Category Archives: Schooldays

A Day for BSL

Many academics and educationalists, as well as lead organisations have much to say and much information on the topic of deaf children and their communication needs. My take is as a lay person who has been through ‘the system’, having become almost completely deaf at the age of two in 1953 from the high dosage of streptomycin given me to save my life when I contacted viral encephalitis. There’s a whole story there – one day I’ll write it all down, but not just yet.

Yesterday two momentous events highlighted the importance of communication for deaf people and made me feel I needed to write something.

The Silent Child won the Oscar for best short live film. For hearing people, the message was stark. Deny children who are born deaf (or become deaf before acquiring speech) and you deny their rights – to language and to their place in family life. For too many deaf people it illustrated the isolation they felt growing up, often leading to frustration, depression and despair. Some had flashbacks, bad dreams and experienced the surfacing of agonising memories.

On the same day deaf people were celebrating that marvellous Oscar, a debate was held on the inclusion of British Sign Language in the national curriculum, following a petition. The minister’s response was disappointingly negative and the debate was held in Westminster Hall, not the House of Commons. That reminded me of something someone said on twitter about The Silent Child – that it was ‘niche’. Pretty dismissive comment, I thought, and replied politely challenging that term.

Many efforts are (and have historically been) made to ‘fix’ deaf children so they can hear and speak. I was going to talk about my own experiences, but so many others I know have had the same or similar, it’s probably more important to say a few things in general about the effects on a child of this ‘fixing’. Imagine spending weeks, months, years being taught to lipread, to hear with aids and to say, for example, the word ‘apple’. Does that enable the deaf child to know what an apple is; where it comes from; that there are varieties; to understand the part an apple plays in the story of Snow White? Not having sign language means educational achievement is skewed from day one.

How about the psychological and social effects? Hearing people in the majority of situations begin chatting to their babies the moment they are born. There are many brilliant hearing parents who make every effort to give their deaf baby visual information as well, and some learn sign too. This gives the child every opportunity to find friends they can communicate with and to feel included by their own family.
Too many, influenced by medical professionals, by their families, by their own fear of being isolated from their child, by the mistaken conviction that speech and hearing is the holy grail, seek only audio and surgical solutions. To me it seems perverse to do this, when the brain of a baby and young child can learn so much from visual input, whether deaf or not. Baby sign classes are very popular; makaton (a sign system, not a language) can be seen on popular children’s television. Yet sign is too often discouraged for the very people who need it as their first language. Growing up, finding your own identity and place in the world is tough enough without having to struggle to lipread all the time. Whether or not you have hearing aids or cochlear implants (not a miracle solution, rather an advanced hearing aid) having other means to communicate can make life less stressful, less exhausting, and more fun too.

This isn’t an polemic anti hearing aids, implants, radio aids, induction loops, alerting devices, captions, lip reading classes or hearing dogs. Those are all here to stay, and benefit many people. It’s just a fervent wish that all these things weren’t seen as reasons not to have sign language too.

More schooldays

Thinking back to when I found myself the only deaf girl in a school of 500 hearing girls, I can feel my heart beating fast and my palms beginning to sweat – the nightmares I had for years were of  myself a bare inch high surrounded by huge black and menacing figures were undoubtedly a reaction to that sense of being small, alone and isolated in this place of strange noises that meant nothing to me, of hordes of chattering cheerful young women, of unintelligible information about subjects at first completely unfamiliar to me.

It would not be true to say these feelings were continuous and, by dint of copious reading round subjects, of straining to lipread the teachers and a hefty dose of bloody mindedness, I survived and managed to achieve some O and A Levels. In the sixth form, I found schooldays easier to cope with, largely due to the understanding of two teachers who always did what I needed to ensure did understood their lessons. I guess by then, too, I had perfected my thick skin over the pain and my classmates seemed more willing to communicate effectively with me.

Do I wish I had gone to a ‘special’ school? Emotionally and socially – yes. Educationally? Given the choice in those days of education for deaf children of having to leave home or be educated minimally with low expectations – no. My mother did not want me to go to boarding school and on balance, I am thankful, although it took me several years to discover the utter pleasure of meeting other deaf people and making lifelong friendships, as well as learning BSL and marvelling at the beauty, the economy and creativity of sign language.

Schooldays – the primary

At the age of nine, I had to move on from my much loved first school, which had given me a grounding in so much, and brave the much larger and very daunting local primary school. Here, I was considered to be automatically slow, being profoundly deaf, and initially sat at the back of the class with other children labelled ‘ESN’ with some sewing cards to keep me busy. I started taking a book with me & when the realisation dawned that I could not only read but was reading Dickens, I was promoted to sit at the front so I could lipread the teacher & leave my books at home. This teacher rarely faced the class & was prone to chucking the blackboard rubber at anyone he deemed to be not paying attention. My main memories of that school are of how some children were cruelly teased, not only by schoolmates; of assemblies which neither Jewish or Catholic children attended; of country dance classes where I, afflicted by warts on my hands, was forced to always dance with the boy with permanently sweaty palms; of rulers used on hands to punish sloppy writing; of chilly lavatories across the asphalt playground (“please miss may I go ‘cross'”); of half innocent games of kiss chase; of sheer despair and shame when asked to sing “lala” & promptly being told to never sing out loud but always mime. Every dinner time, I and my two brothers and three cousins would run down the road, over the bomb site to my maternal grandparents’ home by the seafront. Here we would sit round a vast table, with the budgerigars & canaries bred by my grandfather watching from their cages round the room, and devour vast mounds of stew, pies & puddings cooked to perfection by my grandmother. One hour later we would be back at school, having run back all the way. Looking back, we rarely just walked anywhere as children – we ran, scooted, cycled or roller skated. I was at this school for two years, then the dreaded 11plus loomed. I was expected to pass it & go to the local grammar school, where both my parents had gone. It seemed such a momentous thing to do that the disappointment when I failed felt too much to bear. All set to go to another school, with term starting in three days, my parents got a call to say that another father (with some kind of influence, I never discovered what) had persuaded the powers that be to give his daughter another chance and this had been granted to all those whose failure had been borderline, including me. I took it again. Reader, I passed it.

Schoolday stories

At my first school, which I attended age 4-9, I was one of just 40 pupils. I rarely experienced any unhappiness there, soaking up poetry, French, dictation & basic arithmetic and enjoying the company of my school friends, some of whom I still see around town. Some have stayed in my memory for various reasons to do with their appearance – lipreading means close attention to features – Sandra had the reddest hair I have ever seen; Patrick’s hair was tightly curled; Dudley (always pronounced by me as Duggerley) had melting brown eyes; Eugene (YouJane in my mind) always wore a waistcoat & bow tie and the twins, boy and girl, always wore the same clothes with skirt or trousers accordingly like Topsy & Tim. IAG the time, I wore a vast box hearing aid on one hip with equally vast battery box on the other hip in black felt bags embroidered (by whom I don’t remember) with pink pigs. I was never especially aware of being deaf until one day I forgot my hearing aid – this is the poem I wrote on examining that memory a few years ago:

Singing my favourite hymn in assembly
Happy, wordless, soundless
All things bright and beautiful
Unheard mother behind me suddenly, shockingly
Plugging the pig pink mould into reluctant ear
Trailing wire, box and batteries encumbering
Shock of cacophony of voices blurring
“There dear, you can hear now!”

All things dull and uglified…