Five random reflections on deaf life at primary school

I spent most of last week musing on life at primary school. I do love a good amble down memory lane but I had another reason; I had volunteered to give a presentation to parents of deaf children at a National Deaf Children’s Society family weekend. These are weekends for parents to learn more about various issues facing deaf children and to meet other families with the same kind of experiences.

I was mainstream all the way through the system. I loved primary school; I got my education. It’s fair to say I was probably a bit of a swot. I loved getting gold stars and certificates. My best friend now and back then in primary school is the one and same very person and he doesn’t even wonky ears like me. But primary school did come with its challenges and listening to other deaf adults, I get the impression that I wasn’t alone in these kind of experiences.

So without further ado, I present my top five random reflections of times gone by at primary school:

1) Teachers never remembered to turn the microphone on. Every morning I left my microphone on my teacher’s desk. And nearly every morning I would then have to put my hand up as the lesson started to prompt my teacher. Luckily, I was a cocky confident little boy who was happy to do so. And it didn’t stop there; teachers invariably forgot to turn the microphone off. The range on these microphones back then was quite something. I heard all sorts of staff room conversations that I shouldn’t have been listening to. I felt like James Bond Junior sometimes.

2) The Teacher of the Deaf came to visit weekly to check everything was alright. She was great. But she seemed to have an impeccable knack for coming exactly when lessons were getting most interesting. I would always have to sheepishly leave the classroom at inopportune times and then return to loads of questions from my friends as to where I’d been bunking off to.

3) My speech had a bit of work. A lot of work. I didn’t always enjoy it though I think I knew then it was done with good intentions and “for my own good”. But there were times I felt completely demoralised realising again and again that I wasn’t saying something right. And it’s left a legacy of me hating to do any public speaking,  finding myself worrying more about how I’m saying something, rather than what I’m saying and often ending up having a verbal car crash with my words.

4) Break times were sometimes tough. It could be a struggle to work out what my friends were up to. Being spontaneous was a challenge. As a result, I often ended up trying to ‘arrange’ and ‘control’ the fun myself by putting myself in charge. That way I could know what was going on. Unfortunately, it didn’t endear me to my friends and I ended up getting a reputation for being bossy and bolshy.

5) Finally, teachers invariably made assumptions about what I already knew, based on what everyone else already knew. And, invariably, they were mistaken. The classic example on my part is the Lord’s Prayer. I was at a Church of England school so every morning we all had to recite the Lord’s Prayer. For six years I didn’t have a clue what the words were. In fact, it wasn’t until Cliff Richard did that millennium prayer song, that I finally picked it up. Of course, everyone else picked it up just by listening to everyone else. I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know. The moral of the story is that gaps in incidental learning means there is loads that deaf children don’t quite pick up. And it turns out apparently that our Farther arts in Heaven, rather than Devon. Who knew?

It’s difficult to be angry or sad about any of the above. Had I not worked through any of the above challenges, I wouldn’t be where I am today. But part of me hope that things are better now, that deaf children are thriving rather than coping.  And that teachers are reading the guidance produced by (shameless plug alert) the National Deaf Children’s Society. I suspect though that there is more work to raise awareness among teachers of the little idiosyncrasies around supporting deaf children in school.

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Deaf Awareness Week – tip number one

Don’t pull down the bunting just yet – it’s Deaf Awareness Week!

In the interests of spreading some of that magic “awareness”, I’m going to be blogging this week my top 5 deaf awareness tips. The National Deaf Children’s Society have a definite list in their communication tips flyer but these are my own tips, most important to me, which I’ve picked up in my little life as a deaf child, young person and pretend-grown up. I’ll blog one tip each day – here’s my first.

