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A deaf young person’s view on the accessibility of online learning

Published Date: 31 Jul 2020
Photo: Eleanor Hasall supports the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Student Safety Net campaign.

Eleanor Hasall recently completed her final year at university. She talks about her experience of being at university during lockdown and how she coped with all lessons moving online.

Eleanor supports the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Student Safety Net campaign. The campaign supports students who feel that they have not received adequate teaching this academic year. It calls on the government to introduce a student safety net, which would provide all students with the right to redo this academic year at no extra cost, or have their tuition fees reimbursed or written off.

When my university announced that term three teaching was moving online due to lockdown, it’s fair to say that, like all my peers, I was incredibly worried about this. However, being a deaf student, I had additional concerns. I really struggle to hear and lip read in classes in person and I was pretty confident it was going to be near impossible to follow online teaching.

Due to the move online, my university decided that no new material would be taught during term three, and that these classes would now be dedicated to revision instead. Now this should have been ideal – less content to learn and extra revision classes! In reality, this was far from the truth. As the move online happened so quickly, and universities had to adapt so dramatically in such a short space of time, I got the impression that accessibility had not been considered at all.

A lot of my revision classes were held on Blackboard Collaborate which doesn’t have automatic subtitles, and due to the short notice, I couldn’t organise an alternative such as a palantypist. I flagged this issue with my academic departments and they agreed to move my classes to Microsoft Teams, which, whilst not entirely accurate, does have auto captions. My tutors also sent me their notes to help fill some of the gaps of things I’d missed. I certainly didn’t have the same access or learning experience as my hearing peers, but it was a start.

Using Teams worked well for the Politics half of my degree, however, I also study Spanish and unsurprisingly Microsoft Teams captions didn’t work here! I attended the first two sessions and spent both hours sat there unable to hear and without a clue as to what was going on, even with the tutor’s notes. I didn’t attend again after this and just resorted to teaching myself with materials from earlier in the year.

My timed exams were changed to coursework essays for Politics, and take-home exams for Spanish language. This was my ideal scenario and as I normally get 25% extra time in exams due to my deafness, I was also granted an extra week to submit my work. However, talking to my classmates after the exam period, I realised that I was at a significant disadvantage from having not been able to participate in the revision classes as a lot of the exam material had been directly covered in these sessions and I had not been able to hear or participate, meaning I had missed out.

The NUS has launched a National Student Safety Net campaign and I’m proud to say that I am joining their chain of action. Whilst universities were put in a near-impossible situation having to move everything online so quickly, the way that accessibility for deaf students was forgotten about is categorically unacceptable. Our rights under not only the Equality Act but also the Consumer Rights Act were not met and it led to me and many others missing out on huge parts of our academic experience, and our results potentially suffering because of it.

Universities need to stop treating accessibility as a mere after-thought and I hope that this campaign will go some way to waking them up to this fact.