University of Edinburgh

Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education

Chapter Three: Understanding Deaf Experience

This research explores the access to Higher Education (HE) within Scotland of a specific group of people—deaf people—who have to date faced considerable barriers to success within all levels of education (SCoD, 2004; Brennan, 2003; Brennan et al, 2002; lo Bianco, 2001).

As we shall see, deaf people tend to be viewed within policy documents and educational guidelines as a subgroup of disabled people. Within this conceptualisation of deaf people as disabled, deaf students are typically banded into distinct groups by descriptors which relate to the level of hearing loss of the student. These descriptors mostly categorise deaf students according to a level of hearing loss that is described as either profound, severe, moderate or mild. It may seem that the type of services which students require can be neatly matched to this categorisation, but in actual fact the category boundaries are broad arbitrary designations along a continuum and range of auditory perception. Therefore neither the experience of deafness nor the life trajectories of deaf people lend themselves well to audiological categorisation alone.

The accepted audiological framework has deliberately been avoided here in favour of recent work in the sociology of deafness. The tendency within this deaf studies literature (Padden and Humphries, 1988 and 2005; Wilcox, 1989; Gregory and Hartley, 1991; Corker, 1998; Ladd, 2002; Taylor and Darby, 2003; McDonnell, 2004) is to describe the experiences of deaf people by reference to a social, rather than a medical, model of disability, along lines elaborated by disabled scholars (Shakespeare, 1992 and 1994; Oliver, 1996). Such descriptions privilege shared and characteristic experiences over the nature of hearing loss as such. And many of the accounts preference the languages used by deaf people— including BSL, SSE and English—over the individual nature of hearing loss in an attempt to understand what deaf people share among themselves, as opposed to what sets them apart from hearing people. Within this body of work, for example, evidence is emergent that medical conceptualisations of deafness have led to forms of social oppression and exclusion (not least in education) that are thought to be located deep in the social fabric of societies (cf Mirzoeff, 1995; Branson and Miller, 2002). Through their resentment of being categorised in fitness terms by health and education professionals, adult deaf people are instead redefining themselves in social and linguistic terms6.

A contemporary policy approach is therefore one that takes account — as a matter of course — of deaf people as a socio- and geo-political reality, of BSL as a now recognised indigenous language in the UK, and of the weight of sociological argument put forward by predominantly deaf academics and accepted by the major deaf organisations in the UK and elsewhere. In sum, although this report will consider the impact of the ‘Disability Agenda’ (see for example, Albrecht et al, 2001), it will take as its starting point the view that deaf people have of themselves as described above. In doing so this report, we believe, provides an exemplar of the ethical incorporation of mature deaf studies theory into education.

The Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (SASLI) 2002 publication Creating Linguistic Access for Deaf and Deafblind People: A Strategy for Scotland recognises two broad groupings of deaf people. Firstly, there are those whose first or preferred language is a spoken language:

"This may be English, Gaelic, Punjabi, Chinese etc: these people typically have become deaf later in life, although some will have been born deaf or have become deaf early in life, but only exposed to a spoken language."
(Brennan et al, 2002, p.6)

Secondly, there are those — a much smaller group — whose first or preferred language is British Sign Language (BSL):

"these people typically have been born deaf or have become deaf early in life. Deaf BSL users belong to the Deaf community and see themselves as constituting a linguistic/cultural minority."
(Brennan et al, 2002, p.6)

Within the Deaf Studies literature there is a widespread convention which makes use of a capital ‘D’ in ‘Deaf’ when referring to this group of people. The lower case ‘d’ is used in ‘deaf’ when referring to people who have a hearing loss, but who do not necessarily see themselves as belonging to a separate linguistic minority. In practice, Deaf people will be BSL-using deaf people; deaf people will use English or another spoken language as their preferred language.

Despite recognising the usefulness of this convention, it will not be used here, although awareness of the two groups will be important throughout. This is because the scope of the research covers both groups and because the nature of the evidence is such that it is not always clear which group any individual deaf person belongs to. Thus some of the evidence from deaf students is based on written questionnaires. These do ask about the individuals’ preferred language in terms of access, but not about any other aspects of their cultural identity. It would be inappropriate to make assumptions. In the case of face-to-face interviews, the deaf person’s view of their identity has usually been apparent and this has been included in the discussion where relevant. However, the key point for this report is for readers to be aware that deaf people differ in terms of their preferred language.

Despite the importance of this linguistic preference, it is also the case that many deaf people make use of both BSL and English: indeed almost all BSL users make some use of English and it could be argued that in recent years this usage has increased. The use of English by BSL-using members of the Deaf community has been encouraged by the greater involvement of deaf people in professional roles and by the potential of different types of technology, from text phones through to email and text-messaging.

Most deaf school-leavers will have accessed curriculum and assessment at school solely through spoken and written English. Yet some deaf people who may never have had access to BSL may choose to learn BSL after leaving school, for example, within Further or Higher Education and, as they become more skilled in the language, prefer at least part of their access to be through BSL.

