NADP works closely with our colleagues and partners to network, share information and support our members.
This episode finds Lynn Wilson from NADP chatting with James Fitzgerald from CHESS. We find out the Consortium of Higher Education Support Services with Deaf Students (CHESS) and the support that they offer to increase choice, access and quality of provision for deaf and hard of hearing students entering and studying in Higher Education.
NADPVIC2021: Joining the dots of inclusive practice – what is the picture now?
Lynn Wilson in conversation with James Fitzgerald from CHESS
Lynn: Welcome to the ninth in our series of NADP conference podcasts. these podcasts are a series of interviews where we aim to get to know our colleagues and partners and learn about their experiences working in our sector. Today I'm talking with James Fitzgerald from CHESS. Welcome James.
James: Hello Lynn. Good to be here.
Lynn: Okay. Just to start off with, can you tell us something about you, yourself and your role within your current institution?
James: Yes, certainly. So, I presently work for Surrey County Council Local Authority. I am head of the Post-16 Service within Physical and Sensory Support. That's called ‘FHE16+’, our new name which is Further and Higher Education 16 Plus. I've been in that role for the last two years, and prior to that I was working at City Lit in London running quite a similar service, an NMH service really, but also provided services in Further Education, mostly for D/deaf students at City Lit there. So, I was there for 22 years, that actually sounds a really long time. I think I started when I was about five years old! So, I was there for a while, moved now to Surrey and our service works with D/deaf students, but also with students with vision impairment across further and higher education. So, we've got a lot of students we support in colleges and also in universities all round Surrey. So, I manage a team of about six sign language interpreters, about 20 student support workers who are qualified as specialist notetakers for D/deaf students and VI students, and a team of teachers of the deaf, teachers of VI, and specialist support professionals working with HE students. Yes, a big, vibrant team.
Lynn: It sounds great. Similar to something, I used to work with an agency called ASSIST in Staffordshire that did a similar sort of role and I find that really interesting, working through all the different levels, rather than concentrating with the university which I did later on, of course. So, we wanted to talk a bit today about CHESS, so can you tell us what the acronym stands for, and why it was set up?
James: Sure. So, CHESS is a bit of a mouthful actually, so I’ll go through the whole thing. It stands for the Consortium of Higher Education Support Services with Deaf Students. The last two letters have been missed off ‘DS’, but shortened to CHESS, c-h-e-s-s. It was set up about 25 years ago actually by Peter Llewellyn Jones who some of you might know, who was then head of Deaf Studies at Wolverhampton University. It started with a group of people from different universities around the country so Bristol, Wolverhampton, UCLan and a few others. A group of people who got together to discuss, advise each other, and look at various issues to do with supporting deaf students who are studying at universities, because it was recognised there were some very unique issues that needed to be discussed, just about D/deaf student access really, making sure D/deaf students got the support that they needed and were entitled to. So, a group of these people from these different universities got together and started off this group called CHESS which kind of mushroomed to becoming much more of a forum where other people started to join in. The group would travel around the country, and run different events, several times a year and then a forum, an email forum, was set up as well, which allowed other people to join in and have discussions, and it became very much kind of open forum where people could get information about D/deaf students’ support, hear from other people who were very experienced or skilled in this area and has kind of developed from those last 25 years to as it is today.
Lynn: So what people, and what sort of job roles form your membership?
James: Okay, so we have a CHESS planning group: six of us who deal with all the kind of… we have meetings and discussions and put various policies and advisory documents together. So, the six of us who plan all that, come from a variety of different backgrounds. Myself, as you know, I work as the Head of a Support Service. We have somebody else, Lynne Barnes, who's been there from the very beginning of CHESS in fact, as Principal Lecturer in BSL & Deaf Studies at UCLan. We have someone who's very much involved in the DSA assessment side of things, another person who's a Disability Officer in a university and, in fact someone else is the Head of Disability and Dyslexia Services in another university, and also a head of a private NMH service as well. So, we've got several of us who make up this team coming from all different areas to do with disability and mostly deaf support, which kind of gives quite a flavour really to the sort of people we're working with. That's really good because it means that we come from very different backgrounds, we have something in common, which is deaf access and deaf students in higher education, but we've all got a different kind of approach to it or a different understanding because of the different areas we're involved in. So as a team and as a planning team, it means we've got a kind of group understanding, a richness really, from the different perspectives from the different work that we're involved in.
