Deaf students being denied funding support at university?

I was suddenly transported back in time around 12 years yesterday. Sadly, it’s not because I’m the Doctor’s new assistance. It was all due to a glance at a news story saying that 12,500 disabled students, two thirds of applicants, are still waiting for their Disabled Students Allowance. The allowance funds specialist equipment and costs of support so that disabled students are on a level playing field at university. I would guess that a large number of the people waiting are deaf, waiting for money for interpreters, notetakers, laptops, etc.

In the spring of 1998, I was putting in my application for university. There was a little box that asked if I was disabled. I ticked it. My lovely teacher of the deaf said the council would be in touch to assess my needs for university. Did my exams. Got the grades I wanted. Bought some tins of baked beans and got all packed up and ready to go to university. And then it hit me. The council never did get back to me.

I got my Mum to call them. “Oh. We didn’t notice he’d ticked that box. Sorry about that. I’m afraid it will have to be next February before we can arrange an assessment.”

In retrospect, I should have made more of a fuss to get things moving with a greater degree of urgency, and should have called on the help of the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) Helpline or a NDCS Family Officer. But I was a nervous deaf young person, about to leave home for the first time and really didn’t want to make a fuss.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can now also say that the assessment, when it finally happened, was rubbish. We had a cursory chat, and they gave me what I thought I wanted, not necessarily what I needed. I didn’t get a full and thorough assesment. I didn’t get any information on what my options were. I wasn’t told that there was such a thing called a palantypist (I probably would have thought it was a dinosaur), or given the opportunity to meet deaf role models. University staff were well-meaning but didn’t know that much about deafness. As far as I could tell, I was the first deaf person in my college in my university. I ended up being plonked in the wheelchair-accessible room in the Halls of Residence. My bathroom was larger than most people’s bedrooms.

It was after Easter when I finally got my first Disabled Student Allowance cheque. I got a good degree at the end of it all so I can’t complain too much. But looking back, how much did I miss in the first two terms? How many lectures did I go to where I didn’t have a hope in hell of being able to lipread for an hour? Too many.

And how much is this happening right now for deaf students? It’s pretty outrageous and I hope heads are rolling.

On top of the whole access to exams saga, it doesn’t feel like a good time to be a deaf student right now. Do you know of anyone having difficulties in this area? If so, leave a comment below or email us at campaigns@ndcs.org.uk.

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Downing St petition on Government’s failure to ensure equality in exams

I am still angry about the debacle over the Equality Bill last week when the Government decided that, actually, you know equality in exams and qualifications for disabled people, isn’t all that important, like.

So angry, that I have created a No.10 Downing Street petition to vent my anger.

If you’re angry too, please add your name as soon as you can to the petition. And tell your friends, families, random acquaintances, pets, etc.

The more people who sign it, the more the Government will realise that they cannot, in the 21st century, get away with denying full access to GCSEs, A Levels and other general qualifications for deaf and other disabled people.

I’m off to find a barracade to chain myself to.

PS The Downing Street website will send you an email to check that you want to sign the petition – so please check your email afterwards!

No equality for disabled people in exams

I thought the Government had a goal of equality for disabled people by 2025 but, when it comes to exams, it turns out that just “minimising disadvantage” is the highest goal the Government will aspire to.

Yes, I’ve slipped back into angry deaf man mode. On Tuesday, Lords were debating the issue of accessible exams for disabled people and possible new laws as part of the Equality Bill. NDCS, Skill, Afasic, RNIB, the Disability Charities Consortium and the Equality and Human Rights Commission all wanted the Government to strengthen the law. But the Government decided to side with the views of exam bodies. The same people who removed all support for disabled people in 2005 on the basis that reasonable adjustments were unfair and took marks away from deaf students when they were unable to hear tapes in oral exams. If a deaf person wanted a test on ability to hear, I think most of us would prefer to go to an audiologist. Anyhow, NDCS led a coaition to get that support reinstated but still, we come across sporadic examples of problems. Anecdotally, my colleagues report still going to meetings where exam bodies discuss whether someone reading out text for blind people is “unfair” to non-blind people.

The Equality Bill now provides exam bodies and the exams regulator with a range of “get-out” clauses to avoid having to provide full access, even though there are lots of safeguards already in place to make sure that the exams are still rigorous and not watered down.

Perhaps the most offensive thing of all is that the Bill says the regulator only needs to “minimise” disadvantage faced by disabled people in exams. If you’re going to be slapped around the face unnecessarily, it’s not much consolation to be told that the Government did try to “minimise” any harm to you.

You can read NDCS’s statement on this issue here. We’re having a think about next steps. If you’ve got any thoughts on the issue or any ideas on next steps, please do leave a comment below or email NDCS at campaigns@ndcs.org.uk.

UPDATE: There’s now a Downing St petition on this. Find out more…

Lords speak out about access to exams for disabled students

If you’re wondering what the Lords were doing on the 15th day of December, they were having a big debate on equality. Maybe leaping around as well.

The Equality Bill had its first debate in the House of Lords last week, just before Parliament closed down for Christmas. The Equality Bill is an important bonzer Bill, aiming to streamline all of the existing pieces of legislation on discrimination into a single piece of legislation. As Michael Jackson might have put it if he was still alive, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, disabled, lesbian, Hindu, polysexual, anything. The Equality Bill will sort you out.

But in seriousness, it’s a serious Bill that the big disabled charties are welcoming, as a “critical friend”. NDCS‘s main interest in the Bill is in what it says about access to examinations for disabled students.

This is an area in which the exam bodies have very bad form. Halfway through the noughties, exam bodies withdrew all support for disabled students in a bizarre misreading of disability discrimination law. NDCS successfully campaigned for that support to be reinstated but there are still concerns that some of the exam bodies still just don’t get it. Disabled students have the right to be able to demonstrate what they can do through a system of flexibly designed exams. It cannot be impossible to do this without undermining the value of the qualification.

The Government has been listening to our concerns and is proposing that the new exams regulator, Ofqual, will have the power to decide what exam bodies should and shouldn’t do when considering how disabled people can access exams. This is a nice idea in principle, but it does give Ofqual a lot of power. So NDCS is working with a range of other charities to make sure there are checks in place to make sure this power is used for the benefit of disabled people.

We’re looking to get the wording of the legislation changed. For example, currently, it says it would be “desirable” for Ofqual to try and “minimise” the disadvantage to disabled students. I don’t like the word “minimise”; it seems to assume that an outcome in which some disadvantage is present is tolerable or acceptable. We want the exam system to work to eliminate disadvantage. And “desirable”? It sounds as if access to examinations is something I might find on an Amazon wish list.

We’ve been busy briefing Lords and, happily, a few of them agree with us. In the first debate on the Equality Bill in the Lords, Lord Low said:

“… the Minister will be aware of the uncomfortable history in which qualifications bodies have misguidedly chosen to demonstrate their commitment to standards that we all share by taking measures that disadvantage disabled people. They have lost the confidence of many disabled people by doing so. Clause 96 of the Bill explicitly authorises an exam system that disadvantages disabled candidates and says in terms that minimising this is merely desirable, not necessary. The wording does not sit comfortably in an Equality Bill. The Government is usually such a champion of the life chances of disabled people and their foundation on basic qualifications that I hope very much that we will be able to move this issue forward through a process of discussion.”

The Bill is going to be debated again in January, and we’ll looking to get the wording of the Bill changed to something that gives full access for deaf students in exams. Hopefully, it will be our first campaign victory of 2010.

This is going to be my last blog before Christmas – so seasons greetings to everyone and thanks for reading and commenting!