Students sign onto fulfil potential

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
Walsall College of Arts and Technology is proving that lack of hearing need not hold back learning. Mary Hampshire reports

FOR years, Jackie Perkins thought her deafness would prevent her from achieving her full potential.

"I felt I'd never do well in mainstream hearing society because of low confidence and low morale," says Jackie, 35, from Birmingham. "University in my 20s was a nightmare. I missed out on coursework and assignment information and general conversations. I quit because I couldn't cope."

But specialist support in further education has helped Jackie make up for lost time. She completed her HND in digital media last year at Walsall College of Arts and Technology, which provides a range of services to both deaf and deaf-blind students.

"Without the support services I would only understand half the content of lectures and group discussions. Here, I feel on a par with the hearing students and have reclaimed my university years,"says Jackie, who now works as a web designer.

Every year, about 80 deaf and four deafblind students attend lectures with their hearing peers at Walsall. Most deaf students (85 per cent) use British Sign Language (BSL), with English as their second language. The rest use a combination of speech, lip-reading and a hearing aid.

They are assessed before starting the course, says Sue Spencer, programme manager. "We look at their preferences, the language they are using, the challenges they face and their numeracy and literacy skills."

Four deaf and six hearing lecturers are supported by 22 educational interpreters - who sign during lectures - and 10 notetakers who take written records for the students. Students also have three hours of one-to-one and group tutorials a week for skills including literacy and numeracy.

"Some students have a very good understanding of English. For others, it can be a struggle," says Sue.

Although some coursework is practical, students need a certain standard of English to complete their written assessments and exams.

"In most cases, students achieve their qualifications. But there are some who do not do as well as they could in exams if they were using their first language," she says.

"We recognise that English is very important, but it seems unfair that in some circumstances, such as discussing conceptual ideas, students can't express themselves in their first language."

One 19-year-old student, Lisa Bowen, said: "The support has enabled me to keep at the same pace as hearing students." She is taking a vocational A-level in health and social care and wants to become a social worker.

"It's very easy to find an interpreter. It's also really helpful having both interpreters and notetakers in class. Otherwise, I'd find it very difficult to look at the interpreters to understand the lecture and then take notes.

"BSL is my first language, so the English support is good. The tutors help me amend any mistakes on my written assignments. " For deafblind students, whose needs vary, teaching is provided one-to-one.

Some use the deafblind manual alphabet - which is adapted from the BSL alphabet - speech, visual frame or hands-on signing. They need two interpreters to help them deal with their disabilities.

Deaf awareness training is also given to hearing lecturers, support staff and students, who are trained to use short clear statements, gesturing towards the deaf student in group tutorials.

Jackie said: "Some tutors are excellent. I can discuss anything with them via an interpreter. Others need to learn how to approach deaf students more often. Some deaf students still don't feel confident asking for help, in case they get laughed at."

For Lisa, the early days were intimidating: "When I first came to college, it was scary. I felt isolated. I'd spend lunchtime with my deaf friends and then return to the hearing environment for the rest of the day.

"I think some hearing students panicked about meeting a deaf person. But now I'm in my second year, they're much more relaxed and communicate more."

Apart from English, students may also have fallen behind in acquiring other life skills. Unless they are from a deaf family, they may have missed out on picking information up from overhearing it around them.

Jenny Beech, a deaf lecturer, whose job includes co-ordinating language and numeracy support, said: "I feel frustrated when deaf students have gaps in their knowledge, both academically and socially, due to a lack of prior education.

"Those gaps affect their progress on mainstream courses in college. The deaf student has to work twice as hard to catch up with their hearing peers to achieve their qualifications.

"Many have low self-esteem and think they can't do many jobs or travel round the world independently," says Jenny, who teaches one-to-one and in small groups, liaising with mainstream lecturers on student progress.

"They ask me various questions about life issues such as how I use the phone to book an interpreter and book a doctor's appointment and a holiday and so on. I challenge some of their views about deafness and encourage them to become more independent."

Students such as Jackie and Lisa agree that support services are crucial to helping both deaf and deafblind students reach the same potential as their hearing peers. But the challenge is to ensure that supply can meet demand.

Walsall College has a waiting list.

Nationally, provision is patchy. There is also a shortage of interpreters and specialist teachers. It presents a huge problem, says Sue. "Students'

fluency in BSL and access to learning from an early age is only as good as the quality of support provided."

An NVQ at higher education level 4 (higher education) was recently introduced for the training of interpreters in BSLEnglish.

Walsall is one of three approved centres nationally for the interpreter skills and one of six centres for language. The aim is to provide vocational training and address shortages in specialist support.

Jenny said: "Yes, barriers are coming down and access is improving but there is still a long way to go. "Standardisation needs to be achieved to ensure that all deaf children and young people have the same opportunities so they are able to progress equally to their hearing peers."

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