Who can be part of the wider kind of CHESS forum? Well, it's open to anybody. We have an email discussion group, and you don't have to be an expert in deafness or deaf student support to join that forum and to be involved in the work of CHESS. And I think that's something I'd really want to get across to people. They don't have to be a deaf specialist in a university in order to join CHESS, the wider CHESS membership, and receive emails or participate in the forum discussions. It could be that you’re a disability officer, or a disability adviser in a university and you want to know more about how to make reasonable adjustments for your deaf students. It could be that you’re a DSA Needs Assessor and you want to also know about some of the issues that are going on and want to get other people's ideas on things. It could be that you're working in a slightly other field, maybe with students with autism and you realise that there are some deaf students also with autism and you want to get some information on that. So, it's very broad. It could be you’re an interpreter, a sign language interpreter. I'm also a sign language interpreter, qualified for many years. So I've got some expertise in that area too, as have some of the other CHESS planning group members. So, we're able to advise on issues to do with interpreting. Perhaps you're a notetaker for deaf students and want to discuss some of the provision about notetaking. So, its richness is in the fact that it's so broad and that there are so many factors involved in deaf student support, that actually we benefit from all the different areas of expertise that people bring to the table if you like.
Lynn: You've mentioned the forum a lot there, and I'm a member of the forum too and find it extremely interesting and useful. Do you do other activities or is it mainly the support forum?
James: Yeah, very much so. Understandably it’s been a little bit quiet over the last year and a half, with everyone working from home but, prior to that, and certainly going forward, we've had a lot of activities to do with information-sharing, disseminating training materials and advising people on deaf students support.
So, let’s give an example, up until lockdown we were running, quite regularly, some conferences. So, every year we'd put on a conference, sorry not a conference, more like a series of training sessions. One we did with Disability Officers, one was for DSA Needs Assessors, in particular giving information about the changes to the DSA regulations that have happened over the last few years. How to properly assess a deaf student for DSA; deaf awareness; how to work with an interpreter; what is specialist notetaking; what's the difference between notetaking manually or notetaking electronically? So, there's been quite a lot of those over the years.
We've also, as you are probably aware Lynn, we have been present for quite a few of the NADP conferences, the annual conferences, and run a few of the workshops there. Those were the days, where we could get together in a nice hotel and have a good party in the evening. Yeah, they were really valuable times actually because what we would get at those conferences and those workshops is quite a mixture of people coming along. People who were very new to having a deaf student in a university, and don’t really know what the difference was between a communication support worker and an interpreter, for example, or how to manage DSA when the DSA runs out, or that sort of thing. So, we were able to put on these workshops and they were really well attended, and there were always a lot of questions at the end.
So, it's really because of the kind of group experience we have, all of us as planning group members of CHESS, to be able to share that information and that knowledge of deaf student support has been really valuable, and I think it's certainly a resource that we feel we really want to be able to offer on a national level, because it's very difficult to find the right information.
Sometimes when you're new to disability support and particularly if you've got a deaf student perhaps your whole career has been looking at various other aspects of disability and you haven't really understood what a deaf student needs, to actually get the right information can be quite overwhelming. There's a lot out there, and sometimes disability advisers just need to ask the right questions to the right people and get some better understanding of what it all is. What does an interpreter do, and how is that different? Why is it so difficult to get an interpreter? What are the DSA statements, what do they mean? And why can one service provide an interpreter, but another can’t? What’s a freelance interpreter, for example and how does that work? Can I book one of those?
So, there's so many questions people have, and if they've got nowhere really to ask them, then they're going to kind of struggle on, and meanwhile a deaf student is missing their support, or they haven't been properly assessed, or they're not getting what they need to get proper access to their degree programme. So, yeah, that's hopefully some of the things that we can provide.
Lynn: Yeah, I think it's really great. I know I've worked at a couple of really small universities, and I know that a lot of our members are at smaller universities, and they might not see or work with a deaf student for several years. So, the expertise can be lost out of the sector unless you have groups like yours that actually keep that expertise in circulation and can be shared back with the universities that need it at the time.
One of the things that we've been hearing a lot about in our roles as disability practitioners is ‘inclusivity’. It's something we've really welcomed at NADP in the fact that we do need inclusive organisations and we need to include the majority of people. However, it's not always been appropriate for some of our students with higher needs. We can make most things inclusive, but they need extra add-ons for some of the more complex needs. What does inclusivity mean to you when you're working with deaf students?
James: When working with deaf students, it's this ‘no one size fits all’ kind of mentality that we really have to foster, that every deaf student we meet is an individual and the assessment of their needs is an individual one. They're not just a deaf student, they are deaf student who has individual requirements, and to be truly inclusive is to respect them as a person, and to look at what they need and what the university needs to do to make them welcome and to improve the whole experience of their education.
