'If not for this, I would be on the dole and depressed'

July 25, 2003

Roisin Woolnough reports on a project that gives people with hearing difficulties a real chance at university.

When it was suggested that Tom Speirs go to university, his immediate reaction was: "I can't do that." The deaf 25-year-old was convinced it was not an option because of his disability.

But Lynne Nelson, employment adviser at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), told him about a project called Headstart and, as a result, he is about to start a course in deaf studies with education, having completed a year-long access course to prepare him for university life.

Headstart aims to help deaf and hard of hearing people succeed in higher education and beyond by promoting equal access. Piloted at four universities in the 2001-02 academic year, the initiative proved so successful that the RNID, in partnership with Barclays, is now extending it throughout the UK.

The project is particularly pertinent to universities and colleges at the moment, given the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act that comes into force soon. From September 1, institutions will have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that students with disabilities are not discriminated against when seeking access to institutions or during their studies.

According to the RNID, one in seven of the UK population is deaf or has impaired hearing, yet they account for only 0. per cent of the student population. This affects employment prospects: unemployment among deaf and hard of hearing people stands at 19 per cent, compared with the national average of 5 per cent.

Headstart aims to help people at all stages of university life, from getting a place to finding jobs on graduation. Speirs admits: "If I hadn't heard about this, I wouldn't have gone to university. I was trying to find a job, but it was very difficult. I would probably be on the dole and very depressed if it weren't for this."

Of those who make it to university, a substantial number underachieve or drop out because of their disability. Pip Johns, who is profoundly deaf and uses sign language, almost left because of the difficulties she encountered. "I originally studied human resources management, but I didn't like the course, and the students and lecturers were not very deaf aware and not very willing to learn either," she says. "If it hadn't been for support from the deaf studies team and my dad persuading me to stay, I would have left." She switched to a BA in deaf studies and is now a care manager at Cambridgeshire County Council sensory services team.

She says Headstart gave her motivation, support, confidence and career guidance. Like Speirs, she had help from the RNID's Nelson, and says that help with career opportunities made a difference. "It made me feel that I could go for what I wanted. It boosted my confidence. If I hadn't had that through the support of Headstart, I probably would have had lower expectations."

One difficulty facing people with hearing problems is their lack of knowledge of what university life is like. "Many are unclear about what will be expected of them at university and what support they could have," says Paddy Turner, disability support manager at Sheffield Hallam University. "Without hearing, you tend to pick up far less incidental information."

Headstart advisers can explain what doing a degree entails and how deaf students can access the emotional and practical help they need. "There are lots of issues that deaf students have over and above what other students face at university," Turner says. "We give them a clear idea of what to expect and direct practical support on things such as language-support tutors, electronic note-takers, interpreters and language modification of exam papers."

Even once he had access to the facilities provided at the university, Speirs found it daunting. "University might be the first time in a deaf person's life that they have to use an interpreter or note-taker," he says.

He felt he was not quite ready to embark directly on a degree course, so Nelson pointed him towards the access course Year 0 at the University of Central Lancashire. This is aimed at deaf students who use British Sign Language and for whom English is a second language. "It gave me preparation and training time," Speirs says. "I learnt how to cope in a lecture, how to communicate and work with interpreters and note-takers."

Many BSL users have difficulties reading, writing and understanding English. This is where language modification tools and note-takers can be very helpful.

"It makes all the difference," Turner says. "We had one profoundly deaf student who could not lip-read very well and had never dreamt of coming to university. Without the support of an interpreter and an electronic note-taker, she would never have got past the first week, even though she had all the skills and abilities she needed."

Headstart is currently confined to 11 universities and eight further education colleges, with Sheffield Hallam being the main partner. Although this is a great improvement on a few years ago, it still means that deaf and hard of hearing people have less choice than others in where to study.

"I wanted to go to university in Manchester, but I feel the deaf access there isn't what I need, so I decided to stay where I am in Preston, where the deaf access is brilliant," Speirs says. "There are only a few places that have deaf access, which is not fair."

Nelson agrees: "We want our students to have the same choices as a hearing person. They shouldn't have to choose a course and place because it's got the support for them, but because it's the best place for them to do what they want to do."

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