What do we know about communication support for deaf people?

Ian_Noon

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.

 

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.