So, it's not just about making sure things are subtitled; it's not just about getting in a notetaker, or getting in an interpreter and that can easily be the attitude that “we've done inclusivity because we've provided a deaf student with an interpreter”. It's got to go so much further than that. University life and education is not about just sitting in a lecture and getting the information from the lecturer. It's about formation. It's about life experience and a student gets that life experience from properly integrating with their peers. It’s getting the information not just from the lecturers, but from all around them. It’s being able to participate in student life. It’s getting access to wellbeing services, all that sort of thing. It doesn't end when the lecture ends.
So, that's a real challenge to get across to all providers of education, that it's not just about what happens in the classroom. Unfortunately, of course, with the DSA, the DSA provides support for a classroom session, it provides from 10 till 12 on the timetable for that lecture that the interpreter is paid for. After that time the interpreter then leaves, but of course the student is still there at the university and needs access to the library and needs access to the wellbeing services.
I mentioned being able to chat with peers, chat to the lecturer afterwards, all the student life that goes on, I look back at my own student experience well, only a small part of it was going to lectures. Actually, what I learned about life was quite a lot about what happened outside of lectures, too and we need to think that this student has a right to their student life and their whole education, which is not just what happens in the classroom. So, to be truly inclusive as disability practitioners, is that we need to think of the whole student experience and we need to adapt, so that the student isn't just getting a support worker for a session but is able to enjoy university life and all that that has to offer in different levels and in different contexts too.
Lynn: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I used to work closely… I supported deaf students initially, and worked closely with interpreters and lipspeakers as well and you're right, the DSA, pays for the interpreter or the notetaker or the lipspeaker to be there for the lecture and then they’re meant to go off and leave the student on their own. The rest of the group are going to a coffee shop to sit down, discuss things and talk about the group work they're doing the next day. And so often, interpreters and notetakers were actually going on and doing an extra half hour of work here, there and everywhere, that they weren't getting paid for, in order to make sure that the student was actually prepared for the next day. And I think it needs sorting, I really do, I think it's not on that people are doing unpaid work because the structure hasn't been set up properly.
James: And that starts from the moment the student walks through the doors of the university. When they're meeting the reception staff. Are the reception staff deaf aware? Now, you could go into all sorts of disability awareness here, but I suppose my area of expertise is working with deaf students, but are the reception staff deaf aware? Do they know to look at the deaf student and greet them with an open face and open gestures? Are they able to use clear communication? Are recorded resources (that are used in the library to show students where to go etc) are they subtitled? Do they have in-vision interpreters when they're being created, those media resources? Are the library staff deaf aware? Do they know about a deaf student’s need for clear communication? etc. etc. etc.
So, it's got to happen across the board. Maybe improve student life within Student Union activities. There are deaf role models who are able to come along and talk about an aspect of their life, maybe for big events. Whether, automatically, the university provides an interpreter or things are captioned etc. etc. So that it doesn't always have to be the deaf student having to ask constantly, “Could I have subtitles on this?”, “Would it be possible to book an interpreter?”, “oh, and who pays for that?” Do I have to go with my begging bowl to the university to say “could you get an interpreter for this talk or the student union talks?” It has to be within the culture of the organisation.
Something that I learned a lot from City Lit, where I worked before, was that we changed the feel of our college (City Lit is an adult education college) so that deaf people felt welcomed to come to the college, and that things were put in sign language around the building; training materials were accessible; announcements about fire safety were on the little screens and had an interpreter in the corner because deaf students were using that building. So, it would be so good for universities, any education providers, to think truly about inclusivity, by not just thinking, ‘I'll rely on the DSA to sort out their interpreter provision’ but, ‘how do I change the culture of my place so that it's not just an accessible place, but it's a welcoming place?’, and that's quite different.
Lynn: Yeah, I worked for two universities in a row, where they always just booked interpreters for every on site induction day, the show round day where people are interested in going to the university, and it was great. Then I went to a different university. That didn't happen and I thought, ‘oh, perhaps things haven't changed as much as I thought. I just thought it was beginning to be normal practice.
I do like the fact that with both hearing impaired and autistic students that quite often in Freshers Fair now, they have a quiet evening or a quiet session where there's not very loud music in the background, and people can go and chat to the stallholders and see everything that's going on without that very, very noisy background. That seems to have benefited a lot of students, I think.
The other term we're hearing a lot about intersectionality. It's certainly helping us at NADP increase understanding that we can't have a one size fits all for students. Not all Deaf students are the same. Absolutely. So, how do you think it comes into play when you're working with Deaf students.
