University of Edinburgh

Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education

Chapter Twelve: Linguistic Access

What follows in this chapter is a detailed assessment of what emerged, among our study sample, as the single most critical element in providing quality support for deaf students (regardless of whether they use English or BSL): linguistic access. What, according to our data, is required to provide linguistic access for deaf students? The general principles and key types of access are set out in some detail in Brennan et al, 2002.

However, this chapter will provide a basis around which an evidence-base can be constructed. A brief summary of types of access strategies is followed by an assessment of key linguistic access issues that are outstanding in Scotland, according to our data. Each type of strategy is taken in turn: for each type, a description of key aspects is followed by a summary of issues reported by informants about that strategy.

Linguistic access can be provided by means of people and resources. The people include specialist access personnel, as well as teaching staff. It is probably easiest to think of the requirements in terms of the two language groups, while recognising that these groups are not completely discrete.

Types of linguistic access strategies

Those whose preferred language is English or another spoken language such as Gaelic or Hindi may require the following:

  • good quality amplification;
  • staff/fellow student awareness of optimum conditions for lipreading;
  • lipspeakers;
  • tutors of lipreading.

Deaf people whose first or preferred language is BSL may require the services of the following:

  • BSL/English interpreters;
  • bilingual professionals.

Both English and BSL users may require the services of:

  • manual notetakers;
  • electronic notetakers;
  • speech to text reporters.

Additionally, FECs and HEIs may make use of personnel called ‘Communicators’ or ‘Communication Support Workers’.

Deaf students whose first/preferred language is spoken English

Those deaf students accessing primarily through English are likely to use a combination of amplification (hearing aids, radio aids etc) and lipreading, the proportion of each varying among students.

Those who make use of amplification will require good quality audiological services, as recommended in Chapter Eight.

Although none of the deaf student respondents within this group made reference to access issues related to their own speech, it is important to remember that contributions to question and answer sessions – and to all group discussion situations – are a vital aspect of their access to higher education. It may be the case that some of the lack of confidence relating to group situations may relate to concerns over speech intelligibility. There is therefore a need to consider making available adult speech therapy services to students who may find this beneficial.

Those who use lipreading will benefit from staff and fellow students being aware of ways in which they can optimise conditions for the deaf student to lipread them directly. Deaf awareness training, as recommended in Chapter Eleven, would provide guidance this area. Some students may also make use of lipspeakers.


A lipspeaker is someone who reproduces the spoken message without voicing the words, while articulating in such a way that the deaf person can recognise the English words more easily. According to the description on the Association of Lipspeakers website:

"… the lipspeaker uses the flow, rhythm and phrasing of natural speech and repeats the stress as used by the speaker but without voice. Messages that are too fast for lipreading may have to be pared down by the lipspeaker. The lipspeaker will use some fingerspelling if the lipreader requests this."

The issue of how much ‘paring down’ occurs or is acceptable remains a matter of debate. There are very few qualified lipspeakers in Scotland: the Association of Lipspeakers lists only three lipspeakers for the whole of Scotland, with two of these having the highest level of qualification (Level Three). However, several deaf organisations report that once it becomes known that lipspeakers are available, requests for bookings rise. One organisation (Deaf Action) which employed a full-time lipspeaker within their agency found that bookings for lipspeaking services went up four hundred and thirty percent in one year, once this service became known (Brennan et al, 2002).

Reported issues concerning lipspeakers

The research revealed very few examples of deaf students making use of lipspeakers on a regular basis. This is not surprising, since there are only three qualified lipspeakers in Scotland. Because of this, students are less likely to have seen a lipspeaker being used and therefore may be unaware that such provision might suit them. However, some deaf people whose first and preferred language is English appear to prefer to access English visually through electronic notetaking services. This is shown by the rare comments from deaf people themselves on their wish for lipspeaking services — as compared, for example, to their frequent comments in relation to notetaking. It is likely that some deaf people will benefit from lipspeaking services, but the numbers are likely to be much smaller than for either notetaking or BSL/English interpreting. If lipspeakers are used, then they should have appropriate qualifications. Lipspeaking courses are currently not offered in Scotland. Therefore, it would be appropriate to establish such courses.

Tutors of lipreading

It is often assumed that deaf people have high level skills in lipreading. However, this assumption is not borne out by the evidence. Certainly some deaf people do become highly skilled, but others are less so. Those who have been deaf since childhood and, therefore, have not heard English, can find it extremely difficult. Perhaps surprisingly, this skill is typically not taught to deaf children. People who acquire deafness could benefit from learning the techniques of lipreading. Offering lipreading classes to deaf students would help many of them either access spoken communication directly or access this via a lipspeaker. However, as with other key areas, there is a shortage of lipreading tutors. It should be noted that tutors of lipreading do not provide direct access provision in the way that lipspeakers do: rather they could enable students to develop skills which would, in turn, allow them to access English more fully.

Deaf students whose first/preferred language is BSL

BSL/English interpreters BSL/English interpreters should not only be fluent in both BSL and English, but also highly skilled in taking the source message in one language and transferring it into the target language, without any loss of propositional content or pragmatic effect. They also need to be able to match the register and style of the target language with that of the source language. There is plenty of evidence from linguistic research to demonstrate that this task is highly complex (Napier, 2002; Harrington and Turner, 2001; Brennan and Brown, 1997). BSL/English interpreters are normally required to produce simultaneous interpreting: a task which has rather different demands than consecutive interpreting. As with spoken language interpreters, BSL/English interpreters also need a high level of general education since they may be required to interpret a wide range of different types of content. They also need to develop professional competence, which involves being sensitive to the needs of clients, acting impartially, working within ethical and professional guidelines and collaborating appropriately with other professionals.

