How unis can use tech to support deaf students through the coronavirus pandemic

There is an urgent need for better access for profoundly deaf students in higher ed, says Clare Vale, managing director of Sign Solutions

Thanks to the lockdown, universities across the country have been forced to shift to online learning for thousands of students to prevent the spread coronavirus.

This adjustment in learning style could prove challenging for all students, not least profoundly deaf individuals who find it difficult to lip-read on screens and understand seminars in which multiple people are speaking. This is only exacerbated by the fact many universities do not yet supply a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter, and the concern is shared by social mobility experts, who are warning that the shift to online learning could severely hold back some students, including those with disabilities.

Access to education is a fundamental right

Many countries are introducing legislation, making it illegal to discriminate against disabled people in education. In the UK, the key legislation is the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (HMSO, 2001). Not only does the legislation state that education providers must not treat a disabled person less favourably for any reason that relates to a disability, it requires the education provider to make reasonable adjustments to enable a disabled person to participate in classes. It’s therefore in the interest of universities to consider the needs of deaf students and adapt online learning models as necessary to cater for their needs. So, how can universities respond to the pandemic in a way that supports deaf students in a virtual learning environment?

Recognising students’ requirements

There is a high possibility that individual university lecturers may not be aware of every student’s unique access requirements as they may not have disclosed these openly. Therefore, it’s the lecturer’s responsibility to inform students that classes will be moving to an online platform, and ask students if they have any requirements or adjustments to be made to enable equal access to the virtual online content. It’s important to understand that not all students with hearing loss will have the same needs and preferences when it comes to accessing online learning. For example, some may prefer to lip read [although, as mentioned, this can be challenging when communicating via video], however, profoundly deaf students and learners will prefer to access lectures using online BSL interpreters and note takers.

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Fit-for-purpose technology

Online communication platforms can make it easy for universities to conduct virtual lectures and seminars, but they must opt for a suitable platform to enable user-friendliness for deaf students, as their accessibility, security and quality features vary widely. The InterpretersLive! service, powered by Starleaf, delivers real-time access to qualified and registered British Sign Language interpreters using a secure encrypted and ISO27001 accredited, HD quality video platform. The Starleaf platform has millions of users worldwide, and is already familiar to the Deaf community in the UK, who use the platform to contact a range of organisations free of charge in their first or preferred language of BSL. Starleaf’s interoperability with other secure video platforms ensures that BSL interpreters can be brought into Teams, Skype for business and many other secure video platforms.

Optimising visibility

When delivering lectures online, lecturers should consider their clothing, lighting, quality and security. Clothing should be plain and there needs to be sufficient lighting in the room to reduce shadows on faces. The camera should be kept at an angle so that students have a clear view of their lecturer’s face and the background should be plain and well-lit for the lecturer, but more importantly for the interpreter, so the deaf student can clearly see the sign language and facial expressions of the BSL interpreter. BSL is a moving visual language, so choosing a HD quality platform and using a secure and stable internet connection is vital for online lectures to be accessible to all.

Providing BSL interpreters

There are many ways by which universities can take advantage of BSL service providers to improve access for deaf students. Using video interpretation tools with BSL interpreters, students can be provided with remote video interpreters to translate lectures and seminars in real-time, and universities can also include a video link on their websites so deaf students can phone enquiry lines for advice via an online interpreter. Universities that are currently running ‘virtual tours’ for prospective students during the coronavirus lockdown can also use video BSL interpreters to make sure the tour is being understood by those with hearing loss.

The current pandemic has likely changed education forever. Whilst students will go back to traditional universities at some point, there’s no doubt that distance/digital learning will continue to be an integral part of our educational methods going forwards. By choosing the right technologies and approaches for educating and engaging deaf students via online learning, universities can help them succeed not just through these unprecedented times, but in life after lockdown, too.

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