University of Edinburgh

Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education

Chapter Four: Policy, Legislation and Initiatives

"Access to education should be for all. Therefore, we, deaf students, have a right to have a suitable level of qualified support at realistic cost."
(Scottish Deaf Student)

In 2003 the Scottish Executive Department of Education, Transport and Lifelong Learning established a review of funding for learners as part of its Funding for Learners Division. The key principle underlying this review was described in the following terms:

"The Executive is committed to making learning accessible to all individuals, regardless of their background or personal circumstances. A key tool in achieving this goal is having a fair and effective financial support system in place for learners."

The Scottish Executive's Lifelong Learning Strategy made a commitment to review the funding of learners in post-compulsory education with a view to improving the following aspects of current provision:

  • Coherence — are learners being treated the same, taking into account how or at what level they are studying?
  • Equitability — are the levels of support in place putting all individuals on a level playing field when it comes to accessing learning?
  • Effectiveness — is there targeting and help for those people who need the most financial assistance to learn?

The Funding for Learners Division Position Paper (Scottish Executive 2003b) stressed that “…it is essential to have a basic conceptual framework underpinning learner support” (Scottish Executive, 2003b, p1). Amongst the principles underlying support, the Scottish Executive proposed the following:

"The framework for learner support should recognise the requirements of the economy as a whole and the need for equity of provision between individuals and between groups. These objectives come together in widening access to learning opportunities.

  • Policy should be evidence-based.
  • Full opportunities should be available to learners and learning providers so that appropriate choices are made in obtaining and providing learning opportunities."

The Review of Funding of Learners focussed specifically on the Scottish Executive’s aim to ensure “A Scotland where people have the chance to learn, irrespective of their background or current personal circumstances”.

The Review addressed a number of key policy issues, including:

  • the different funding regimes for FE and HE students;
  • the eligibility of full-time and part-time learners; the funding of Special Education Needs (SEN) students; the different definitions of "income" used in determining eligibility for support;
  • the impact of the "previous study" rules in determining eligibility.

All of these issues are of relevance to the particular focus of this report, that is, the support available to deaf students in HE.

The Position Paper also stressed the central principle of widening access to learning:

"The concept of widening access is based on the view that it should be the ability and potential — rather than background — of the individual that are the principal determinants of his/her learning opportunities."

The Position Paper recognised that students may face a range of non-financial barriers, such as lack of familiarity with HE, which may lead to inappropriate choice of course or institution, feelings of cultural isolation, etc.

Several submissions to the Funding for Learners Review reveal a number of key concerns which have direct relevance to the specific situation of deaf learners. Although none of the submissions make explicit reference to deaf learners, many of the comments and proposals have a bearing on deaf students. The key submissions in this respect are those from the HE Disability Coordinators/Advisors National Network; Skill Scotland; the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities and the Open University. The discussions of the SEN/Disabilities Stakeholders Group are also relevant to this discussion. Issues deriving from these submissions will be referred to as appropriate in the following chapters, along with evidence from the research reported here7.

The major piece of legislation currently having an impact on all sectors of education, including Higher Education, is the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) as extended to education from September 2002 following amendments introduced by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) 2001. The legislation aims to ensure that disabled people have equal opportunities across the education sector, including within higher education institutions. According to the Act, discrimination against disabled applicants or students can take place in either of two ways. By:

  • treating them “less favourably” than other people; or
  • failing to make a “reasonable adjustment” when they are placed at a “substantial disadvantage” compared to other people for a reason relating to their disability.

The Act applies to all the activities and facilities institutions provide wholly or mainly for students. There is a responsibility to make anticipatory adjustments: thus institutions are expected to give attention to adjustments which may be required by future disabled students or applicants and make these adjustments in advance. The major part of the Act was implemented in 2002; adjustments requiring the provision of “auxiliary aids and services” (such as interpreters, lip speakers, note takers etc) have been required since September 2003, and adjustments requiring alterations to physical features are required from September 2005.

Deaf applicants and students are deemed by their hearing impairment to be included under the terms of this legislation. Those who see the inclusion of deaf people as primarily a linguistic matter are caught in a dilemma: the SENDA legislation has the potential to provide protection to deaf students, even in terms of linguistic access. Yet to exploit this legislation is to accept an underlying approach to deafness that is based on conceptualising deaf people in terms of hearing loss (rather than in terms of having linguistic rights). Most individuals and deaf organisations are taking a pragmatic approach, by invoking the SENDA legislation whilst simultaneously calling for linguistic rights.

