Who cares about deaf students in higher education? A notetaker’s (anonymous) perspective

Posted on April 29, 2014

Below is an anonymous article by a notetaker who works with deaf students in higher education.

Sometimes, stuck between a tutor and interpreters who really don’t seem to care, I have to ask myself if I am the only person who cares about a deaf student’s education.

Sometimes the students don’t seem to care themselves. But does that mean I shouldn’t care? It’s a tricky one. They are adults and should be treated as such, so one point of view might be that I should respect their decision not to care about themselves, their education or their future.

“They’re students,” is a refrain I often hear from other support workers, “not adults. All students behave like this at this age” – turn up late, or not at all, don’t do the work, not interested.

Do they? I don’t know. Sure, you’ll always get students who mess around and waste their tuition, but among them are also those who quietly put their heads down and get on with it. And there are many who manage to enjoy the student lifestyle, come in late, chat a lot and still get really good grades at the end of it.

But I can’t help noticing that, on the whole, Deaf students tend to be more disengaged than their peers. They are more likely to be playing on the internet or on their phones while the tutor is speaking (and unlike their hearing peers, they can’t listen at the same time). They’re more likely to come in late, to chat instead of working, and to end up (unsurprisingly) getting low grades.

Of course, these are the observations of one person, and even within that there are exceptions. But it’s also completely understandable to me why many Deaf students do this.

Most higher education courses are just not designed around Deaf students’ needs. They tend to involve a lot of peer interaction and peer learning. So when the tutor says, “Work independently”, they really mean “work together, have a laugh and share ideas.” Only the Deaf student works on their own. It helps if there is another Deaf student in the class, but they are still massively isolated.

Besides that, I’ve noticed that hearing tutors (with exceptions) tend to spend on average a lot more 1:1 time with hearing students than with Deaf students. Maybe they feel uncomfortable. But rather than engaging in discussion, as they do with hearing students, encouraging them to push their ideas as far as they can, they simply make sure the Deaf student has understood the assignment. When this is the only teaching input that occurs in a class, that means the Deaf students are missing out on a lot.

The situation can’t really be blamed on interpreters either. BSL/English interpreters are trained to do a formal, restricted role – to interpret what the tutor says, not to facilitate peer interaction, I guess. One interpreter said to me, “Group work’s crap for Deaf students.” “Really?” I wondered. “Or are you just not doing your job properly?” Surely Deaf people don’t like to be alone.

According to Sign Health, up to 40% of Deaf people experience mental health problems, and I’ve heard higher figures quoted. That’s much higher than the average for hearing people. I’m willing to bet a large part of this is due to isolation.

As professionals, I believe that we all have a part to play: not just in ensuring that Deaf students get a good education, but also that they enjoy the student experience. My undergraduate years were the happiest of my life, but when I observe Deaf students, I don’t see them enjoying the same experience.

At the university I work at, there is a small number of Deaf students, so they do socialise together a little outside of classes, but in classes, they are mainly separated (as one would expect), as they’re doing different degree programmes. As to whether they participate in extracurricular activities, I doubt it. Of course, no-one has to participate in extracurricular activities, and many choose not to. But they should at least have the choice.

Not only are Deaf students getting an incomplete education, they’re also missing out on an important part of social and emotional development. And I hasten to add, this is at one of the better (more accessible) institutions I’ve worked in. And don’t forget, in this world of ‘pay for your education’, Deaf students pay exactly the same for a university degree as everyone else (and it doesn’t come cheap).

Some people say I take my job, and life in general, too seriously. But I don’t think so. Other than their health, what could be more important to someone’s life chances than their education?

If Deaf students are (disproportionately) disengaged, there must be a reason for this. It’s our job to do something about it.

Some possible suggestions I’ve thought of (purely from my own head):

  • Deaf awareness training should be provided for ALL students and staff.
  • Basic BSL should be provided for all students and staff, and higher levels for those who want it.
  • Interpreters should be made available for all extracurricular and student union activities.
  • There should be deaf-focussed student societies and social activities.
  • Regular workshops for students and staff in different courses and subject areas to get together and talk about what is and isn’t working.
  • Reading groups and film groups for Deaf students.
  • Flexibility and an openness to change
  • Awareness that we all have a part to play (hearing and deaf, students and staff, teaching and support staff).

Any other ideas?

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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