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British Sign Language and Linguistic Access Working Group Scoping Study: Linguistic Access to Education for Deaf Pupils and Students in Scotland




The FE and HE systems for assessing access requirements and allocating funding to meet those requirements are very different. Therefore later sections will address each sector's situations separately. However, the following two sub-sections are common to both.


For a range of reasons, it is vital that assessment is seen as a process and not a one-off event at the start of a course. For example: a student may not have been aware of access choices available, and therefore will need to try out options before being clear which strategy or strategies are most suitable; the class environments may change during the year, which may impact on the types of strategies which will be most appropriate for different situations (small-group seminars, large lectures, workshops, 1:1 sessions etc); the course content may be within the capabilities of the students, but some barriers with English may arise as the course progresses.

The National Association of Tertiary Education for Deaf Students ( NATED) has long recognised these facts, and has produced an assessment pack which provides a framework of indicators for staff and students to address together, as the student progresses through the course.

The NATED pack is widely used in England, but not in Scotland. While colleges are likely to open personal learning plans for deaf students, little is known about how well such plans address their linguistic access situations across Scotland.


Equality Forward is funded by the Scottish Funding Council to promote equality and fairness in Scottish further and higher education. An Equality Forward research project has been commissioned by the SFC and the Scottish Government to undertake a study into structures which assess the additional support needs of students. The project, funded by the SFC, will look at:

  • the evidence about the capacity for the current arrangements to meet demand for assessments for additional support needs;
  • ways in which the current structures supporting the organisation of assessments could be improved in future, to ensure that all students receive the support they are entitled to in a timely, fair and convenient way;
  • the priority recommendations to the SFC and the Scottish Government about how these structures can be improved.

The study is due to report in April 2008.

A link has been formed between the research and this scoping study, so that the findings relating to assessment can be taken into account.



Section 3, above, has demonstrated that the linguistic access arrangements in schools are geographically variable, and largely different to the arrangements available in further and higher education. Both hearing and deaf students have the challenge of adjusting to a larger-scale institution with different styles of tuition from school. Many deaf students have added challenges of adapting to an unfamiliar range of choices and services. This may be their first experience of, for example, electronic notetaking or BSL/English interpreting. One college reported the fact that even those who do sign are not likely to have a high enough level of BSL grammar, syntax and vocabulary, because of the lack of advanced levels of BSL tuition within schools. Brennan et al report that sometimes students choose to learn BSL after arriving in post-school education, to improve their access to the content of lectures via BSL/English interpreters (Brennan et al, 2005:102).

As described above, some schools and visiting services undertake transition programmes with students, including school-links courses in college and individual 'taster' sessions with new types of access services in universities. Scottish Deaf Association and NDCS have both been involved in providing short, residential school-leavers' courses. However, there has been nothing in Scotland which equates to the specific transition/Access programmes specifically for deaf students which have proved to be very well received (eg the RNID's 'Headstart' programme; UCLAN's 'Year Zero') in England. Brennan et al's study recommended that an Access course for deaf students should be considered (Brennan et al, 2005:111).


The majority of deaf students use audition, to varying extents, to access learning. Brennan et al's study specifically raised concerns about the fact that, around the time that new students were going through general transition challenges, they also faced detrimental disruption to their audiology services for the following reasons:

  • Evidence showed that the move from the remit of paediatric audiology clinics to that of adult clinics often meant long waiting times for a service (up to 105 weeks was quoted). During that time, a student's primary source of access may have been cut off or seriously impaired.
  • There was also evidence that unqualified assessors in colleges were sometimes making erroneous judgements about students' audiological requirements.
  • Students were having to return radio aid equipment to their local authorities when they left the remit of the local service - this meant that many did not have the equipment at crucial times, such as at job and college interviews.
  • Generally, links between education services, audiology clinics and disability officers in colleges and universities were patchy and dependant upon individual goodwill. (Brennan et al, 2005:94-98)

Just before Brennan's research, a large-scale audiology needs assessment had been undertaken and a report published by the Public Health Institute of Scotland ( PHIS, 2003). One of the recommendations had been that there should be a phased transition from paediatric to adult services, 'tailored to the special needs of individual young people and should include liaison with education, social work and employment services.' ( PHIS, 2003).

Audiology services have gone through a process of modernisation in response to the report, so it was hoped that this recommendation, alongside a commitment to prioritising FE and HE students with a dedicated transition worker and 'fast-track' services, would significantly improve the situation at transition and throughout the student experience.

