Your Support Team at University

sign-language-translator An important part of being a deaf student – at ANY level – is having a good support team, who understand your requirements and are able to meet them.

Assuming you can get a support team (DSA funding will be discussed in another entry), and you have the support of your university’s disabled student support service, what is the best way to set it up so that it supports you as efficiently as possible?

At the time of writing, it is still possible to get DSA. Provided the requirement for both Notetakers and Interpreters are listed on your Statement of Needs that should be done as part of your assessment for DSA, then you should still be able to get both if you need them. Certainly I have both, and I will be discussing them in this post.


Whether you talk for yourself (as I do) or whether interpreting is both ways, what is absolutely critical is that you make sure that whatever interpreting is done, it works for you. This actually means a number of things:

1) Not all Interpreters Are Equal. Not all interpreters are able to handle the information that is being exchanged at higher education level. I had one interpreter that was absolutely fine in my first year, but in my second, it became apparent that she was really struggling to understand what was being said to her. Things finally came to a head when I had her and another interpreter for a long, double session, and the other interpreter pulled me to one side and told me that the one having problems was… well.. having problems. In an ideal world an interpreter will recognise when the material that is being discussed, that she needs to interpret, is beyond her capabilities to either understand or to interpret, and will refuse to take any further sessions, and explain why. But… interpreters are people like us all, who have to put food on the table, and it can be tempting to continue to take a paying job. Use your own knowledge, periodically, to make a check on what is being interpreted. Does the level of interpretation match the prepatory material that you’ve worked through? Does he/she seem to be struggling with terminology? All interpreters will occasionally fumble over names and terms, and the odd very technical term may float over their head – that’s normal, and to be expected. But if they have worked with you on your subject for some time and they are still stumbling over names/terms/concepts that are being regularly discussed then alarm bells should start to ring. You may want to ask another interpreter to sit in to do an informal assessment, or take advantage of a double session and quietly ask the other interpreter to do an assessment. It puts the other person on the spot a bit, but if you explain why, then they should be happy to do this.

2) Try to use a range of interpreters. It can be tempting, especially when you find someone who works well with you, and that you like, to try to use them on everything going. God knows, I did! But inevitably she couldn’t do all the sessions – and a jolly good thing it was good. It’s forced me to try a range of interpreters. Some I haven’t gotten on well with (one, I took an instant dislike to, especially when she turned up late and didn’t even apologise, and then insisted on telling me what my requirements were, and insisted in interpreting everything to me in BSL despite my request for SSE… THAT woman will never work for me again and is spoken about in those terms. THAT woman!), others I have liked a great deal, and would be happy to use them for meetings where the level of terminology wasn’t too high, but not for seminars for my MA subject. Still others, I could happily add to the rota for people to interpret for my studies. Try to use as many people as possible, so that you have options when someone isn’t available. As will inevitably happen! That said….

3) …. Try to maintain consistency within one module. This is a really important point and one I try to follow as much as I can for notetakers as well. It means that the people involved get used to the teacher, his/her methods of teaching, ways of speaking, the class, and the subject. It means that they can get used to the terminology offered, and prepare themselves as well. I definitely notice the difference, when a new interpreter comes in for a session that someone else has been doing, no matter how good the interpreter. They fumble over terms where the other one knew what the term meant already, and may even have devised a sign for it already. You – and your interpreter – will find it much much easier if you can maintain that consistency throughout.

4) Do YOUR job. That means preparation! Do your reading in prep for the seminar, so that you can help the interpreter by filling in on terms that they may be struggling to fingerspell. Bonus points – you’ll look like a model student to the tutor, cos, guess what, you are! I once had a seminar on the last day of term, a friday, before Christmas. Tutor (to me): “Ah, you are a comfort, I know with your class today I’ll have at least one student show up!” [Not so bonus point, you look like a major suckup to younger students at undergrad level. It can be difficult if you’re already struggling with the desire of your friends to want to march to the back of the lecture theatre. If they give you grief, just tell ’em you’re coughing up £9 grand for this, and you want your money’s worth. That’s harder to argue with.] If you have the kind of university/department that makes material available before the class/seminar/lecture – e.g. powerpoints, reading lists, brief summaries… make sure you GET them off Blackboard or Moodle or wherever they are, and give copies to your interpreter. They’ll thank you for them. If you don’t get copies, go to your tutor and ask for them – if they aren’t comfortable with giving them to you, because they want you to go into a class blind, ask if they can send them to your interpreter. This is a reasonable adjustment that they (tutors) should be happy to do. And if they have done this, make sure you read the material.

