Lending ears to NTU’s deaf students

By Gracia Lee




IT TAKES 20 gestures to fingerspell “sodium hypochlorite”.

And it is just one of the many scientific terms, definitions and explanations that Jessica Lim gestures steadily throughout the Scientific Communications tutorial to her deaf classmate, who wants to be known only as Dave.

Lim, 20, a second-year School of Biological Sciences student, is the chairperson and one of 10 main committee members in the Regular Service Project for the Deaf Community (RSPDC) under NTU’s Welfare Services Club.

Supervised by the Student Affairs Office’s Accessible Education Unit (AEU), the RSPDC has been organising a note-taking service for deaf students since last year.

Their 60 student note-takers write notes, transcribe and – if they can – interpret lectures and tutorials in sign language to help their deaf classmates keep up in class.

Note-takers are paid $18 an hour from the Special Education Needs Fund, which is managed the AEU.

The note-taking service is not restricted to just deaf students. Students with other special needs, like those with vision loss or dyslexia, can also apply for this service through the AEU if they face challenges taking their own notes.

Sign language

Dave said he used to do poorly on tests because he was unable to fully understand the lecture content from the slides provided.

He tried borrowing his classmates’ notes, but found them not comprehensive enough.

Dave was also unable to ask friends or teachers questions to clarify his doubts, as they did not know sign language.

“It was troublesome,” Dave said. “When I wanted to ask questions, I had to write them out, and I can’t express myself well with words.”

But with Lim present, Dave now understands lectures better and can ask questions via her translations. His grades have also improved.

“I really appreciate how she is willing to spend more time explaining concepts to me in sign language even though she doesn’t have to,” Dave said. “She even matched her timetable to mine.”

“If not for her help, I would probably give up on university.”

Comprehensive service

The RSPDC served only one student when it first began in September 2015, but the number of students using the service has since increased to nine.

Most are from the engineering and science faculties as their lectures have more technical content, Lim said.

Though not many student transcribers know sign language like Lim does, all of them do live transcribing of unrecorded lectures and tutorials, and write lecture notes.

To avoid overtaxing the volunteers, each of them is assigned a maximum of one module to transcribe. But if the organising team is unable to find any transcribers for a module, they will have to take up the role, even if they do not take the module in question.

Former RSPDC chairperson and third-year School of Computer Science and Engineering student Ong Chao Jian had to transcribe lectures for two modules he was not enrolled in last semester, on top of his own nine.

This meant spending an extra 10 hours a week watching and summarising recorded lectures, and attending tutorials with the two deaf students he was transcribing for.

Ong said it was tough to juggle the workload but was motivated by compassion for his peers.

“Imagine if you can’t figure out what the lecturer is saying during lessons – how insecure and unprepared will you feel for tests?” said the 23-year-old, who is also majoring in business. “I’m just trying to help them as much as I can.”

Other transcribers the Nanyang Chronicle spoke to added that transcribing and making notes help them prepare for their own exams.

Final-year School of Physical and Mathematical Science (SPMS) student Felicia Goh, 23, said that she watches lectures online twice in order to make her notes clear for the deaf classmate she helps.

This also allows her to pick up on content that she previously missed out in class.

“I see it as part of my own studying, and a form of constant revision,” she added.

Manpower shortage

While it is fulfilling, sustaining the service is difficult.

The RSPDC struggles to recruit new transcribers each semester. Only a few students are aware of the project, said Lim.

She added that the organising team plans to publicise the RSPDC’s services through other student clubs in the coming semester to recruit more transcribers.

But whether or not the RSPDC manages to recruit more transcribers, it plans to take in every deaf student who requests its services in the coming semester, Lim said.

Despite the additional effort they may have to put in, RSPDC’s transcribers feel it is important to support their deaf peers.

“Small things like this go a long way,” Lim said. “It gives the deaf students confidence that there are people rooting for them, and the comfort of knowing that they’re not alone.”

Students interested in volunteering can find more information about the RSPDC and its activities at the club’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ntuwscrspdc.