1. Don’t patronise me.

As a child, one of the things that used to really rile me was people assuming that because I was deaf, I was dumb and stupid. That I was going to be a poor little mute thing, not going to do very much. So many times, I would detect a faint look of surprise when people saw that I – a deaf child – could use the medium of my lips to create speech. This would then turn into a look of astonishment when I not only spoke, but could construct a WHOLE sentence. Some people virtually passed out on the floor when they found out I went to a posh university. Anyhow, the end result of all this was that I was an insufferable show-off as a child, determined to demonstrate that just because I was deaf, I was not stupid.

I hope things are better now. But I still detect sometimes a prejudice that deaf children are never going to achieve as well as other children, and that the National Deaf Children’s Society is wasting it’s time in campaigning to close the attainment gap. And I worry that some deaf children pick up these subtle messages, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think this is not only wrong, but offensive and dangerous.

So my first and, most important, deaf awareness tip of the week is never to underestimate or patronise deaf children when you’re communicating with deaf children and grown ups. Our ears may be wonky but our brains work just fine, thank you very much.

Back tomorrow with my own second deaf awareness tip. Do let me know below what you think of my first or if you want to share your own important deaf awareness tips.

Campaigning for deaf children at the Conservative party conference: day 2

The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) has been busy playing political bingo today on our last day at the Conservative party conference, trying to track down our top targets. And I don’t think we’re doing too badly. The team has now spoken to the entire Conservative front bench team on education and two of the top targets on health, as well as a few other key MPs. Very happy indeed.

It’s not been easy though finding them all though. But our young ambassador, Megan (who has her own blog), has come up with a bright suggestion to make it easier to spot out top targets in the future. Basically, all MPs should be required to wear hats. The more important the MP, the bigger the hat they should have to wear. And the Prime Minister should have a hat that can be seen from miles away. Simple.

Megan meets Chris Skidmore MP

Megan has been a powerhouse and has done an amazing job in explaining to MPs the challenges the deaf young people face. It’s also been good for MPs to meet someone who has a mild/moderate hearing loss. I think sometimes there is a perception that children with mild/moderate deafness have lesser needs than those with severe/profound deafness. I think there’s also a tendency to equate deafness = sign language users. Megan has done a great job of showing that a) deaf young people with a mild/moderate hearing loss are still “deaf ” and still need help and b) if this is help is given, deaf young people can do absolutely anything.

But enough of me, what did Megan think of today? Here’s her report from the day.

How have the meetings gone today? How did you feel when speaking to the MPs?
The meetings were interesting, and although some were more serious, others had a light-hearted air about them. I quite enjoy speaking to MPs; I would liken it to dialogue with any other person – except, perhaps, that there is more emphasis on conveying a particular idea – and I did not feel any particular unease throughout.

What did you speak to the MPs about?
I discussed my own experiences with the education system, primarily focusing on special educational needs and Teachers of the Deaf.

And what did the MPs say to you? Did they seem interested to learn about your experiences? Ask any questions?
The MPs had a variety of responses, ranging from “mhmm, yes, yes” accompanied by a series of nods, to actively discussing issues they were aware of in their own constituencies. One MP even used me as an example in one of his fringe meetings!

What else have you been up to today?
I attended some nice fringe meetings, one of which was about the coalition government and another on education. I also was stood, coincidently, in the path of the Camerons, so I was asked to stand to the side and had a brilliant view of them as they walked by.

You said yesterday conference was a bit like a school playground? Have your views changed? Do you have any views on how the conference could be different?
I believe the conference is still very much like a school playground; everyone speaking to each other before moving onto the next person and people networking left right and centre. I believe the conference, despite being somewhat hectic, is quite efficient. Although, I still say everyone should wear identification hats.

What’s been the best thing about being here at conference?
I think the best aspect of the conference is the learning environment it provides, people gather together to discuss issues, promote their own interests and in the process may become more knowledgeable on others’ issues.

And the worse?
The breakfast-in-a-bag, is certainly the least… enthusing part of the conference.

What advice do you have for any deaf young person coming to party conference in the future?
I would advise that you should be firm in your experiences, and enthusiastic. For one to enjoy the conference to it’s uppermost. It may be useful to have some interest in politics, or at least a vague general knowledge, to benefit from the diverse topics discussed within the conference.