It is quite clear from the SASLI report (Brennan et al, 2002) and evidence provided to the BSL and Linguistic Access Working Party, that there is a considerable shortage of trained, qualified and registered BSL/English interpreters. This shortage was also addressed in the detailed Department of Work and Pensions report on The Organisation and Provision of British Sign Language Interpreters in England, Scotland and Wales (Brien, Brown and Collins, 2002). SASLI is the body in Scotland which provides accreditation of interpreters and keeps and monitors the Register of BSL/English interpreters in Scotland. At the time of writing there are forty-two fully registered and eleven associate members of SASLI. However, this number gives a rosier picture of availability than is the case in practice. Many of these interpreters hold other jobs where they do not use their interpreting skills. Some are in full time employment where their interpreting skills are used for a specific group or individual. None of these registered, qualified interpreters is employed on a sessional or full-time basis within an HEI. Some may work on an ad hoc freelance basis. As we shall see below, this shortage of BSL/English interpreters causes considerable difficulties for those trying to arrange access and for those seeking access.

A further problem is that interpreting is sometimes seen as a one-way process. This is a notion suggested in some discussions and accounts by the use of the term ‘signer’ (cf Riddell et al, 2004). The outsider’s perception is that the interpreter is ‘signing for the deaf person’. This may indicate the low level of contribution from the students, which may in turn link to a low level of opportunity to contribute. The intermediary should in fact be a BSL/English interpreter, working between two languages and thus speaking an interpretation of the sign language user’s BSL, as well as signing an interpretation of the hearing person’s English. This delineation also helps to focus on the high level of skill needed by such a person. Some BSL users suggest that they do not feel comfortable in contributing within lectures or seminars (see Chapter Ten). Logically, other students and staff easily overlook the time lag associated with interpreting. Even though this may be very short, it places the deaf person at a disadvantage. Only one person reported the opposite situation, that is, where a university course actually had deaf BSL users presenting. This meant that the deaf BSL user could access directly, but the hearing people experienced the situation of accessing the information via an interpreter. Such a situation clearly occurs very rarely, and indeed never occurs in most HEIs.

Educational interpreters

It might be expected that the interpreters used within HE and FE would be specially trained ‘educational interpreters’. In some other countries, particularly in the Scandinavian countries and in the USA, there are specific courses for educational interpreters and the term itself is used. Within the UK, there is some, but limited, use of the term and indeed none of those interviewed for this project explicitly used the term. A number of research studies have examined the roles and responsibilities of educational interpreters, including those working in HE and FE settings. Napier (2002) provides a useful summary of some of the key issues (pp 95-114). Indeed, her own research focuses directly on interpreting within a university setting, in this case in Australia with interpreters working between Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and English. Napier draws attention to the differing views and perceptions of educational interpreters in terms of their roles and responsibilities. As she points out, a number of writers have suggested that the roles and responsibilities of educational interpreters may be, or seem to be, in contradiction to the conventional role of interpreters in other settings (2002, p96). However, at least some of the same issues – for example, the effect on the dynamics of the context, the expectation that the interpreter will take on other ‘support’ roles in terms of explanation and clarification and the different conceptualisations of interpreter role by the Deaf and hearing consumers – have their counterpart in other interpreting settings, such as court interpreting (Brennan and Brown, 1997). Nevertheless, these remain issues that are largely not addressed within the educational situation. Indeed, as already noted in Chapter Eleven, there is evidence that lecturers can wrongly assume that the role of the interpreter extends to that of a tutor.

Napier (2002) also noted in her account that many of the ‘interpreters’ working within HE settings in Australia have not had a university education, have not undergone any interpreter training and, because they are not qualified and registered, are not subject to the codes of practice or codes of ethics required by professional interpreting organisations. She comments that the situation in the UK is comparable (Napier, 2002, pxiii), and this is confirmed by details provided below.

Bilingual professionals

A bilingual professional in the context of HE would be a member of the teaching or support staff who was bilingual in BSL and English. Certainly there is evidence of some staff learning BSL. This is often appreciated by students. However, there are very few HEI academic staff with high level BSL skills. There is one Disability Advisor who is also a fully qualified and registered BSL/English interpreter. She is therefore able to interview BSL users directly without bringing in another interpreter. Her specialised knowledge is also helpful in relation to clarifying the requirements of BSL users. There was at least one example of a member of staff in FE who was both teaching and attempting to provide access provision to a mixed group of deaf and visually impaired students: some of the teaching was done in BSL. The students’ accounts of their experience of working with this member of staff demonstrates that they appreciate her skills. However, it is also clear that this member of staff is attempting the impossible: it is simply not possible to deliver the type of teaching and support required by such a diverse group simultaneously.

Reported issues in interpreting

Both the testimony of deaf students and information from Disability Advisors and lecturers indicates that many, probably the majority, of those acting as BSL/English interpreters within both HE and FE are not qualified. While the evidence we have relating to FE is limited in terms of the number of colleges visited, these do include four institutions which were well versed in the needs of deaf students, with two colleges having probably the highest numbers of deaf students within FE in Scotland. The interpreting situation is variable and may indeed change from one situation to another, even for an individual student. Thus, institutions using freelance personnel may be able to hire a qualified person on one occasion and not on another.


In order to qualify and become fully registered with SASLI, BSL/English interpreters need to complete an approved training course and then undertake a period of monitored associate membership of SASLI. There is currently only one training course in Scotland — at Heriot-Watt University. This course provides advanced training in both BSL and English, as well as specific training in interpreting and translating and professional practice. Having reasonable skills in BSL does not in itself mean that an individual would be capable of working as an interpreter.

