University of Edinburgh

Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education

Chapter Two: Methods and Approach

Aims and key issues

The central aim of the Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education research was to investigate the nature and extent to which current access provision enables deaf students to become full and active participants within Higher Education. In order to accomplish this task a range of key informants were interviewed, including Disability Officers from a range of HE and FE establishments and personnel from access centres. An important aspect of this research was including deaf students’ views. Attempts were also made to source numerical evidence regarding the population of deaf students in HE during one academic year (2002/2003). Accessing this population and gaining accurate information about them is problematic for two distinct reasons. First, some students may be reticent to self-identify as deaf to external researchers. And second, the priorities and modes of maintaining records regarding deaf students in Disability Offices across HEI are divergent. For both these reasons, the population of deaf students studying at HE level can be considered a ‘hard to reach’ population in research terms.

The Role of the Consultation Group

The research team were aided in the planning and development of this research by advice from a Consultation Group who represented a cross section of interest and experiences from the voluntary sector, HE and the Deaf community (such as the RNID, the Scottish Disability Team - SDT, and FE/HE disability advisors). This group met five times during the life of the project (although two members were involved relatively late in the process and therefore did not attend all meetings). On an individual basis, members of the Consultation Group also provided invaluable advice and helped the research team source relevant documents and data. Importantly, members of the group were able to facilitate or suggest individuals or organisations who could provide further information or clarification.

Methods and Sources of Data

The following provides an overview of the methods employed by this study.

1. Key professionals: Disability Officers, access centres and teaching staff

  • a short self-completion questionnaire sent to Disability Advisors in all Scottish HEIs;
  • interviews with Disability Advisors5 (or equivalent) in selected HE and FE institutions;
  • interviews with the staff of named Access Centres and individual DSA assessors;
  • interviews with teaching staff in selected HEI and FE institutions.

2. Deaf students

  • interviews/group discussions with individual students in both HE and FE;
  • questionnaires sent via email from a self-selecting group of students.

3. Examples of ‘good practice’ and consideration of documentary information

  • fact finding visits to two HEIs in England, which involved group interviews with a range of managerial and access staff;
  • consideration of web based and documentary information, including:
    • documentation available (NATED Assessment Pack, UCLAN information for deaf students) on support for disabled students in HE and the quality of access provision for deaf students elsewhere, including in the UK and overseas;
    • relevant legislation, policy and review documentation.

Disability Advisors questionnaire

A questionnaire seeking information on numbers of deaf students in different categories was sent to all listed HEIs and identified advisors. This was facilitated by the Scottish Disability Advisors Network, through Lucy Foley of Aberdeen University and Rosie Addis of Edinburgh University. There was a 100% return on these questionnaires (see the Appendix).

Disability Advisors (or equivalent) interviews

Interviews were held with HE Disability Advisors or equivalent in ten institutions across Scotland. These institutions were selected in order to examine a variety of provision in traditional and newer universities and other HEIs across Scotland, including a spread of institutions in the East and the West of Scotland, the Highland region, Dundee, Aberdeen and the Borders. (Two colleges which were affiliated with another HEI or part of a larger HEI were included to ensure as wide a geographical spread as possible.) All staff interviewed had some responsibility for deaf students, although none had responsibility only for deaf students. In order to tap into the contrasting experiences and perspectives of advisors, a semistructured interview format was used in 7 interviews undertaken with FE Disability Advisors or equivalent. All interviews were recorded and responses transcribed by an experienced audio typist. Topics for discussion included transition issues for deaf students and access provision, particularly for those deaf students undertaking HE level courses.

Interviews with the staff of named Access Centres and individual DSA assessors

Interviews were held with staff from all Access Centres. A further 3 interviews were held with staff who undertook DSA assessments of deaf applicants.

Interviews with teaching staff in selected HE and FE institutions

Interviews were held with 10 members of teaching staff who had current or, as in some cases, past involvement with deaf students. A cross section of subject specialists were interviewed, including lecturers teaching arts and design subjects, in addition to a few lecturers responsible for vocational subjects (eg; hairdressing, forestry).

Interviews/group discussions with individual deaf students in HE and FE

Face to face interviews/discussions were held with 28 deaf students in total. The students represented a range of experience, including HE level courses within FE, undergraduate courses and postgraduate courses within HEIs, as well as part-time and full-time courses. This sample also included students studying within FE who were not at the time pursuing HE level courses. The rationale for including these students was that they were in a very good position to provide insights into transitional experiences in particular, and discuss reasons for either taking or opting out of HE level courses. All interviews with staff and students were recorded and transcribed.

Questionnaires via email from a self-selecting group of students

Given the challenges and difficulties associated with accessing ‘hard to reach’ groups, accessing this sample necessitated pursuing less conventional routes of contacting students. In order to encourage deaf students to participate, Disability Offices approved email postings and web based information which was made available to students. Importantly, students were able to choose their preferred means of contact with researchers. Information advised deaf students that they could either opt for face-to-face interviews or participate by completing an emailed questionnaire. Sixteen students completed questionnaires. In some cases, these were followed up by further email exchanges, which allowed the team to clarify issues or seek further information.

