University of Edinburgh

Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education

Chapter Eleven: Deaf Awareness

Many respondents (deaf students as well as access and support staff) mentioned the importance of deaf awareness. One deaf student commented:

"The University was not deaf aware at all. There should be an inclusive approach. All the main staff should get deaf awareness training … so that they will know how to work with them [deaf students] properly. Some staff were ignorant about my needs so it was often difficult for me to get the right support."

Sometimes deaf students have to deal with a lack of awareness and understanding from individual members of teaching staff:

"I remember one man in first year, one of my lecturers, he’d been at the meeting where it was explained that I was coming into the class and to be aware, you know. So people would know there would be a microphone on the desk and stuff like that. But one day, he pointed at the microphone and said ‘What’s that?’ (Disparaging tone) and then said ‘Oh, it’s for the girl with the problem.’ and I was like ‘Oh!’ cringe."

That’s about the only bad experience. This student mentioned that this was her only bad experience, and this is important to note since she was an experienced student undertaking a PhD at the time of interview.

One theme which comes through the responses of a subset of students can be summed up in the emphasised element of the following comment:

"My lecturers sometimes do not take my hearing impairment into consideration when preparing lectures with music or video sections to them. On the other hand [...] I am reluctant to complain."

Students may feel uncomfortable about being placed in the position of having to draw attention to themselves:

"I never asked for the questions [before the seminars] because the lecturers wouldn’t have understood. I had a good rapport with some lecturers, but not all of them. Some of them just didn’t know how to deal with a deaf person. I’d rather have a lecturer that’s direct with me in the same way. But some lecturers were just unsure how to cope with me."

One student had such a negative experience that he commented: “For the moment, I’d just like to forget about university”. However, some students viewed the situation more positively and recognise their own potential role in undertaking (informal) Deaf Awareness training of teaching staff:

"In the last year, I think because everybody knows me quite well, I’ve had so much encouragement from the lecturers and they’re always checking, ‘Did you hear that?’ or ‘Do you need some help with that?’

[Q: So the attitudes of the lecturers made quite a difference?]

I would say it’s got better as I’ve been there — I think I’ve taught them."

Sometimes the difficulties students experience relate to what they perceive as non-collaboration from both staff and students. One student approached her peers and asked them to put their hands up if they were going to speak, as otherwise she had no idea who was speaking. She describes her interaction with the students:

"I thought right if you could stand at the front if you want to ask a question so that I could see your face clearly. And then they came back and said ‘Why don’t you stand out at the front to save us having to go up there all the time”, I said ‘Well if I stand out at the front, how can I see the lecturer’s face?’ So they weren’t very happy about me and they didn’t want to do that. There’s all problems with confidentiality, well they thought there were problems of confidentiality due to the nature of the training…lecturers were a bit unsettled about having someone else in the room taking notes."

In this particular case, there appeared to be a particular issue concerning confidentiality. Individuals were clearly sharing information that they would not wish to be reproduced outside of the session: "

And I stressed to them, I said ‘it’s okay, ***** ****** code of practice, confidentiality. No-one’s going to see those notes apart from me. I bring the disk back and they wipe the disk and then they can use the disk again’. I said, ‘No-one else can see what’s written on here’. Well, they said I can’t divulge anything at all, it made them unsettled and they said, ‘We’re not having it, I’m afraid’. And that went on and on and I’ve just about finished this course."

Students can gain the impression that staff are labelling or making assumptions about them:

"You know they said to me at the interview … ’We have questions about your stamina on this course’. Stamina, I thought! It’s all to do with the disability. It’s all to do with … the fact of it is they don’t understand the disability, that’s what this is."

Staff may also have conceptualisations of the requirements of deaf students which do not match the deaf students’ own perceptions. One FE Disability Advisor commented:

"A lecturer was saying this — saying they had to spend a disproportionate amount of time with deaf students. We have signers in the classroom, but not for all practicals, but most of the instruction is done by us without signers. Many students just want to get on and do it and do not want lots of instructions and deaf students are just the same. They say ‘Yes, Yes, Yes’, and then you realise that they haven’t got all the information. Then you have to get into their sight line and tell them that they are doing something wrong."

