and designing and implementing programmes to train and certify LSM interpreters. But the Programme does not set out any indicators to measure compliance.

“Labour rights are not clearly defined because there is no comparable standard or academic qualification. People who cannot prove that they are interpreters are unlikely to receive a wage in line with their skills. The criteria needs to be standardised and the public should be informed of the importance of the interpreters’ role, so that they are recognised and not seen as someone doing a very basic job,” suggests Rodríguez.

This article has been translated from Spanish.