Interviewing deaf students: methodological and ethical issues

The main ethical consideration involved in interviewing the deaf students was the personal nature of the topic area. The research team took into account that students were being asked to disclose potentially sensitive information about their experiences in HE to relative outsiders.

An important practical consideration, and one that has real methodological consequences in particular in relation to recording, translation and transcription, concerns the need to interview deaf students in their preferred language (options that focus on English and BSL in particular, but not exclusively). This consideration also has an ethical dimension, to the extent that a preference for BSL or SSE among deaf students in particular often means that they interact through intermediaries (such as interpreters).

With regard to both of these issues, it was considered vital to have a deaf person involved in the interview process. The majority of interviews were carried out by Thelma Petty who is an English/BSL bilingual deaf person who has a BEd degree from a Scottish HEI. She noted that some of the issues brought up by students were very similar to concerns that she had had as a student fourteen years previously. Other interviews were conducted by Marian Grimes who is hearing but has high level BSL skills. She has experience of working within FE and HE providing access for deaf people. She has also carried out interviews with deaf pupils and deaf young people for the Achievements of Deaf Pupils in Scotland (ADPS) project. Both researchers adapted to the requirements of the interviewees: they used English or BSL, depending on the students’ preferences.

In order to ensure that there was a full and accurate record of all interviews, the interviews were audio recorded when only spoken language was used. Where BSL or a combined form of signing and speech were used, an interpreter was present to provide an immediate interpretation which was later transcribed into a written record.

Some of the interviews involved group interviews with students. Often groups provided the opportunity for socially isolated students to begin the process of networking with others. It also facilitated the transfer of information, so that students could compare their access experiences with others. The strength of this group method was apparent because it brought into sharp relief two issues:

  • lack of contact between deaf students and their sense of isolation;
  • variable levels of awareness in deaf students regarding access options.

Visits to two HEIs in England, involving interviews with a range of managerial and access staff

Visits were made to two universities in England. Their support centres were approached because of their reputation for innovative practice and explicit quality standards in relation to the provision of access and support for deaf students. In both cases, the provision was triggered by programs of study that attracted a critical mass of deaf students to the university. The visits were undertaken by three members of the research team.

Consideration of background information and literature

This research is informed by, and takes account of, research already undertaken within the UK relating to both disabled students and deaf students. This includes research on the effectiveness of certain types of provision, including note taking and BSL/English interpreting; research on support for disabled students in HE in the UK; and work on the nature and quality of access provision for deaf students elsewhere, including in the UK and overseas. The report also takes account of relevant legislation, policy and submissions to reviews, such as the Scottish Executive’s (2003b) Review of Funding for Learners. This background material is listed in the bibliography of this report.

Examination of sources of information for HE applicants and students

Researchers also explored the types of information available to deaf students in relation to accessing HE. This included examining written material and websites, including those of UCAS, SAAS and Scottish HEIs generally.

Short interviews or more informal contacts

The researchers supplemented the core interview material with shorter or more informal discussions with individuals, for example, from key organisations such as: SASLI; SCoD; CACDP; RNID; NDCS; BDA; Deaf Action and Deaf Connections. Members of the team were also able to attend or learn from particular events, such as the meeting on professional standards, initiated by Claire Guthrie of the Glasgow College of Building and Printing (now Glasgow Metropolitan College) in May 2004; the one-day conference on the ESRC-funded programme on Support for Disabled Students in HE (Riddell et al, 2004); and the one-day seminar, hosted in February 2004 by SCoD and the NDCS, on the opportunities for deaf people to access HE teacher education.

Using the evidence

This report does not deal with each of the above types of evidence in turn, since it gives a central place to the observations of deaf students themselves. It therefore uses evidence from the various additional sources contextually, under a number of different headings. The purpose of the additional information is to describe and interpret current policy and practice in relation to deaf students and to suggest possible changes. However, it does seem clear from exploring the different sources of information — and from policy and practice — that the views of deaf people have not, in the past, been adequately taken into account.

While many chapters include quotations from deaf interviewees, chapter ten (Deaf Perspectives) is most concerned with deaf people speaking out for themselves. Sometimes they have been quoted at length, so that readers are offered genuine insights into the real, everyday experiences of deaf students within FE and HE. The deaf people concerned also often contribute suggestions about innovative ways to ensure that deaf students have full access to HE. These ideas are incorporated into the recommendations.

The views and proposals of hearing interviewees and consultants are also taken into account throughout the report. A number of the recommendations either come directly from these interviewees or are elaborations of their suggestions.

Quotations are used throughout the report in such a way that it should be clear which category of interviewee was involved. However, because we are dealing with a small population, it was decided not to give the interviewees a consistent label within the report, as it might thereby be possible to identify individual students or staff.

Key points

  • Deaf HE students are a ‘hard to reach’ study population, but this report nevertheless prioritises their views.
  • The project also collected information from key professionals (Disability Officers, and access centre and teaching staff) and examples of good practice (including visits to two English universities).
  • Interviews with students were carried out in their own preferred language; all interviews were translated (where necessary) and transcribed into written English.
  • Bringing students together into focus groups revealed a lack of contact between deaf students, and variable levels of awareness among students regarding access options.