University of Edinburgh

Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education

Executive Summary


This report provides an account of a research project funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (now the Scottish Funding Council) exploring the requirements of deaf students in HE. The aim of the Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education research was to detail current access provision across Scotland and the extent to which it is enabling deaf students to become full and active participants within Higher Education.

The research was carried out in 2002–2003 by a team of researchers within the School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. It included interviews with key stakeholders and providers and, in particular, focussed on the experiences of deaf students themselves. The report also discusses current policy, funding arrangements, and practice (admissions, assessment process, transition, and health and safety). It concludes with a full list of recommendations.

An accurate assessment of the relative participation of deaf students in Scottish HE is difficult to make, but HESA figures for 2002–2003 suggest that 2.6 in every 1,000 students self-report being deaf. 21 HEIs took part in the study, at which 363 students were reported by Disability Offices as being deaf (71.8% of those known to HESA). 23 students provided further qualitative information.

The findings are best understood within the context of two key arguments that have guided the research. First of all the research team decided that the study should be based on a social conceptualisation of deaf people, one that privileges shared and characteristic experiences among deaf people over the individual specifics of hearing loss as such. Therefore the research has neither analysed nor considered the study sample according to level of hearing loss. It is important to note in this respect that the study reflects the views of deaf students regardless of the language they use: all are considered to share experiences relevant to this report. In Deaf Students in doing so, we aim to provide an exemplar of the incorporation of mature deaf studies theory into education. A more developed account is given in Chapter Three.

Secondly, the situation of deaf students — as framed by current policy and legislation — reflects a central tension between the notions of ‘support’ and ‘access’ that pervades all the themes we considered through our research. The conceptualisation of deaf students in terms of support needs is encouraged by the discourse of some policy frameworks and guidelines, since these are based on a disability conceptualisation of deaf students. More recently however, there is greater recognition of the appropriateness of reframing the situation of deaf people in terms of linguistic rights — the parliamentary recognition of British Sign Language (BSL) in 2003 is an example of this. In line with these developments, this study considers linguistic access (be it in terms of English, BSL or other forms of communication) to be a prime determinant of quality of provision, after which educational support may be provided as with any other student. This argument is carried forward throughout the report, but there are further details in particular in Chapter Four.

Our distinction between linguistic access and educational support is important in understanding the current generic modelling of access provision through educational support. Educational support can address many needs among a broad category of students — including, among others, many disabled students and deaf students. But this generic model of providing HE access through educational support addresses the particular issue of entitlement to linguistic access that all deaf students share only through a contested association of deafness with disability or special need. A separate model is required to address deaf students’ specific entitlement to linguistic access to HE, as distinct from any additional forms of educational support that may be appropriate.

The conclusion that arises out of the report (Chapter Thirteen) is that a specific model of linguistic access provision for deaf students should be implemented across Scottish HEIs — including support for ‘communities of deaf students’ developing within HEIs — in order to guarantee full equality of opportunity and successful participation for deaf HE students.

In the summary that follows, key findings are listed first, under their chapter headings. The summary concludes with a selection of recommendations — their numbers refer to the full listing that is provided at the end of this report.

Key findings

Deaf Student Numbers

  • An accurate assessment of the relative participation of deaf students in Scottish HE is difficult to make, but HESA figures for 2002–2003 suggest that 2.6 in every 1,000 students self-report being deaf.
  • The study sample comprised 363 deaf students, 71.8% of all those known to HESA (N=505) in the year 2002–2003. 23 HE students provided further detailed qualitative information in this study.
  • The sample of deaf students came to HE from a variety of entry routes to undertake a broad range of courses.

Policy, Legislation and Initiatives

  • 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 Joint Universities Deaf Education Project (JUDE) project in Northern Ireland demonstrate the need for ongoing strategic commitment to guarantee the provision of access arrangements on a national scale.