People learning BSL have traditionally taken what are called Stage One, Stage Two and Stage Three CACDP courses. Stage One is a very basic level, enabling the beginnings of conversation with deaf people; Stage Two is an intermediate level — estimated as at or somewhat below Standard Grade level; Stage Three requires a good level of fluency in the language. There are quite large steps between each stage. In Scotland, these courses were originally validated jointly by the then Moray House College of Education and the Scottish Association of Interpreters for the Deaf (the precursor of SASLI). When this arrangement ended, there was a range of alternative provision, but eventually most people undertook these qualifications within the framework established by CACDP for the whole of the UK. During the 1990s, there was a move to develop vocational qualifications, leading to a new set of S/NVQs in BSL at four different S/NVQ levels. SQA also developed BSL Units: these have recently been revised and the new units have not yet been linked to particular levels within the National Qualifications Framework. However, it is expected that these will be at Access and Intermediate One level, thus well below the level required for working as an interpreter. However, such courses are appropriate for those wishing to begin the process of BSL language learning. Currently CACDP is developing a new Stage Three level Certificate in BSL outside of the S/NVQ process, so that those who wish to study for non-vocational purposes can do so at a higher level. References to Stage Two are usually to the CACDP Level Two Certificate in BSL, rather than the S/NVQ. Not surprisingly, there can be some confusion about the status and value of different qualifications amongst those unfamiliar with the qualifications and the organisations which accredit them.

There has been a shortage of trained deaf tutors to teach BSL over the last few decades. Important initiatives, such as the British Sign Language Training Agency at the University of Durham, focused on training deaf people to teach Stage One level or ‘foundation level’ courses. There was some training for tutors to teach at higher levels, for example at the University of Durham, but relatively small numbers went through this training and very few deaf people involved were from Scotland. This shortage of tutors has adversely affected the training of both interpreters and bilingual professionals, such as teachers and social workers who work with deaf people.

The evidence from both HEIs and FE colleges is that the majority of people working within these institutions as BSL/English interpreters typically have either BSL Stage Two (CACDP) or the equivalent of this level of skill. As suggested above, while it is difficult to characterise this level accurately, it would be no higher than a Standard Grade in a spoken language such as French. It would obviously be completely unacceptable for someone with this level of skill in French to be seen as appropriate to work as an interpreter between French and English in Higher or Further Education. However, this is typically what happens in relation to BSL/English interpretation.

There sometimes appears to be an acceptance that Stage Two is an appropriate level of skill. One FE Disability Advisor commented that:

"We ask up to Stage Two, but with background experiences doing interpreting situations or schools or education or possibly interpreting for family members or whatever — but some experience."

Another commented:

"We advertise for a minimum of Stage Two, plus we are looking at general background … But a lot is to do with personality — having to deal with lecturers and students etc."

Again and again, Stage Two is quoted as if it were an acceptable standard. Similarly, mere attendance at the Heriot-Watt University BSL/English interpreting course is seen as indicating an appropriate level of skill. However, discussions with the Director of SASLI, Doreen Mair, have made it clear that individuals may gain entry onto this course with Stage Two BSL skills and indeed, some students may not actually have this qualification on entry. Thus there should be no expectation that someone who is simply on the Heriot-Watt course will have the level of skill necessary to undertake educational interpreting. Even students who complete the course have in the past had to apply to SASLI for trainee status with the expectation of undertaking monitored work and further training before applying for full registration. Under a new arrangement, students completing certain elements of the course at a high enough level can apply for direct trainee membership without undertaking a skills test.

It is worth noting that those institutions which employed ‘interpreters’ on a sessional basis did not typically employ fully qualified BSL/English interpreters. However, this was not because they did not wish to do so, but because qualified interpreters were not available. There were even examples of individuals who had not yet attained Level Two being employed to provide ‘communication support’. It should be stressed that Stage One is a very basic conversational level: indeed many people have passed Level One who would be quite unable to carry on a sustained conversation with a deaf person. For such a person to have any role in providing bilingual access to deaf students in HE is completely inappropriate. While the use of individuals with Stage One only may be rare, the use of individuals with Stage Two appears to be very common indeed.

One FE Disability Advisor interviewee mentioned that all communicators were booked through a specific agency based in England: all staff with a temporary contract had to be registered through this agency. She then went on to say that all communicators had Level Two BSL. There appeared to be no other monitoring of the quality of these communicators.

Sometimes, as in the quotations from the interviews above, personal characteristics are seen by support staff as being just as important as linguistic and professional skills: “The sign language interpreter has to be someone that they [the deaf students] can work with”. This can contrast with the views of deaf students on the need to have interpreters with high level skills (see Chapter Ten). Some interviewees also stressed the importance of using interpreters who were familiar with the subject being studied:

"It has to be someone that has that subject specialism. If an interpreter doesn’t understand computing, then going into a computing course is really difficult because you have a lot of learning to do in terms of the subject matter."

However, there was no explicit mention of the use of educational interpreters. For most staff, obtaining interpreting services was problematic and there was little likelihood of specialist provision: “And there are not a lot of experienced interpreters out there — they are in very short supply. And they can be difficult to find”.

