Enabling deaf and hard of hearing students to thrive



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A Heriot-Watt Deaf and British Sign Language (BSL) project has launched a pioneering programme of scholarships for deaf students of all levels at their Scottish campuses to ensure that all deaf and signing students are able to thrive.

The goal of the project is to give bursaries of £2,000 to five deaf sign language users over five years to access undergraduate and postgraduate programmes at the Scottish campuses per year. Alongside this, a programme of scholarships for two PhD students over five years will be available to encourage talented deaf/BSL users into academia. 

The BSL academic and support team at Heriot-Watt have a prominent reputation within Scotland. Professor Jemina Napier, Director of Research at the School of Social Sciences and one of the key figures behind Heriot-Watt's pioneering approach, explains how the Deaf and BSL Project is helping to fund Heriot-Watt scholarships and the big push underway to meet the £350,000 target.

“Being a centre of expertise in British Sign Language (BSL), we're particularly committed to ensuring deaf and hard of hearing students who are (or want to be) BSL users have the same opportunities and experience with us as anyone else does.” she says.

“However, Scottish Government figures show that deaf students are significantly under-represented in higher education, with just 25% going on to university, compared with 41% of students who have no access needs. Accessibility to learning needs drastic improvement to ensure that everyone is given the same opportunity and confidence to thrive no matter if they are deaf or hard of hearing”.

When deaf PhD student Mette Lindsay was studying at universities in Denmark and England, she often felt excluded. "It was frustrating being unable to talk to other students easily and I found that having an interpreter present could be problematic and inhibit interaction,” she says. However, that changed when Mette moved to Heriot-Watt to work on her PhD.

“The work of the deaf researchers at Heriot-Watt had a real impact,” she says. “I had access to an in-house staff interpreter team and my supervisors were knowledgeable about deafness, both of which made it easier to participate. It really helped my development.”

Mette completed her PhD in 2021 but the work to promote opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing members of the Heriot-Watt community in Scotland has been accelerated through the Deaf and BSL Project, one of eight fundraising campaigns making up our 1821 Appeal. Tying in with the bicentennial, the appeal celebrates our history of widening access to education and our commitment to helping talented students worldwide access a Heriot-Watt education, whatever their background or circumstances in life. As for the Deaf and BSL Project, the main goal is to create a pioneering programme of scholarships for deaf and hard of hearing students at all levels across the Heriot-Watt campuses in Scotland.

It's an initiative close to the hearts of both Jemina, who grew up in a multigenerational deaf family with BSL as her home language, and Dr Robert Adam, who is himself deaf and is Head of the BSL section in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt.

"I grew up without sign language access to education, community services, or the media,” says Robert. “So, I'm aware of how deaf lives have been enhanced through its provision. BSL has now been recognised as one of the languages of Scotland, and the Scottish Government wants to make Scotland the best place in the world for BSL users to live, work and visit. Our new programme of support for deaf or hard of hearing signing students will play an important role in that vision."

Professor Napier says: “The campaign has already led to three firm commitments for £2,000 per annum deaf student bursaries. The money for two have been donated by the BSL interpreter services Just Sign and SignVideo and the other from an individual who prefers to remain anonymous but has connections to the deaf community. We also have an agreement from Sign Live to provide a package of almost £5,000 worth of free video interpreting calls per year for each student who receives a bursary, plus interest from other parties that we hope will lead to a PhD scholarship.”

Andrew Dewey, CEO, SignVideo said: “We believe that deaf people should have full access in everyday life in their native signed language. We feel that by supporting this bursary we are investing back into the deaf community by providing opportunities and encouraging individuals to develop skills. We want to improve the number of deaf people achieving degrees because it will in turn benefit the community as a whole.”

Donna Jewell, Director, Just Sign Ltd said: “Just Sign are delighted to support this excellent initiative which fits in perfectly with our ethos of delivering high quality innovative approaches aimed at increasing opportunity and ensuring equality of access for deaf communities”

Joel Kellhofer, CEO, SignLive added: "Moving into higher education can be daunting and our hope is that we can alleviate one of the challenges the bursary students may face. The support package SignLive are providing aims to give deaf students the same opportunities as anyone else with easy access to communication support throughout their degree programmes."

“This is all great news,” adds Jemina. “But we'd like to reach out to all colleagues to help us spread the word about the project, and perhaps identify alumni and corporate organisations who can work with us to reach the fundraising goal. As a centre of research expertise and teaching in Deaf Studies, BSL and sign language interpreting, Heriot-Watt has already made a significant contribution to a better understanding in these areas, but we'd love to empower many more deaf and hard of hearing students to study with us and fulfil their ambitions.”

In Scotland, BSL is recognised as an official language. Through Heriot-Watt's local action plan in alignment with Scotland's BSL Act 2015, we strive to ensure that Scotland is the best place to live, work, visit and study for BSL users.

If you or anyone you know (particularly Heriot-Watt alumni) are interested in having a discussion about the Deaf and BSL Project, please contact Susan Sinclair: S.Sinclair@hw.ac.uk.

Here is a link to a summary of the announcement in BSL - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLp0fa19alA


Susan Kerr