  • A number of categories of disabled students have access needs, but are ineligible for Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). This means that, in order to provide access services for them, HEIs must find the necessary funding from existing resources.
  • There is an apparent lack of clear information for ineligible students on the rationale for eligibility criteria.
  • The Premium in Support of Disabled Students grants to HEIs are calculated on the basis of numbers of students in receipt of DSA. This means that the ineligible categories of students referred to above are discounted, as well as students who do not disclose their disability.
  • There is inconsistency in the way that HEIs involve their Disability Offices in decisions about how the Premium funding is used.
  • DSA provides an invaluable resource to eligible students, but lack of funding for vacation periods, high costs and shortage of suitably qualified staff limit its potential.
  • Students for whom English is an additional or late acquired language have a need for subject specific linguistic support.


  • There is evidence which suggests that deaf students can be accepted for a university place conditional upon the HEI being able to provide appropriate access; this is against the spirit of SENDA legislation, which implies that an individual should normally be accepted on the basis of their ability and potential — that is, regardless of access needs.
  • There may be more specific admission and access issues in relation to requirements for particular professional qualifications.
  • Deaf students on part-time modular postgraduate courses, such as those leading to qualifications in teaching deaf children, are at a disadvantage compared to their English counterparts, as they are not eligible for DSA.
  • Deaf students may require considerable levels of access services when out on placements or traineeships.

Assessment Process

  • There is a shortage of DSA-approved assessors and consequent backlog of assessments, leading to damaging delays.
  • There is variability in knowledge and skills of assessors who assess deaf students and in the assessments themselves.
  • There exists a 'catch 22' situation in the timing of assessments: late assessments mean students can end up waiting as long as a term (or even later) for access services to be established, but assessments undertaken early mean that the characteristics of the course itself cannot be adequately included.
  • A 'Toolkit' of quality indicators has been produced which addresses the above issues by offering a quality-assured framework which can be used to build capacity of HEIs to deliver assessments. However, the Toolkit continues to operate within a 'needs assessment' framework, and the Toolkit, in itself, does not take into account the complexities of the linguistic access situation for deaf students, including the range of strategies and relevant qualifications of access staff.
  • The National Association for Tertiary Education for Deaf Students (NATED) has an assessment pack which addresses the complexities of the linguistic access situation, and requires assessors to register in order to use it. At least some of the pack would be useful in devising supplementary indicators.
  • It is likely that access requirements of deaf students will change from those predicted at the beginning of the course of study. Therefore it is particularly useful to see DSA assessment as part of a process, rather than a one-off event – the NATED pack, and the guidelines from the BRITE Initiative, take this into account.
  • A working party has recently been formed to take forward issues related to standardising quality assurance in access services for deaf students in HE/FE. There is potential for this group to address supplementary quality indicators, in co-operation with NATED, BRITE and others.
  • Students sometimes have to pay for assessments, which could put them off from applying for DSA.


  • The typical experience among students is that the types of access and the systems in place for delivering it, as well the level of responsibility which the student needs to accept for organising support and access, are variable across school, FE and HE.
  • Students noted that there is considerable variation in the provision of adequate audiological support among institutions.
  • Waiting times for clinical audiological assessments inevitably have a detrimental effect on audiological support for students.
  • There is no evidence among the sample of students that there is organised (that is, planned) support for transition from paediatric to adult audiology services.
  • One of the challenges for HE staff is to look beyond the level of English skill to the potential of the deaf students. While all Disability Advisors agreed that English skills are a key problem, the task for FE and HE is to try and remedy language/communication problems which have developed over time.
  • Many deaf students have not had full educational access to BSL before entering FE or HE, yet they may quickly develop a preference for BSL where this is a linguistic access option.
  • Although only one student in the sample accessed HE through an Access course, such a course may have a real impact on the confidence and language ability of students starting HE-level study, especially when delivered in a sign-bilingual and deaf-cultural framework.
  • In institutions where Deaf Studies and BSL are treated as subjects in their own right — attracting a critical mass of deaf students — there is a related increased awareness of support and access requirements, and identifiable good practice.