This situation comprises three distinct issues, one of access and two more of support. A ‘signer’ is present to provide access to classroom communication, but only for some of the time; this leaves the student without access to language interpretation when the signer is not there. Secondly, there is a perception on the part of the lecturer that deaf students require a disproportionate amount of the lecturer’s time. But equally, deaf students (like other students), may well prefer to ‘just get on’ with a task without wishing further instruction or clarification. Especially when the student is then ‘doing something wrong’, there is a danger that the problem is judged to lie with the student’s deafness.

There can also be a sense of exasperation from staff relating to the demands and costs of access for deaf people:

"Working with deaf students is a small part of my job, but takes up an inordinate amount of my time."

"It’s not a bottomless pit and you can’t expect staff to keep forking out."

However, this same staff member also comments:

"If you want staff, you have to pay for quality people – it’s a drain on finances and I see that as short-sighted of the Scottish Office [sic], because the better educated or qualified the student is, then they can get a job, earn and pay tax. If the money is not put in at this level, where do the students go? And they don’t get the same chances as other students."

Staff therefore often know a great deal about the real challenges in trying to arrange appropriate access. There is a danger, however, that students may perceive themselves to be ‘problematic’, and it can be the goodwill and positive attitude of staff that prevents this from happening.

Even in universities where there is a strong base of support for deaf students, there may be problems in ensuring that academic staff have an appropriate awareness and understanding of the linguistic requirements of deaf people. One way of trying to rectify this is by ensuring that staff have access to appropriate training:

"Through SENDA, every faculty has a Disability Officer who is responsible for all students and every department has a disability contact. But there is no-one saying that they have to go for training — there is no incentive for this. They do not get time off and it’s not seen as staff development. Through the legislation it should be compulsory. If you have a deaf person, you should go to training — and people have no time. I’m not blaming the lecturers, but it is a problem."

A number of Disability Staff commented that even where training is offered, it is poorly attended. University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) includes Deaf Awareness training within induction courses for staff, although this is only a thirty-minute session which those delivering the training found inadequate. A number of access staff also pointed out that many teaching staff are simply unaware of the language issues. There was also evidence that some teaching staff do not know how to use access staff:

"We still have academic staff who are so nervous about having a deaf student in their class that they go round everybody asking a question, but stop at the deaf students, because they still don’t realise that they can ask a question through the interpreter and they can answer."

Alan McClure, of RNID, commented that, in his experience, lecturing staff sometimes have the expectation that interpreters are 'helpers' who will assist the student with their academic work.

Several staff commented on the need for closer collaboration amongst all those involved, including between support staff and teaching staff:

"Closer collaboration/more access to info about courses would be very helpful. It’s not possible to be one hundred per cent accurate, but it should be possible to identify main elements for the programme so that strategies can be built upon as the course develops."

One student described how staff in a specific HEI had become very ‘deaf aware’:

"One example was that if the interpreters were late, the lecturer would refuse to start because he said I had a right to have full access. It really gave me confidence and made me feel a part of the university."

The same student also described the process involved in undertaking assignments. He was allowed to produce a version in BSL and then have that translated into English by a BSL/English interpreter. The spoken version was typed up and he could then alter and correct it. The student himself was responsible for organising this. However, the whole process meant that staff became much more aware and there was genuine dialogue about the demands of assignment.

One university had the option of submitting in BSL built into the regulations of one course: this is also the case in a number of UK universities. However, this practice is not widespread and there needs to be more sharing of information on the mechanics involved. Students need the opportunity to develop strategies for organising assignments presented in BSL and universities need strategies to ensure that such work is adequately translated and evaluated.

As we have already seen, there are some examples of lecturing staff not even following basic rules of access. However, there are other examples of lecturers being very creative. In the following case, the lecturer seems to have taken on board what is sometimes termed ‘deaf visuality’ (Thoutenhoofd, 1997 and 2003):

"We actually have one lecturer who now visualises the concepts he is trying to get across and will actually do that in class. I don’t know much about computing, so don't know what the course is or what it was that students were having difficulty understanding, but he actually had the students out on the floor explaining to them 'You are this part and this part and this part and this is what happens' and was moving them about the floor so they understood how that process worked in the computer. And primarily that was for the deaf students, but all the other students in the class who were a bit struggling with this abstract concept, it clicked. It is a great example of how a lecturer, with a wee bit of thought, can transfer information into an example which all students could understand.

