Imagine attending a university lecture and not being able to follow anything that was said.
This is the reality being faced by many deaf students today. It is a common misconception that deaf students who have hearing aids or cochlear implants are able to hear normally – these devices provide amplification but don’t necessarily make sounds clearer. And some deaf young people can face difficulties in processing written English due to the impact of language delay earlier in life.
This is why many deaf students need access to specialist support such as British Sign Language interpreters, electronic note-takers and specialist tutors in order to take part in lectures and seminars.
I am profoundly deaf myself, and I have a BSc, PGCE and MA. It would have not have been possible for me to have achieved these three qualifications without Disabled Student Allowances (DSAs), Government grants that cover the cost of the support that I needed to access my courses.
Changes and consequences
There are over 3,000 deaf young people taking higher education courses today. Sadly, many are being let down by national policymakers and local providers. In 2016, the government introduced changes to DSAs in England which included the removal of funding for non-specialist support workers such as note-takers, and the introduction of a register for the types of support worker that would continue to be funded. Student Finance England will no longer fund any support workers not on the register.
I then started to receive some concerning reports from professionals working in the sector that these changes were causing problems – particularly the register, because it was discouraging freelancers from working in higher education due to the stringent requirements of registration. This was leading to shortages in support workers.
Evidence of a problem
To collect some hard evidence of the impact of the changes to DSAs, we decided to launch a survey for deaf students across the UK. There were over 130 responses and some of the findings are really worrying:
- Support is not being put in place in time for the start of the academic year for too many students. Almost 30% of deaf students who said they needed support had to wait over six months before their support was put in place.
- Some students are reporting being left without support due to limited availability of specialist support such as electronic note-takers or BSL interpreters.
- Students who are from Wales or Scotland (where there has been no reform of DSAs) provide higher ratings for the quality of support received compared to students from England.
- And over half of respondents said they had insufficient information and advice on the support available to them before they started higher education.
The Independent recently published a story on the findings which included some very frustrating case studies from deaf students. After having no response from Department for Education officials on the findings of our survey (other than a quote to the Independent), our CEO sent a letter to the Universities Minster, Chris Skidmore, outlining the issues being faced by deaf students.
He has now announced that a new group is being set up to “examine the barriers faced by disabled students in higher education and improve support for them to succeed”. My first thought at the news of this announcement was ‘wow – that was quick Chris’ but I have the feeling that he might have been planning this for a little while. Last month he met with the Thomas Pocklington Trust to discuss issues currently being faced by students with vision impairment and there are some issues in common, particularly around shortages of specialist support.
This new group is welcome and we hope that it ensures that real action is taken. Some of the actions we would like to see include:
- The subsidising of training for support workers supporting students with low-incidence disabilities. It is challenging for training providers to provide courses that are financially viable due insufficient demand in a single locality.
- The register of support workers should be reviewed. Consideration should be given to whether it can be made easier for freelancing sole traders to register. For example, registration with the National Register of Communication Professionals for Deaf people (NRCPD) could be a benchmark of quality that would enable freelancers to bypass the auditing process.
- Reviewing why high proportions of deaf students do not have their support in place at the start of their course and how this issue could be addressed.
- And the Government should ensure that its Careers Strategy is sufficiently well-resourced to ensure that disabled young people receive good quality information on the support and technology available to them in higher education before they apply.
Launching his commission, Skidmore said that living with a disability “should never be a barrier to entering higher education” and that as Universities Minister, he was “determined to ensure disabled students get the support they need to have a positive, life-changing university experience”. At the National Deaf Children’s Society we agree. We’ll await the response to our letter to Chris and should soon find out just how determined he is.