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?

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Campaigning for deaf children at the Lib Dem conference 2009: day 2

BournemouthDay two of our Bournemouth Liberal Democrat party conference adventure started with a morning of meetings on the patio of a cliffside hotel in the beautiful morning sunshine. It sounded like perfection at first. Two hours later, we were stumbling off the patio, blinded by the sun and with a deep tan on the half of our face facing the sun.

But the meetings went well. We met Baroness Garden, who works on children and education in the House of Lords for the Lib Dems. I got asked lots of questions about childhood deafness which put me on my toes but was quite nice since it showed an active interest in deafness and a desire to find out more. She was aware of our work to get the law changed on acoustics which was positive. Our message is getting out there before we’ve even come to party conferences…

We also met with Annette Brooke who also asked lots of questions and made a few requests for further information. She raised a new issue – how we do make sure that deaf children who are home educated get the right support from their local authority? A good question and something we’ll be coming back to her on.

There were lot of other charities there all waiting to meet MPs too. At times, it felt a bit like a political form of speed dating with MPs moving between different tables to talk to different charities. All that was missing was a little bell ringing at the half hour mark.

Once that was done, the afternoon was spent stalking MPs and getting their views on our simulation of acoustics in the classroom. One MP said she thought it sounded like a baby listening to the world from the womb!

And then finally, we ended the day with an impressive fringe meeting hosted by Every Disabled Child Matters. This was the best fringe meeting I went to, primarily because it had two young disabled people interrogating two shadow Lib Dem Ministers – David Laws MP (who looks after education) and Steve Webb MP (who looks after benefits) – on what the Lib Dem manifesto will have for disabled children. The highlight for me was when one of the young people was asked if her teachers had low expectations of her. She replied that her teachers told her that she would only ever end up working in a fried chicken takeaway, and how this motivated her to prove her teacher wrong. Her advice to others was simple: don’t give up. She also suggested she did end up working in a fried chicken takeaway, she would get her revenge by spitting in the food! It was a very spunky and inspriring reply.

And that was it. Time for a late night train back to London to reflect on a good two days with the Lib Dems. Now the travelling circus moves to Brighton for the Labour party conference next Sunday…

Campaigning for deaf children at the Lib Dems: day 3

It’s been a windy day, as evidenced by my lame attempts to take a photo of a Liberal Democrat flag. But, despite the disappearance of the sun, it’s been another successful day of lobbying Lib Dem MPs. We met three today – Norman Lamb, Malcolm Bruce and Bob Russell. Again, Laura did a fantastic job of explaining to MPs some of the challenges she’s faced. She won effusive praise from Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for Health, who seemed impressed with her confidence and her ability to explain what it’s like to have a cochlear implant and some of the challenges faced in getting one. Malcolm Bruce, who is Vice-President of NDCS and has a deaf daughter himself, also took the time to learn about some of Laura’s thoughts on deafness. Having met ten MPs over two days, I’m exhausted but pleased that it’s all gone so well. Laura has done a fantastic job – and she’s not even 16 yet. She still wants to be a social worker though, so I don’t need to worry about my job being stolen by a young upstart…

We also took the opportunity to catch up and share notes with other charities, including RNID, who have also been lobbying in force at the conference for deaf children and adults.

But it wasn’t all hard work – we took some time out to play some crazy golf! Or, in my case, I took some time out to be comprehensively humiliated and beaten at a game that involves tapping balls into halls by a 15 year old… Darn kids.

So that’s Bournemouth. Next week, the NDCS campaigns team head to Manchester to lobby Labour MPs at their party conference.

Campaigning for deaf children at the Lib Dems: day 2

Today has been an exhilirating day at the Liberal Democrat party conference with meetings with not one, not two but seven MPs. Star of the show though was Laura, a local young deaf person who we brought over to the conference as a experiment, to try and prove our point that deafness is not a learning disability and if deaf children are given the right support, there is no reason why they should not achieve just as well as their hearing peers. Laura, being incredibly bright, articulate and confident proves our point perfectly. And received a lot of support from a very early age, from a teacher of the deaf and her parents. Besides, who better to explain the challenges that deaf children experience growing up than a deaf child herself. All the MPs seemed pleased to meet her and seemed to go away feeling impressed with her achievements and a clear message that deaf children can do well, if given the right support from the very beginning.

All the MPs were great, but Annette Brooke, an influential MP who has been very supportive of NDCS in the past and who has taken a close interest in how the education system serves children with special educational needs stood out as a highlight. All MPs have an incredibly busy schedule but Annette really took the time to learn in detail about Laura’s experiences and her thoughts on various issues.

We updated MPs on the latest issues realting to our campaigns and asked them to support us in various ways going forward. Then we took some photos which we’ll be sending to local media to raise awareness across the UK about our campaign.

Laura seemed to really enjoy and it was good experience for me too. I am now, though, completely knackered and am writing this to you with an IV drip on my arm, giving me a constant drip of caffeine…

One more day to go with a few more key MPs to meet…

Campaigning for deaf children at the Lib Dems: day 1

Well, our day one at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Bournemouth has gone well, even though we didn’t really plan to get going until tomorrow.