[Q: They were actually being the computer?]

That’s right. They didn’t understand how these bits interacted and this showed how they interact. And it is just a great example, you know, the way it just clicked."

As this Advisor points out, what worked for the deaf student, also worked for the rest of the group. This is very typical of many of the examples of good practice.

"Some of the communication lecturers genuinely give them the material in advance of the class, looking at the examples they are going to be using and say 'No that is not deaf-friendly … Here are some examples that are deaf-friendly.’ They then use those examples and start to include them in their material. So that is progress."

The most impressive examples of good practice were those which were part of a holistic provision, where appropriate infrastructure had been established. In other cases, good practice was a result of the particular efforts of individuals.

One aspect of good practice involves providing an appropriate lead-in to university life and gradually familiarising the students with potential means of access:

"In the summer before [starting at University], my teacher of the deaf and the university Disability Officer arranged for us to go to a public lecture with a notetaker … it was just to show what it would be like. At that lecture — I think it was postgraduate, so it was quite difficult — it made me realise that I couldn’t follow it without a notetaker."

Clearly in the case of this student there was considerable collaboration between staff within the different institutions:

"I didn’t have to do anything. My teacher of the deaf got in touch with the Disability Office and she took it on from then. They also arranged a meeting with the fire officer to get a pager system installed.

[Q: So you had the X service and the Disability Office and the teacher of the deaf and yourself all working together? Would you say that was a good experience?]

Yeah, it went so smoothly."

Another student comments:

"I think the fact that the Disability Office was contacted as soon as I was nearing the end of my sixth year and the fact that they acted immediately — they started arranging everything. Like getting me a computer so that I could keep in touch by email and arranging visits and things. They were just really organised, and they kept me involved. I was really surprised how easy I found it. Moving from school to university was no problem to me."

There is plenty of goodwill, especially amongst access and support staff. However, many teaching staff remain unaware of the linguistic requirements of deaf students. HEIs are complex organisations and goodwill alone is insufficient to meet the needs of deaf students. Appropriate infrastructure needs to be in place across the system. Such infrastructure must include appropriate training opportunities, indeed required training, for all staff working with deaf students. Otherwise it is difficult to see how the current legal requirements of SENDA can be fulfilled.

Key points

  • Both staff and students demonstrate a range of concerns in relation to deaf awareness. Students’ experiences range from good to bad, depending on individual staff, other students, the institution, and their own ability to assert themselves.
  • One theme that emerges from the sample of responses is a reluctance to complain, or to draw attention to an unsatisfactory situation.
  • Lack of awareness can be related to availability of suitable training and levels of attendance at Deaf Awareness courses.
  • Deaf awareness of student peers is a relatively unexplored yet important issue, particularly in the light of negative social experiences reported in Chapter Ten.
  • Most impressive examples of good practice were part of holistic provision, where appropriate infrastructure had been established.
  • One aspect of good practice is familiarising new students with potential means of access and support at their new institution.


11.1 The access infrastructure of institutions should include regularly scheduled Deaf Awareness training opportunities for staff (academic and non-academic).

11.2 Nationally recognised Deaf Awareness courses, such as those examined by CACDP, can provide a basic introduction for all staff. The proposed Centre for Linguistic Access should take on the role of developing new Deaf Awareness curricula and materials which are specifically geared to FE and HE situations.

11.3 The Centre for Linguistic Access should provide a resource base for Deaf Awareness training. A ‘training the trainers’ programme could be delivered to build local capacities, particularly focusing on deaf trainers.

11.4 Training geared to the specific linguistic access requirements of a new student should be compulsory for staff who will come into contact with that student (including clerical, catering staff etc). Key lecturing staff should also be made aware of any need for additional tutorial support relating to subject-specific vocabulary and English language generally. Where possible, this will be done in collaboration with the new student him/herself.

11.5 Opportunities should be provided for new students to familiarise themselves with access/support arrangements at the institution before starting their course.