One of the difficulties in accepting this framing of deaf people’s situation in terms of disability is that it can mask the essential linguistic issues involved. In much of the guidance relating to SENDA there is very little recognition of the Deaf community as a linguistic minority or of deaf people having linguistic preferences. Even where there is a focus on access provision, some of the terminology, such as the use of ‘communicators’ or ‘communication support workers’, may confuse rather than clarify the situation (see Chapters Ten and Twelve and point 8.0 of the recommendations).

However, there are some developments which have taken place at both UK and Scottish levels which cut across this thinking. In February 2003, two important events took place. Firstly, the United Kingdom Government recognised British Sign Language as a language in its own right and promised funding to support the use of BSL. In the same month, the Scottish Parliament published a report on the Inquiry into the Role of Educational and Cultural Policy in Supporting and Developing Gaelic, Scots and Minority Languages in Scotland (Scottish Parliament, 2003). The initial remit of this Inquiry did not include BSL, but the resulting investigation and report gave clear recognition to BSL as one of the languages of Scotland. Specific references are made to BSL within the recommendations. It is clear that the committee accepts that bilingualism and multilingualism are positive assets to be encouraged.

The Scottish Executive has also established a Working Group focused on BSL which aims to support increased knowledge and understanding of BSL and its users and to facilitate actions to support BSL use. Through representations from members of the Working Group, the name and scope of this group was extended to become the BSL and Linguistic Access Working Group, thus giving recognition to the fact that the varied linguistic experiences of deaf people mean that they have different linguistic preferences. The Working Group seeks to facilitate access in whatever language the deaf person requires. This Working Group operates under the auspices of the Equality Unit within the Scottish Executive: this Unit is charged with ensuring that all of the departments of the Executive comply with the equality agenda.

There is, then, recognition of deaf people’s linguistic rights both within the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive. However, the integration of these rights within an appropriate linguistic framework has not yet been achieved. Instead, these linguistic rights have to be interpreted within the terminology of disability, special educational needs, extended learning, etc: all terms which can be found within the FE and HE sectors. It could be argued that this can make it more difficult to clarify and meet the access requirements of deaf students.

As will be seen in more detail later, some deaf students themselves felt that it was inappropriate to treat deaf and disabled students in the same way:

"I'd just like to make final comment but I think this will be an important one. When I was completing the UCAS form, I stated that I was born profoundly deaf since birth, but wasn't given the opportunity to detail what support arrangements I would require during my university course, that is, interpreters. Of course, this could have affected the way I was selected by universities. For example, the universities I applied to would not have been aware that I would require an interpreter. I feel that UCAS should do more to address the needs of deaf and disabled students. I felt that they were treating us as if we were in the same group — so it would be difficult for them to understand our different needs. The UCAS application forms need to be reformatted in a way that it would be easier for our needs to be effectively assessed."

This comment about the UCAS form could indeed be extended to the whole framework in which deaf students requirements are considered.

UK initiatives supporting deaf people in HE

There have been a number of UK initiatives aimed at supporting deaf students within HE. The three which are addressed in this report are the Headstart project; the JUDE project and the UCLAN Year Zero for Deaf Students project. Reference is also made to the Teachability project which had a wider remit than deaf students.


Headstart was set up:

"To address the issues that deter deaf and hard of hearing people from pursuing higher or further education and the barriers that prevent them from achieving academic success."
(RNID Website)

More specifically, Headstart aims:

  • To build clear and firm bridges between HE institutions, Further Education colleges, Post 16 providers and Careers Services, so that deaf and hard of hearing people can make the transition from education to university to employment.
  • To enable deaf and hard of hearing people to apply for the right courses at university, by ensuring that they are motivated and have good career plans.
  • To develop strategies and initiatives to help deaf and hard of hearing students succeed at university.
  • To encourage and support universities to become more accessible to, and supportive of, deaf and hard of hearing students.
  • To disseminate successful case studies and initiatives, and campaign for changes to Government policy and university practice, so that the lessons of the project may have a wider and longer lasting impact.
    (RNID Website:

In the initial phase of the project the team developed an audit tool, Deaf Students in Higher Education: How Inclusive are You?. The document provides self-assessment questions under a number of key headings:

  • Information for applicants, students and staff;
  • Selection and Admission of students;
  • Confidentiality and Disclosure;
  • Enrolment, registration and induction of students;
  • Learning and teaching;
  • Examination and Assessment;
  • Access to general facilities and support;
  • Additional specialist support;
  • Physical Environment;
  • Staff development;
  • Quality Assurance.

Within each of these sections, the authors provide a ‘Best Practice Statement’ which includes clear criteria to be met. Thus, under ‘Learning and Teaching’, there are statements relating to

  • Clear Communication Strategies;
  • Accessible Learning and Teaching Strategies — General Principles;
  • Managing Laboratory, Practical and Studio Work;
  • Managing Divided Visual Attention;
  • Managing Group and Seminar Work.

