What an ill chicken tells us about deaf access to universities and colleges

Sorry, I didn’t do a blog yesterday, my chicken was ill.

If you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, then clearly you haven’t yet watched the BBC3 documentary, Deaf Teens: Hearing World, nor been aware of how a sequence involving a notetaker explaining she couldn’t support a deaf student for a whole 2 hours because her chicken was ill exploded onto the deaf community’s consciousness. Charlie Swinbourne’s blog explains how this quickly went viral, with a Facebook group attracting 1000 members in less than 24 hours and tweets abound using the #deafteens hashtag.

How did it pick up so much attention? Well, frankly it’s the most ridiculous (and hilarious) excuse I’ve ever come across for communication support failing to come through. Secondly, behind every brilliant joke is a regrettable knowing truth. In this case, that knowing truth is that deaf young people are rarely in control of their communication support at college and universities and too often are left to fend for themselves. The sequence hit a real nerve.

On the programme, this was the deaf teen’s first day at university and somehow they still managed to cock up (no pun intended) her communication support by not checking whether her notetaker could stay for the full 2 hours. Not exactly an auspicious start. In a further epic fail, another student on the programme at a different university on her first week was forced to lipread a lecturer in a dark room. My own experiences at university weren’t much better – I had to arrange my own provision and my “communication support” were often other students trying to make a quick buck. It also took around 9 months for my council to sort out my Disabled Students Allowance.

I’m sure there are a lot of good intentions out there. But a lot needs to change before deaf young people can be confident they’ll get the help they need at colleges and universities, without having to rely on the good health of chickens or other random occurrences.

The documentary, by the way, was brilliant and must-see viewing for anyone wanting to understand the experiences of deaf young people.


What does the Comprehensive Spending Review mean for deaf children?

Image courtesy of NDCS

It’s been two days since the Government announced it’s future spending plans and how it was going to slash the deficit, and I’m still not sure what I think. I suppose if you’ve been told that it’s going to be Armageddon and the end of the world, you’re just kind of dazed and relieved that you’re still standing and that the kettle is still working. In short, the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) was bad. Very bad. But not as bad as we thought it might be. At least we don’t think so. And not just yet. But definitely still bad.

For example, on education, we were told to expect budget cuts of 10 to 20%. Instead, it seems to be around 5% and the part of the budget spent on schools is effectively being frozen, rather than cut (though this means less money for things like social care and youth services). This means that the overall funding for things like specialist support services for deaf children should remain static. Putting to one side the fact that deaf children in England are already 42% less likely to do as well in their GCSEs as other children and the huge variations in the help deaf children receive, this is quite a relief.

But it’s still bad. And the reason for that is because it will be local authorities who decide what to do with the pot of money for schools. And there are no guarantees they will protect funding for deaf children. Some local authorities have already started to cut services for deaf children, and all will be under pressure to move the money around. And even if the pot of money is static, there are figures suggesting that the number of deaf children are rising. In a system which is already unfair, this can only lead to more variations in the help that deaf children get.

The National Deaf Children’s Society has launched an urgent new campaign action for supporters to email their councillors and ask them to protect funding for services for deaf children. Within 24 hours, it’s already had a massive response from people concerned about this. Please do support the action and spread the word if you can.

I’m still digesting other parts of the CSR, but one thing to watch out for is Disability Living Allowance for children. The benefit hasn’t been cut. But there are signals the Government wants to tighten up the assessment process. And there is also a proposal to cut the mobility component of the benefit for those who are in residential placements (as if people in residential placements are vegetables who never go out). This could have damaging implications for parents of deaf children who attend residential special schools. NDCS is seeking urgent clarification on that one.

What were your thoughts on the CSR? Leave a comment below or email me at campaigns@ndcs.org.uk.

PS NDCS’s full immediate response to the CSR can be found here.

Office for Disability Issues try to define “disability”

I got an email the other day, as you do, about some consultation on draft guidance from the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) on the Equality Act 2010. The guidance sets out an “illustrative and non-exhuastive” list of the factors that might be considered when deciding if someone is disabled or not in the courts. They say “non-exhaustive” though they clearly had a good try. An attempt to try and describe what an elephant looks like if there ever was one.

