Are universities going to become more inclusive?

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Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (Post-14), National Deaf Children’s Society

Pretty soon, lots of teenagers will be receiving their A-level and BTEC results and find out if they will go to their preferred choice of university. I can remember how exciting and also nerve-wracking it felt to go to university for the first time. If you are deaf like me I think it can be even more so: will it be easy to follow the lectures? Will I make friends? Is communication going to be a problem?

Some readers of this blog will remember our fight against the changes to Disabled Students Allowances back in 2014 and 2015. Whilst the Government decided to maintain DSA funding for specialist note-takers (people with training specifically in writing notes for deaf students), funding for ordinary manual note-takers was removed for the 2016-17 academic year along with some other forms of less-specialised support such as library support assistants and proof-readers.

One of the Government’s justifications for cutting DSAs was because it wanted universities to develop a more inclusive approach to teaching so that learning is accessible to more students. No objections to that – we have always wanted universities to be more flexible. There have been plenty of deaf students who have expressed their frustration over the years at reasonable adjustments not being made such as Dean Kamitis in his recent Limping Chicken blog.

The Government has published guidance for higher education providers on ‘Inclusive Practice’. The guidance encourages universities to make changes so that their courses are more accessible to students with disabilities. Some universities are leading the way. I recently visited Du Montford University in Leicester and was impressed with their approach:

You have been waiting for it and here is the ‘but’. Does a piece of guidance go far enough? – the Government does not appear to have any stick (e.g. loss of funding) to beat universities with should they decide to ignore this guidance. Also, a couple of practitioners have said to me that they are concerned that some universities see inclusive practice as simply about rolling-out lecture capture technology. See this lecture recording for an explanation of how lecture capturing can benefit disabled students: see this lecture recording – oh wait…..no subtitles! And here lies the issue for many deaf students. Lecture capturing is not going to make a difference and could actually make access worse if more course content and materials move online.

Deaf students are small in number – most university disability advisors might be aware of 2 or 3 deaf students at their institution at most. This means that in general, teaching staff are not in regular contact with deaf students and have little awareness of their needs. This is why the National Deaf Children’s Society has extended our Supporting Achievement resources to higher education. Supporting the Achievement of Deaf Young People in Higher Education aims to provide disability advisors and other higher education staff with the information required to ensure deaf students get the support they need.

I know from experience, having people around who understand the barriers you face and how to communicate with you properly makes a huge difference. For deaf young people starting uni this September, it might help reduce those fresher’s week nerves!

If you are a young person at uni and you have having difficulties because your course is not fully accessible, you can get in touch with our helpline for further advice and guidance: http://www.ndcs.org.uk/family_support/how_ndcs_can_help/support_and_advice/

This blog is mostly relevant to students from England only as the DSA changes have not taken place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, the Supporting Achievement resource is aimed at universities across the whole of the UK.

What do we know about communication support for deaf people?

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Ian Noon, Head of Policy and Research, National Deaf Children’s Society

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

New research shows big impact for deaf toddlers from radio aids

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Ian Noon, (aged 3 years) Head of Policy and Research

One of my earliest, most vivid memories is playing in the lounge while listening to my Mum, who was in the kitchen talking about the dinner she was making/burning. She was only able to do this because she was wearing a microphone and the sound of her speech was coming through clearly and direct to my radio aid, cutting out all background noise.

I used to insist that she wear the microphone all the time – in the car, outdoors, everywhere – and would throw petulant tantrums when she turned it off, even just for a second.

I’ve no doubt that because of all this, I was able to develop good language and communication skills and get a good head start once I arrived at primary school.

So when I joined the National Deaf Children’s Society, many years later, I was amazed to find out that my experience was relatively unusual. A survey by the Consortium for Research into Deaf Education (CRIDE) in 2016 found that 46% of local authorities do not make radio aids available to pre-school deaf children.

This is why I’m really excited by the latest research being published by the National Deaf Children’s Society today. It shows that radio aid technology can have a big impact on hearing and communication for deaf children. In particular, it finds that being able to hear their parents’ voice clearly and directly by using radio aids promotes markedly better parent-child communication.

To me, the research confirms something that many people have known for years. It’s pretty well established by now that the early years are critical in developing language and communication skills, and that the interaction between parents and children is an essential part of this. But we also know that everyday situations like being in a buggy or car can be a noisy minefield for deaf children, making it impossible for them to hear their parents in those critical early years.

Radio aids aren’t for everyone and we still need to look at the individual needs of each deaf child. But it is important that parents have the information they need to make informed choices about whether / when they’d like to try a radio aid for their child. But for these kind of informed choices to mean anything, the other 54% of local authorities need to take action to make sure that they can provide radio aids if parents feel it would benefit them.

Last year, we launched our Right from the Start campaign to make sure that every deaf child got the right support from the earliest possible age. The research published today suggests that one way of meeting this goal for many will be to make sure that there is much wider access to radio aids in the early years. I hope that local authorities will take action to ensure that more deaf children get the chance to benefit from this, like I did.

Another day, another problem with DSA

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (post-14)

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (post-14)

I have recently written about changes to Disabled Student Allowances (DSAs) that the Government has been consulting on. These are planned for the academic year 2016-17 and will affect new students starting their degree courses that year. However, for students starting this year, there is a new policy that might affect them.

The Government has introduced a cancellation policy for bookings for support workers paid for by DSAs such as interpreters, notetakers, speech to text, etc. DSA funding will now not normally be available for bookings cancelled with more than 24 hours’ notice. This policy is somewhat ill thought-out as most communication support providers have terms and conditions of booking which state that cancellations must be made at least two weeks in advance to avoid cancellation fees. This means that deaf students or university disability teams risk being left to cover the cost of cancellation fees which can be up to 100% of the cost of the booking (two BSL interpreters booked for two hours could cost £250 in total). Ouch.

Terms and conditions can of course be negotiated and it may be that some providers agree to waive their cancellation fees for the benefit of deaf students. However, it’s likely to turn many off from wanting to work in HE if they risk being cancelled at short notice. Ah, you might think what if you cancelled the booking with less than 24 hours’ notice? No, think again. Yes, the booking would be paid for through DSAs but if you miss or cancel at the last minute two or more times in one term then DSAs could be withdrawn altogether.

Now, the two missed sessions clause, we really do have concerns with and it could potentially be discriminatory under the Equality Act. Unlike hearing students, a deaf student who has an interpreter or notetaker booked for them will be required to attend every single lecture or their DSAs will be at risk. If someone is being a typical student (cue flashback to those wild nights), then we might expect them to miss a class or two. But now deaf students will have pressure on them to be paragons of virtue.

I’m not suggesting that it is acceptable for deaf students to have a disregard for any support that has been booked for them through the public purse. Where a student has continuously missed sessions for which support has been booked there are questions to be asked. However, this policy seems somewhat harsh as it means a student who is unable to attend a lecture for whatever reason (oversleeping, transport problems, illness, etc) have the additional stress of having to worry about whether their DSAs are under threat. Without the right support, deaf students are at risk of dropping out of university and this is not good use of public money either.

The Government have yet to publish full details of the new policy and they have told NDCS that our concerns will be passed onto the team developing the detail. When this comes out NDCS will develop guidance for young people as soon as we can. It is regrettable that as deaf young people start university over the next couple of weeks, starting an exciting new period in their lives, that we are having to warn them about this threat hanging over them.