Within each of these there is a further set of statements, for example, under ‘Clear Communication Strategies’:

"As part of your communication with your students, you:

  • Know what communication support and equipment is available in your university
  • Discuss individual communication needs with your student
  • Are aware of the high level of concentration required by deaf students and schedule regular breaks for lipreaders/British Sign language users
  • Make sure the deaf students can see you (and all other students) easily and clearly…
    (RNID et al 2001, Section 5)"

This highly detailed account also provides a good basis for staff training in that it draws attention to a whole range of factors which need to be in place if deaf students are to gain full access. This audit tool does not appear to be in regular use within Scottish HEIs, but some Disability Advisors interviewed were aware of the initiative. Most saw it as either too detailed or as overlapping with the aims of the Teachability project.

It was also clear from interviews with HEIs and RNID staff involved in the Headstart project that the audit tool itself was only one part of the initiative. The most recent phase focuses more on a series of actions and events which can promote inclusion of deaf people in HE. These include provision of focused information, one-day conferences and residential week-long summer schools specifically for deaf students. The Headstart section of the RNID website ( provides advice and information particularly to deaf applicants and students, for example, in relation to the process of clearing. The first residential course was held at Sheffield Hallam University in 2003 and a further residential summer school is being held at the University of Sheffield in July 2004. This is described as

"…a residential week for deaf and hard of hearing students one year on, who have applied to university and have been offered a provisional place. They will take part in a fast track study skills booster, make practical plans for their move to university and establish or confirm networks and friendships."
(RNID Website:

The student feedback from the first residential week was very positive indeed: prospective students were able to develop social, academic and networking opportunities in a supportive environment, which also provided them with experience of different types of linguistic access. No such residential course has as yet been held in Scotland. It may be that Scottish students could attend UK courses of this type. However, it seems valuable in the first instance to establish such opportunities within Scotland. This would allow deaf students in Scotland to build up strong Scottish networks; become familiar with the educational and academic institutions and systems within Scotland; become more aware of the role and function of relevant Scottish organisations and groups (SAAS; SCoD; SASLI; SSC etc).

The JUDE Initiative

Another project specifically aimed at supporting deaf students was established within Northern Ireland. The Joint Universities Deaf Education (JUDE) Project was aimed at improving access particularly at Queen’s University, Belfast and the University of Ulster. The project had three goals:

  • to support deaf and hard of hearing students at both Queen’s University, Belfast and the University of Ulster;
  • to assist and improve access to higher education and ultimately employment for prospective students;
  • to assist change and improvement in the quality of training for sign language interpreters in Northern Ireland through establishing courses at an appropriate level.

The JUDE project built up a bank of resources, such as radio aids and loop systems and developed support services particularly in manual and electronic note-taking, and transcription. The team also established several training initiatives, including the training of notetakers and the establishment of a Deaf Studies Certificate. One of the most innovatory aspects of the project was the collaboration between the JUDE project, RNID and the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), which resulted in 16 students attending UCLAN for interpreter training. JUDE also assisted in student assessment and in co-ordinating and booking access services.

It is clear that the JUDE project had a significant positive effect on the recruitment and support of deaf students in Northern Ireland. The project supported 54 full-time and 20 part-time students. However, the project itself was short-term and lasted only two years. Rather than this specialist support continuing, the funding which followed from the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI) was replaced by funding for a generic Disability Services Co-ordinator post. Alan McClure, RNID, comments:

"As a result, the specialist support offered through JUDE ended and is now incorporated into a pan-disability service. Now considerably fewer applications are received from the deaf and hard of hearing community by the two universities."
(McClure, 2003)

There are a number of lessons to be learnt from the JUDE initiative. There was a clear link between the development of deaf-related courses, including the training of access providers, and the increase in student numbers. Some elements of this positive initiative remain: for example, the Department of Linguistics now includes British Sign Language as the fourth linguistic option, the others being French, German and Spanish. However, once the clear deaf focus and related awareness and training were removed, the recruitment of deaf students decreased. The SASLI report (Brennan et al, 2002) stressed the inadequacy of short-term solutions to what is an ongoing requirement of linguistic access for deaf students. The JUDE project shows this all too clearly.

