Creating Linguistic Access for Deaf and
Deafblind People:


3 Illustrative Areas of Need

This report has given consideration to provision in a number of illustrative settings. These by no means represent the full range of contexts in which lack of linguistic access constitutes a barrier to social inclusion for deaf people. However, they will serve to provide an indication of the scale of the problem.

· Social Services
· Education
· The Justice System
· Employment
· Health
· Television and the Media

Social Services

Whilst not all deaf people will need the support of social work services, it is essential that all aspects of service provision should be accessible if required. There are some, such as residential and domiciliary care, which will see a higher proportion of deaf people, and as those who are deaf are rarely able to access other external support systems (eg; counselling) easily, they may be more likely to require social work help. Additionally, OPCS data (1998) showed that 48% of people with a learning disability had a hearing loss of “at least” moderate severity.

There is, therefore, not only a need for specialist services, but also strategies for ensuring access to “non-specialist” staff in eg; childcare, mental health, learning disability, and criminal justice settings. However, services to those who are deaf are often low priority. In 1998, the then Scottish Office published Sensing Progress which made a series of recommendations relating to social work services for people who are deaf, and in particular to the training needs of staff working with them. The following comments are taken from this Report:

However, educational inclusion is dependent upon linguistic inclusion: if the pupil is unable to understand the language used within education and if teachers and other pupils cannot understand the language of the deaf pupil, then there is unlikely to be social and linguistic inclusion.

Indeed there appears to be a large gap between rhetoric and reality with respect to linguistic inclusion. The widely used A Manual of Good Practice in Special Educational Needs published by the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department in 1999 and explicitly supported by the then Minister for Education in Scotland, places a major stress on the rights of the child. The Manual describes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education and the UN Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities as providing the policy framework in which developments in Scotland should be taken forward. As the Manual points out:

“The idea that children have special needs has given way to the conviction that children have rights, the same full spectrum of rights as adults: civil and political, cultural and economic (REF: The State of the World’s Children, UNESCO, 1994).”
Manual of Good Practice,
1999, p.9

It is worth noting that several of these international sources make explicit mention of the rights of deaf children and adults to linguistic access. The Framework of Action Statement linked to the Salamanca Statement stresses that:

“The importance of sign language…should be recognised and provision made to ensure that all deaf persons have access to education in their national sign language.
Salamanca Statement,
1994, para 21

Similarly the UN Standard Rules stress that states should introduce programmes of action. One of these is ‘access to information and communication’. The specific elements in this programme include the following:

“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 age, the basic linguistic skills that are the foundation for all subsequent learning.” - British Deaf Association, (in print)

The issue of access to a sign language at an early age is one which will have to be addressed when the new Special Educational Needs and Disability Act comes into force. One argument against early access to BSL is that well over 90% of parents of deaf children are hearing.

Therefore the language of the home is likely to be a spoken language, such as English, Punjabi or Gaelic, rather than a sign language. However, if deaf children are given some access to BSL, it appears they can acquire it efficiently. Where parents have a limited use of sign language, research shows that the deaf child ‘surpasses the linguistic model’, ie they are able to develop more complex grammatical forms.

This in itself is evidence of the deaf child’s innate linguistic ability. Lack of linguistic support for parents, such as lack of access to BSL classes and lipreading classes can limit the opportunities available to parents and thus, in turn, limit the type of linguistic access available to the child. Similarly, lack of provision of basic equipment and resources such as text telephones and equipment for accessing subtitling can limit the child’s familiarity with English. In some areas, deaf family support workers have been employed to facilitate communication within the family. However, such provision remains the exception rather than the rule and parents wishing to learn BSL or to learn more about deaf people find it very difficult to do so.

Creating Inclusive Education

It is proposed here that in order to create linguistic access for deaf pupils, we need to:

It is clear that in order to ensure this type of provision, it is essential to have available the trained and qualified personnel specified in Chapter Four.