Health and Safety

  • 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. Deaf Perspectives
  • Students’ perceptions of the level and quality of support may not accord with those of access and support staff.
  • Comments from students suggest that levels of access and support vary across institutions, and this is a factor for students deciding where to study.
  • Both awareness and attitudes are variable among staff, according to students. Lack of awareness, and the need for self-notification, may cause delays in the organisation of access arrangements.
  • A number of students felt that they needed to work harder than peers to achieve the same goals.
  • Students report that group tutorials and seminars are most challenging, accepting as ‘inevitable’ that it is difficult to devise effective access and support strategies for those situations.
  • Although some deaf students in the sample report a positive social experience at their HE institution, the majority find social participation difficult and unrewarding.
  • As expected, some students are uncomfortable being identified as deaf by way of the high visibility of access and support arranged for them, while others accept it as part of a Deaf identity.

Deaf Awareness

  • Both staff and students demonstrate a range of concerns in relation to deaf awareness. Students’ experiences range from good to bad, depending on individual staff, other students, the institution, and their own ability to assert themselves.
  • One theme that emerges from the sample of responses is a reluctance to complain, or to draw attention to an unsatisfactory situation.
  • Lack of awareness can be related to availability of suitable training and levels of attendance at Deaf Awareness courses.
  • Deaf awareness of student peers is a relatively unexplored yet important issue, particularly in the light of negative social experiences reported in chapter ten.
  • Most impressive examples of good practice were part of holistic provision, where appropriate infrastructure had been established.
  • One aspect of good practice is familiarising new students with potential means of access at their new institution.

Linguistic Access Issues

  • 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 Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP) standards.
  • Newer forms of electronic notetaking (such as projecting notes on a presentation screen or whiteboard) in particular may become popular, and 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.


All numbered references refer to the full list of recommendations at the end of this report.

Key recommendation: a Centre for Linguistic Access

The main recommendation of this report concerns the need to bring together certain core activities, which can help to provide a stronger, pan-Scottish infrastructure of services for deaf students in higher education institutions. A single central resource and training centre, the Centre for Linguistic Access should be established. The Centre 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 would enable the requirements of deaf students to be conceptualised in terms of linguistic choice and preferences. Recommendations 4.1 to 4.4 relate to the establishment of the Centre, whose proposed functions are described below.

Assessments and DSA support:

  • Oversee the development of Quality Indicators (QIs) and exemplars for the DSA assessment of deaf students, and for the procedure to establish their implementation (recs 4.5; 7.2).
  • Co-ordinate the application of agreed Quality Indicators (QIs) within an ongoing collaborative review process, which will supplement the generic QIs already in existence (rec 4.5).
  • Provide training and accreditation for assessors (rec 7.4).
  • Co-ordinate the development of QIs for the regular audit of access and support provision within Scottish HEIs and that of external agencies (rec 4.5).
  • Be a central access point for DSA information and services (recs 5.2; 5.7).
  • Provide consultancy on policy development and implementation regarding admissions and funding issues (5.7).


  • Host residential one-week courses for aspiring and first-year deaf students (recs 4.6; 8.6).
  • Design and organise a centralised, integrated Access Course, partly to be delivered centrally and partly in the student’s own institution (rec 8.5).
  • Facilitate links between HEIs, FECs, schools and educational services for deaf children and young deaf people (rec 8.7).

Audiological services

  • Host a national audiological resource centre that carries out audiological assessments (rec 8.1; 15.6).
  • Be a resource centre and focus of expertise for personal and environmental aids, warning systems and processes within tertiary education (recs 8.1; 15.1; 15.6).
  • Operate as a lending unit for other types of equipment (eg; radio aids), in collaboration with existing agencies. (recs 8.1; 15.2).
  • Deliver expertise in relation to audiological support in advance of transitions between school, FE and HE (rec 8.2).

