Many deafblind support staff learn ‘on the job,’ with global lack of training

Posted 11 months ago by David McManus
Japan and Australia are the only two countries to have national-level training courses prior to working with deafblind people — however, these courses are only optional electives for support staff in Australia. [Image source: Shutterstock]
Japan and Australia are the only two countries to have national-level training courses prior to working with deafblind people — however, these courses are only optional electives for support staff in Australia. [Image source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • Monash University revealed that Australia was severely lacking the proper training and education for disability support workers who assist people with deafblindness
  • The new research surveyed 324 professionals across 36 countries to understand how staff learn to support people with visual and hearing impairment
  • In 2018, the World Federation for the Deafblind released the first global report on accessibility, which states, “a professional interpreter-guide service can be the key to accessing other services and fundamental rights, such as education, employment, healthcare, culture and recreation”

Ahead of Deafblindness Awareness Week (June 26 – July 2, 2023), Monash University researchers have revealed some significant challenges and opportunities for the education and training of support staff who care for deafblind individuals. 

In collaboration with Able Australia and the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters [NAATI], researchers within the Monash Faculty of Arts have conducted a global survey on the experiences and perspectives of professionals who provide support services to deafblind individuals. 

The survey results examined the roles and educational backgrounds of interpreters, support workers, and other professionals engaged in providing support services to deafblind individuals. Examiners shed light on the challenges faced by these professionals and analysed the need for improved training and recognition in the field.

The researchers, led by Associate professor Louisa Willoughby, found that interpreters and support workers overwhelmingly reported having learnt their skills on the job and that they have a strong desire for further formal training. 

Roughly half of the support staff who were surveyed reported less than 15 hours of professional development on deafblind communication throughout their career, with employers citing availability and the cost of training as hurdles. 

Associate Professor Willoughby explained that there is an urgent need for enhanced training and standardised credentialing for professionals in the field. 

“The research findings have provided invaluable insights into the experiences of professionals supporting deafblind individuals worldwide,” she said.

“It is crucial that we recognise the importance of training and proper remuneration to maintain a skilled and committed workforce.”

Assoc Prof Willoughby attested to the value of addressing these issues, to ensure high-quality services are provided to deafblind individuals who would benefit from training programs and improved employment conditions.

Researchers found that Norway was the only country in the world where sign language interpreters are routinely trained to work with deafblind people as part of their initial interpreter education. Norway is also a country where a communication strategy called ‘haptics’ is widely used, which teaches interpreters how to convey environmental information about the specific setting to deafblind people. 

In North America, survey participants often reported using ProTactile with their clients. Advanced by its protagonists as a distinct, tactile-based language, ProTactile features sign language communication on arms, shoulders, upper legs and backs, relying on contact space and reciprocity. 

Meredith Prain, National Head of Research and Centre of Excellence at Able Australia said the report will highlight the desperate need for a national training program. 

“The introduction of a national training program to develop competencies of both communication guides and Auslan interpreters working with Australians with deafblindness is needed urgently,” said Ms Prain.

“While there is now more funding to provide communication guides and Auslan interpreting services through individuals’ NDIS plans, this report clearly demonstrates the need for adequate and appropriate training of staff providing these services to deafblind Australians.” 

NAATI CEO, Mark Painting, believes the report will be a welcomed addition to an under-researched area. 

“Monash’s report on professionals working with deafblind people is a welcome addition to a sorely under-researched area. We look forward to the impact this research will have on deafblind communication training and professional development opportunities for interpreters,” said Mr Painting.

This study was conducted as part of the Australian Research Council funded Linkage Project: Deafblind communication: Building professional competencies.