The interpreter role

Evidence from the interviews with both staff and students suggests that there continues to be uncertainty and lack of agreement on the role of the interpreter within HE. It should be said that this uncertainty does not only occur within educational contexts. Several studies of sign language/spoken language interpreters in recent years have focused on the different conceptualisations of the interpreter and interpreting (Brennan and Brown, 1997; Harrington and Turner, 2001, Roy, 1992). The most traditional view sees the interpreter as essentially a robot or machine: you put one language in and you get another one out. Of course, such a model ignores crucial information both about the nature of language and the nature of human beings. There is no simple one-to-one equivalence between one language and another: even two spoken languages will have different grammatical systems, different vocabulary sets, different semantic organisation and so on. This is even more so in relation to bimodal interpreting which involves working between spoken and signed language and vice versa. There are many similarities between the grammatical organisation of, for example, BSL and English, but there are also some key differences. These differences are explored in relation to legal contexts in Brennan and Brown, 1997, and in several articles in Harrington and Turner, 2001. These accounts show that the interpreter is always having to make linguistic decisions which require complex cognitive processing skills, as well as high levels of fluency in each language.

However, the machine model ignores something else — that we are dealing with people. As soon as an interpreter is involved in an interaction, there are subtle changes. The others involved in the interaction, as well as the interpreter, may have different internalised models of the interpreter’s role. Note the following exchange between an FE Disability Advisor and a researcher on the HE project:

"I feel particularly in a college situation, university is probably different, but in a college situation you need something more than … you need someone who will work with that student over and beyond straightforward interpreting because they have to … in class they have to match the student’s language with what the lecturer is saying, to whatever the … whatever vocabulary is appropriate. If the student doesn’t understand anything, they will say to the student 'Are you sure you understood that?' and if the student says 'Yes that is fine' that is as much as they do. But if the student is not really sure [they will ask] ‘Do you want me to feed that back to the lecturer?' and they will act as an intermediary. Because many of the students don’t have the confidence to be able to do that on their own.

[Q: A kind of advocacy…]

Yes I think a kind of advocacy. Whereas in university I am not so sure that that is required. I might be wrong there. That may be … I think we need to provide that in college. Certainly a lot of our younger students who are unused to dealing with adults on an equal basis need that particular support to be able to ask the questions. Because lecturers are like teachers — you've got to stand back from them and you don’t question what is being asked of you, and if you don’t understand you don’t say anything because you’ve got another twenty odd people in here that understand it."

So, even within this short exchange we have two different conceptualisations: the interpreter as an intermediary and the interpreter as an advocate: these may or may not be identical. This is already some distance from the machine model. The interpreter is being expected to take some responsibility for the deaf person’s comprehension and ultimately, their learning. However, it is worth thinking through some of the implications of this approach. Firstly, if the interpreter and deaf person are engaging in interaction about the presentation or discussion, then they are taking time out from participating in that learning event. When they re-enter, they will have missed part of the process. If this happens regularly within a single learning activity, then the student will have only partial and intermittent access. The Disability Advisor and interpreter may believe that what the deaf person is gaining access to is a fuller and more accurate component, but it is only one part of the activity. Work by Sheenagh Hull (Hull, 1993) demonstrated some of the issues. Hull videotaped and analysed her own interpreting within an FE context. Her account revealed a range of actions on her part, eg; deliberate omissions, clarifications, repair strategies and additional explanations, which were well outside the traditional view of what the interpreter should be doing. Yet it was clear that such practice was common at the time. The Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education project team did not observe in situ, although this would certainly be a valuable exercise. However, it is clear that the types of interaction between interpreter and deaf person described by Hull are commonplace and indeed expected in some situations.

Traynor and Harrington comment on the fact that in the interpreting contexts they observed that:

"Deaf students stop interpreters to seek clarification or confirmation that they have understood correctly. In many cases, rather than stop the lecturer and voice the student’s question, the project team observed interpreters, perhaps due to lack of confidence, carry on interpreting and, in addition, attempt to incorporate an explanation, rather than interrupt the flow of the lecturer. The Project Officers also observed a number of occasions where interpreters overstepped the limits of their role by offering an explanation of what a teacher was saying, instead of facilitating the students by voicing a question to the teacher. As a result, the teacher continued, unaware that the students had a question or that the interpreter was no longer interpreting."
(Traynor and Harrington, 2003, p.216)

Again we can see that these researchers have a model of the interpreter: a model which sees the interpreter as a facilitator, but not an advocate or ally. The researchers suggest that the actions of the interpreter are motivated by lack of confidence. Certainly this may be the case. There is evidence that highly skilled interpreters are more likely to stop the flow of interaction to seek clarification than the low-skilled interpreter. However, it may be that the interpreter thought it was part of their role ‘to support the student’s learning’ by engaging in clarifications and explanations themselves. It is also interesting to note that the Project Officers describe the deaf students as stopping ‘interpreters to seek clarification’ rather than stopping the lecturers.

One of the authors of this report, Marian Grimes, in her work on the experiences of Deaf pupils and deaf students within FE (Grimes, 2003), has commented on the way that certain staff act as ‘gatekeepers’: choices are made for deaf students by others who believe they have the interests of the deaf students at heart and who think they have more complete information on which to base a decision. The above scenario suggests that interpreters may sometimes be acting as gatekeepers: they provide answers or clarifications, rather than allowing the lecturer to become aware that the deaf person has a query. This can compound the aforementioned expectation of some lecturers that the interpreter role includes tuition. What is more, the people who are offering the explanation, the ‘interpreters’, are most typically untrained as far as BSL/English interpreting is concerned, with probably Stage Two level BSL skills. Additionally, they are unlikely to have any particular expertise in the subject area and will probably not have had educational training.

Higher Education expects students to be independent learners, while obviously benefiting from collaboration with peers. Much has been written about the disempowering practices of professionals working with deaf people (Branson and Miller, 2002; Lane et al, 1996). We can see that there are dangers of applying what Lane (Lane, 1999) has described as the ‘mask of benevolence’: hearing people think they are ‘helping’ deaf people; in fact, they are in danger of removing their independence and their rights. These rights include the right to fail and the right not to understand.

