A sign of change

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University of Edinburgh experts are identifying and breaking down barriers that deaf staff and students often face in their journey through higher education, writes Charlotte Stapley, Publications Officer in Communications and Marketing.

Please note: the use of Deaf (upper case D) in this feature includes deaf people who use BSL and prefer this method of communication, whereas the use of deaf (lower case d) refers to any person who is deaf at any level.

Edinburgh has long played a key role in Deaf education and sign language research. From the 1760s, when Thomas Braidwood opened the UK’s first school for Deaf children, to the mid 1970s when Edinburgh researcher Dr Mary Brennan’s key advances in British Sign Language (BSL) at Moray House College, now the Moray House School of Education and Sport, cemented the University as a leader in this field.

A welcoming space

More recently, when the Scottish Government published its BSL (Scotland) Act 2015, which encourages institutions across the country to develop their own BSL plans and encourages the use of BSL more widely, the University published its first BSL Plan. In 2019, a BSL Development Officer was brought in to oversee this work and Edinburgh was one of the first higher education institutions in the UK to employ someone in a role of this kind following the BSL (Scotland) Act.

Since being appointed as the University’s BSL Development Officer, Alison Hendry has worked on the implementation of the plan’s various goals and actions. She shares more: “The plan ultimately exists to make the University of Edinburgh a welcoming space for Deaf people, students, staff and visitors, and ensure that these individuals feel included within the wider University community.

Alison Hendry, BSL Development Officer

“Being a Deaf BSL user, I have been through university myself and found a lot of barriers,” she continues. “I don’t want to see other BSL users facing the same challenges. I am passionate about raising awareness so others understand the importance of access and inclusion.”

Rachel O’Neill is Senior Lecturer in Deaf Education at Moray House School of Education and Sport and a member of the BSL working group providing support to Alison. She explains why it’s important for the University, and similar institutions, to have this kind of plan in place: “BSL is very much a minority language. BSL users have faced discrimination and exclusion, in a similar way to what Gaelic and Welsh speakers in the UK once faced.”

Providing an opportunity

Although there has been a notable shift in these attitudes, there are still many instances of potential exclusion throughout the higher education process. To try to combat this, Alison created and launched a summer school for deaf and hard of hearing students.

The initiative looks to encourage young people to come and experience university first hand. Alison explains more: “The summer school aims to provide deaf students with an opportunity to participate in different sessions to understand more about university life. All sessions include BSL/English interpretation and live captioning which makes it fully accessible.”

The first summer school was delivered via Zoom in August 2021. After its success, a second summer school took place in 2022 as an in-person experience over three days.

“The on-campus event had a small group but it was still great to see the young people all taking part and asking questions,” says Alison. “Everyone who attended said that they’d not had a chance to experience anything like this and it was the first time they’d been to an event specifically targeted at deaf people.

“One of the sessions was a student panel made up of deaf adults who had been through university,” she continues. “They were sharing their pieces of advice about going to university, and one of the young people said, ‘thank you for giving us hope’.

“This shows the importance of these bespoke events especially for individuals who face obstacles in everyday life. It was important to show these young people that these barriers can be broken.”

Access to higher education

Many deaf school children don’t consider their higher education options exactly because of the barriers they may have to face. Alison is passionate about showing these students that this doesn’t have to be the case: “Deaf young people should always be reminded that they can do anything they wish.”

But what exactly do these obstacles look like? Alison elaborates: “A lot of higher education institutions are not sufficiently equipped to support deaf people in attending. This could be translation into BSL of basic information, provision of communication support, for example, BSL/English interpreters or notetakers, or understanding the needs of deaf people in terms of accessing services.

“For deaf people whose first or preferred language is BSL, this adds extra hurdles for education as they are not even able to access the curriculum through BSL.”

So how does the University’s BSL plan look to overcome these issues? Rachel explains more: “The plan shows that the whole institution has made a commitment, recognising that Deaf sign language users are very much under-represented at present. Together we can co-ordinate our actions to demonstrate improvements year on year. If we can change attitudes towards BSL in our University, there will be a ripple effect beyond.”

Embedding BSL

Alongside the internal focus of the BSL Plan, researchers at Moray House School of Education and Sport are working to address the challenges Deaf people can face throughout their education, even as early as primary school.

Experts in the School have been working on introducing BSL into their teaching programmes. Rachel has been key in building and launching a new programme; Primary Education with British Sign Language. She shares more: “This degree is aimed at people who are already fluent BSL signers, deaf and hearing. One aim of the programme is to produce graduates who can teach in primary schools anywhere in the UK. They would teach the full range of primary subjects, including BSL as a second language for hearing children.

“The other aim is to produce qualified teachers who can teach Deaf children,” she continues. “Historically because of the anti-signing attitudes in deaf education in the UK, only about 10 per cent of specialist teachers have fluency in the language. We need to make sure that the language is available for Deaf children and their mostly hearing families.”

Rachel O’Neill and Alison Hendry


Expanding signs

Another instance of increasing inclusivity with BSL is based in the Scottish Sensory Centre at Moray House School of Education and Sport. This Scottish Government-funded project provides specialist courses for teachers of Deaf and visually impaired children.

Dr Audrey Cameron is working with the centre, carrying out research on how sign language can support the teaching and learning of complex scientific concepts, and is developing resources for PGDE primary education and secondary education courses to support their teaching. Alongside Rachel she has been working to create several sign language glossaries for specialised subjects.

Since 2010, the team has built up a huge range of additional school subjects signs, most recently for computing science, cyber security, data science and environmental science, introducing more than 3,000 key terms. Rachel shares more: “We now work with a team of 34 Deaf scientists, mathematicians, computing scientists, teachers and sign linguists from all over the UK. We focus on developing BSL signs that are interlinked to aid understanding of complex scientific concepts.”

The BSL glossary is making an impact on young deaf people in the UK and the hope is that it will encourage them to explore these subjects more and feel confident enough to pursue their education in them.

Rachel O’Neill and Audrey Cameron

Positive progress

In celebration of all this work, and to mark International Day of Sign Languages on 23 September, the University of Edinburgh and Queen Margaret, Edinburgh Napier and Heriot-Watt universities formally recognised their collaborative links to further strengthen BSL and deaf studies education and research.

Senior staff from each university signed a Memorandum of Understanding and launched a collaborative identity – EdSign – at an event that took place in the National Museum of Scotland.

The formal agreement between the institutions demonstrates their forefront position to embed British Sign Language into higher education in Scotland and the UK.

Professor Kim Graham, Provost of the University of Edinburgh says: “This important agreement cements the four Edinburgh universities’ joint ambition to continue to lead the development of BSL and deaf studies. The University of Edinburgh is proud to have a comprehensive BSL plan, with an experienced BSL Development Officer working with colleagues to drive this forward at pace. We are pleased to have BSL for credit and a new undergraduate degree underway. We also have an exciting curriculum glossary project for schools and a new sign linguist to be appointed. These activities complement initiatives at our partner universities, with sharing of best practice further ensuring that together we make Scotland an attractive, welcoming and inclusive place for BSL and deaf studies students.”

Ultimately this memorandum signifies the University’s commitment to this work and Alison is optimistic about the future: “I believe that in the years to come BSL will be seamlessly integrated into everyday processes at the University. I personally would love to see a much bigger BSL community where individuals, Deaf and hearing, can come together and converse easily through BSL.”

BSL translation of this feature

This piece was originally published on the Edinburgh Impact website.

Find out more about BSL at the University.