Lecturers who just happen to sign – British Sign Language (BSL)

I was in the unusual position yesterday of having my 1to1 with a Deaf student – “S”, who I’m supporting through his first year – in the presence of one of his interpreters – “M”, who was new to the campus, having not worked for USW before – because they are normally only contracted to cover lectures and scheduled tutorials. Level 6 (extremely fluent) interpreters are often quite strict about their hours, only doing what they are contracted to do. This is understandable, given they usually work in pairs, doing 15-20 minute stints, but at university frequently work alone, translating for an hour or more in a lecture; I’ve only once this academic year had dual interpreters in my class, for a day of student presentations, which might reasonably be more of a strain.

Communication Support Workers (CSWs) are usually Level 4 qualified in BSL – for clarification I’m currently studying Signature Level 3, having qualified Level 2 sixteen years ago, in the CACDP days; assessment if not teaching practices have changed a lot in that time! – and from experience tend to forge greater links with Deaf students, often hanging around to help in (probably unpaid) informal settings like coffee breaks. Again, this is understandable, and to some degree recommends them over more highly qualified (and costlier) translators, although this relies on their good will, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In technical subjects like mine, the level of qualifications are somewhat irrelevant as well, due to the complex (often inaccessible) language, with frequent use of impenetrable jargon that can only easily be finger spelled; but without the concept being understood, spelling a word doesn’t do much. Computer Science needs digital literacy to a high standard as well as competence in BSL. It also needs time to rephrase and reform language to get the idea across. Something there isn’t time for in a Software Engineering lecture, especially when there are more slides than minutes as some of my colleagues seem to use. (So much for ‘reasonable adjustment’ as having these in advance isn’t that much help to a Deaf student.) I’ve noticed that lecturers often don’t grasp how much of a barrier their use of English is to the Deaf, for whom English is often an alien second language; grammar and meaning are radically different even though BSL (and other regional sign languages) are heavily influenced by the native oral tongue. Deaf Awareness classes can only do so much, and many lecturers haven’t attended these anyway. I try to go to all the ones that run on my campus, and it is 99% student support (i.e. admin) staff who come, mostly female and rarely academics; this might be anecdotal though.

When an interpreter has cancelled on S last minute, which sadly happens regularly, it is very hard to find substitutes at short notice. Therefore, I’ve had to stand in on a few occasions, when my teaching or other duties have allowed. It’s hard work, given my understanding of BSL is an order of magnitude below CSWs, let alone interpreters. However, I do have the technical knowledge 🙂 and a few decades practice at making complex information accessible; it isn’t only the Deaf who struggle with jargon! Something for us all to remember: if we make our language simpler, we make the content of our teaching more accessible to everybody, not just students with Individual Support Packages (ISPs).

Talking with M, he asked me was it easier or harder working with an interpreter. As a typical programmer, I said “Yes.” 😀 However, I did explain: the pressure is off trying to get the syntax, semantics and grammar right, and I’m just fluent enough to be able to spot problems in the translation – Interpreters often say something a few times, with examples, which is why translating complex items takes time [Although not as bad as this, specifically at 1:35 

] – but the loss of direct communication can also be an issue, because not being able to see comprehension directly could mean an idea being incorrectly translated; in that respect I’m more fortunate, I suppose.
Are there other lecturers out there, who just happen to speak BSL, rather than it being their official role? What are your expectations of reasonable adjustment? Personally, mine is having done enough for the students to actually pass, but this view doesn’t seem to be shared by many others 🙁 

I’ve had a few occasions when I’ve been asked why I give up a few hours a week to help this student. I’m thinking “because he needs it,” but they seem to understand my desire for BSL practice more readily. Acting as emergency, if unofficial and barely adequate interpreter has forged stronger links with sympathetic colleagues, and allowed me to raise the issue of English being a barrier to learning. How do I spread that to the wider academic community?

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