Brennan and Brown (1997) provide the following example from the legal context:

"I interpreted in a case once where the judge and the clerk went into a heated exchange on some technical detail. As I tried to convey something of it to the Deaf defendant, his counsel said to me, ‘Don’t bother! It’s too technical. He won’t understand it.’ To which I replied, ‘That’s okay: he has a right not to understand’."
(Brennan and Brown, 1997, p.57)

As Brennan and Brown comment:

"This interpreter summed up the essence of the Deaf person’s rights: to be the same as anyone else, equal before the law, subject both to the transparency of the law and its obfuscation."
(Brennan and Brown, 1997, p.57)

We might argue that part of the equality of being a student is going through experiences of not understanding and partial understanding before grasping a concept or theory. Interpreters and support workers may place themselves in ‘repair mode’; always seeking to protect the deaf students from misunderstanding by repairing problems that they anticipate for the students. One of the main values of electronic notetaking is that it allows the bilingual deaf student to compare what s/he has gained from the live interaction through interpreting with the typed record from the notetaker. Just as the student interviewees in this project were able to be reassured about the quality of the interpreting (Chapter Two), deaf students in HE should be able to make their own judgements.

Traynor and Harrington suggest several principles based on their research into HE:

  • "The need for students to be clear about the role of the interpreter and of the teacher in the classroom
  • The need for the students to be more assertive in using the interpreter (stopping the interpreter for clarification, ensuring that they themselves have equal participation in and access to discussions and debates etc)
  • The need to develop an appropriate and mutually useful working relationship with the interpreter and how to move towards this."
    (Traynor and Harrington, pp.214-215)

These guidelines would appear to be relevant in the case of HE students in Scotland, although, as suggested above, deaf people should be encouraged to stop the lecturer, through the interpreter, for clarifications etc. All of the participants, teaching staff, deaf students, fellow students and interpreter need to be clear about the interpreting role.

All deaf students

Notetaking, electronic notetaking and speech to text provision

Hearing staff within HE and FE are often unaware of the difficulties which arise for deaf people in taking notes. The problem arises whether the person is gaining their primary access through English or BSL. In both cases, it is necessary to look at the person speaking (English) or the person signing (BSL). As soon as the student looks down at their paper or computer to write or type what has been said, they miss the next chunk of information. Contrary to what many people think, the deaf person using hearing aids will also typically gain a lot of information through lipreading and other contextual clues: accessing this information requires looking at the presenter.

Manual notetakers

Manual notetaking is probably the main type of access support provided both within FE and HE. It is very often assumed that anyone can take notes. However, as will be seen from the students’ comments, not all notetaking is effective. Training courses and qualifications have been established by the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP). However, the evidence from this project suggests that only a small percentage of people undertaking notetaking in HE in Scotland have attended such a course. The professional notetaker will have been taught different conventions and techniques for organising information in ways which are more accessible to the user. They may, for example, exploit diagrammatic techniques, mind-maps and the like, as well as providing summarised content. As with other access workers, it is important that the notetaker has an appropriate level of subject knowledge.

Electronic notetakers

A number of services have become available which make use of electronic notetaking. Essentially this involves an electronic notetaker using a laptop computer plus specialised software and typing notes directly into the computer. A fully-qualified electronic notetaker would have familiarity with the software as well as notetaking techniques. There are several different types of software on the market. Mostly, the service operates laptop to laptop: the operator would sit next to the deaf person and the deaf person would read their own laptop. Wireless technology should mean that if buildings were appropriately set up for wireless communications, the text operator would not need to be beside the deaf person.

More recently, notetaking software has been used in such a way that the text is projected, via a data projector, onto a screen or whiteboard. This has several major advantages: the deaf person can scan the text and watch the presenter, that is, skip between the two. The deaf person is likely to feel much more a part of the group and benefit from other visual information, including co-verbal gesture, demonstrations and other visual information. The deaf person does not need to feel that the service is just for them. Such text provision may help other types of students, indeed possibly all students.

Most of the electronic systems allow the text to be easily copied onto a disc, or more likely a CD — or located on a web for students to download. Currently some systems do not allow visual materials such as diagrams, maps or graphs to be incorporated into the notetaking: this can cause difficulties for the students. However, newer forms of electronic notetaking should also make it easier for deaf people to access PowerPoint presentations and visual materials such as graphs and maps. It is worth noting that this will also require teaching staff to provide materials in advance. Currently, this does not seem to happen very often, but with the increased use of web-based materials and e-learning initiatives, it is likely to become more and more possible.

Some externally contracted services have been considered expensive by users.

Automated speech to text

Probably the ideal scenario for deaf students would be the use of automated speech to text software which was able to handle the wide diversity of spoken presentations. Currently, software has to ‘learn’ the specific voice characteristics of individuals and would not be able to deal with the diversity of teaching staff. However, this is a technology which is worth watching and worth investing in since it would not require a separate additional person keying in the information, although consequently the text would be verbatim, without the notetaking conventions, such as bullet points, flow charts etc that an experienced notetaker might use.