Anyhow, the email expressed fear that the guidance is saying that British Sign Language users would not be regarded as disabled. This is because in the list of what should not be regarded as a factor in deciding if someone is disabled, it says:

“Inability to converse in a language which is not the speaker’s native language”

It’s not particularly clear, but my guess is that the intention is to highlight that one is not disabled just because one speaks a different language. So people who speak Welsh are not disabled, for example. Nor is my sign language interpreter.

Does this mean that under the guidance that deaf British Sign Language users would not be regarded as being disabled? I’m not a legal expert but I don’t think so. Looking at the list of factors that should be considered in deciding if someone has a disability, it says:

“Difficulty hearing someone talking at a sound level which is normal for everyday conversations, and in a moderately noisy environment.”

“Difficulty hearing and understanding another person speaking clearly over the voice telephone.”

“Taking longer than someone who does not have an impairment to say things.”

So, on the face of it, deaf children and young people would clearly be regarded as disabled under this guidance, whether or not they used sign language. That said, the line on native languages is not particularly clear and is a bit unhelpful. I understand NDCS plans to respond to the consultation to suggest to the ODI that this should be clearer.

As an aside, it’s quite an interesting list. I haven’t yet read the whole document but considering the ODI are meant to follow the social model of disability, the list sometimes reads a rather negative list focusing on the inadequacies of disabled people, rather than the inadequacies of the world around them in failing to ensure disabled people have full access. I now also seem to be doubly disabled – “Persistant difficulty in remembering the names of familiar people” also makes it on the list. Oh dear.

Be interested, as always, to hear your thoughts.

Who will make deaf children matter in the general election?

All the newspapers seem to be busy publicly endorsing political parties, so I guess it’s only fair and proper that this blog, as an equally important media outlet, advises you on who you should vote for tomorrow.

This blog therefore endorses the following party for the general election 2010….

Only joking! I would probably get carted off to jail or, worse, forbidden from ever going near the chocolate digestives at work ever again. Charities need to be politically impartial under the law, after all. In any event, I’m quite old-fashioned about voting and think everyone should decide individually and privately who they want to vote for, without nudges and winks from others.

Image courtesy of NDCS

However, if you are interested in what the parties say about deaf children, disability and special educational needs, then the National Deaf Children’s Society website has a very short summary of what the three main UK party manifestos have to say on this, which may help guide you.

You can also read the transcripts from the interviews that education spokespersons from each party did with deaf young people back in January.

Finally, you can also see whether the politicians in your area have promised to support deaf children if they are elected, by signing the National Deaf Children’s Society election pledge for deaf children.

The election promises to be very close and the next Government is likely to be making some difficult decisions on public spending cuts to come, so every vote will make a difference.

Happy voting!

Will deaf people be able to access government scheme on apprenticeships?

I popped along to the Houses of Parliament yesterday – as you do – to a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Disability. This is a group of MPs and peers with a stated interest in disability issues who hold meetings once in a while. Yesterday’s meeting was on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, a hefty piece of legislation that is now making its way through the House of Lords.

Lots of Lords and Ladies came, including Lord Young, who is the Government’s spokesperson on apprenticeships in the Lords. He was challenged on the issue of entry requirements for apprenticeships. The Government is creating a new scheme whereby it will guarantee young people an apprentice if they meet certain requirements.

Unfortunately for deaf young people, these certain requirements include GCSEs in English and Maths. Putting to one side the issue of whether deaf children get the right support to be able to fulfill their potential and achieve these GCSEs, is a deaf person whose first language is British Sign Language necessarily going to get or want a GCSE in English?

And yet the scheme seemingly excludes them, ignoring the fact that deaf young people will be able to make use of interpreters, communication support, etc. in an apprenticeship, as in any other job.

I was hoping that Lord Young might stand up and cry out “now that’s what I call discrimination” but instead, he made some warm words about the need to support disabled young people. But he also taked about the need to “strike a balance” and ensure that apprenticeships are “useful” to employers. So it doesn’t seem likely that the Government will abandon the principle of entry requirements anytime soon.

But we don’t plan to shut up about it, and will be continuing to press for these entry requirements to be relaxed for people with disabilities. So watch this space.