Finally, any plans to work in politics or campaigns in the future?!
I find politics incredibly interesting and hope to embark on such a career in my future. I also enjoy campaigns, however I think I shall read law first.

A big relief to hear that we haven’t put Megan off from working in campaigns and politics. If she can handle two days with the Conservatives, then I can well imagine that in around ten years time I’ll be coming to conference to lobby Megan the newly-elected MP.

And that’s about it from Birmingham and the party conferences. Back to civilisation when full analysis to follow. Once everyone has had a proper night’s sleep for the first time in three weeks!

Publishing more information on how deaf children are doing

Image courtesy of NDCS

The second recommendation in the National Deaf Children’s Society Hands up for help! campaign report is probably the one quickest to turn me into angry deaf man mode.

The Government must require local authorities to publish information about the level and performance of services for deaf children so families can assess whether their child is getting a fair chance at school.

NDCS did their own survey of local authorities because a lot of the information they needed on what help deaf children are getting wasn’t out there. Many services replied quickly and fully, which was great. Others did so under suffrance. NDCS is still waiting for replies from a handful. If NDCS has these problems, what about parents? Well, when we asked parents of deaf children to let us know of their experiences for the campaign report, one mother in London replied:

“It’s not easy for parents to know what the best educational options and choices there are for deaf children. There is very small provision in the units [for deaf children], which now seems the best option for my child, but I did not even know about this provision until I heard about it from other parents!”

Amazing. Why had no-one in the local authority told her? Why wasn’t the information out there in a place, easy to find, so that she could see for herself what options were available in her area? As for information about how deaf children are doing in her local authority or how many people are employed to help deaf children? Forget about it. There’s a real absence of any specific or local information about the education of deaf children, and I think it’s completely unacceptable.

Why isn’t more information published? One clue came from a meeting the other day I went to where a Head of Service for deaf children said that she suggested that some local data on deaf children’s outcomes shouldn’t be published as it might be “used as a stick to beat her with”. How awful, I thought. If more information was published, it might be used to ask impudent questions like “are the services for deaf children doing a good job?”. How impertinent! God forbid that someone might actually try to hold her to account for the service she’s providing to deaf children?!

Another excuse, and one that makes me most annoyed, is that this kind of information can’t be published because it would be “meaningless” and that each service is different, you can’t compare and that a service is actually “good” might come across as “bad”. I think such arguments patronise the intelligence of parents of deaf children. I also find it arrogant – who are professionals to decide what information should or shouldn’t be available to parents? Surely a good service has nothing to fear from being open about how it is run? Surely a good service would welcome any opportunity to tell everyone what a great job they’re doing?

Sure, publishing data takes time. And if you’ve never done it before, it’s going to take a while to set the systems up. But it does need to be done, if parents are going to be able to exercise informed choice about how to support their deaf child. I’ve met some fantastic professionals in my time working to support deaf children and I still have happy memories of the people who supported me and insisted that my mainsteam teachers have high expectations of what I could do. I also know that some professionals and Teachers of the Deaf are as frustated as I am about the resistence to seeing more information available to parents. This resistance, I think, discredits the whole profession and I think it’s time to start challenging such views.

Campaigning for deaf children at the Lib Dem party conference: day 2

On my 2nd and last day at the Liberal Democrat party conference, I managed not to get swept away by the Nick Clegg crowd. But I did make the mistake of going to a fringe meeting of the British Youth Council, where suited and booted amongst a group of Lib Dem young people, I felt around twenty years older than I actually am. Oh dear.

But yesterday was mostly spent meeting more MPs, Lords and Ladies to tell them about the National Deaf Children’s Society Hands up for help! campaign. Happily, everyone was keen to support. For each MP we met, we also provided detailed briefing notes about what NDCS’s survey of local authorities revealed about help for deaf children in their own area, which went down well. I picked up a keen desire to understand more about how the funding arrangements for help for deaf children work, and the implications of deafness being a relatively less common disability. We received lots of offers to write to local authorities and government ministers, and to raise questions within Parliament.