Evaluation of notetaking systems

A research project carried out by Rachel O’Neill and Ailsa Laidler (2003) with a small number of deaf FE students found considerable variation in the rating of the different types of notetaking. The project covered two types of electronic notetaking, SpeedText and Palantype and manual notetaking. Interestingly, the authors point out that characteristics which one student might see as advantageous were sometimes regarded as disadvantageous by others. The O’Neill and Laidler research provides useful details of different types of speech to text systems as well as guidelines for training both users and clients. They provide information on the various systems available, as well as suggestions for training. These researchers suggest that manual notetaking be seen as providing back-up after a class, rather than for direct reference within the class. They also present several key indicators for successful use of electronic notetaking. They suggest that deaf users should have:

  • a reading level above 12 years (or success with Key Skills Communication Level 1 tests);
  • a positive attitude towards English;
  • confidence in their own reading skills.
    (O’Neill and Laidler, 2003 p.198)

It might be assumed that all students enrolled in HE level courses would have such skills. However, it would appear from the feedback from HE and FE staff that this is not the case.

Reported Notetaking Issues

One of the issues relating to notetaking is the need for trained notetakers to have a satisfactory level of subject knowledge. When asked what the difference was between the notetakers, one student commented:

"Well at the beginning of the year I had my friend’s sister doing it. She had done ******* before and she’s done a Masters in it. So she had actually done some of the work I’ve done, so she could understand it more. And it’s pretty obvious that she’s going to know what she’s writing about, whereas the other ones were just writing what they heard. So X, who was my notetaker this year, she was making more sense to me I think, because she knew what they were talking about … I would have her all the time—it’s only one notetaker a year. But at the beginning of the year, I didn’t get a choice. But I knew that they were short of notetakers and I knew that X was looking for work. So I said X was available and they said ‘You can have her if you want’. So I said, ‘Cool’."

While for some students notetaking is an isolating experience, making them ‘reliant’ on the individual, for others, there is no problem:

[Q: Did you get a chance to negotiate with them how you wanted the notes taken?]

"Yes. I know that there are people who say they want the notetakers at the back or whatever, but I always have mine sat beside me and I keep in touch with all the ones I’ve had, you know like, become friendly, so that I feel OK about saying ‘Could you do this or could you do that?’ So I could write down what’s on the overhead projector, while they write down what they (the lecturers) are saying."

It is interesting that this student feels able to accept what others saw as bad practice (that is, lecturers talking over the visual presentations and not providing in handouts what is on overheads) because she has found a strategy for overcoming the problem. The same student was prepared to ask the notetakers for additional informal support. She explains how certain types of vocabulary and technical language have caused her difficulty:

"I’ve always been the same — at school as well, you know I used to miss out on certain things — so my vocabulary had gaps. I’m sure it’s the same for all deaf people. I suppose that kind of holds me back a bit, but my notetakers do say ‘Let me know if you don’t understand a word’ and they’ll explain it to me. So that’s been quite good.

[Q: So you’ve had time out of class to talk to notetakers about that?]

Yes, all of them that I’ve had — I’ve said to them, ‘Come and have lunch with me’.

[Q: Sounds like you’re very good at setting up informal systems that are going to work for you?]

Yes, some of the notetakers were quite surprised. They were used to being asked to sit as far away from the person they were notetaking for as possible. But, I’m, like, ‘No, it’s fine, it’s fine’ — and they find that quite weird. I’m, like, ‘Sorry, I don’t like being unfriendly’. We just got on well."

On the whole, it seems that students do not expect the notetaker to have a notetaking qualification. However, when they do have, they can recognise the difference. Access staff also commented on the fact that when student notetakers received training, the service improved:

"Certainly from the deaf students point of view they found that the note takers they had trained through the deaf organisations were … met their needs far better."

They also pointed out that the fact that this provision was new for many students:

" … realistically there has to be a process of getting used to that and how that works and how that operates. Especially with note takers. I think that function is new for students."

Thus, even where the skills of the notetaker are not fully adequate, the deaf student may find the service essential. There can also be frustrations if an electronic notetaker is booked, but does not turn up:

"So I went up to the Special Needs people and they asked me what I wanted and I said ‘SpeedText’, because that’s what I prefer. I like to get the CD to look at it afterwards. So anyway, that was fine and the first week was great — support everyday. And then after that, I would come in on Monday, every Monday after the first week, and the SpeedText operator wasn’t there. They would say things like ‘Oh sorry, I forgot to book the operator for you’. It was too late and they didn’t have anyone there. But they’ve got the timetable: they know I need to use an operator and I was just quite angry. I used to get really stressed … and I was straining my eyes and some of the lecturers don’t have a clue. Some I could hear, I mean some I could listen to all day and it was fine. But X himself had a moustache and he would … he mumbled … so it was a real struggle."

Students who have already been through specific courses attended by deaf students are a rich potential source of electronic notetakers. Most importantly, they will have the specific subject knowledge which respondents have valued so highly. Also, increasingly large numbers of the general student population have their own laptops (for example, seventy per cent of those in Year One of undergraduate courses in the School of Education at the University of Edinburgh) or have access to laptops. The opportunity to easily access note-taker training would enable such students to develop their own earning potential, while at the same time allowing them to improve the service to deaf students.

Communicators and Communication Support Workers

Some HEIs and FECs make use of personnel who are referred to either as Communicators or Communication Support Workers (CSWs). Unfortunately, these terms are used in different ways by different individuals and institutions. The following description of the work of communicators is taken from an English FE college and is fairly typical of the way the role of the communicator is envisaged:

"We have a number of full-time and part-time communicators. A communicator's role is slightly different from that of an interpreter. A communicator is not only there to translate into your preferred method of communication but to guide and encourage you with your work. The role of the communicator varies (see below)

  • In-class support
  • Support at break-times
  • Enrichment / outings
  • 1 to 1 support (out of class)
  • Modifying worksheets / change the English to suit you
  • Creating resources that will assist you in your learning
  • College appointments
  • Tutorials"
    (Preston College Website