New laws on equality

The Equality Bill has been published today. It’s a new key piece of legislation that aims to streamline all existing discrimination legislation into one document. It’s already pretty controversial and it looks like it’s going to be a hot potato for the Government going forward. I’ve already heard a rumour that one peer is already planning to do everything he can to sabotage the whole thing…

Oh, and it’s a monster Bill. Parliament have tried something new with this one by publishing the explanatory notes to the Bill alongside each clause. It’s an interesting idea. Unfortunately it means that the whole thing is well over 500 pages along and separated into two volumes. I got my daily workout just from lifting it up from the printer.

Our interest in this is mainly to make sure that disabled people don’t lose out from all this streamlining. Whilst I can see the logic, will disabiity equality get the same level of attention if it’s going to be considered alongside racial equality, gender equality and so on. How do we make sure it doesn’t become a box ticking exercise?

The Bill also contains a few clauses around accessible examinations for disabled people which we’ll be taking a close look at.

I need to get busy reading it all… Wish me luck.

Access to examinations for deaf students

The Disability Discrimination (General Qualifications Bodies) (Relevant Qualifications, Reasonable Steps and Physical Features) (Amendments) Regulations 2008 came into force on the 24th October.

Wait, don’t go yet! It may have the most uninspiring name ever given to a set of regulations, but these regulations are an important step forward in a long running saga over examinations. It’s a saga that involves breathtaking stupidity, a complete and utter misunderstanding of what disability equality means, and deaf people being punished for not being able to hear in an exam.

DunceTo give a bit of history, around 3 years ago, examination awarding bodies suddenly decided to drop provisions in place that were in place to help disabled candidates access examinations. It basically meant that if an exam was not accessible, a disabled student would have their marks wiped off their total grades. Apparently, the ‘integrity’ of the exams was more important. And, they also thought it would be in line with disability equality legislation. It makes you wonder about the people who look after the exams system really. At no point were disabled people or charities consulted about these changes.

Working with other charities, NDCS led a campaign to reverse this. The awarding bodies finally backed down last year, and agreed to re-instate exemptions. This bascially meant that a disabled candidate could opt out of a part of an exam if they were not able to access it, and get marks for the bits that they did do.

The problem with this is that if a student only does 70% of the exam, there is 30% that he/she won’t get marks for no matter how hard they try. This is where the new regulations come in – they introduce ‘enhancements’ so the marks that a student gets for the bit they did do is treated as if it is was the whole 100% of the exam. In practice, this was already being done and the new regulations just explicitly confirm that this in line with disability equality.

It’s an important step forward. But I’m not popping champagne corks just yet.

Firstly, the original draft of the regulations would also have included ‘certificate indications’. This is basically where if a disabled student is unable to access an exam, their certificates would list all the bits they did and all the bits they didn’t do. We felt it was unfair – it is not the student’s fault if the exam is designed in a way which forces them to have an exemption. We also felt it would stigmatise disabled students. If you were an employer, would you be more or less likely to employ a person whose qualifications resemble Swiss cheese?

Over the summer, we had to do a bit of lobbying to get the reference to certificate indications removed from the regulations. We won that battle. Though certificate indications are still in use, including them in the regulations would have resulted in them being widespread. Now they are only to be used as a last resort. There remains a debate going on over the long-term place of certificate indications in the system.

Secondly, and more importantly, a lot of this still feel likes tinkering at the edges without there being a more fundamental look at the examinations system. If examinations were truly accessible to disabled people, designed in flexible ways that allow them to demonstrate their abilities, there would be no need for exemptions, for enhancements or for certificate indications. Awarding bodies have been far too slow to think about this.

To be fair, there appears to be moves in this direction and there have been some positive meetings recently. But one still gets the impression that awarding bodies still don’t quite ‘get it’, and would love us to stop standing up for the rights of disabled children so they can go back to their ‘pure’ system of exams where if you can’t access an examination, tough. I find it depressing that the people with such control over people’s life chances, appear so relucant to enable and empower disabled people.

It’s very depressing indeed. I would grade the regulations as an OK effort. But the awarding bodies really need to buck up their attitudes in the long-run. And we need to remain vigilant.