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HomeBusinessRemote work fuels national growth for Ottawa-based sign language interpreting service

Remote work fuels national growth for Ottawa-based sign language interpreting service

Growing up with two deaf parents, meant Brenda Jenkins learned sign language at a young age.

She was sure her career would involve sign language. Teachers, community members, and interpreters told her to get into the field.

She was devastated when she got rejection letters from every college interpreter program she applied for out of high school.

With no class to attend, she packed her bags and travelled the world.

“It was all meant to be because I went off and backpacked for a year through Australia, New Zealand and Europe,” Jenkins said.

Today, after a career interpreting for the Canadian government, Brenda Jenkins co-owns Sign Language Interpreting Associates Ottawa (SLIAO), a national interpreting service pioneering remote interpreting.

Jenkins said the second time was the charm.

“I came back and reapplied, and I was just in a better place.”

In 1990, she made it into an “intense ten-month program” at MacEwan University, then MacEwan College, in Edmonton.

She grew up in Ottawa and, after graduation, moved back to work with the Canadian Hearing Society.

“I started my career as a sign language interpreter at the Canadian Hearing Society for a few years and then got married and started to have a family,” Jenkins said. “I wanted to work as a freelancer independently on my own here in Ottawa so that I could have some time with my kids.”

She became a contractor for the Federal government, interpreting for some of the “several hundred deaf people working in various departments.”

Then, new regulations shook her industry.

“It used to be that they would just call each interpreter, and we would say whether or not we were available. Then, we would go off and do that assignment,” Jenkins said.

She said the contract system “wasn’t an effective model at all,” so the government changed regulations and decided to award a limited set of full-time contracts instead.

The number of available contracts shrank, separating the workers from their preferred interpreters, according to Jenkins.

“Two of our most esteemed colleagues didn’t get a contract,” she said. “They were some of those deaf individuals preferred interpreters. We just felt it was unfair and unjust, so a couple of our colleagues got a lawyer, and we challenged the process.”

Jenkins said the new tension between interpreters and the government changed the workplace, creating a “toxic environment where one interpreter was undercutting the other.”

They decided to form a new business so “everyone would get at least a little bit of work,” Jenkins said.

Together, they had more flexibility as interpreters and offered more coverage to their customers.

“By pooling our resources, we were actually far more effective,” she said. “We started to do larger conferences and court interpreting and we evolved and grew and did some national contracts.”

According to Jenkins, her company started with hybrid work.

“We didn’t have actual headquarters or buildings because we would just go out interpreting,” she said. “We didn’t have that kind of overhead and built a fairly good reputation for ourselves.”

Jenkins said they were early adopters of virtual relay technology – a method of interpreting phone calls using a video calling service for sign language communication and a phone for interpreting.

In September 2016, the CRTC launched the first Video Relay Service in Canada, using the same technology Jenkins said her company was already piloting.

“We thought, ‘You know what? We have it. We have the ability to kind of navigate that,'” she said. “We were one of the bidders, and we were awarded a contract.”

The new market access brought growth, which meant SLIAO had to find more interpreters.

Jenkins said, “We had to grow very quickly in the open call centers across the country, and we leveraged interpreters across the country to provide this service.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, their remote work experience put them ahead of the curve, and increased demand led them to expand, according to Jenkins.

“We learned we could provide more service as a result, so we grew even more during COVID,” she said.

Despite the gains in growth, Jenkins said the pandemic highlighted a shortage of recruits.

“I know that through the pandemic we haven’t graduated enough interpreters because everything went remote, and they were out because how you learn the language is by socializing with the Deaf community,” she said.

“There is still a great need for more programs and more interpreters.”

Jenkins said her company doesn’t offer classes for new interpreters but supports the Sign Language Institute of Canada (SLIC).

According to the SLIC website, the organization started in 1981 to create a standard for the education of interpreters.

SLIC did not respond to requests for comment.

David Kerr, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Sign Language Interpreters, said the cost and time commitment to American Sign Language (ASL) training is an “enormous challenge” that may be contributing to the shortage.

“There has been a shortage of interpreters in Canada,” Kerr said,” There is lack of enrollment at most of the colleges across Canada because of cost of livings in large cities, lack of fluent ASL signers, and longer years at the colleges – first to learn ASL, up to two years – and then interpreting courses – up to two to three years depending on each college requirements.”

Instead, Jenkins said SLIAO offers continuing development for staff aiming for higher certifications.

“We help them progressively meet their goals, which is a win-win,” she said. “So, everyone loves it when they come to work for us. We have a lot of resources and teachers that can support our interpreters in their development and learning growth.”

Now, Jenkins said she spends more time in public relations than interpreting, working on a new look for the business.

“We’re just undergoing this great process where we’re rebranding, and we’ll have a new website shortly because Sign Language Interpreting Associates Ottawa no longer really reflects who we are and what we do,” she said.

“Our new name, it’s top secret, but it’s a play on words. We’re really excited about it. We should officially launch it by the end of March.”