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Navigating the masked campus

Published Date: 28 Aug 2020

After being shut down for much of this year because of the coronavirus, higher education providers are now preparing to open up their campuses to new and returning students. That will include over 5,000 deaf students in the UK.

Back in May, I wrote about the challenges that online learning can present for deaf students. At that time, the use of face masks or coverings in public places was quite low. Since then we have seen face coverings introduced as a requirement for using public transport and shops in much of the UK.

None of the Governments across the UK has said that face coverings must be worn on campuses. However, we know that several universities are planning to make face coverings compulsory in public indoor areas. These include Cardiff and Queens universities.

Lectures are largely expected to be delivered online so there will be a lot more remote learning but students may be expected to access seminars and practical classes in person. What could widespread wearing of face masks mean for deaf students who need to lipread?

  • Missing out on social opportunities – these are often a big part of university life and some situations could see students wear masks or coverings. E.g. student union clubs or gatherings in corridors or common rooms.
  • New barriers and costs to learning? If teaching staff are wearing masks or coverings when delivering seminars or practical classes, communication support may be needed to follow what is being said.
  • Struggling at reception desks – students often have to go to a reception desk to register for things or access services (e.g. libraries, health services, disability support) and staff could be masked.

It is not all doom and gloom - there are reasons to be optimistic. As a deaf person I am well aware of the challenges face coverings bring to everyday life. However, I have been pleasantly surprised. Most people have been understanding and accommodating when I have told them I am deaf – people have used gesture, speech to text apps or removed their mask temporarily for me. Deaf young people should feel that it is perfectly ok to ask for people to adapt how they communicate.

Nonetheless, universities and colleges must think about their deaf students when they decide their social distancing policies. If they are going to make coverings compulsory or if they turn out to be commonly used regardless, there are things they can do to help ensure deaf students are not excluded or isolated:

Raise awareness and share communication tips amongst staff and students – consider using posters, blogs and announcements in lectures. See our top tips poster here: bit.ly/keep-it-clear-top-tips.  

  • Where face coverings are being required, provide clear masks for students and staff who are regularly in contact with a deaf student (if the student wants this)
  • Recognise and publicise where there may be exemptions permitted to the rules on face coverings (e.g. people who need to be lipread, such as British Sign Language interpreters).
  • Consult with deaf students on their views on face coverings policies and ensure they are involved in any decisions made in this area. This is something the University of Manchester is currently doing.
  • Support deaf students in securing funding for any additional support needed because of face coverings (e.g. additional communication support or radio aids).
  • Checking in with their deaf students regularly to find out how they are doing.

All of the above can be seen as examples of reasonable adjustments that universities are already required to follow under the Equality Act (or the Disability Discrimination Act in Northern Ireland).

If you are a deaf student starting or returning to higher education this September, we would love to find out what you think about face masks on campus. What should your university be doing? Do you have any fears or are you feeling positive? Get in touch with [email protected] to share your views.

Martin McLean

Martin McLean, is the Lead Careers Campaign & Post-14 Policy & Practice, at the National Deaf Children’s Society.