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.