Sadly, I hadn’t managed to track down two of our key targets by the time I left, though my boss was still stalking them on the conference’s last evening. Very disappointing.

What has been interesting about this conference has been finding out how becoming a government coalition partner has changed the way many Lib Dem MPs work. When in opposition, there would be a group of three or four people acting as “shadow” ministers. But now instead, we have some Liberal Democrats who are Ministers and others who are acting as “spokespeople” within the party, providing a conduit from which specific backbenchers can express their views or concerns on specific issues. It rather changes the dynamics of how I might lobby various people.

Overall, it’s a been a full-on but enjoyable few days in Liverpool. Now the travelling circus moves on to Manchester for the Labour party conference weekend where my colleagues will be picking up the baton of campaigning for deaf children. Look forward to finding out how they got on.

Campaigning for deaf children at Lib Dem party conference: day 1

I knew this Liberal Democrat conference was going to be different when, within 30 minutes of arrival, I was threatened by a collosal tidal wave of humanity moving towards me, threatening to snuff me out as I ambled through the conference centre. I urgently dodged out of the way into a corner and saw that the cause of this tidal wave of people was made up of a huge bunch of journalists, photographers and lobbyers following the man of the moment and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.

This is my first Liberal Democrat conference with the party in power and the number of people attending is apparently up by around 40%. But in the National Deaf Children’s Society defence, we’ve been coming here every year, asking MPs and other key decision-makers to support NDCS’s campaigns.

My first day up in Liverpool featured some very positive meetings with leading Liberal Democrat figures on education, Dan Rogerson MP and Baroness Walmsley. Both very interested in the Hands up for help! campaign and keen to offer advice and support. Dan, who is MP in North Cornwall, is particularly keen to hear more from Cornish families with deaf children and to work to improve services in Cornwall.

Today was also spent going to fringe meetings trying to track down our top ‘targets’ – Sarah Teather MP, now Education Minister with responsibility for special educational needs, and Paul Burstow MP, Health Minister with responsibility for audiology services. Both are proving hard to track down so tomorrow, I will be refining my stalking skills.

Today was also spent stealing chocolate freebies. Some Credit Crunch Chocolate anyone?

Making sure there’s enough money for help for deaf children

Well, it’s been a week since I help the National Deaf Children’s Society launch the Hands up for help! campaign report. In that time:

* Over 250 people have contacted their MP in support of the campaign
* It’s been plastered all over BBC London news, reaching millions of viewers
* Over 200 people have joined the Facebook fanpage for the campaign
* Lots of people have also leaving details of their own experiences of help for deaf children on NDCS’s interactive map
* Over 300 people have downloaded the campaign report

Image courtesy of NDCS

The campaign’s key message – that every deaf child deserves a fair chance at school – seems to have hit a chord, among a wide range of people, which is great to see.

So what next? The report makes four recommendations for action and NDCS is going to be lobbying MPs, Ministers, Peers, councillors, local authority decision makers, anyone who will listen, to get them to take action.

The first recommendation is probably the most important. It says:

The Government must ensure adequate funding for specialist support services so all deaf children have a fair chance at school, no matter where they live.

The context behind this isn’t hard to see. We know that massive spending cuts on the way. In the past, local authority budgets have been hit hard. And with deafness being a low incidence, “invisible” disability, budgets for specialist support services have often been seen as an easy target. Anecdotally, there is evidence of vacancies for Teachers of the Deaf being frozen and of loads of local authorities exploring the scope for cuts through SEN “reviews”.

So now NDCS is going to have to make sure deafness isn’t “invisible” in discussions around budget cuts across England.

Have you come across any cuts to services for deaf children where you live? If so, leave a comment below or email NDCS at campaigns@ndcs.org.uk.

I’ll blog about the campaign report’s other recommendations over the next few weeks.