Returning to university in September is a daunting prospect to all students, with the inevitable change to student life — both academically and socially. However, some students will be affected by coronavirus measures more than others and risk being left behind.
Universities have begun to outline plans of how social distancing will be implemented on campus due to coronavirus, in the form of online learning, compulsory mask-wearing and limited capacities for any in-person interactions/teaching. These measures, whilst necessary — risk isolation and disadvantage for Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) students who rely on access to proper communication. Going to University already brings challenges to deaf people as many staff and students are not deaf aware, we have to work harder just to access basic needs that hearing students take for granted.
Even in an environment that is not fully accessible or deaf aware, usually one thing deaf students can rely on is lip reading. Whilst this in no way guarantees fluid communication as only 40% of the English language can be understood through lip reading alone, the complete absence of it disadvantages Deaf and HoH people. This is the inevitable truth of compulsory mask wearing. On top of this, students who rely on British Sign Language (BSL) are further inhibited as a mask blocks facial expression as well as lip pattern which make up a large percentage of the language.
Mask wearing will inhibit deaf students from accessing the same information as their peers in lectures, seminars and tutorials, exclude them from group work and discourage participation and attendance. Moreover, it will induce greater anxiety among deaf students, potentially worsening their mental health and causing feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Another significant change to student life is the switch to online learning for both lectures and group sessions if they cannot be conducted with social distancing in mind. This is tough for all students as we will miss out on forming new friendships and having one-to-one discussions with lecturers and peers. Once again, these fears are heightened among deaf students.
The prospect of having group discussions on Zoom with delays, obstructed lip reading and overlapping voices is daunting. Participating in group discussions already comes with difficulty over asking people to repeat themselves, potentially repeating a point someone has already made, everything adds to the anxiety felt by deaf people in hearing environments. All of these anxieties are blown up when relying on audio with lack of body language and context, where you feel everyone is focusing on you with your face smack bang in the middle of their laptop screen.
To gain some other real-life perspectives, I asked two Deaf university students with online platforms what their concerns are for when they return to university in September — and more importantly what measures these institutions should take to support Deaf and HoH students.
What concerns do you have surrounding compulsory mask wearing on campus if you rely on lip reading? Both socially and in lectures/seminars etc.?
It is clear that the prospect of having to try and communicate whilst wearing a mask is not feasible, as Freddie — a University student and TikTok creator said that, “I wouldn’t be able to communicate with my peers or understand what my lecturer would be saying, as it would discourage me to ask them questions because I would feel awkward when I don’t understand what they’re saying.” Furthermore, it discourages interactions with feelings of “awkwardness” heightened.
Leah, a student at Leeds Arts University and fellow TikTok creator also worries about the effect on mental health, with concerns that mask-wearing risks “isolation that deaf/hard of hearing people will feel and won’t feel as included as they would if masks weren’t involved.” A further point from Leah is that universities, “should take more measures to use shield masks or clear masks”, which allow for lip reading and facial expression. These are not as widely available as regular masks but many independent deaf people and deaf allies have begun to produce them to sell.
What concerns do you have surrounding content moving online, whether you rely on lip reading or BSL? In terms of recorded lectures and/or group calls?
Reflecting on how this was introduced during this year’s final term, Freddie shared that he “didn’t attend to any online lectures or group call because it wasn’t accessible,” showing how this needs to be reconsidered by September to make online content accessible through note-takers and interpreters.
Leah shared that her concern is ‘not being able to pick up everything especially if the internet is bad”, also online lectures mean “no real connection with the tutor/professor to able interact properly”, a concern faced by both deaf and hearing students.
What measures should universities take and promote to staff and students to support Deaf and HoH students?
It is clear that coronavirus safety measures will have an impact on Deaf Students’ university lives — despite them being a necessity. We can’t do away with these measures without risking our health, but there are compromises that can be easily implemented to support Deaf and HoH students. Freddie believes universities need to “teach more people basic deaf awareness such as how to talk and be patient to deaf people, as many aren’t,” showing how finding other ways to communicate is crucial. Freddie also notes that, “It would be good if they do more closed captions in lectures but that would be too difficult unfortunately,” this would increase accessibility tenfold, but has not proved to be a priority for universities largely due to lack of funding.
Leah adds that Universities should encourage students and staff to “learn basic BSL”, create a “support system” for deaf students, “check on their mental health” and be “more understanding” during this time.
It is clear that compromise is needed between universities and their students, no one should have to risk their health by removing their mask. However, implementing simple measures and becoming deaf aware will make a huge difference to deaf students’ experiences this year.
By Beth Mendleton
Image by: signedlifes Via Instagram