The SASLI (Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters) publication also draws attention to a key barrier to equality for deaf people: namely, lack of linguistic access. It provides examples across the board, demonstrating that typically deaf people are denied full access within education, social services, the justice system, health etc. This report will explore the extent to which this is also true within Higher Education, as well as providing examples of good practice in the provision of appropriate access services. But before considering developments in the current policy framework, we should first describe the very wide range of deaf people to whom it applies.

Deaf children and adults

The first salient difference is caused by the age at onset of deafness. Some people are born deaf or become deaf very early in their lives, while others become deaf as part of the ageing process, or through acquired hearing loss in adulthood. The RNID estimates that one in seven people have a hearing loss. The vast majority of these develop their hearing loss later in life. A relatively small number of children between one and three years of age will have a significant hearing loss: that is, approximately one in one thousand births. The Achievements of Deaf Children in Scotland (ADPS) project which aims to collect information on all deaf children between birth and 18, currently has two thousand and seventy records of deaf children and young people in Scotland. Although the ADPS project may not have records for all pre-school children (the information is collected through education professionals), these figures give a good idea of the contrast in size between those coming through the education system with a hearing loss and those acquiring a hearing loss later in life. However, it is worth being aware of a further group: these are people who become deaf, not typically through old age, but through some other cause such as trauma, infection or toxic drugs. This group tends to be described as ‘deafened’. The RNID estimates that there are approximately one hundred and twenty three thousand deafened people in the UK aged sixteen and above. Several of the deaf people who provided information for this project belong to this category. In two cases, the hearing loss was relatively recent and was deteriorating.

Linguistic implications of timing of hearing loss

Those people who develop a hearing loss in adulthood will typically have a spoken language as their first language. For the majority of people in Scotland this language will be English although it may be Gaelic, Punjabi, Hindi or one of the other community languages of Scotland. This contrasts with the situation of deaf children.

The linguistic situation of deaf children can be quite complex. Those deaf children who are born into deaf families who use BSL are likely to develop BSL as their first language. This sign language will develop at a comparable rate to spoken language, so children as young as three will be able to have relaxed conversations with their parents. However, the number of deaf children born into deaf families is likely to be as low as five per cent of the overall number of deaf children and no more than ten per cent.

The linguistic status of deaf children born to hearing parents will depend very much on the choices made by their parents and the options available within their schooling. Almost all children with mild to moderate hearing losses will be given access only to English. However, although such children are likely to acquire English, they do not all necessarily have the level of access which enables full linguistic skills to be developed easily. Limitations of access within schooling, for example, within group situations or noisy classrooms, may also negatively affect their educational achievements.

Some deaf children with severe or profound losses may also be placed in spoken language-only environments. Some of these may have hearing aids or cochlear implants which will give them some access to sound and some may develop good English language skills. However, a substantial proportion of these children will not develop native-like fluency in English. Parents of some deaf children may choose to use sign language with them and/or place them in educational contexts where BSL is used, as well as English. However, in Scotland there are arguably no truly bilingual environments at primary and secondary levels: such an environment would be one where the two languages are used separately and are given equal status. Some deaf children will be exposed to a form of communication known as Total Communication. Total Communication often combines communication modes, and this makes the full use of BSL spatial grammar and non-manual components impossible.

The SASLI (Brennan et al, 2002) and Scottish Council on Deafness (SCoD, 2004) publications support the view of the BDA that only a truly bilingual and bicultural environment will give deaf children the solid linguistic basis they need:

"The BDA believes that the majority of deaf children will best realise their potential through a bilingual/bicultural approach to learning. Under such a system, the deaf child learns BSL alongside English enabling him or her to build confidence and acquire at an early stage the basic linguistic skills that are the foundation for all subsequent learning."
(BDA 2003)

This view remains controversial within the education of deaf pupils. It could be argued that the ‘presumption of inclusion’ built into recent legislation (Scottish Executive, 2000a) makes it less, rather than more, likely that deaf children will be educated alongside deaf peers. At the same time, clear evidence from the ADPS project is showing that deaf children as a group lag substantially behind their hearing peers in relation to their educational achievements. The evidence available on literacy skills, including 5-14 National Tests, standard grades and specific reading age information shows that many deaf children are delayed in these skills. As we shall see, this is borne out by the comments of staff in FE and HE who see the low levels of English skills amongst deaf students as being a major barrier to achievement. English can therefore be a barrier to achievement for many deaf students, not just those who prefer to use BSL.

Those who have acquired English as well as BSL may be in a more fortunate position. However, this may depend on how much of their education they have been, and are, able to access through BSL and also the extent to which their English skills have been taught through BSL.

Key points

  • The accepted audiological framework of categorising deaf people according to hearing loss has been avoided, in favour of a sociolinguistic model that reflects the shared experience of being deaf as described by deaf people themselves.
  • This study reflects the views of deaf students who use English, as well as those who use BSL, signed communication, or a mixture of spoken and signed modalities; all students are considered to share key experiences that are relevant to this report.
  • As with language preference, the age at onset and cause of deafness varied among the study sample of deaf students, and this too is characteristic of the deaf population as a whole.
  • Reported low levels of English skills among deaf youngsters can be a barrier to achievement.