How universities can better support Deaf students’ education through the coronavirus pandemic

Clare Vale, managing director of Sign Solutions, discusses the importance of universities adapting to make online learning more accessible amidst the coronavirus pandemic

Despite lockdown restrictions continuing to ease, universities across the UK will still be forced to shift to online learning for at least the start of the new term in September to prevent the coronavirus spread.

This adjustment in learning style has already proven to be challenging for all students, not least profoundly Deaf individuals who find it difficult to lip-read on screens and understand seminars in which multiple people are speaking.

With this in mind, how can universities respond to the pandemic in a way that supports Deaf students in a virtual learning environment?

Recognising students’ requirements

It is the lecturer’s responsibility to inform students that classes will be moving to an online platform, and to ask them if they have any requirements to enable equal access to the virtual online content. Not all students with hearing loss will have the same needs, for example some may prefer to lip read [although this can be challenging when communicating via video], however profoundly Deaf students and learners will prefer to access lectures using online BSL interpreters and note takers.

Fit-for-purpose technology

Online communication platforms can make it easy for universities to conduct virtual lectures and seminars, but they must opt for a suitable platform to enable user-friendliness for Deaf students, as their accessibility, security and quality features vary widely. The InterpretersLive! service, powered by Starleaf, delivers real-time access to qualified and registered British Sign Language interpreters using a secure encrypted and ISO27001 accredited, HD quality video platform. The Starleaf platform has millions of users worldwide and is already familiar to the Deaf community in the UK.

Optimising visibility

When delivering lectures online, lecturers should consider their clothing, lighting quality and security. Clothing should be plain, and the camera should be kept at an angle so students have a clear view of their lecturer’s face. The background should be well-lit for the lecturer but more importantly for the interpreter, so the Deaf student can clearly see the sign language and facial expressions of the BSL interpreter.

Universities must opt for a suitable platform to enable user-friendliness for Deaf students

Providing BSL interpreters

There are many ways universities can take advantage of BSL service providers to improve access for Deaf students. Using video interpretation tools with BSL interpreters, they can provide students with remote video interpreters to translate lectures and seminars in real-time, and universities can also include a video link on their websites so Deaf students can phone enquiry lines for advice via an online interpreter. Universities that are currently running ‘virtual tours’ for prospective students can also use video BSL interpreters to make sure the tour is being understood by those with hearing loss.

The current pandemic has likely changed education forever. Whilst students will go back to traditional universities at some point, there is no doubt that distance/digital learning will continue to be an integral part of our educational methods going forwards. By choosing the right technologies and approaches for educating and engaging Deaf students via online learning, universities can help them succeed not just through these unprecedented times, but in life after coronavirus, too.

For more information contact Sign Solutions on 0121 447 9620 or visit

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