Masking the problem – are all students part of the conversation?

Martin McLean, senior policy advisor at the National Deaf Children’s Society, urges the HE sector to not forget the needs of a minority this autumn

Martin McLean is an Education & Training Policy Advisor at the National Deaf Children’s Society

The Covid pandemic has created quite a few interesting debates over the past 18 months. Should we lockdown? Should online learning be here to stay? Should face masks be compulsory?

It is with some frustration as a deaf person that I observe these arguments and find that deaf and disabled people are not really considered. We have unique perspectives to offer in these discussions, and the issues are not always as clear cut as some people make out.

Throughout their lives, the UK’s 5,000-plus deaf students have faced a lack of general awareness of their needs. And now the pandemic has thrown up a whole new set of challenges.

With this in mind, we ran a survey of deaf students this year to gain some insight into exactly what they’ve experienced. From the results, I have highlighted three considerations for HE providers.

1. If you’re mandating face masks, are adjustments for deaf students being made clear?

Two-thirds (66 per cent) of our survey respondents reported difficulties in socialising with other students during the pandemic. This is no surprise given we had months of lockdown but some students attributed this to face masks. One said: “I only talk to the two people I live with because they can remove masks safely around me. It is incredibly lonely.”

Many deaf students find it essential to lipread. Even if they use sign language, mouth movements and facial expressions are still important. This requires people making reasonable adjustments such as lowering their mask when speaking to them or using alternative ways to communicate, such as using a speech transcription app or writing down what they’re saying.

Universities and colleges have the right to put in place measures they believe will combat the spread of Covid. However, we believe it is irresponsible to mandate masks without making clear to staff and students that adjustments, such as those above, should be made for deaf students where needed.

2. Are online lectures genuinely accessible?

Like masks, online learning is subject to another ferocious debate at the moment. To do or not to do? We got a more mixed response to our questions on online lectures than expected.

Two in five (41 per cent) were finding online lectures difficult to access (because it’s harder to lipread from a computer screen). Some deaf students were using automatic captioning for lectures and reporting issues with its accuracy.

However, others were more favourable about online lectures, particularly if they had communication support in place through Disabled Students’ Allowance. One student told us it had become easier for their support to be organised because sign language interpreters could now be brought in from anywhere in the country.

However, the number of students experiencing difficulties in accessing online lectures clearly shows that not enough is being done. Ideally, deaf students should have the choice between accessing their lectures and seminars in person or remotely.

If remote learning is all that’s on offer, HE providers cannot expect students to rely on automatic captioning that’s loaded with errors. If captions cannot be edited to the satisfaction of deaf students, then providers should be supporting them to apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance. This would give them access to communication support, such as electronic notetakers.

3. Is the wellbeing of at-risk students being monitored?

The majority of respondents reported that the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health, with almost half (45 per cent) stating it was made “much worse”. This is no surprise and reflects the findings of surveys of non-disabled students. However, we know that deaf young people report lower levels of mental wellbeing than the general population on average, so they were starting from a lower base.

We need HE providers to be conscious of this. Given deaf students are a group at greater risk of low mental wellbeing, who is touching base with them to check how they’re settling in? If a student is struggling, will the signs be picked up on?

Good communication between disability services and personal tutors is likely to be helpful, as it will make sure they’re aware of the barriers that deaf students are facing at this time.

I recognise the challenges that HE providers face in meeting individual needs. However, deaf students pay their fees in full like every other student, so they deserve full access to their education. With some consideration and planning, they can have this. Even small adjustments can make a big difference.

Flexibility is key – “one size fits all” has never been a good approach to HE, and that also applies to Covid measures.

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