Illawarra TAFE cuts hit deaf students

Deaf students have complained their access to essential note-takers has been scrapped as a cost-cutting measure by Illawarra TAFE.

The students rely on the aides to write down what their teachers are saying as they cannot take their eyes off their interpreters in order to act as their own scribes.

The Mercury spoke to two women who withdrew from Illawarra TAFE courses because they were told note-takers would no longer be provided.

Another woman, Cathy Perkiss, of Warilla, described how she was struggling in her professional photography diploma because she was now provided with "dot points" in place of a note-taker.

"I'm still going, but without a note-taker it's impossible," Ms Perkiss said.

"These cuts don't allow us to really participate in TAFE."

The Deaf Society of NSW's South Coast office hosted an information session on the issue yesterday, telling its members further cuts were likely with the introduction of the state government's Smart and Skilled reforms in 2015.

Donna White, of Mangerton, told the room the cuts would keep more people with hearing impairments "at home on the pension".

"Well I don't want to stay at home and vegetate," she said.

Ms White learnt she wouldn't be provided with a note-taker two days before she was to begin a diploma-level course in community services - a qualification she was certain would lead to work in the industry.

She had already spent three years at TAFE earning a certificate qualification with the help of interpreters and a note-taker.

After each class, she would take the notes to the library to read. She would also refer to them for assignments.

"A lot of hearing people say to me, 'Why do you need a note-taker - an interpreter is enough'. They don't get it. When you're a deaf person, your eyes are doing the listening," Ms White said.

"I withdrew [from the diploma course]. I must have notes."

Ms White said she wrote to her head teacher, the Illawarra Institute director, and its consultant for the disabled over the issue, but had received scant explanation for the change.

Another woman, Maria Roccon-Merritt, of Unanderra, pulled out of a literacy preparation program. She had hoped the course would lead to university studies and advances in her career, which currently involves teaching sign language to infants.

Estimates provided by the The Deaf Society of NSW's South Coast office suggest note-taking costs roughly $45 an hour and $66 for an interpreter - two of which are usually required due to the sometimes lengthy jobs, and the repetitive nature of the work, which raises occupational health and safety concerns.

Other aids, such as one-on-one tutorial support and real-time computer aids, can cost around $100 or more an hour.

Asked whether the cost pressures impacting TAFE could justify the cut-backs, Ms Roccon-Merritt replied: "There's very small numbers of deaf people. We're not spending all the money".

"Come into my world and see if there's equity in my world," she said.

"Come in and spend one day with me and have the experience of not being able to communicate, not being able to be heard, not being able to enjoy life as much as everybody else."

Kate Matairavula, manager of advocacy and community development for The Deaf Society of NSW's South Coast office, said the deaf community was bracing for TAFE to become increasingly inaccessible with the introduction of a 10 per cent loading for students with a disability. She said the loading wouldn't come close to covering the cost of aids needed by a hearing-impaired student.

The change is part of the government's incoming Smart and Skilled reforms, full details of which have not yet been released.

"Many deaf people already don't have a great start in the education system," Ms Matairavula said.

"They often go to TAFE to fill in the gaps they missed in their younger years. Sometimes it's like a second opportunity for their education - now TAFE has become another barrier for them.

"I know everything costs money.

"If we're serious about helping people to achieve their goals then this is the kind of support they need."

Ms Matairavula said The Deaf Society of NSW regional office hadn't been consulted about the changes.

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