Natàlia Corrales: “Deaf Students to Fall Through the Cracks due to Lack of Financial Support”


Natàlia Corrales is a sign language interpreter living in Barcelona. During her ten years of work, she has experienced first-hand what it is like to live in a world full of communication barriers. Many of these barriers are misunderstood or easily dismissed. For the last three years she has been working as a translator for a veterinary science student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Jordi Albacete asks Natàlia how people can help the deaf to integrate better the deaf into society, particularly in universities.


Jordi Albacete

Access to education is a universal right in many countries like Spain, however deaf people in Spain face unimaginable limits to study. Èlia is one in a million of these exceptions. The young Catalan is studying her third year of veterinary medicine at university. Natàlia, who has been her interpreter, since Èlia started her undergraduate studies, tells us about some of the communication barriers which currently exist in the Spanish educational system.

Cosmopolita Scotland: What should we bear in mind when thinking and talking about the communication barriers that deaf people face?

Natàlia Corrales: In order to understand the communication barriers that deaf people face on a daily basis, it is important to know that there are a wide range of difficulties. Causes of deafness have a fundamental effect on the academic progress of deaf people. There are two main groups of deaf people: those who have developed deafness after learning how to speak (post-lingual deafness); and those who are born deaf (prelingual deafness). If you are born deaf, you develop speaking abilities much later in life and have more difficulties in understanding and learning the spoken language.

C.S: What should we know about the different hearing aids that help the communication for deaf people?

Natàlia Corrales: Some deaf people have partial hearing capabilities and so can benefit from either hearing aids or a cochlear implant, which magnifies lost frequencies. If only a few frequencies are lost, these hearing aids can allow them to lead a completely normal life. There are other cases, in which the hearing disabilities are more severe, and using hearing aids might help them to hear a loud noise and this might be useful, but just occasionally. Those who are completely deaf stop using these devices and must rely on their other senses (often many of these deaf people further developed these other senses organically).

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C.S: What types of communication barriers are prominent in education?

Natàlia Corrales: The main communication barriers are linked to the lack of resources available for different stages of education. For example, in nursery, reception (1) and primary school levels, there is a significant absence of “deaf assistants” trained in working with deaf children. At university and secondary school there is a strong need for more interpreters, and in each of the autonomous regions in Spain all these resources are regulated differently. Paradoxically, sign language interpreters are only guaranteed for non-compulsory secondary education and university students. This in itself is a barrier for deaf students who want to reach higher education and in many cases they drop out of school long before university. Sadly, there have been solutions to this problem available for about 25 years. Specialists have created ways to help the inclusion of deaf pupils at schools, but lack of financial support has lead to many of these pupils falling through the cracks (2).

[cml_media_alt id='4555']Interpretacion en lengua de signos 8[/cml_media_alt]
Natàlia interpreting in a classroom at the Veterinary Medicine Faculty at the Autonomous University of Barcelona
C.S: Is there a big demand for sign language interpreters at universities?

Natàlia Corrales: Deaf people must overcome many barriers before reaching university. A report by Olivenza in 2014 showed that only 6.7% of Spanish people with disabilities have access to universities. According to figures produced by the Spanish Confederation of Deaf People (CNSE), 7% of these are deaf people. Sadly only 42 out of 76 Spanish universities had a sign language interpreter in 2014, according to an official guide about disabled people at university in 2014.

C.S: How can we ensure all deaf pupils get an opportunity (3) to attend university?

Natàlia Corrales: I believe we already have a solution. If we had trained deaf assistants in primary and early education to support deaf pupils, communication skills and understanding of their individual capabilities would be largely improved by having deaf role models. This would mean that, by the time they reached secondary school, they would be independent students with a sign language interpreter to aid them when needed, a professional who not only “helps” in their hearing environment, but someone who  facilitates the access to communication without barriers.

C.S: What is your opinion about inclusive programmes for deaf children? For example, in Denmark sign language is taught to all pupils.

Natàlia Corrales: This would be a utopia in countries like Spain, where many laws on education change depending on the government in power. In my opinion, not all school children need to be taught sign language. However, I do believe that young people should be acquainted with the basics of sign language as well as with issues relating to disabilities.

C.S: So, do you think it is important to have both a class assistant and sign language interpreter to help deaf pupils?

Natàlia Corrales: It is important to distinguish these two roles— the student’s assistant should be responsible for working out the root of the problem, which will furnish the child with autonomy. Ultimately, the interpreter is just a neutral agent who only takes responsibility for the information. This means that communication travels in two directions from the hearing to the deaf world and vice versa.”

[cml_media_alt id='4557']Natàlia Corrales interpreting at university.[/cml_media_alt]
Natàlia Corrales interpreting at university.
C.S: Out of curiosity (4), you interpret for a student studying for a degree in veterinary medicine. Are there signs for all the specific terms related to biology and chemistry?

Natàlia Corrales: There are not signs for all the terms, but between the student and I, we agree, discuss and label new signs. There is already a wide range of signs for medical and scientific terms, but these are not always enough. The process is simple. When a new word comes up with no sign, we analyse its meaning and etymology, and then we research a hand gesture that could represent this meaning. For example, for hepatic lipidosis, which is a condition of having an excess of fat in the liver, we decided to use the combination of two signs — liver + fat — whilst we articulate the spoken term. Once we start using the new sign and if we test it daily and it is understood, we add it to a glossary. It is our little project and we hope it will be our contribution to the normalisation of Catalan Sign Language.

C.S: How do you make sure that new signs will be accepted everywhere?

Natàlia Corrales: Spreading the word is a shared responsibility between the student and myself. The student will use it at social events to test it. Similarly, I will introduce the new signs at conferences and courses to test them. If they work and the audience understands them, I will add them to my vocabulary!

