Blog: A survey of deaf higher education students about the pandemic

June 2021. Martin McLean, Post-14 Policy & Practice Lead at the National Deaf Children’s Society provides a preview of findings from a recent survey of deaf students.

Almost overnight, the coronavirus pandemic changed higher education, possibly forever. For deaf children and young people the pandemic has thrown up lots of new issues that they had never had to face before. Facemasks, learning remotely and access to specialist support came top of the list in our surveys of parents.

Was it the same story in higher education? I wanted to get hear directly from deaf students themselves of their experiences during the pandemic and as restrictions ease, what learnings we can take away from this period.

A survey was circulated for deaf students to complete from late March to early May. Possibly there is survey fatigue amongst students right now for we received a much smaller number of responses this time than a survey on DSA a couple of years ago. However, 29 deaf students responded and that still gave us enough data for some insight.

For the NADP conference, I am providing this preview of the survey finds with a more in-depth report to be completed next month. I’d be interested in the views of HE practitioners on the findings within this blog and particularly what needs to be done to address the issues raised.

The most noteworthy findings identified from the survey were:

  1. The majority of respondents reported that the pandemic had worsened their mental health with 45% stating it had made their mental health and wellbeing ‘much worse’. Only 10% stated that it had not been affected. This reflects findings from other surveys of young people in the general population. However, given that mental health and wellbeing is lower on average amongst deaf young people in normal times, it is of great concern that we see a worsening picture being reported.

  2. 66% of respondents reported difficulties in socialising with other students during the pandemic. Some students associated this with face masks and social distancing measures with one student commenting “I only talk to the 2 people with because they can remove masks safely around me. It is incredibly lonely”.
  • Respondents were split on the accessibility of online lectures. 41% stated that they were not very accessible or inaccessible. However, 45% stated they found them fairly accessible and 14% very accessible. Some students had been relying on auto-captions and reported issues with the accuracy of these. Some students had DSA-funded communication support in place such as BSL interpreters and this support continued to be provided for online lectures. One student reported that it was easy to source remote support workers.
  • Half of respondents were anxious about returning to campuses.  52% said they felt anxious about returning to campus if allowed to this year. One student said, “I feel very anxious. Every interaction which I would usually be able to handle, makes me panic and I’m usually a very confident person”.
  • Most respondents did not want their studies to be conducted fully remotely after COVID but there was some support for blended learning. 41% of students said they wanted all lectures to be conducted face to face and further 41% stated they wanted blended learning. One student commented: “I prefer face to face so I can get more one to one time with my lecturers and more time in class for group tasks. Its taken longer to process what I have to do since everything is online and it’s easier when I am in the same room with people to understand things better and makes it easier to ask questions and get an answer straight away instead of the next day or in a few days.”

Reflecting on these results, I believe higher education providers need to make the following considerations for the forthcoming academic year:

  • Can any anxieties about starting higher education or returning to campus be addressed in advance? Are deaf students being asked about any concerns they might have?
  • What are the policies on campuses on face masks? Are there any references to exemptions or clear masks? Is there sufficient awareness of exemptions amongst students and staff?
  • Is the well-being of deaf students monitored? Do any remaining social distancing measures or use of face masks leave them at risk of being isolated?
  • Are there deaf students using auto-captions to access online lectures? Is feedback being collected from these students about their needs are met by the auto-captions? Are the students aware of what communication support can be provided through DSAs that may provide a higher level of comprehension?

I am very interested in your views on these initial findings from our survey. Do they reflect what you have seen amongst the deaf students you work with? As we gradually return back to ‘normality’ what practice or policies do higher education providers need to have in place? Does the Department for Education or the Office for Students have a role in addressing the issues raised by the survey?

Email me at martin.mclean@ndcs.org.uk  with any thoughts.

The National Deaf Children’s Society supports young people up to the age of 25. We have guidance for higher education staff which can be downloaded for free from: www.ndcs.org.uk/post14 Professionals and young people can also contact our free helpline for advice. See www.ndcs.org.uk/helpline for the ways you can get in touch with us.