Linguistic Access within Further Education and Higher Education

The Special Education Needs Disability Act 2001 also applies to Post 16 Education. In some ways, it may appear that young deaf and deafblind people in Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE) fare better than those at school. Typically FE and HE institutions have disability and equality policies which seek to ensure that appropriate support services are in place. Also, deaf and deafblind people can receive additional funding, for example through the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) which can help them access appropriate personnel and resources. However, in practice, provision is far from perfect.

While within FE and HE there is more recognition that it is appropriate to provide the services of BSL/English interpreters and notetakers, the key problem is the lack of appropriately trained personnel. There is less awareness of the potential of using lipspeakers and speech to text operators, although where such personnel are offered there is usually a good take-up of their services. Thus in order to meet their obligations as set out in the new legislation, FE and HE institutions will need to take action to ensure that appropriate personnel are available to help provide adequate linguistic access.

In England and Wales considerable use is made within FE of support staff known as Communication Support Workers ( CSWs). CSWs are seen as having a wider role within FE in that as well as providing interpreting provision, they may also provide other types of support, including notetaking, reviewing lecture notes, giving advice on technical vocabulary and so on. CSWs typically undertake the Professional Development Award: Communication Support Work with Deaf Students. However there are concerns that as stated CSWs may undertake an interpreting role, lipspeaking or notetaking without having the appropriate skills and there are concerns about the appropriateness of this particular award. Some FE institutions have given consideration to running courses leading to this award. No course as yet been run in Scotland.

Discrimination within Admissions and Enrolments

The Special Education Needs Disability Act also “…makes it unlawful for a responsible body to discriminate against a disabled person

The Justice System

Research into deaf people’s experience of the justice system in Scotland and in the UK suggests that deaf people are regularly denied full access to the justice system. The Access to Justice for Deaf People project (Brennan and Brown, 1997), conducted by a team at the University of Durham, England, observed a wide range of court cases throughout the UK. In Scotland, the main observations were carried out within Sheriff Courts, although some were also undertaken within the High Court. Although the Crown Office has an agreement with the Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (SASLI) that only fully trained and qualified BSL/English interpreters will interpret in court, the research team observed individuals without an interpreting qualification interpreting in court.

They also noted that in many cases a single interpreter was used, rather than a team of two. This meant that there was no monitoring of quality and accuracy and no support systems in place. Where teams (including teams of two) operate, the second interpreter usually takes on a monitoring and support role, so that if any information is inadvertently missed or an inaccuracy included, these errors can be repaired quite quickly. Obviously this is particularly important in legal situations, especially as there is currently no requirement to videotape any of the legal proceedings involving the use of BSL.

The detailed analysis of the courtroom interactions undertaken by the Durham team also revealed that there were at times differences between the original message, eg; a comment by the sheriff, and what was conveyed by the interpreter. Such differences have the potential to skew the interactions and could ultimately lead to miscarriages of justice. Such differences may be due to lack of training, lack of support or inefficient monitoring systems.

The research also revealed that other professionals, particularly social workers, were often asked to interpret in police stations, even though they had no training in interpreting. Indeed, it seems that deaf people are often cautioned without the presence of an interpreter and in some cases, police officers felt it appropriate to conduct interviews without an interpreter present. Sometimes this was because the deaf person used some English and the police officers wrongly inferred that they could therefore hear English. In other cases, this was because of the time involved in locating an interpreter willing and able to undertake the task or the expenditure involved in employing interpreters.

Despite the publicity given to this research and the interest taken in the work by legal officers within Scotland, there is ongoing evidence that linguistic access remains inadequate. The following observations were made earlier this year by one of the few experienced legal interpreters in Scotland:

“Although there is some increased awareness and a willingness to carry out appropriate procedures, legal personnel and police officers still often operate outside existing guidelines. Recently I was asked to interpret in a police station for an interview between the police and an accused Deaf person. The police officer suggested that it would be inappropriate for them to use the same interpreter for the interviews with witnesses and the accused. I agreed. However, the police officer then went on to suggest that another police officer with Stage One in BSL should act as interpreter for the witness interviews. There seemed to be no awareness of the inappropriateness of a police officer taking on such a role and no recognition that Stage One represents a very low level of BSL skill. A less experienced interpreter, or a non-qualified person acting as an interpreter might well have accepted this course of action. As is almost always the case, none of the Deaf people involved had any say in who should act as interpreter.”
Brenda Mackay, SASLI Registered Interpreter, former Research Associate,
Access to Justice for Deaf People Project, Durham University