James: Yeah, so this is a challenge isn't it? As we said before, no deaf student is the same. and it would be too easy just to see a deaf student as the only thing that we need to consider is their deafness. And when they go along to a needs assessment for their DSAs really that's the thing that's most obvious. So that's the thing that's focused on and everything else can be missed. But, of course, they might be a deaf student that comes with lots of other things that need to be considered, they might have autism, they might have dyslexia. And because they're using sign language when they're at their interview or their assessment. It will be easy just to focus on everything comes across. Everything is presented as because of their deafness. So, of course, their autism is missed, their dyslexia is missed, and they don't really get that specialist support that they need because the only thing that can be seen is their deafness and I imagine that happens in a lot of disabilities - we focus on one, and we forget about the others.
So, it is a real challenge there because at the same time you don't want someone assessing a student with just a very broad, but watered down, understanding of disability. I'm thinking principally here about deaf students. When a deaf student comes to a needs assessment. They need to have a specialist who really understands what deafness is all about, and not just have deafness as one of the areas on their transcript of subjects that they know about. I'm talking about the needs assessor here. It will be easy just to brush over… have a broad sweep of understanding of disability and, and not have a real specialism in any of them.
So here, I would think that someone with a specialist understanding of deafness would need to work more closely with someone with a specialist understanding of autism when assessing or working with a student who presents with both. We've seen an awful lot of situations where a deaf student hasn't been properly assessed, because the assessor doesn't have enough knowledge of deafness. Or professional NMH support for Deaf students don't really understand the difference between British Sign Language and English, and what that means. Or don't really understand that a deaf student wearing a cochlear implant might present very differently in a one to one situation to when they're in a group setting, and might not need an interpreter one to one, but might very much rely on an interpreter in a group setting. So, it's balancing a specialist understanding of one area, ie their deafness and making sure that the other areas are not too missed, but are equally accommodated. So, I think, here is a challenge. It's collaboration, isn't it really? It's collaboration with people who have different areas of expertise, and making sure that they're working together, so that that student gets what they what they require.
Lynn: Okay great. So, coming back to you a bit here. What's the biggest challenge you have with your specific role at the moment? And do you have any ideas on how you're going to overcome it?
James: I think, is this is specifically about me? My specific role so I’ll try not to be too general. Do you know what? This last year has been a real challenge. I'm running a support service for Deaf students where things have changed so quickly because of COVID and lockdown. A year and a half ago in the March, with the first lockdown, we were coming to the end almost of the student year, if you like, for higher education. The students started to drop off, finishing their courses and some of them packed up early. So, it wasn't so much of an issue. Then September hits, and October, November and another lockdown happens, and suddenly, everything goes online fully, and some of the universities really, really struggled with knowing what to do with their Deaf students, because you can't just put things on Teams, on Zoom, without considering how a Deaf student might be engaging with it.
So for us, as a support service, We had to really adapt ever so quickly, because we suddenly needed access to all the same lectures. They needed access to Zoom, Teams, Activate Learning, Google Meet, blah blah blah. All those many different platforms, and needed different codes and different passwords, and it was a real headache because we had to adapt so quickly and I'm sure lots of other support services also struggled at this time.
I think right now, our tricky thing is not knowing what this next year is going to be like. We're hoping, and all the world is crossing their fingers, that things will start to go back to more on site, learning, as they were, but I don't think any of us think 100% that that will be the case. There'll be a mixture of on site, blended learning, and blended delivery of lectures, etc. So that is a challenge for us, because it could be one day, a student is expected to turn up on site and the next day they're expected to access their lecture from home, and they will suddenly at the last minute be given a Zoom code that we have to be quick to respond to.
Now, okay, there's the whole, making sure that the student gets the communication for these sudden changes of delivery, right? Which is a challenge. You know you're providing interpreters online. And you're also providing perhaps specialist note takers to suddenly be in the Zoom conversation to be in a Zoom call. So that's tricky, but there's also keeping the student engaged and not feeling isolated or overwhelmed.
We all know that, when you're leaving home or leaving school at the age of 18, the one thing you need is some stability. You don't want things to be too overwhelming. That first year of student life is difficult enough in having to settle down to a whole new way of working. A new way of living. But bring with that a whole kind of uncertainty of ‘How on earth am I going to get all my lectures?’ ‘Is it safe to go into onto campus?’ ‘Am I going to be going to my university accommodation that I've paid a lot of money for and then being locked down in my room on my own as a Deaf student for the next few months, accessing things on a little screen?’ You know, this is really major stuff for someone who's Deaf to be shut away in a little room on their own with just a laptop.
