All the things you’ll know if you’re d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing at uni

‘I was allowed to ask lecturers to trim their facial hair so I could lipread them better’

The number of d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students in higher education has consistently been increasing, but it seems that the knowledge unis and governments have on how to support them has not.

A 2019 study found that 46 per cent of d/Deaf uni students in the UK are still waiting for support when their programmes started, with 59 per cent of them having to wait for more than two months and 28 per cent having to wait for more than six.

There are a lot of reasons for this, including a lack of funding and workers available to provide supports like translating lecture contents into British Sign Language (BSL), which is used by around 151,000 Brits as their preferred language.

As the government is closer than ever to legally recognising BSL as a language to be used in all sectors of society, The London Tab asked some d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing uni students to share their experiences.

The difference between deaf and Deaf as explained by the EASIER project

‘I was allowed to ask lecturers to trim their facial hair so I could lipread them better’

Not being able to hear well makes attending lectures and seminars pretty difficult.

Elli, a hard-of-hearing UCL physics student who lipreads, finds it frustrating that “lecturers are always talking to the board.” But even when lecturers do face her, certain facial features come in the way.

Let’s just say that quantum mechanics isn’t nearly as hard as making sense of jumping moustaches and beards.

Turns out that UCL came up with some creative solutions though: “I was allowed to ask lecturers to trim their facial hair so I could lipread them better,” Elli told The London Tab.

Pandemic problems

When the pandemic started, Benny, a deaf UAL student who both lipread and use BSL, found it “really difficult that the lecturers and members of staff are wearing face masks.

“I always ask them to remove their face mask if possible so that they can communicate with me, unless they are wearing a face shield or if I have an interpreter with me, which is fine by me,” he said.

You’d think it’d be a relief when classes moved online as masks won’t be a problem, but that came with new challenges in itself.

Benny told The London Tab: “I have an online lecture, which is really tough because I have to ask the lecturer to create a guest link for my BSL interpreter and notetaker so that they can access the online lecture. This can be tricky sometimes because they can’t access the university site online as they are not part of UAL.

“I, therefore, have to use two screens, one for my interpreter and the lecturer and another for the PowerPoint slide. This can be a bit overwhelming, to try and look at all of them at the same time, but I’m getting used to it.

“I also have a notetaker and it is such a lifesaver because I can watch an interpreter without missing any important information.

“Without a notetaker, I wouldn’t be able to take notes and watch an interpreter, I would miss out on lots of information. Hearing people have the privilege to be able to make a note while still listening to the lecture, where I can’t do both,” he said.

Benny shares his experiences as the only deaf student at LCF on his YouTube channel

Subtitles are necessary, but they don’t necessarily work

Another thing Benny finds useful is captions for recorded content: “For any video content, I always ask my lecturers if they can include subtitles as well because I don’t want to rely on an interpreter to translate what the video is about. They deserve to have a break. It also makes the information accessible directly to me when subtitles are included.”

But while subtitles are definitely helpful, Elli finds them troublesome as well, especially for the scientific terms and concepts central to her modules.

Understanding what “polarisation” is must be much more difficult when “PlayStation” is what you see on the screen.

POV: you rely on captions for notes and have to guess what “Hezbollah” means in the context of chemistry

Interpreters matter, but getting them is a pain

With subtitles being so unreliable, the preferred option for many d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students who know sign language is still having BSL interpreters.

For Benny, having an interpreter is an integral part of his studies: “An interpreter will translate everything the lecturer says into BSL, my first language. If I have any questions to ask the lecturer, I will ask in BSL and my interpreter will voiceover for me what I want to ask. My interpreter is also willing to check my English grammar on written projects as it is not my first language.”

But getting sign language interpretation services isn’t nearly as easy as you may have thought.

Jordan, a d/Deaf student at UCL who also uses BSL as his primary communication method, also found that a lot of the times, anyone paying his interpreters determines his interpretation support without giving him “the agency to say no.

“I must follow their recommendations, not my recommendations,” he said.

It is even possible for him to be assigned someone who can’t sign to assess and make decisions on his support, which undoubtedly affects his education.

“So, it’s really important for me that before I start the course, I spend a lot of time sorting out [my support] – going backwards and forwards with an agency and trying to encourage them to view from my side and change their perspective to what I need.

“It’s a shame I have to do that. Really I should be focusing on my preparation for the course and looking forward to that,” he said.

But in the end, despite the process being “a long and challenging task,” he was happy with his support once he got to choose his own interpretation agency – an option he hoped all unis will make available for their d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Jordan (bottom left) spoke about his experiences of getting support using BSL with an interpreter (top right) at a UCL conference

What can be done?

Attending uni as a d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing student is definitely challenging, whether it is getting the academic support or trying to socialise and network.

Martin McLean, policy advisor at the organisation that conducted the study mentioned at the beginning of this article, said: “Universities and the Government urgently need to sort out this appalling situation, stop resting on their laurels and start delivering for every deaf student.

“If the Government also introduced subsidised training to boost the number of specialist support workers, deaf students could then spend their time focusing on their studies instead of worrying about whether their support will even arrive.

“Deaf students are just as capable as their hearing peers, but currently they are being held back during one of the most important periods of their lives. This cannot continue,” he said.

While Benny thought UAL’s disability services “are doing an amazing job,” he has a few tips to be shared with other students who might not be receiving high-quality support: “It might be overwhelming if you are the only deaf student in the class, like me.

“[But you should] always ask for subtitles if they want to show video content because it’s your right to have captions, there’s really no excuse. And it’s okay to ask for things to be repeated if necessary because it’s important to make sure you understand what you need to do.”

And there are also things students can do to help make uni more accommodating.

Benny said: “It would be useful for hearing students and lecturers to know about my experience/or the deaf students’ experience because not many people know what they might have struggled with.

“But on the other hand, know that not all deaf students are the same: some of them can manage well and some of them can’t. It depends on the course they study and which universities they go to.

“It would also be great if students and lecturers started to learn BSL, even just basic BSL. If you have deaf students in your class, it would make them happy and included if you already know how to sign,” he said.

Benny told us: “I have lots of great friends who are very good at deaf awareness and even want to learn BSL, so they are able to communicate with me, which is great.”

And all d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students should have friends like that to support them while they navigate through our unfortunately inaccessible unis – we hope you’ll be one too.

Feature image contains screenshots from YouTube videos of Benny Ngo and Jazzy

Related stories recommended by this writer:

How I’m navigating, or trying to survive, Freshers’ as an autistic UCL student

This is what it’s like having ADHD as a student at UCL

As a student with a chronic illness, this is what navigating university life has been like