New degree is sign of progress

6th April 2012 at 01:00
Undergraduate course that will train sign language interpreters is the first of its kind in the UK, writes Jean McLeish

A new degree course to train sign language interpreters at Heriot-Watt University aims to ease a serious shortage of interpreters and improve the lives of Scotland's deaf children and adults.

The undergraduate programme to train students with no previous knowledge of British Sign Language (BSL) to be qualified interpreters will be the first in the UK. As well as an honours degree in BSL, the university is offering a new opportunity for modern language students to study a joint honours degree in French, Spanish or German alongside British Sign Language.

"This option is intended for students who perhaps have got established skills in other foreign languages, but probably haven't encountered BSL before and like the idea of doing something different, that broadens their horizons, where they can see other kinds of employment prospects perhaps," says Professor Graham Turner, director of the centre for translation and interpreting studies at Heriot-Watt.

Despite legislation entitling deaf people to interpreting provision, there is still a serious shortage of sign language interpreters in Scotland. A country of comparable size like Finland has hundreds, while in Scotland there are only a few dozen qualified sign language interpreters.

When the new training course for BSL interpreters starts in September, Professor Turner believes it will help address some of the difficulties deaf children and adults face in education and employment. "All of the evidence shows very clearly that deaf children are hugely disadvantaged in education, and therefore as adults they fight an uphill battle in employment," he says.

"The Scottish Council on Deafness reports that the biggest barrier at work for deaf people is lack of understanding of their communication needs by employers - 64 per cent of deaf people have experienced communication difficulties at work and over 50 per cent are unable to communicate with their hearing colleagues."

This means that deaf people in the UK are three or four times more likely to be unemployed than hearing people. Professor Turner says this doesn't have to be the case and cites the example of Scandinavia, where bilingual policies enable deaf people to experience a much more open and accessible society.

"Deaf people's abilities are not the problem: the problem is that their teachers or colleagues can rarely sign. Interpreters are the key to this door to effective communication," he says.

Students taking BSL on its own will spend their third year out gaining work experience within the deaf community. Those studying a foreign language alongside BSL will spend half the placement in Europe and the other half working with deaf people in the UK.

"What is unique about our BSL work," says Professor Turner, "is that it takes place within an internationally-renowned department of languages and intercultural studies. That means we are placing BSL squarely alongside other modern languages within a programme structure that has for over 40 years been producing translators and interpreters to work at the highest international standards."

Until now, Heriot-Watt has run a part-time two-year course in BSL for people with some background in signing, who wanted to become interpreters.

"We've never had a full-time course, we've never had an undergraduate programme and we've never had a programme that can take people as far professionally as this new programme will," says Professor Turner.

The Scottish Funding Council is funding 12 places for students from Scotland on the course with another eight places expected to be filled from the rest of the UK and overseas.

`Delighted' by degree

The new degree course in BSL is a welcome development for pupils and teachers at Dingwall Academy - the first school in Scotland to offer BSL as an alternative to traditional language options.

It was formally recognised as a language by the Scottish Parliament in March last year, and there are now almost 60 pupils studying it at Dingwall Academy, which also has a hearing impaired unit for children with profound or significant hearing loss.

Deaf studies has been on the curriculum for fifth and sixth-years at this school for more than 15 years and there are currently 20 senior pupils studying SQA modules on BSL and deaf awareness at Introductory Level and Level 1.

A further 40 children in first and second year are now studying BSL and have impressed teachers with the speed of their progress. Several pupils have left school and progressed to related careers as teachers of the deaf, speech and language therapists, social workers and interpreters.

Before this new degree course, pupils wishing to pursue careers as BSL interpreters had to travel south to study. Margaret Kinsman, assistant principal teacher of deaf services at Dingwall Academy, says she is delighted about the degree at Heriot-Watt.

"The university course will produce interpreters, but not everyone completing the course will work as an interpreter. They may go on and work in social work, education, media, business: the list is endless. The crucial factor is that there will be more hearing people who will be able to use BSL in the workplace," she says.

Mrs Kinsman said she is also keen to see a formal exam structure introduced to allow BSL pupils in schools to progress with appropriate qualifications.

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