Throughout the period of court observations involving deaf people, the Durham team did not see the use of lipspeakers. Recent information from interpreters suggest that they are sometimes asked to provide an interpreting service when what is required is a lipspeaking service or a speech-to-text service. Unfortunately, the courts are not aware that the choice of professional support will depend upon the deaf person’s preferred language.

Deaf people’s experience of prison is all too often one of additional isolation and exclusion. Deaf people report that interpreters are rarelyused, even for formal reviews and parole boards. Ordinary interactions are difficult unless fellow prisoners or prison officers make some efforts to learn sign language. Little effort is made to enable access through visual English, eg; through using subtitled TV and video or making use of text telephones. Thus while other prisoners can take advantage of contact with the outside world through telephone conversation, the Deaf prisoner is denied such opportunities (Brennan and Brown, 1997).

As with other areas, the key problem faced by deaf people within the justice system is one of linguistic access. The lack of access means that there is potential for a miscarriage of justice to occur. The situation could be improved considerably by ensuring that all concerned are given appropriate training. This means ensuring that only trained qualified interpreters and lipspeakers are used in police stations and courts of law and for consultations between lawyers and deaf accused or lawyers and deaf witnesses. Additional legal training is required for the professionals concerned. While current initiatives by the Crown Office and SASLI are helpful, they cannot deal with the underlying problem: in-depth training is required.

As well as training of legal interpreters, it is also essential that court personnel and police officers have Deaf Awareness training and that some staff develop fluent BSL skills. The detailed recommendations in Brennan and Brown, which were positively received when the report was launched in Edinburgh in 1997, have not as yet been seriously addressed by the justice system.


While it is recognised that employment is a responsibility reserved to Westminster, it is essential that measures be implemented within Scotland, which will ensure equality of employment for deaf people. A recent report by the RNID, Deafness Employment and Discrimination (RNID, 2000) suggests that deaf and hard of hearing people face widespread discrimination in the workplace. The research showed that deaf or hard of hearing people are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than a hearing person. Those between the ages of 25-45 are four and a half times more likely to be unemployed. Even when deaf people are successful in obtaining employment, many (68% of the survey) feel that their communication needs are not understood or met.

“My employer insisted I didn’t need communication support, although I tried to explain the limits of lipreading. I was ushered into a classroom with about 20 trainees, all of who could hear. A woman came in and started talking. At the end of the hour, having not understood a word, everybody suddenly got up and left. I had no idea where they were going or why.”
Trevor Smith on his experience of in-work training. RNID, 2000, p9

The research also showed that the biggest barrier to deaf people getting a job was the lack of understanding by employers of their communication needs. Most employers now have an equal opportunities policy and the majority of employers are also aware of their legal obligations towards staff under the Disability Discrimination Act. Yet despite this, relatively few employers actively recognise the communication needs of deaf staff.

Of 82 companies, which employed deaf and hard of hearing people, only 25 (30%) said they had made special adjustments to accommodate the needs of these staff.
RNID, 2000, p10

The situation for deaf people should have been improved considerably by Government legislation. In particular, the Access to Work scheme has the potential to transform deaf people’s employment opportunities. The Access to Work legislation gives deaf people the right to support, which will enable linguistic access to employment. Such support includes BSL/English interpreting and access to visual English, such as note-taking provision, lipspeaking and speech to text provision. Such support is available not only during the period of employment but also during the application and interview stages.

Unfortunately this access is limited by several factors:

Last updated 06.Mar.03

Scottish Sensory Centre
Moray House Institute of Education
University of Edinburgh
Holyrood Road