Staff training

  • Provide core training for notetakers, as well as additional training and educational opportunities for others (eg; BSL/English interpreters and lipspeakers who work in HE) (rec 12.9).
  • Develop new Deaf Awareness curricula and materials which are flexible and specifically geared to all personnel dealing with deaf students in tertiary education – and to hearing peers. Such provision would assume full collaboration with individual deaf students themselves (rec 11.2).
  • Directly provide Deaf Awareness training on a regular basis, delivered primarily by deaf staff (rec 11.3).
  • Host 'training the trainer' programmes for access services and Deaf Awareness training (eg training of notetaker-trainers, Deaf Awareness tutors etc) (recs 12.7; 12.9; 11.3).
  • Co-ordinate training for Tutors of Deaf Students, whose role will be to provide English language tutorial support in collaboration with deaf students themselves and with subject specialists (recs 12.10; 12.11).
  • Provide in-service training for speech and language therapists, in relation to working in tertiary education (rec 12.2).
  • Develop training and support networks for deaf advisory staff, who will provide direct advice for deaf students, while also being role models (recs 10.2; 10.3).

Student services

  • Be a central access point for easily accessible information and guidance, including hosting a deaf student website (recs 14.1; 14.2; 14.4).
  • Provide a network of support to new students from former students.
  • Host regular national conferences on access for deaf students in HE.

Institution support

  • Promote the ongoing development of new access resources and the sharing of good practice.
  • Be a resource centre for support and access ICT applications (rec 17.2).
  • Undertake the subtitling of videos, sign movies as well as the creation of bilingual (BSL/English) resources (recs 16.1; 17.2; 17.5).

Research and development

  • Provide a base for research projects aimed at improving access for deaf students.
  • Be a centre of expertise and professional development, which will provide a consultancy service at institutional, local and national levels.
  • Host conferences to further developments and share good practice. In addition to the establishment of such a Centre, the following recommendations are highlighted in this

Executive Summary: Other recommendations relating to both national and HEI levels

Experiences and perspectives of deaf students

  • The experiences and perspectives of deaf students and ex-students should play a key role in developing policy and practice in providing access to HE for deaf students (rec 10.1).

A framework of linguistic rights

  • There is a general need to work towards the integration of linguistic rights within a linguistic framework of access arrangements (rec 4.1).


  • Access and support requirements should be clarified as early as possible, established by the beginning of the course and reviewed regularly. All stages should be in full partnership with the student. (recs 7.1; 7.3).

Access and Support Services

  • There should be a clear distinction between linguistic access arrangements and strategies to support teaching and learning more generally. These latter should be undertaken by educational staff, who themselves have appropriate education and qualifications (recs 13.1; 5.8; 8.3; 12.9).
  • There should be clarification of the roles of all access staff: training, qualifications and quality standards guidelines should fit these roles. (recs 12.5; 12.8).
  • 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 (rec 12.7).
  • A target date should be set for ensuring that all access and support staff have appropriate levels of pay and qualifications; staff monitoring/continuing professional development opportunities should be built into staff contracts (recs 13.2; 13.3; 13.4; 19.1; 19.2; 19.3).
  • Funding should be made available to develop Deaf Studies, Sign Linguistics and other deaf-related courses within HEIs. Such courses not only contribute to the education and professional development of access professionals, they also encourage ‘communities of deaf students’ to develop in HEIs (rec 12.4).


  • HEIs, FECs and schools/services for deaf pupils should collaborate with the Centre for Linguistic Access in order to improve the preparation of deaf young people for participation in tertiary education (rec 8.7).
  • Audiology services should ensure that there is high quality, phased transition from paediatric to adult services for deaf students (rec 8.2).
  • Speech therapy services should ensure that adult services are available for deaf students (rec 12.2).

Other recommendations at national level

Further research

  • Further study is needed regarding the incidence of deaf students among the student population. Extending studies to FE and to prior educational placements would be beneficial (recs 1.1-1.4).
  • There should be further research into the potential demand for lipspeakers and for lipreading tuition among deaf students (rec 12.1).

