First Scots degree in sign language at Heriot Watt University

By Eleanor Bradford
BBC Scotland Health Correspondent

Media caption,
The course is Scotland's first degree qualification in British Sign Language

Heriot Watt University has launched the first degree course in Scotland in British Sign Language.

There has been a lack of trained sign language interpreters for many years in the UK.

The course organisers said students who complete the degree qualification will be in high demand when they qualify.

Prof Graham Turner from the department of languages and intercultural studies said: "Their job prospects are likely to be extremely good."

"We need a lot more sign language interpreters and we have done for a long time," he said.

"There's been a gap in the field for many years now with deaf people repeatedly informing the authorities that there were problems in access to services. That provision has not been put in place for many years."

No communication

Andrew McNeill, aged 12, experienced that first-hand when he went into hospital to have a cochlear implant.

His mother Grace explained: "When he went in to get implanted none of the staff signed. So they take his hearing aids away, then it's four weeks before they switch it on.

"For four weeks he was profoundly deaf, lying in a hospital ward. Hospitals are scary for everyone but nobody could communicate with him...and that was the ear, nose and throat ward!"

Image caption,
Grace McNeill is one of the first students to have enrolled on the course

Grace McNeill is now one of the first students to have enrolled on the Heriot Watt degree course.

She intends to combine her new skills with her existing job as a call-handler with NHS 24. It recently launched a new service for deaf people, with British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters speaking to callers via a video-link.

"Basically a patient will come on a video link and they will be treated the same as a hearing patient, " Grace said.

"The questions will be the same except only that I'll sign the conversation and then when they're put onto a clinician I'll then interpret between the BSL user and the clinician to get the appropriate outcome for their healthcare."

"BSL is a first language for most deaf users. Their English may not be that great and text-speak may be more difficult for them, and takes longer."

'Desirable commodity'

The first intake of students for the Heriot Watt course are from a range of backgrounds.

Some have some experience of sign language whilst others have come straight from school and are just interested in languages.

Prof Turner added: "Because there is a longstanding shortage of sign language interpreters in Scotland and the UK as a whole their job prospects are likely to be extremely good."

"The department trains interpreters who work in contexts like the Scottish Parliament and the United Nations.

"We're applying all of that experience to the context of British Sign Language and training to that standard. They should be a very desirable commodity in the wider world."

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