C.S: Have you ever thought that you might need expert knowledge about biology or chemistry to interpret this degree?

Natàlia Corrales: Obviously that would always be an advantage. It is important for students to have a well-qualified interpreter. In my experience, despite having worked as a sign language interpreter for seven years prior to this, I sweat blood translating such specific scientific terms in the syllabus. My job is not valued very highly and it’s badly paid due to recent financial cuts. For example, I am not paid for the time spent preparing translations for each lesson, a task that can take two hours every day. However, ethically, without doing this I could not give my student the fair support she needs.

[cml_media_alt id='4560']Èlia with one of her classmates at university.[/cml_media_alt]
Èlia with one of her classmates at university.
C.S: In a university class with only one deaf student, how do other students relate to her?

Natàlia Corrales: Generally speaking, there is a lack of knowledge about disabled people. I have seen people giving directions to guide dogs and I have even seen someone shouting at a deaf man, oblivious to (5) his disability. I feel embarrassed when I see interactions like this, which are surprisingly frequent. We live in a country with little sensitivity to disabilities.

In addition, we need to take into account that everyone has differing social abilities. I have noticed that students will not approach my deaf student when I am not around and sometimes they stop me in the corridors to ask me to pass on messages to her. I am not allowed to pass on personal messages so I must tell them to communicate directly with her themselves.

C.S: Do hearing teachers adapt well to having a deaf student in the classroom?

Natàlia Corrales: My student suffers from severe deafness and despite being very adept at (6) lip-reading she struggles to concentrate for six hours, especially if the teacher is moving around the classroom. To minimize this, I encourage teachers to speak clearly and stay at the front (7) of the class. My role consists of making her communication as accessible and easy as possible. 

[cml_media_alt id='4562']Èlia in one of the classrooms at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.[/cml_media_alt]
Èlia in one of the classrooms at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
C.S: Finally, how would you advise a student looking to communicate clearly and in an inclusive, friendly way with a deaf student?

Natàlia Corrales: I encourage them to speak face to face. Make it understood (8) if the deaf person can read lips or not. Ultimately, everybody is studying for the same degree and their interests are very similar. Gradually, after months and a big effort Èlia has managed to be part of a wider social environment.


Use of English for Spanish-speakers

(1) Reception

  • Definition: Reception, Primary 1, or FS2 (foundation second year) is the first year of primary school in the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland and Scotland). It comes after nursery and before Year One in England and Wales or Primary 2 in Northern Ireland. Pupils in Reception are usually aged between four and five.
  • Example: For example, in nursery, reception and primary school levels. “Por ejemplo, en la escolarización primaria e infantil”.
  • Translation: Primer año de primaria.
  • Comment: This stage in education varies depending on each educational system in the Spanish-speaking world.

(2) Falling through the cracks.

  • Example: “[…] financial support lead to many of these pupils falling through the system”. “[…] la falta de inversión en aplicar estas soluciones conduce al fracaso escolar de muchos jóvenes sordos“.
  • Comment: Sometimes this expression is used as “falling through the cracks of the system”.

(3) Get an opportunity.

  • Definition: To have a chance to achieve or do something.
  • Example: “How can we ensure all deaf pupils get an opportunity to attend university?”¿Cuál sería la solución para poder garantizar el acceso de las personas sordas en la universidad?”
  • Translation: tener una oportunidad.
  • Comment: When you’re talking about the person who does the action, you say “get an opportunity”. She got the opportunity to meet with a lot of famous film directors and producers.

(4) Out of curiosity.

  • Translation: ‘Out of curiosity’,Por curiosidad’.

(5) Oblivious to.

  • Definition: unaware of what is around oneself
  • Example: “[…] shouting at a deaf man, oblivious to his disability.” “[…] gritando a un hombre sordo, ajeno a su habilidad”.
  • Translation:  ajeno a.
  • Comment: Remember the preposition that follows is “to” not “of”.

(6) Adept at.

  • Definition: very skilled;proficient;expert.
  • Example: “[…] and despite being very adept at lip-reading[…]” “[…] a pesar de ser muy hábil en lectura labial”.
  • Translation: experto, versado, erudito.
  • Comment: Pay attention to the preposition that follows adpet “at”.

(7) Stay at the front.

  • Comment: Pay attention to the preposition “at” and not “in”. Indicates exact position in the classroom.

(8) Make it understood.

  • Definition: to communicate effectively.
  • Example: “Make it understood if the deaf person can read lips or not”. “Comunicar eficazmente tanto si la persona sorda puede leer los labios como no”.
  • Translation: comunicar eficazmente.
  • Comment: This is common idiom, very useful for non-native-speakers when describing challenges of communication.



Have worked in this article:

Author: Jordi Albacete (in Spanish).

Correction: Poppy Henderson, Alex Owen-Hill, Sue Cormack. 

Edition: Jordi Albacete and Amaia Garmendia.

Translation into English: Jordi Albacete.

Use of English for Spanish-speakers: Jordi Albacete.

Video: Natàlia Corrales (filming and edition) and Guillem Lisarde (last edition) .


Autor: Jordi Albacete

I am an environmental journalist. My passion for the protection of human and environmental rights has been inspired by research led journalism. My ambition is to communicate and inspire people to make positive changes in the environment. Twitter @albacetejordi or Linkedin.

Periodista medioambiental. Mi pasión por la protección de los derechos humanos y medioambientales se ha forjado a través de la investigación periodística. Mi objetivo es comunicar e inspirar a la gente para hacer cambios positivos y proteger el medioambiente. Twitter @albacetejordi o Linkedin.

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