Bradford College has an unusually high number of deaf students.
There are two main reasons for this: firstly, there is a higher incidence of disability in general and deafness in particular in Bradford. Secondly the College has a very positive reputation as a place for deaf people to study and this attracts deaf students from across West Yorkshire and beyond. Most are aged 16 – 24, but there are students of all ages, with a number in their 60s and 70s. They include anyone whose hearing loss impacts on their studies.
I spoke to Learning Support Tutor Nicola Storey and Team Leader Chris Thornton to find out about their work and the ethics issues it raises.
Meeting Nicola and Chris
Nicola is a qualified teacher of the deaf – it is apparently very rare, and outstandingly good for a College to have a qualified teacher of the deaf. Nicola is just that, and in addition she has an MA in Deaf Education. Chris is a qualified note-taker, has trained in the use of technological aids, and has advanced qualifications in British Sign Language (BSL). Between them they have years of experience.
Nicola did not intentionally set out to work with the deaf – her interest and commitment has developed through years of working with deaf and hard of hearing students. “I was a student here, studying health and social care. I moved straight from that into being a support worker, helping students with special needs,” she says. Later, Nicola went to university in Hull to study social policy. She continued to work for the College in the holidays, and on graduating returned as a full time senior support worker. She had a spell lecturing in IT and basic skills, and then went on to do the MA.
For Chris, it began with having friends who were deaf. “For most people who learn sign language and work in this area, it starts because someone in your family is deaf. But not me. I grew up in Doncaster and for some reason my path seemed to cross with lots of deaf people. I remember playing football with deaf kids my age and experiencing the frustration of being unable to communicate. In my final years at school I went to Saturday classes and passed Level 1 and 2 BSL and did some work experience in a local college.” Chris started working aged 16, spending ten years in different areas of deaf education in Wakefield. He has worked at the College since 2010.
The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Team
There is a team of 16 Communication Support Workers, supporting our deaf students. They all have advanced sign language qualifications, and they are part of a wider team of some 70 staff providing learning support to students with disabilities. “The role is very diverse,” Nicola says. “You can be supporting someone understand when to use capital letters, and then be giving advanced support to someone doing research for a Masters. A support worker has to work across all subject areas, from basic skills to postgraduate level.”
“British Sign Language is a relatively new language,” Chris explains. “Because there’s no literal word for word translation from English to BSL, and with the range of courses we do here, often we find ourselves working with the deaf student to devise new signs as the need arises. This is the beauty of our team – we are so lucky to have people at that level.”
In addition, some of our students have weak English language skills – signing is their first language, and English may be an emerging third or fourth language. .
The service covers all education support needs relevant to the student’s course, and support sessions such as counselling if someone needs this. If a student wants to get involved in other areas of College life, those departments then set up the relevant support.
The ethics issues
“Confidentiality is essential,” Nicola says. “Complete translation is also key. You have to interpret everything, communicate an entire message – emotion, force, intention, message. That’s important to equal access, opportunity and treatment, and being heard and understood.”
The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Team only uses its trained and qualified support workers as for interpretation and support, and does not involve family, friends or volunteers as translators.
There are two ways in which deafness is defined. One is a medical one, where deafness is a physical impairment or loss of hearing. The other is cultural, where people identify themselves as members of a deaf community, and view this as positive.
“Its big D and little d,” says Chris, “with the Deaf community claiming a capital D. We have both kinds of students – those who do not particularly identify themselves as Deaf tend to be people who’s loss of hearing has started later in life.”
The team does not make judgements on this, and they work across a continuum of hearing loss. Students are required to have medical evidence confirming their disability if they want support, but otherwise it is for the individual to decide how they define and perceive their deafness.
“There is an on-going debate,” Chris says, “as to whether deaf students are better off in a dedicated school for the deaf, or whether they should be integrated into mainstream education. That discussion is probably not going to be resolved, and there are benefits on both sides. I guess we are all working here because we believe students should be able to attend a College and have the chance to do well.”
The hard work has results….
The proof is in the pudding: apparently our deaf students often do well, through their own hard work and with the highly professional College support. One recent student came straight from school on a Level 1 IT course and now has a degree in business administration. Another, Neelam Hussain, is winning lots of awards and competitions as a hairdressing student, including a Rising Star award in the recent Oscar-style FE awards ceremony held annually by the college.
Its great to meet Nicola and Chris and find out all this. Repeatedly in this blog, interviewees are demonstrated the active and considered ways in which the College works to provide opportunity and a positive experience for anyone wanting to study. The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Team is integral to this.
Bradford College runs classes in British Sign Language – see the community learning prospectus for more information. Neelam Hussain, the student mentioned above, is featured on the front cover of that newspaper style prospectus!