Providing inclusive education for Deaf and hard of hearing people has always been a problem and, with many teachers unable to cater to students with disabilities, and a lack of specialised staff available, mainstream education settings continue to unknowingly exclude Deaf students.
Furthermore, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, colleges and universities across the country have been forced to shift to online learning for thousands of students to prevent the virus spread. This adjustment in learning style could pose even more challenges for profoundly Deaf individuals who find it difficult to lip-read on screens and understand seminars in which multiple people are speaking.
To achieve ‘learning for all’ throughout this time, governing bodies, teachers and other education staff need to work collaboratively with the Deaf community and understand that providing them with equal access to education is not just a ‘goal’ to work towards, it is their right.
Deaf students’ right to equal access
The Equality Act 2010 stipulates that education must be accessible to all students, including disabled students, whether they are interested in attending Sixth Form College, adult education classes, university or undergoing an apprenticeship. In line with this, universities and colleges are obligated to provide support for Deaf students and must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure they can take full advantage of their course, whether it is taking place in person or online.
A college or university cannot refuse to admit a Deaf student onto a course, as this would be deemed as direct discrimination. Similarly, they cannot insist that a Deaf student phones them up to apply for a college or university place, as this would be indirect discrimination.
There is no single way that colleges and universities can guarantee more inclusive education for Deaf students, however there are numerous provisions they can make and practices they can learn from to provide them with the best possible experience.
Here are some of the main things to consider.
Find out your Deaf student’s requirements
Before a Deaf student begins a college or university course in person or remotely, you should provide them with as much written information as possible, for example their timetable, a map of their campus and the names of their teachers and/or lecturers.
At this stage it is also vital to find out how they prefer to communicate and how you can help with their unique access requirements to make communication as stress free as possible. It is important to understand that not all students with hearing loss will have the same needs and preferences, and they may have additional requirements for e-learning. For example, some may prefer to lip read, however profoundly Deaf students and learners will prefer to access lectures using BSL interpreters and note takers.
To aid your Deaf student’s learning you could also consider providing them with lecture notes or lesson worksheets ahead of time, and you will need to allow for the fact that it may take the student longer to complete assignments by providing more flexibility with deadlines.
Become ‘Deaf aware’
Deaf awareness training is a great way for education workers to learn about the Deaf community, the challenges they face and best practice for communicating with them. We can provide this in person or online via e-learning and it can help you feel more confident in how to approach and get the best out of your Deaf student.
Our Deaf awareness training can also include a lesson in basic British Sign Language [BSL] to put you at ease when greeting your Deaf student, asking how they are etc. Whilst you do not need to be fluent, having the ability to communicate in basic BSL could go a long way in helping your Deaf student feel more accepted and included.
You could also think about getting hearing students to attend signing classes to help promote all round positive attitudes to Deafness and encourage more openness and inclusivity.
Optimise communication methods
Deaf students may use speech, lipreading, signing or a mixture of these, but most students with hearing loss rely on lipreading to some extent. Therefore, you must have provisions in place for occasions when other students are expected to phone their teacher or lecturer [for example if they are ill and cannot attend a class], such as having a link on the college or university website allowing Deaf students to call in via a BSL interpreted phone call, on-demand..
To aid communication both in person and via video classes and lectures you also need to be aware of your eye contact, and provide important instructions or information in writing, getting the Deaf student’s attention before commencing instructions, discussions, or conversation. You must also make sure you always address the student directly, and not their interpreter or support worker.
Create an inclusive environment
Adapting the physical and visual learning environment is another key consideration to make education settings more accessible and inclusive for Deaf students. During in person lessons you could ask all students to wear name badges to make it easier for your Deaf student to communicate and get involved in group activities, and during discussions you could arrange chairs in a half-circle to make it easier for your Deaf student to lip read. You must also find out if your student has specific seating requirements or if they need additional space for a BSL interpreter.
For both in-person and virtual classes you need to ensure the room you are in has good lighting so your Deaf student has easy visual access to your face, and avoid standing in front of a window or bright light, as this could create a problem of shadows on your lips.
Take advantage of external support
We can help colleges and universities improve access for Deaf students in a multitude of ways. For example, our services have been used by organisations to include BSL in campus tours, ensuring information is understood by Deaf students, and to translate course and university prospectuses into BSL.
As the new term nears, we are also supporting students and their colleges and universities by providing a mix of in-person and online interpreters for their video platforms of choice to enable a seamless, simple and equal access to classes and lectures for all.
Gaining equal access to education has only become more problematic for Deaf students in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and it is the responsibility of colleges and universities to respond to students’ unique educational needs and follow good practice in inclusion.
By becoming ‘Deaf aware’, adapting the learning environment and fostering an overall positive attitude to Deafness and Deaf issues, educational organisations can work together to support Deaf students effectively in their education and help them achieve their ambitions.
Clare Vale is managing director of Sign Solutions