However, there is anecdotal evidence that the audiology transition situation is still very variable for students: in an interview for this study, one experienced audiologist reported continued waiting list problems, with consequent detriment to access during this waiting time. Significantly, the very recently published clinical audit of audiology services highlights the inconsistencies in relevant services provided by individual Health Boards (Davis et al, 2007).

On the basis of this, it was decided to undertake a short email survey of audiology services for this study. Heads of audiology services were asked the following three questions:

a) Is there a transition policy in place?
b) Is there a designated member of staff who provides transition support?
c) Are you able to 'fast-track' audiology services for deaf students in further and higher education?

If so, how does this work?

It should be said that the email was sent just at the time that the clinical audit report on audiology services was reporting back on their findings, and so this was possibly not the most opportune time to ask for more information. However, just less than half of the services (7 out of 15) responded.

All seven respondents stated that they had an established transition policy, or were in the process of developing one. They also all reported that they had a transition worker in place, including one very small service in which one worker provided a service throughout.

They all indicated some kind of fast-track or high priority system for students. Four said simply that they would prioritise students, and the small, one-worker service said that 'transition is not really an issue' because of the individual attention they were able to give throughout. The two remaining responses gave more detail as follows:

Service 1

'We have an open access repair service for anyone each day, a very good paediatric to adult transition service run by a highly specialised audiologist and our paediatrician. If we were asked to see someone urgently from further education, we most likely would, but if we don't know anything about them, this might be more difficult… If they had an immediate problem we could try and help at open repairs, but if they had a digital aid that was broken, and they were not from here, we would know nothing about them. We would do what we could though… My own service has a waiting time of around 12 weeks (for in-depth initial assessment).'

Service 2

'We continue to support our children/young adults throughout full-time education. There is a transition clinic when children leave school they are offered continued review appointments at a "young adult Hearing Therapy" clinic regardless of whether or not they are moving on to work or further and higher education. There is a designated staff member to provide transition support and the individual can still contact the designated paediatric audiologist as appropriate. We have previously fast tracked services for students of further and higher education as we view their needs as a priority. This would be by either giving them the first available appointment with the relevant audiologist or by creating an appointment if one wasn't readily available.'

Four out of the seven who responded were among the seven services highlighted in the clinical audit report as 'successfully implementing modernisation'. None of the respondents featured among the services who gave most cause for concern.

Therefore, while this short survey indicates positive developments among a significant number of audiology services, there is a need to further explore the situation across Scotland.

There is also a need to address the recommendation from Brennan et al's report that a centralised audiology resource is needed to provide: a specifically-tailored audiology assessment service, up-to-date information to institutions about equipment, and a loan service of certain items, such as radio aids, which are constantly upgraded as technology rapidly develops. It was suggested that this should be part of a service which would provide impartial guidance on installation of environmental equipment, in co-operation with other services and commercial companies (Brennan et al, 2005:194).

Such a resource would be helpful for the kind of situation cited by an informant, who is an experienced assessor. In this situation, Disabled Students Allowance assessments were being held up because GP letters were being requested by the Student Award Agency for Scotland ( SAAS) in addition to audiology reports; it was understood that this was because SAAS was not able to interpret the evidence.



One Access Centre co-ordinator, with a national overview from her role in relevant advisory groups and committees, reported that, generally, institutions are demonstrably more aware of their responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act, including implementation of Disability Equality Schemes. She indicated that there is evidence that, in some places, recent disability legislation is impacting favourably on the accessibility of some provision to deaf students.

In one college, a wide range of specific developments were reported, as a result of recent legislation. It is significant that this college has a well established specialist service for deaf students, able to advise college management on how to apply the legislation to the specific situations of deaf students. The following list describes the developments reported:

  • Increased number of course and unit materials produced in Plain English and also available electronically and on the web (web-based materials are designed to conform to accessibility criteria);
  • Development of unit materials must take account of the needs of varying student's needs and so are available in electronic format and able to be adapted to other formats fairly quickly;
  • Unit materials are produced in plain English for a Deaf student which also assists another student with a different support need;
  • Record of change/adaptation document is attached to each new unit under development and also when existing units are developed which enables progress towards accessibility to be documented;
  • Increased use of Whiteboard technology provides more visual information which can be retained for student review and a phased introduction of interactive whiteboard will facilitate access for all students;
  • Development of Web 2 technology including use of texting, blogs and discussion boards, to provide greater opportunities for students to interact and contribute to their curriculum;
  • Deaf students have been using texting with their mobile phones to contact support staff. College is now piloting a commercial texting system to communicate with all students;
  • College support staff create glossaries of technical terms with appropriate explanations for Deaf students;
  • Promotion of the use of video in lectures as a form of notetaking for sign language users where appropriate;
  • Recognition that Deaf students may also need an electronic notetaker in the class as well as a CSW;
  • Deaf Awareness sessions delivered for staff teaching on specific courses where Deaf Students are enrolled;
  • More staff are open to suggestions and adapt to working with CSW and Deaf students with support;
  • Teaching and learning methods are more varied and use of electronic formats has improved the delivery of some subjects and topics;
  • The provision of an Introduction to Counselling Course delivered in Sign Language, and the course materials produced in BSL and Plain English;
  • An awareness that sometimes 1 CSW is not sufficient work with 2 or more students due to varying educational, cultural and language experiences;
  • Increased volume of assessments produced on-line, which enables greater accessibility;
  • Alternative assessment arrangements provide increased access for Deaf students (but some further work needs to be done on access to Communication Units).

However, as is demonstrated throughout this report, interpretations of specific responsibilities to deaf students vary widely among institutions.

Evidence reported in other parts of this report has suggested that a proportion of deaf students leave school without adequate information about access and support strategies and services. There was also an indication that some deaf students are aware of their increased rights and more able to express their needs than in the past. It was suggested that deaf organisations, and individual school services, are playing their part in raising awareness and expectations among some young deaf people.


Good acoustic environments are essential for the high proportion of deaf students who use audition as a main access strategy. There was evidence that many institutions are taking account of acoustic conditions in room refurbishments and are installing amplification systems in at least some key lecture and seminar rooms. In one college, a specific review of accessibility of acoustic environments had been undertaken, with resulting adaptations to public rooms and halls of residence. However, there were also reports of poor provision in terms of: limited extent of amplification facilities; limited maintenance of equipment and lack of monitoring of usage.


As noted in the school section, providing quality linguistic access is relatively expensive, as so much of it is revenue expenditure rather than one-off capital payments for equipment or physical adjustments. Arranging quality Language Service Professionals can easily cost upwards of £15,000 for a year where a student is full-time. Recent increase in the the Non-Medical Personnel Helpers Allowance part of the DSA fund to £20,000 is a big step forward in HE. It is important that this is also recognised in FE.


The ' FACE' group and web resources

In recognition of the need to improve services for deaf students, the 'Furthering Access to College Education for deaf students ( FACE) group was formed some years ago. The group has produced a web guide for institutions on the range of linguistic access strategies, services and equipment likely to be used by deaf students in both further and higher education: http://www.facefordeafstudents.org.uk/

The guide is designed to complement the aforementioned BRITE Centre web-guide, which provides direct advice to deaf students: http://www.brite.ac.uk/resources/deaf.htm

The Deaf Students' Working Group: A Centre for Linguistic Access

Following the publication of Brennan et al's study in 2005, Equality Forward took responsibility for facilitating the report's recommendations. A national working group was formed to take forward plans, known as the 'Deaf Students' Working Group' ( DSWG). The main recommendation of the report was the establishment of a Centre for Linguistic Access, which would address the many indicators that a national resource is required to provide information, guidance, direct services, training, resources and research. The DSWG is currently focusing on this aim.


  • Assessment of linguistic access requirements should be seen as a process from application through to programme exit, rather then being seen as a one-off event at the start of the programme.
  • The findings of this scoping study can usefully inform Equality Forward's current research into assessment structures for students with additional support needs.
  • Access programmes specifically for deaf students should be considered, along the lines of RNID's 'Headstart' programme, and to include the full range of linguistic access strategies. Opportunities to enhance BSL skills and linguistic knowledge would be useful for those who opt to use BSL.
  • Recent increase in DSA maximum amount is to be welcomed. It is hoped that the further education sector also recognises the cost of providing quality access and support services for deaf students.
  • There is a need to ensure that all audiology services across Scotland are implementing good practice, relevant to needs of deaf students, in the transition between paediatric and adult services, using recommendations of the recent Needs Assesment.
  • Equality Forward's 'Deaf Students Working Group' is currently considering the establishment of A Centre for Linguistic Access. Such a Centre would provide a much needed centralised resource, which will address a number of key issues raised in this report, including services and advice relating to the provision of audiology and environmental equipment, specifically tailored to the needs of deaf students.

It would also provide a forum for sharing information about positive developments within individual institutions.