5) If your interpreter voices for you (i.e. interpretation is both ways, rather than just one way, as it is for me), then there’s something else you need to think about, particularly at postgraduate study. Their voice. Ask a trusted classmate how the interpreter comes across with their voicing of your statements. Is their speech good? Do they have an accent (if so, what sort of accent and how strong is it)? What impression is the interpreter giving of you? If you can, lipread the interpreter and make sure that what they’re saying is a good match for what YOU’RE saying (perhaps ask your notettaker to jot down what the interpreter said as well as everything else, so that you can check on that). A good interpreter should have little accent. They should use appropriate language to match your signs, and perhaps more importantly, professionally appropriate signs. They should be comfortable with using the terminology that is appropriate to your subject, and with expressing concepts, in academic language. There is a huge difference between saying, for example, in a medical setting (and no, I’m a humanities student!): “The patient is a 23 year old male who presents to the emergency room with foreign body and airway compromise”, and “A 23 year old man came to the emergency room because he had something caught in his throat and he had a hard time breathing” (example taken from here). If you’re using BSL to get across your ideas, that BSL may not reflect the same academic language, but if you were to write it in English, you would use academic language. It is important that your interpreter be aware of this, and translate your BSL to appropriate academic spoken English. It is also important that they – and you – are aware of the impression that they give. As your voice, they are giving people an impression of you, and fairly or unfairly, you will be judged on the impression they give. This is particularly the case with accents. Some regional accents give a particular impression (either negative or positive) and it is important you and your interpreter are both aware of this – it may lead you to choose not to use a particular interpreter for sessions that are important, such as a presentation by yourself to an important conference, or your viva.

6) One last thing I would recommend. Take charge of making bookings for the interpreters yourself. I know the temptation is high to leave it all to your disabled student support service, but honestly, this gives you much greater control over who you get. It’s also good practice – in the years to come you will have to sort it yourself anyway, so you may as well get used to it. If you leave it to student support then you may get fobbed off with someone who isn’t really capable of a full interpretation… and you deserve better. Make the connections. Find the agencies. Your student support unit may grumble, but you have the right to do this. DSA rules mean, I think, that unless the interpreter is specifically listed as a provider on your Statement of Needs, all invoices have to go through accessability anyway, but there is nothing that says that you cannot be the one to make the bookings.

and that brings me on to…

Disabled student support services

Not all disabled student support services in universities are equal! Mine is pretty good – others have much worse experiences. Whatever yours, try to establish a good working relationship with them. Be understanding. The staff in them aren’t there just to sort out the problems of people with disabilities. Some of them are academics in their own right. They may also not be terribly deaf aware – don’t assume that just because they’re a disabled student support service, that they understand the finer points of deaf issues. I was the first deaf student at mine for some time, and they asked me for help with things at various points (which I was glad to give). At the same time, understand that they are overworked and underpaid. DSA has moved from being paid by the local authorities to Student Finance England a few years ago, and this move has massively increased the bureaucracy surrounding DSA. The person I deal with the most told me that when I first started at Uni, SFE had only just taken DSA on – before this, they had a big panic at the beginning of each academic year, working hard to get everyone sorted and their assessments done, and then that was it – the rest of the year they could focus on their own academic work. In the last five years that picture has changed totally. What took one person a matter of weeks to sort out now takes 2 full time admin people, continually dealing with DSA, to keep up with the paperwork. That money has had to come from somewhere. So, try to be understanding.

At the same time, don’t let them walk all over you. You have – at present – rights to access education, and to have support to access that education. Don’t let them fob you off with something that is unsuitable for you, just because it is easier for them. If necessary, be willing to complain.


If your uni is anything like mine then you will probably find that the notetakers they suggest you use aren’t professional notetakers, but other students, earning a bit of extra money. Nothing wrong with that. Some of the best notes I’ve ever had have been from other students. But bear these points in mind….