Highlights include:

* Managing to – very briefly – speak with Nick Clegg, the leader of the party, as he walking through the exhibition hall.

* Attending a fringe meeting on inclusion of children with special educational needs, hosted by the Royal National Institute for Deaf people, Treehouse charity for autistic children and the National Union of Teachers. A leading MP, Annette Brooke, came and spoke of her anger that disabled children were being let down by a failure to provide specialist support. My boss, Director of Policy and Campaigns at NDCS, asked the panel whether they thought teachers should be given a statement of entitlements if they work with deaf children – like an entitlement to work in a classroom with good acoustics, specialist support staff with the right qualifications, and with adequate training on working with deaf children. The point seemed to go down well and the NUT seemed keen to follow it up.

* Doing a tour of the exhibition stands and making links with other charities and organisations – including the Royal National Institute for Blind people, CentreForum think tank and the Liberal Democrat Education Association.

* Attending another fringe meeting, run by Every Disabled Child Matters campaign organisation, which managed to attract 3 Liberal Democrat MPs. Reforming Disability Living Allowance benefit was mentioned as a priority by several of these MPs. Families with disabled children shouldn’t be living in poverty as a result of having to care for a disabled child, or buy accessible childcare or buy special equipment. A pertinent point to us given the evidence out there indicating that families with deaf children are also disproportionately in poverty.

The main highlight of the day though had to be seeing celebrity MP, Lembit Opik, in action campaigning for segways to be allowed on the road – by publicly riding it up and down the hill outside the conference centre. If his effort was to prove how safe it is, he probably didn’t count on my Director of Policy and Campaigns getting in the way and nearly being run over by a MP on a segway.

Much busier day tomorrow as Laura comes to town to help us campaign for better education for deaf children.

Getting ready for the party: final preparations for the party conferences

The party conference beckon ever closer. And like all good parties, I have been spending absolutely ages getting ready for it – though without the prospect of having a sausage on a stick to nibble on at the end of it.

I find myself nervously wondering if the party will go well. But we’re quietly optimistic. For the Liberal Democrat party conference, we’re doing a little experiment by inviting MPs to meet with a local young deaf girl called Laura. At the time of writing, ten MPs, including some senior Liberal Democrat bigwigs, have signed up to hear more about some of the experiences that deaf children face directly from a deaf child herself. One MP can make a powerful difference for us in the Houses of Parliament. So, with ten, we may even be able to change the world for deaf children and do ourselves out of a job.

As well as looking up biographies of all the MPs we’re meeting and sorting out logistical arrangements, we’ve also been thinking carefully about some of the points we’re going to impress on MPs. We want to tailor our messages around the particular interests of the MP but we’re also definitely going to be banging on about NDCS’s campaign to close the gap in attainment between deaf children and their hearing peers and our campaign report Must do better!. Three priority areas for us will be:

* Phonics and deaf children: getting the message out that phonics are inappropriate to many deaf children.

* Specialist support: the lack of skilled staff available to support deaf children in many parts of the UK.

* The need for better data on how deaf children are doing in schools at a local level.

At the risk of sounding like a self-important hyperactive TV news journalist, I’ll be blogging from the party conferences at the heart of the action, giving you regular updates on the top events. So look out for that next week as we head down to the seaside in Bournemouth.

Party conferences: NDCS’s plans to stalk MPs

The political party conferences are coming up in September. There are where all the MPs and members for each party get together. Depending on the political mood in the party, MPs will be talking about how wonderful it is that the general public seem to like them or wondering what poison to put in their leader’s tea. They have lots of meetings and speeches and debates and pass motions and talk about policy.

The party conferences tend to be in seaside towns, giving MPs the opportunity to stock up on their ‘Kiss-me-quick’ hats. But this year, only the Liberal Democrats are going for a seaside feel by hosting their conference in Bournemouth. Labour are heading to Manchester and the Conservatives are in Birmingham.

As all the MPs for each party are all in one place, it is the best opportunity any campaigns officer gets to lobby lots of people at once. So the party conferences are also full of people like me who go in the aim of persuading key decision makers to support their campaigns. It sometimes rather feels like stalking. Last year, I took this to a new level by going to three meetings where one particular MP was speaking before finally nabbing him as he was leaving the third meeting and asking him to table a motion in Parliament about deaf children and education. I’m pleased to say that my stalking paid off.

And we’ll be doing the same this year. Right now, I’m currently sorting out all the arrangements for this – arranging meetings with MPs, looking up the list of seminars that key MPs will be speaking at, deciding what our key messages will be, sorting out travel/hotel stuff and so on. To complicate things, I also have to sort out the arrangements for my interpreter, who will be accompanying me this year to help with communication support, as well. It makes me long for the gift of time. Or a PA. Or some chocolate biscuits.

To make things a bit different this year, we are taking along a young deaf person with us to one of the party conferences – she is called Laura and you may have been watching this space for her after I blogged about meeting her quite recently in Newbury. The idea is that we give MPs the opportunity to hear from a young deaf person directly about some of the things that matter to them. We’ll see how it goes this time and try and do it all the time in the future. I’m pretty confident that Laura will do a great job and am looking forward to seeing what she thinks of it all.

Look out for more blogging updates on the party conferences and I’ll let you know how it all goes.