Funding issues

  • The criteria for both DSA and for the Premium in Support of Disabled Funding grants should be widened and made more flexible. (recs 5.1-5.6; 6.3).
  • HEIs should be encouraged to devolve decisions on the spending of the Premium Funding to their Disability Offices (rec 5.4).


  • Pending establishment of a Centre for Linguistic Access, the ‘Working Towards Best Practice in Linguistic Access for d/Deaf Students’ group should be consulted about the development of supplementary Quality Indicators and exemplars (rec 7.5).
  • Students should never have to pay for assessments themselves (rec 7.6).


  • The Scottish Executive should work with SHEFC (now SFHEFC) to set new student-number targets for sharply increasing national uptake on BSL/English interpreting courses and on the establishment of HE degree programmes in BSL and Deaf Studies (recs 12.3; 12.4).

National Conference

  • A national Scottish conference on access for deaf students within HE should be held to discuss the recommendations contained in this report.

New undergraduate provision in BSL and Deaf Studies

  • Focussed funding should be available for the development of undergraduate courses in BSL and Deaf Studies (rec 20.2).

Other recommendations at HEI level


  • HEIs should accept deaf students on an equal basis to other students (ie not conditional upon cost/availablity of access support) (rec 4.1).
  • HEIs should liaise with organisations most involved with deaf people when making decisions about whether deafness would prevent a deaf student from fulfilling professional ‘fitness for practice’ (rec 6.2).
  • HEIs should liaise with the proposed Centre for Linguistic Access in the delivery of a specialised Access Course (rec 8.5).
  • Opportunities should be provided for new students to familiarise themselves with access/support arrangements before the start of the course (rec 11.5; 17.4).
  • Focussed opportunities should be provided for prospective deaf students to learn/improve BSL skills (recs 20.3; 8.4).
  • Information on admissions, access provision and course information should be available in BSL and clear English (rec 14.3; 16.4).
  • Training should be available for deaf students to optimise the use of laptops (rec 17.1).


  • Disability Offices should liaise with the deaf students and placement provider regarding the provision of access services and of preparatory deaf awareness training (rec 6.4).

Provision of Access and Support Services

  • There should be a wider promotion of electronic notetaking (rec 12.6).
  • Adequate amplification systems should be available throughout HEI provision, and staff should be obliged to make use of equipment if a student has requested this (recs 15.3; 15.4).
  • Links should be established with local speech therapy services, in order that a service can be available to students (rec 12.2).
  • High quality training in BSL, and in working with BSL/English interpreters, should be made available to deaf students (rec 8.4).
  • Facilities should be made available to BSL-using students for key tutorials to be video-recorded and transcribed (rec 16.2).
  • Specialist tutorial support in English Language skills should be available to deaf students (recs 8.3 and 12.10).
  • Key information within the HEI (including course materials) should be made available in both BSL and clear English (recs 16.3; 16.4).

Teaching resources

  • The potential for ‘remote tutoring’ should be explored (with video interpreting where this is appropriate) (rec 16.5).
  • More web-delivery of course materials would be beneficial (bearing in mind the fact that some deaf students will be at a disadvantage where information is only available in English) (rec 17.3).
  • Academic staff should be encouraged to make greater use of deaf-friendly support materials, including more visually-based handouts, illustrated Powerpoint presentations etc (rec 18.1).
  • Materials should normally be available to students and access staff prior to teaching sessions (rec 18.2).
  • Videos should be subtitled (rec 18.3).

Health and Safety

  • Appropriate health and safety strategies and provision of equipment should be in place in all HEIs (recs 9.1-9.4).

Deaf employees

  • HEIs should plan to target deaf staff as employees (eg; as lecturers, advisors for deaf students, etc) (recs 10.2; 10.3).

Deaf Awareness Training

  • Deaf awareness training should be provided for all staff on a regular basis (rec 11.1).
  • Training geared to the specific linguistic requirements of new students should be compulsory for all staff who will come into contact with that student (rec 11.4).