University of Edinburgh

Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education

Chapter Nine: Health and Safety Issues

This research did not set out to explore health and safety issues as such. However, such issues were raised by students themselves on several occasions. Obviously it is an absolute requirement that deaf people should not be placed in danger because of their hearing loss. HEIs are aware of this. However, some institutions are still gearing up to meet the requirements of SENDA and there can be a communication gap, with those responsible for the systems not aware that there is a deaf person on site. Given the importance of this issue, several of these accounts are presented in detail:

"Something I do have a problem which is that my hearing difficulty lies with high pitches and the building that I’m located in, when we have a fire alarm, I don’t hear it. There are some rooms I do hear it and some rooms I don’t hear it. And we used to have a regular drill and every week, if I was in the computing lab, I’d hear it and if I was downstairs I’d hear it and then one day we were told the drill would go ahead but everyone was to leave — a practice. But they didn’t give us a specific time and I was on the very top floor. I was in the bathroom when it happened! So there was the bathroom door and then another door that led to corridor and I was the last person to leave the building because I hadn’t heard it at all. It wasn’t until I’d gone right back out into the corridor that I was like ‘Oh it’s a fire drill’ and when I’d left everybody else had vacated the building. And then we were asked to fill in questionnaires afterwards, if we’d had any problems and this thing was months ago and I filled it in saying, “I didn’t hear this”. And because I’m a postgrad I get a key to the building. I can go in whenever I like. So the building gets locked about 8 or 9 every night, but we can stay in later. So I stay in a lot and I stay in at weekends and there are a lot of out of hours when there wouldn’t be somebody to check the building. And they still haven’t done anything about it and I am very worried that I can be in my room on that top floor and just not hear it."

As well as safety issues, it is unfortunately the case that not all HEIs make use of the environmental aids that are available and would provide deaf students with independence and enable them to be on a truly equal footing with their peers:

"I think we probably should install a flashing light. Our postgraduates get offices to work in, so I think they would need to put one in my office. And also we have a telephone which I don’t hear ring at all. I just don’t hear it. People will say, “Are you going to get that” and I’m like “Get what?” I just can’t hear it at all. And it would be nice to use that phone because if people want to contact me during the day it’s very expensive to call my mobile and they could call this number, but I can’t hear it. So I’ve taken in one of my own phones, I have a spare phone at home and swapped it over but it didn’t seem like they were going to do anything about that either."

Regrettably, there can be a lack of urgency in terms of the systems:

"I told one of the secretaries who deals with the fire drills at the time that I had a problem with it but they haven’t done anything. I asked at the start of this term … I know the postgrad student rep and she shares the office with me and she’s told the Head of Department about it when they had their first meeting of term. That was about three weeks ago and he was like “Oh I had no idea that X had a hearing problem. That’s very serious if she’s in out of hours. We’ll look into it.’ But nobody’s contacted me or done anything about it."

Similar examples were quoted by some students studying in the FE sector:

"Can I just say something about the fire alarm, as well? It happened once and we were in the group and there were the blind people as well, just a few of them, and the staff sort of took the blind people, took them out of the building, but I didn’t know what was there — I was still working away on the computer, just sort of typing away and doing this stuff; and I looked around and I thought Oh, I wonder where everybody else has gone?’ and I thought, ‘Oh well never mind’ and I just carried on working. And then the teacher remembered about me and had to come all the way back in. I ken ‘cos she came looking for me to take me out as well. And I said to them, you know at that time, ‘Please can you remember I’m deaf — I can’t hear the alarm!’ and they said ‘Oh yeah, we will, we will’. But I just sort of thought that they thought ‘Thank God I remembered about you’."

Given the fact that several students brought up health and safety issues without any prompting at all from researchers, it is clear that these issues were a matter of concern. The above accounts clearly depict the sense of vulnerability that these students have. Interviews with Disability Advisors demonstrated that they were aware of such issues and tried to play their part in keeping university staff informed. A number of HEIs had introduced systems of using pagers which were able to pick up signals from the central alarm system. However, this arrangement was not universal and many buildings lacked other types of visual indicator, such as flashing lights. This may not be appear be a matter of direct support for students, but students need to feel that they are in a safe environment if the are to make the most of their higher education. HEIs also have a duty to ensure their safety. Some HEIs clearly had programmes of work, linked to the new requirements under SENDA, which are likely to improve this situation.

Key points

  • Deaf students raised health and safety issues without prompting by researchers. Concerns included those responsible for warning systems not being aware of deaf students’ presence on site; a lack of environmental equipment (such as flashing alarms); and a lack of urgency in correcting warning systems in place.


9.1 HE institutions should formulate explicit strategies for including the access deaf students have to alarm systems and signals; they should consult with deaf students as part of their regular monitoring of processes and systems, and address concerns that may be outstanding among their deaf students within a stated time-frame. These issues should also be addressed where a course includes field trips, residentials etc.

9.2 Steps should be taken to ensure that every deaf student has access to a personal pager which will operate as a fire-alarm. Flashing lights should also be used in key areas.

9.3 In order to ensure the individual’s own safety as well as improving working conditions and independence, other appropriate equipment, such as video phones and text telephones should be made available to deaf students, such as PhD students, who have room allocations within HEIs.

9.4 Video entry systems should be used for key buildings which have intercom entry systems.