It is worth noting the comment that “A communicator is not only there to translate into your preferred method of communication, but to guide and encourage you with your work”. This would seem to assume that the communicator has skills as an interpreter and additional skills in relation to different types of educational support, including creating educational resources. A very similar account is given by the City Literary Institute (‘The City Lit’) in London, an institution well-known for supporting deaf students. Their account of the role of communicators includes the following:

  • "Communicators sit with students in class and convey the content of any lecture or discussion in a meaningful form
  • This role may involve the use of sign language (minimum BSL Stage 2), lipspeaking or written notes
  • The role also involves taking time after class to clarify any notes taken (but communicators are not expected to teach or explain the subject)"
    (The City Literary Institute:

The final point suggests a rather fine line between tutorial support and ‘clarification’ of notes. An RNID Factsheet on CSWs describes their role in the following way:

"A CSW supports deaf students in different ways to enable them to access information, and communicate with hearing people. They do this in a range of ways, for example by taking notes, lipspeaking, using British Sign Language (BSL) or Sign Supported English. CSWs are not usually qualified BSL/English interpreters, though more are now training at this level. They provide educational and communication support, for example, they:

  • Help deaf students understand and produce written material.
  • Adapt the language of learning materials to help a deaf student understand more easily.
  • Suggest improvements to the physical environment at college to make it easier for the student to lipread or use hearing aids."
    (RNID 2004)

The RNID leaflet then goes on to suggest limitations to the role of CSWs:

"If a deaf student needs other support at college, such as extra tutorials to discuss the English language content of their course, or to go over new ideas, then a tutor for deaf students should do this work instead of, and in addition to, a CSW.

  • CSWs should not be asked to act as a tutor. For example, they should not be asked to create handouts or information sheets for overhead projectors or to go through work outside of class.
  • If a deaf student needs access to information and not support, then they should be provided with that. For example, it may be better to get a BSL/English interpreter or a lipspeaker."
    (RNID 2004)

In practice, there is considerable variation in how both Communicators and CSWs are viewed. There is also variation in their qualifications and experience. Interestingly, the City Lit mentions CACDP Level Two in relation to BSL skills — well below the level required by BSL/English interpreters.

Specific awards do exist in relation to CSWs. At the UK level, there exists the Edexcel Level 3 BTEC Award Certificate and Diploma in Support for Deaf Learners. Currently neither this nor any other course is being offered within Scotland, although some organisations are presently examining the possibilities of delivering such a course.

The term ‘communicator’ is frequently used for an individual who is primarily attempting to provide access through BSL/English interpreting without having the skills, training or qualifications to carry out such work (cf Harrington 2001). Individual institutions sometimes advertise for communicators or communication support workers and explicitly indicate that a CACDP Level Two BSL qualification is required. Sometimes this is seen as a minimal qualification. However, SASLI has made it quite clear that such a level is completely inadequate for someone taking on an interpreting role. The fact that communicators and CSWs often do more than interpreting, simply compounds the problem.

Access and support

The above account of communicators and CSWs draws attention to one of the key issues in relation to deaf students: there is a tension in both policy and practice between the notion of ‘support’ on the one hand, and ‘access’ on the other. The two are not synonymous. Most services, in fact, exploit a ‘support’ model and indeed the title of this research project is ‘Supporting Deaf Students in Higher Education’. However, one conceptualisation of deaf people and their requirements focuses on the provision of access, specifically linguistic access. The argument is that once this access is in place, the deaf student is the same as any other student. Deaf students can, thereby, engage in the same types of learning activities as their peers. What is more, if the student has problems with any part of the course and needs particular tutorial support, for example, this can be provided—so long as the linguistic access arrangements are in place. It is clear that while some deaf students within this research would like such arrangements to be in place, this was often not the case.

The support model sees particular personnel as being required actively to support the deaf student’s learning and access to learning. The linguistic access arrangements are still in place, but other types of support are specifically needed. It sometimes appears that such support is trying to ‘make up’ for limitations of opportunity within the deaf person’s experience. Thus the linguistic situation of deaf children described earlier does mean that some deaf young people will have lower level linguistic skills than their peers, either in English or BSL or both.

"I think the people who have issues around English language development really need to have support … to get to the level they need to operate in HE."
(Disability Officer, HE)

"Most of the problems are linked to language."
(Disability Officer, FE)

There would be few who would argue against the provision of educational support which deals with gaps in knowledge or experience. However, at issue is who should provide such support. Within the access model, the support would be provided by qualified professionals in the subject area — exploiting access arrangements as required. As already recommended in Chapter Six, where a student requires development of their English literacy skills, specialist support tutors would offer tutorial support, in collaboration with the student — and with relevant subject specialists as appropriate.

In what might be termed the support model or the mixed model, an individual who is involved in providing linguistic access may also be involved in providing access to learning. As we have seen in the above discussion, Communicators or Communication Support Worker are often seen as fulfilling both roles, without adequate training in either role. Brien et al (2004) argue that there needs to be a clear distinction between these two roles:

"It is necessary to distinguish clearly between professionals who provide ‘communication support’ for deaf students (eg; Communication Support Workers) and those who provide language services based on the deaf student’s competence in a particular language (eg; BSL/English interpreters, lipspeakers etc). It should be noted that the need for ‘communication support’ arises from the failure of the school system to provide deaf students with the ability to communicate fluently in a signed or spoken language."
(Brien, Brown and Collins 2004, p.27)

It appears from some of the interviews reported that these roles are often confused by both staff and students.

