Demand for interpreters is healthy sign of the times

February 4, 2005

Graham Turner looks at how to sustain the rise in the number of deaf students

Would you go to university if you couldn't hear a word of what the lecturers said? Research in the early 1990s showed that the number of deaf students attending UK universities could almost be counted on one hand. Today, the figures have changed dramatically. At the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), 31 out of a total of 61 deaf and hard-of-hearing students - the largest such population in the UK - access a range of classes in sign language, from expressive art therapy to Arabic.

How has this happened and what can universities do to broaden and sustain it?

Clearly, changing social perceptions of disability and deafness have played a major part. Deaf-awareness training has become widely available; sign language interpreters are a familiar sight on television; visual displays and captioning are common in civic spaces such as theatres and on public transport. The deaf applicant already seems less of an unknown quantity.

All these developments have been associated with an increased understanding of deafness and the nature of the deaf community as a distinctive cultural group. UCLan's deaf studies programme has grown in a decade to a position of international prominence, taking an interdisciplinary approach to increasing knowledge about deaf experiences and disseminating this knowledge to support institutional and individual practices.

Central to these changes has been British Sign Language. In modern times, BSL users have preferred to identify themselves as a linguistic minority, downplaying disability issues. Research since the 1970s has demonstrated the language's structural sophistication: in 2003, the Government recognised BSL as a language. Recent legislation underpins BSL users'

entitlement to access to goods and services, including in education, in their preferred language. UCLan has secured £250,000 from the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning to embed the status of BSL in national higher education.

At the interface between deaf students and hearing staff are BSL-English interpreters. Their work, mediating between languages with such radically different structures, is so uniquely exhausting when done well that performance deteriorates after 20 minutes.

The UK faces a chronic shortage of such professionals: interpreters with the academic wherewithal to facilitate higher education teaching and learning are like gold dust. But if you want your students to fully understand what lecturers have to say and make active education a reality, they are indispensable.

Graham Turner is a senior lecturer in deaf studies at the University of Central Lancashire, which has nine interpreters on its staff, plus a pool of freelance interpreters who work at peak periods.

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