Back in March, Maddie began to struggle with her university studies. Following the UK lockdown, the University of Manchester shifted to online learning. Instead of attending lectures or interacting with her coursemates in seminar groups, Maddie took part in video calls.
This was difficult because Maddie, a biology undergraduate, is hard of hearing.
“The sound quality was awful,” she says. “Lectures were muffled and the subtitles and transcripts which aimed to rectify this were incorrect. It was confusing, especially since I’m studying a jargon-heavy STEM degree.”
That was seven months ago, when remote learning due to a new and deadly virus was unprecedented. Since then, Dominic Cummings has been to Durham and back and swathes of the country are entering a second lockdown. Critics say that universities have had more than enough time to make online learning accessible for everyone, especially those who are deaf and hard of hearing.
“At first, it was forgivable,” says Maddie, who has severe hearing loss in both ears. “We had all been thrown into something so suddenly that the university didn’t have time to prepare. But it’s upsetting that concerns for disabled students weren’t included in discussions over the summer when the university began preparing for online learning.”
Deaf and hard of hearing students disproportionately struggle to access adequate support at university. According to the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS), nearly half of deaf students who needed help in 2019 were still waiting for it by the time their degree began, a quarter of whom experienced delays of at least six months. It’s no surprise, then, that many now feel let down by their institutions, who have failed to acknowledge the needs of deaf students when shifting to online learning.
When Lucy*, a second-year student at the University of Edinburgh, informed her only in-person lecturer that she requires them to wear a small, portable microphone, she was told that “due to her learning requirements”, she should attend an online tutorial instead.
But online learning is rarely a better option for deaf and hard of hearing students. Transcripts either haven’t been available, or are completely inaccurate during the pandemic. “The captions on videos are so useless it’s almost laughable,” Lucy says. “It’s been a disaster, it felt like the university was like, ‘We are dealing with COVID and that’s enough!’”
The University of Edinburgh told VICE News: “There should be no instance where a lecturer or tutor is not able to wear a radio aid microphone in a face-to-face class. All teaching staff are required to ensure that microphones are worn and used. Students who feel that adjustments are not being implemented, are strongly encouraged to make contact with the student disability service, so that service staff can liaise directly with the relevant school’s disability contact, whose role is to ensure that disability adjustments are put in place.”
Eleanor, a final-year student at the University of Warwick, recognises Lucy’s struggle. “When people ask me how online learning is going, the simplest way to put it is just that it isn’t,” she says. Mandatory mask-wearing in face-to-face lectures and not being able to see classmates over video calls means that Eleanor can’t use her main form of communication: lipreading. “When I approached my uni to ask for their help, my situation was deemed ‘an unsolvable problem’ by staff, which says it all.”
Eleanor has also struggled to understand auto-generated transcripts, which she says are only “around 60 percent” accurate at best. Not only is the Microsoft Teams transcription service unable to deal with complex vocabulary, but the transcripts only exist in English. So, for students like Eleanor who are studying a foreign language, understanding lectures is nigh on impossible.
A spokesperson for the University of Warwick told VICE News: “The most important thing here is that we find assistance for the student who you say has raised these concerns. We would urge her to directly contact our disability team who are there to offer advice and support to students with a range of disabilities. They will help her with her concerns if she gets in contact, but obviously it is hard to respond and help if she does not raise this issue with them.”
For Maddie, inaccurate transcripts and captions have been the biggest problem with online learning. “In a subject like biology, when a lot of proteins have very similar-sounding names, but do very different things, this gets really confusing very quickly,” she says. “Suddenly, I find myself talking about something totally different to what the lecturer is actually saying.”
After posting about her issues on a Facebook group for Manchester students, Maddie quickly realised she wasn’t the only one feeling let down by her university. The post received over 1,400 likes and 100 comments, and led to the development of a student-led task force focusing on combating all types of ableism at the University of Manchester.
Their first demand is that the university adapts students’ personal support plans for online learning. Currently, Maddie says, it is the student’s responsibility to adapt these support plans. “This just feels very unfair,” she says.
A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “As a university, we are fully committed to providing support for all our disabled students. Our Disability Advisory and Support Service ensures they receive tailored assistance for their individual requirements.”
They continued: “All our centrally timetabled lectures are recorded so that students can access this teaching when unable to attend campus. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the university has improved this offer, and all videos which are uploaded to the university’s video portal include subtitling and downloadable transcripts which can be used by all students. There is clear guidance for academic staff on how to provide accessible teaching materials for disabled students.”
According to NDCS, in 2019, 45 percent of deaf 19-year olds had achieved two A-levels or equivalent qualifications, compared to 62 percent of hearing students – likely due to a lack of accessibility in the classroom. That, coupled with the unprecedented approach to teaching following the coronavirus pandemic, puts deaf and hard of hearing students at disproportionate risk of failure.
Martin McLean, policy lead for higher education at NDCS says: “There are more than 5,000 deaf students in higher education across the UK who will face significant challenges as a result of this move [to online learning], which universities will need to address.”
“Steps like subtitling lectures, providing communication support in seminars and working closely with a student’s support staff can make a big difference,” he continues. “Deaf students themselves will know how best they can be supported so universities should meet with them quickly and frequently to discuss their needs.”
While many universities are keen to work alongside deaf and hard of hearing students to offer support, it is often the students who are left to adapt inaccessible methods of teaching. When Maddie met with a disability advisor at her university to discuss a solution, she was pleased when they offered an alternative to Zoom: Teams, which transcribes calls automatically, albeit inaccurately.
“But,” she says, “you’ve also asked me to totally distract my lecturer’s plan, contact every student in my group and ask them to switch to Teams, which is just really unfair. Straight away, the thought should have been that Microsoft Teams is more accessible to the majority of students. It shouldn’t be on us to inform our lecturers and get them to change their plan.”
Lucy feels that universities are “willingly ignoring the problem” faced by deaf students on a daily basis. But, says McLean, points out: “Deaf students pay the same fees and have the same right to an education as everyone else, so universities have a responsibility to deliver for every single one of them.”
*Names have been changed.