So, the biggest challenge I have in my role as manager of our service is to be adaptive, really quickly to sudden changes because things can't be predicted so easily, and also making sure that our students, that we're supporting, are not just getting a good level of support, but actually we're there on hand to sometimes advocate for them a little bit where they can't. Whether they're lost, they're stuck. So, we're not actually just providing the one-hour lecture, but we're going that extra mile for them, and making sure they're okay. Checking on their wellbeing, because I think what this time has shown us all, is not just about access to education. Where people have suffered is access to life and really good wellbeing for them. And so, that is a real challenge for us right now. I could go on to loads of others but I'll keep it to that.
Lynn: You gave me a lovely memory. I was working with a visually impaired student and he stopped one day as we were going across campus and he said, the one thing I really, really appreciate about you is that you actually give a damn, it’s not just another job for you, you actually care, and you want to make sure I'm supported, and then we carried on walking across campus and it was never mentioned again but it was a lovely compliment to have, and I think it comes across strongly from your service, It's the same thing. It's a case of, it's not just a job, it's making sure that the students are okay.
James: Yeah, I think, I think that's one of the benefits of where I'm working now at Surrey County Council that, whereas before, I was very much focused on just the student in, HE settings. The benefit of where I am right now is physical and sensory support work with the whole journey of the students. So, from their school all the way through to further education into higher education. So, sometimes we get to know that student throughout their whole educational life, if they haven't moved out of county, but still, we've got an understanding that that the adult, this new adult that you're presented with at the age of 18-19, at university, actually has a whole background of varying support or varying kind of provision through the school systems, etc, and knowing a bit about that and being aware of what they've done and what they've gone through, what settings they've come from actually really helps your understanding of them as a young adult.
Lynn: So where can our listeners go to find out more about CHESS? Do you have a website or a feed of any sort?
James: Yes we do. Yes. The best thing is to go on Google and type in ‘CHESS’. ‘CHESS Deaf students’, is probably the quickest, easiest way. And what will come up, if you haven't been referred off to the international Chess foundation for Deaf people which actually I did end up on once! That will take you to the UCLAN, the University of Central Lancashire, website page that's where our CHESS website is hosted at the moment. So, there's information on there. There's information about the six of us planning group members, and you'll be able to join the CHESS forums, etc, etc.
There's also… We mention on that website a number of documents and advisory things that we've produced when DSA QAG was around a few couple years ago, maybe those days. We produced quite a lot of information there to help you through audits, but also information crib sheets for needs assessors etc. etc. And there's an email address. You just need to send off to and Lynne, one of our planning group members - founder member of CHESS, will be able to send people all the documents they need.
But yes, you can set up with JISCMail to be part of the CHESS forum as well the discussion forum so that you get emails when anybody from the wider CHESS group puts a question or answer something you'd be able to have access to that
Lynn: So, coming back to you again. What is it something about you that most people familiar with your work wouldn't know?
James: Well that's a tricky question because I'm quite an open book. But I suppose one of the things they might not know is that I have a real love for languages I speak French, and a little Italian. I'm learning American Sign Language, and I've learned a little bit of Italian Sign Language, and obviously I'm fluent in BSL. I've done little bits of courses in, like, Russian and Polish but only very, very, very small bits but I love languages and part of my love, interpreting as a BSL interpreter, gave me the opportunity to once interpret for the Pope, Pope Francis.
So, a few years ago, I was invited to join an interpreting team for a big conference on disability that the Pope was addressing, and he asked if the sign language interpreters would interpret his speech to those who are Deaf, who were present, but it wasn't going to be interpreted into English - spoken English. So, it was only for those who could understand enough Italian. So I really had to put my Italian to the test here. But it was a wonderful opportunity because it meant I could interpret from Italian into BSL, and it meant that, at that conference, it was the Deaf people who had the advantage over the hearing people. So, it was an unusual situation, but I suppose that something people might not know about me, my love of languages.
Lynn: I enjoyed that one. My daughter is Deaf, and she swam for the Deaflympics in Rome. That was fabulous, but the first language, of the whole meet was Italian Sign Language, the second language was Italian, and the third language was English. So, I was having to wait through everything before it got to the English for me to understand, whereas all the Deaf people there, were picking up the sign language to the beginning. So, we both have similar Italian experiences!
Great. Okay, thank you very much, that's been really interesting, this morning, and I really hope that our members and other listeners to this can actually now appreciate what CHESS do and join you to give themselves a helping hand in their daily lives. Thank you.
James: Great, thank you, Lynn, and thank you for inviting me.