Last week, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) published a monster 142-page document summarising the responses it received to a review on communication support for deaf people. The aim of the review was to try and identify what we know about the supply and demand of professionals (such as interpreters, speech-to-text-reporters, etc.) whose role it is to provide support to deaf people with their communication. We submitted evidence back in 2016 setting out what we knew then about communication support for deaf children and young people.
So what have we learnt from the DWP report? Here are my own top five take-home messages from the report.
- Nobody is quite sure how many deaf people there are. For example, we have a very rough ball-park figure on the number of deaf children from the Consortium for Research into Deaf Education – but we know that those figures, whilst the best available, are not 100% reliable.
- Nobody really knows how many communication support professionals there are out there either. It’s not something that any government department appears to be measuring.
- However, there is a lot of evidence that there the number of communication support professionals isn’t enough. Lots of respondents gave examples of unmet demand among deaf people. For example, there is evidence that too many deaf children are being supported by communication support workers who don’t have an advanced qualification in sign language.
- It became clear from reading the report that the term ‘communication support workers’ (CSWs) means different things to different people. We at the National Deaf Children’s Society would use the term to refer to a type of specialist teaching assistant, someone who would provide support to deaf children in the classroom, with signed support as necessary. However, we wouldn’t see them as “interpreters” because CSWs need to be able to do much more than just interpret what the teaching is saying by, for example, supporting deaf children with notes, explaining concepts, and so on. It’s clear though that in other areas, deaf people are being supported by a professional described as a ‘communication support worker’ when really they should be supported by an interpreter. The report points to a need for much more clarity on the role of CSWs and what skills they need in different situations.
- Lots of people feel that technology – such as remote sign language interpreters or speech-to-text-reporters – can really help deaf people. However, there was a unanimous view that this cannot be seen as a substitute for ‘real life’ communication support. Indeed, many people were concerned that new technology was being used as an excuse to reduce support inappropriately.
So what happens next? We’re not yet sure. The DWP report is literally just a summary of responses and doesn’t set out any recommendations or actions for the Government.
On our side, we’d be keen to see the Government take action to improve data on deaf children and also to ensure there are more, better-qualified, communication support workers for deaf children and young people. We’d also like to see speech-to-text reporters being more widely used, particularly for older deaf young people, including those at university. We’ll be pressing the Government to set out what action it’ll be taking in response to the report so watch this space.