Working conditions of access staff

Key staff in HEIs in both Scotland and England stressed the importance of developing attractive ‘employment packages’ for access staff. UCLAN, for example, had developed particular strategies to ensure that BSL/English interpreters were well qualified:

"We are quite lucky at getting qualified interpreters who have degrees themselves. We have eight in-house and so we try to match them [with students] … they are qualified interpreters and they work hard at getting information beforehand. It was a big problem when we had to bring in interpreters who weren’t properly qualified and without academic ability and skills to cope."
(UCLAN Interviews)

They achieved this in part by creating an attractive employment ‘package’ for interpreters which included:

  • co-working (that is, two interpreters in one context);
  • compulsory breaks;
  • access to training (on site Interpreting diploma);
  • training in assertiveness for interpreters.

For their part:

  • all interpreters are graduates;
  • all interpreters are at Junior Trainee level or above;
  • all interpreters agree to undertake appropriate professional training.

However, the University provides additional financial support to facilitate this access provision, so that while two interpreters are typically provided for any interpreting assignment, only one of those would be paid directly out of DSA.

Most universities contacted agreed that they had a major problem with the recruitment and retention of interpreters. Typically individuals could earn more as freelance workers than they could employed directly by HEIs. For the most part, those employed by HEIs are employed on a sessional basis and therefore lose out on many of the advantages of being full-time employees of the HEI.

Similar issues extend to other access personnel such as notetakers and lipspeakers.

Key points

  • Linguistic access can be provided by means of both people and resources. The people include specialist access personnel as well as teaching staff.
  • Good quality audiology services, as recommended in chapter eight, will help to optimise access for students whose access is dependent on amplification.
  • Good quality Deaf Awareness training (as recommended in chapter eleven) and the availability of professional lipspeakers and of lipreading training will help to optimise conditions for those whose access is dependent on lipreading.
  • Availability of speech therapy services may be beneficial for some students.
  • There are only 3 lipspeakers on the register in Scotland. This may explain why there are few example of deaf students using this support on a regular basis in our data. However, greater numbers of deaf students are likely to benefit from either BSL/English interpreters, or electronic notetakers.
  • There is a shortage of tutors of lipreading.
  • Qualified, registered BSL/English interpreters are required for simultaneous interpreting in contact situations with BSL users. There is a shortage of such interpreters in Scotland, where often people with intermediate signing skills (and no interpreter training) are used instead. This naturally damages the quality of provision.
  • Notetaking is probably the main type of access support provided within both FE and HE. There is a national shortage of notetakers, and it would appear that by no means all of the notetakers currently used in HE are qualified to CACDP standards.
  • Newer forms of electronic notetaking (such as projecting notes on a presentation screen or whiteboard) may become popular. This support contains elements of good practice that can be extended to all teaching and learning: this service has the potential to offer benefits to all students, since an accurate record of the lecture can be shared by all electronically following the lecture.
  • The status and nature of Communication Support Workers (CSWs) is currently greatly confused. In particular, the role confuses the practical distinction between providing support and providing access (Brien et al. 2004). What seems clear from the data is that ‘communicators’ are also used to provide BSL/English interpretation, with unacceptably low levels of qualification.


12.1 There should be further research into the potential demand for lipspeakers and for lipreading tuition among deaf students.

12.2 Speech therapy services should be made available for students who would find this beneficial.

12.3 The Scottish Executive should set new student-number targets for sharply increasing national uptake on BSL/English interpreting courses. This should also include the embedding of HE-level courses for the training of BSL tutors — who are required for the training of interpreters — such as the Graduate Diploma in Teaching British Sign Language Tutors at Heriot Watt University.

12.4 The Scottish Executive and SHEFC (now SFHEFC) should consult on the establishment of HE degree programmes in BSL and/or Deaf Studies in Scotland (as have been established in England) to greatly expand the future availability of suitably trained access and support staff, including interpreters, bilingual professionals, and note-takers.

12.5 There should be clear clarification of the roles of all access staff: training and qualifications should fit these roles. In particular, this report reiterates Recommendation 11.4 of Brien, Brown and Collins (2004) that: It is necessary to distinguish clearly between professionals who provide ‘communication support’ for deaf students, eg Communication Support Workers) and those who provide language services based on the deaf student’s competence in a particular language (eg BSL/English interpreters, lipspeakers etc). (Brien, Brown and Collins 2004, p.27)

12.6 There should be wider use of electronic notetaking. More creative approaches to electronic notetaking should be adopted, for example, notes could be projected for the whole class, thus removing the ‘special needs’ connotations linked with individual students. It might also be possible to make CDs of the notes available for purchase: these can currently be supplied to Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education | page 177–204 participants who use electronic note-taking provision. These proposals might raise issues for lecturing staff, but guidelines could be developed for use and exchange of the notes: individuals may need to sign up to a contract of use. 12.7 More training in professional notetaking (both electronic and manual) should be made available. Past students of specific subject areas should be targeted for recruitment to training courses. 12.8 The use of support staff trained to ‘Communication Support Work’ standards for providing BSL/English interpretation should be discouraged, in favour of qualified and registered BSL/English interpreters. 12.9 The Centre for Linguisitic Access should provide core training for some access staff (eg notetakers, lip-reading tutors etc) and additional training and educational opportunities for others (eg BSL/English interpreters). Such opportunities might include specialist courses in educational interpreting. 12.10 There is a need for specialist tutorial support to be available to deaf students who wish to improve their skills in English literacy. Suitably qualified staff should provide such support in collaboration with the student and with relevant subject specialists. Tutors should possess: a teaching qualification; subject knowledge; a high level of English grammar; fluent BSL (where a student’s first language is BSL); knowledge of language development and knowledge of the educational experiences of deaf learners. See also recommendations 5.8 and 8.3 above. 12.11 The Centre for Linguistic Access should provide training and accreditation for Support Tutors as described in 12.10 above.