The Teachability Project

The Teachability project provides materials to enable academic staff within HEIs to reflect on the accessibility of courses for ‘students with a range of impairments’. Five Scottish institutions were involved in the first phase of the project: in a later stage a further thirteen HEIs were included. The remit of the project required a focus on disabled students. Examples within the resource materials provide examples of deaf students’ access requirements and suggest strategies for meeting their requirements. However, the wider remit of the project did not allow for an in-depth focus on deaf students. A number of Disability Officers indicated that the Teachability pack had been used by individual departments within the HEI. In some cases, there was an intention to roll out the use of the pack across departments over a specific time period. Some staff commented that, while departments had made use of the materials to audit the accessibility of their curriculum, resources were not always available to bring about the type of changes that were required. There was little information, therefore, on the impact of Teachability on direct practice in relation to deaf students. However, it should be noted that, as with many of these initiatives, impact can be difficult to measure. Some University websites, for example, provide information at least partly derived from the Teachability project. One example is the use of the short set of guidelines entitled 10 ways to anticipate! How can you possibly make reasonable adjustments before you know the disabled students who need them? by Anne Simpson, Teachability Project Director. These suggestions are aimed at supporting academic staff in their preparations for working with a wide diversity of students. However, as with other materials, the challenge is in trying to ensure that academic staff who could exploit these ideas actually know about them.

The Year 0 for Deaf Students access course is discussed in more detail in chapter eight.

Key points

  • SEED’s Funding for Learners Review (2003b) had direct relevance for deaf learners, although none of the submissions made explicit reference to them.
  • Those deaf students (and deaf organisations) wishing to invoke SENDA legislation in support of linguistic access rights can only do so by accepting SENDA’s conceptualisation of deafness as hearing loss (not linguistic difference).
  • More recently, recognition of BSL and establishment of the Scottish Executive’s BSL and Linguistic Access Group are early evidence of recognition of linguistic rights, but this needs to lead to practical realisations in educational policy.
  • The application and use of Headstart and Teachability resources is variable across HEIs. Outcomes of the JUDE project in Northern Ireland demonstrate the need for ongoing strategic commitment to guarantee the provision of access arrangements on a national scale.


4.1 The Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive should work towards integration of linguistic rights for deaf people within a linguistic framework of access arrangements, moving away from a disability framework of special educational needs and extended learning.

4.2 A nationally consistent infrastructure of HE access arrangements for deaf students should be based on ‘top-down’ longer term strategic commitments, rather than be based on ‘bottom-up’ short term project-based solutions.

4.3 There is a need to bring together certain core activities, which can help to provide a stronger infrastructure to support deaf students in particular institutions. A single central resource and training centre, the Centre for Linguistic Access should be established. Ideally this would be part of the Centre for Deaf Studies as recommended by the SASLI Working Party (Brennan et al, 2002), although it could have a separate existence. However, given the links between the different types of initiative required, it would be better for this work to be fully integrated into a Centre for Deaf Studies. The Centre for Linguistic Access would act as a ‘powerhouse’ for creating and supporting a radical shift in the access systems in place for deaf students in tertiary education. It may well be appropriate for such a Centre to have a dual FE/HE focus, given the overlap recognised within this report: this would also involve collaboration with existing groups, such as the BRITE Centre. Given that there is a parallel need for such resources within primary, secondary and FE as well as in HE, combined funding should be made available for the development of the Centre for Linguistic Access to service access requirements at all of these levels. The establishment of a Centre for Linguistic Access would enable the requirements of deaf students to be conceptualised in terms of linguistic choice and preferences, rather than in terms of ‘special needs’.

4.4 Specific core funding should be allocated for the establishment of such a Centre and for running costs. There are precedents for making focused funding available for such a Centre. The BRITE Centre Initiative, for example, received specific funding three years after the publication of the Beattie report (1999). This Centre is playing an important role in making FE accessible to a range of students in FE. At the opening of the Centre in 2002, Iain Gray, the then Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning, announced that £22.6 million had been allocated from April 2001 to March 2004 to implement the recommendations of the Beattie report: “£4.5 million of that funding was allocated specifically to support students in further education and a significant proportion of that has been used to establish the Centre” (Iain Gray, Minister of Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning, September, 2002). It is suggested here that a similar injection of capital funding is required to ensure full participation of deaf students in HE. The SASLI report (Brennan et al, 2002) recommended the establishment of a Centre for Deaf Studies to take forward a range of initiatives which could contribute towards genuine linguistic access for deaf people in a range of contexts. HE is only one of these contexts, but if the same kind of funding were to be made available in relation to deaf people as has been made available for the BRITE Centre initiative, then the situation of deaf students could be transformed.

4.5 The Centre for Linguistic Access should be responsible for the development and application of agreed Quality Indicators (QIs) for the whole ‘assessment’ process and in relation to access provision (eg; interpreters, notetakers etc). These would be supplementary to the generic ‘Toolkit’ for DSA-related assessments (see chapter 7). There should be regular auditing of provision.

4.6 Residential one-week summer courses for aspiring and first year deaf HE students should be hosted within Scotland, to aid networking and level students’ awareness of support and access arrangements.