1) Not all notetakers are equal! (oh, c’mon, you’re not really surprised by this at this point, are you?). Your university should not allow undergraduates to take notes for you, it should always be done by either a graduate, or an MA or PhD student, preferably one from your field. A couple of the notetakers I have had worked on this as a full time job. Again, nothing wrong with this. But understand this: these notetakers almost certainly will not be trained. They will have been used to taking notes for someone who is dyslexic, or has handwriting problems, or some other reason that means they can’t take notes in a lecture – but who has nothing wrong with their ears. This means that they’re not depending on the notes in the same way as you will be – as a replacement, for if you’ve missed something, or worse, if your interpreter hasn’t been able to attend for some reason. One of my interpreters I first met as a notetaker for deaf people and they commented to me “if you can notetake for deaf people, you can notetake for anyone”, which is very true. Make sure your notetakers understand the problem. Ask them to get as much down as possible. One of my notetakers at MA level actually records the class, as well as taking notes, so that they can go back and listen if there’s something that they missed – and no, this is not a regular service that all notetakers at my uni do, it’s just something that SHE does, because she appreciates the importance of the notes that she provides (bless her). On the flip side, one notetaker, in my first year at uni, made notes so brief that a one hour lecture filled all of one side (as opposed to the 6 from a more comprehensive notetaker). In addition, he spent that hour flipping from the word document to surfing on facebook and ebay. I began to wonder how much attention he was paying to the lecture, and I eventually complained about him, because he was effectively surfing on MY time. And then I requested that he didn’t work for me any more. However, he still works as a notetaker, as I’ve seen him at the uni since then – I run into him a couple times a year. He studiously ignores me.

2) You may find, particularly in the earlier years of an undergrad degree, that your notetaker is actually serving double duty. This is good for your DSA, as it means that your notetaker will only charge your DSA for a proportion of their time. Not so good for the notes. It may mean that there is a conflict of needs. In this situation I would expect the notetaker to be professional and inform the disabled student support service or yourself, so that two notetakers are provided, or the notetaker use their brains and do something like record the lecture so that they are able to produce two sets of notes to each set of requirements. However, that’s a perfect world, and we all know this world is wonderful, but it is very far from perfect. You may find that you never meet your notetaker. I did all mine, because I wanted to speak to them, but it is not unknown for people with dyslexia to never speak to their notetakers, or even know who they are – its easy to miss them in a large lecture theatre.

3) The relationship I have with the disabled student support service means that they provide the notetakers. I just tell them where and when I need them and they show up. I can, and do, request specific notetakers. This is where PhD students, or those doing it as a living, are particularly useful, as they provide reliability. PhD students, provided they can give you the comprehensive notes you need, are really good if you can get one that’s in your field. Some of the best notes I ever had (on a part of my field that I really hated and struggled with) came from a PhD student who was studying in that part of our shared fields. Her notes helped me pass the exam at the end of the year!! So if you find a notetaker whose work you like, make a note of them, and if possible, request them again.

4) Booking notetakers through the disabled student support service works for me. It may be that yours won’t do this. It may be that you don’t like the notetakers that they provide. You may prefer to use professional notetakers. Be warned: professional notetakers are more expensive than the students that the uni will provide, and this may impact on your DSA. This is particularly more important at postgrad level when the DSA is set to a limit of around £10k per year – keep an eye on it, request regular updates on your spending from Accessability and don’t go over that. But also don’t allow student support to lock you into using notetakers who don’t give you what you need on the basis of cost.

5) What I said before about preparation & interpreters – applies to notetakers as well. They, especially, appreciate things like reading lists, as it enables them to check the details on book authors and titles that are thrown out really quickly by the tutor. If you have key readings, give them copies of that – so that in a discussion, they’re aware of the background that you’re all working to. If you’ve got a powerpoint – and this is particularly the case if the tutor matches his or her talk to the powerpoint slides – make sure your notetaker has a copy, so that they can relate their notes to the slides. It makes it FAR easier for you, at the end of the year, when you come to use these notes as a revision guide for exams.

6) Interpreters and continuity? Ditto here. Try to ensure that you have the same notetaker for a series of lectures/seminars. It’ll make things easier for you and them.

7) Again, this is more for postgrads than undergrads, particularly doctoral students or those planning to go that route. If you attend a conference, or give a paper at one, then what you need from that is notes from the questions that were thrown at you after your talk, and your replies. One way of handling that is to ask a friend; the other is to ask a second interpreter (if you’re there all day you should have an interpreting team anyway), and you may want to hire/beg/borrow (not steal) a dictaphone for back up. that’s fine for an informalish post-graduate conference, but if you get to go to a really important one that you often have to pay to get into, then you may want to consider paying for a professional notetaker, particularly if it looks like your Q&A may go on for some time (the length of your paper should dictate the length of your Q&A).

Other Personnel

Obviously, you may have other needs that require other personnel to help you – I have only ever used notetakers and interpreters, so I can only comment on these two. If you would like to comment on other types of support – perhaps ones involving technology such as live captioning – please feel free to reply to this blog or to email me on deafstudent at gmail dot com. I’d love to hear from you!

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