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Greetings from Newcastle Greetings from Newcastle!

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Greetings from Newcastle

Greetings from Newcastle!

My working life has been spent in what is loosely described as Special Education – although this term covers a very wide field. During those years I have observed many changes in educational theory and practice, in government initiatives, funding bodies, disability legislation and guidelines.

Some of these developments I applauded, and was grateful for – some others I regarded as a mistake, with far-reaching repercussions.

My reflections as a practitioner

I began to train as a Teacher of Deaf children in 1967, after taking a degree in modern languages. I worked at a large residential school for deaf children aged between 2 and 16.

The older children were taught using BSL (British Sign Language) but the school policy at that time was to use the oral approach (speech and lipreading) with younger children, even with the children of deaf parents who used sign language.

1967 - How things were

The Sign v Oralism debate

As in any educational situation, there were those who could develop some of the necessary skills to speak and lip read, and those for whom it was almost impossible – and this had nothing at all to do with intellectual ability.

Lip reading

Lip reading is an activity which requires high levels of concentration, an awareness of the topic and context, and a familiarity with the vocabulary involved, as well as environmental factors such as good lighting on the speaker’s face, and a clear view. It has been said that for the most skilled lipreaders, lip reading is two thirds guess work, because such a large proportion of our speech is not sufficiently visible to be understood.

The Oral ideal

At that stage of my career, I was being trained and examined by an award body who valued speech and lipreading for deaf children above all else, and who believed that this could be achieved by all. My colleagues in that department had all been trained to teach using the oral method, and were very convincing and persuasive in their arguments. It was argued that if deaf children learned to sign first, they would never develop speech.

My personal views

The children were well cared for at school, and happy – but in my view their education was severely restricted, and all of the early opportunities for developing language skills of any kind were put beyond their reach. It would be impossible to measure how far reaching the damage has been to those people – in terms of developing normally as children, in being able to express their feelings, to understand and be understood by their families, and to have a full and rounded education which is the right of every child.

The need for an early means of expression

All children need to have a way of expressing themselves, of asking questions, discovering about the world, and developing relationships. I now feel that the children who were in that nursery at that time lost years of the essential basic tools needed for learning and developing, because the approach used with them was a “one size fits all” method, which did not consider each child’s ability and potential.

Hearing parents of deaf children would accept the advice of professionals without questioning, and would go along with this oral approach, in the belief that one day their child would be able to function as a hearing person. And this was what hearing parents wanted for their deaf children – to be able to function as a hearing person.

It was years later, when I was working with deaf students in a college of further education, that I could see the long term effects of this “one size fits all” approach to teaching deaf children.

Across the range of deaf school leavers and young people were many who were angry, confused, unable to fit in with hearing society, and whose education had not allowed them to achieve their potential. They were unsure of their own identity – were they failed hearing people? If they had not been allowed to learn to sign, were they second class deaf people? The repercussions go on and on.

There were very few deaf students who continued their education beyond 16, and at that time there were very few opportunities for them to do so in the UK.

Changes and developments

Several factors have contributed to a positive change in the educational experience available for deaf children, and the knock on effects of this have been, and are continuing to be far reaching in our society. One of those effects has been an increase in the number of deaf and hard of hearing students in higher education, which is the area where I have been working for the past 5 years.

Advances in technology

Digital hearing aids mean that the levels of boost to sound provided to the wearer can be programmed to match the deaf person’s levels of useful hearing, enabling them to perceive sounds that were not available to them with analogue aids.

But no hearing aid, however sophisticated, can yet allow a deaf person to hear as fully as a hearing person, and sometimes people think mistakenly that this is the case.

Communication systems

The development of the minicom, a phone system for deaf people, was a step forward, then this was superseded by personal fax machines.

Now though, deaf people use mobile phones to send text messages, as we all do – and use email for written messaging, and with the advent of affordable webcams and cheaper PCs, video chatting means that deaf people can sign to each other.

Social networking

The development of social networking web sites such as Facebook has given deaf people another excellent way to keep up with friends and family. I hope that this will help those many deaf people who become very isolated after leaving school – either because they live in rural areas, or because they live too far away from their deaf friends to be able to meet up with them regularly.

Mental health concerns

There are many deaf people, young and old, whose mental health is badly affected by feeling different, isolated, or because they don’t know whether they ought to be part of the hearing world or the deaf world. Provision for supporting deaf people who have mental health problems is much less widely available than the services available for hearing people.

Improved BSL interpreting and voice over provision has made a huge difference to the views of deaf people being heard by the public.

An interpreter must be able to relay in sign language the content of speech or conversation to their deaf audience, but must also be able to voice over for a deaf person if they want to ask questions or contribute to the conversation. This is a very important skill, as the confidence and sound of the interpreter’s voice can colour the hearing audience’s impression of the deaf person – so it is vital that the voice over sounds natural and fluent.

Increased availability of qualified Sign Language Interpreters

This surgery implants electrodes within the inner ear to stimulate the nerves which transmit sound to the brain. It has been a controversial topic amongst parents, some of whom feel that it should be performed in infancy, to give the child access to meaningful sound as early as possible in life. Others feel that as it is quite invasive surgery, the choice should be left to the child, when it has reached an age to be able to understand what is involved.I have known several young people who have had cochlear implants, and have observed very successful results.

Cochlear Implants

In the USA and in Europe there have been many pieces of legislation covering equality for people who have disabilities. The effect of these has been very powerful, and has brought the needs of disabled people to the forefront of public consciousness. It’s not just the ramps into public buildings, and the loop systems at the bank, nor the lifts with voiced information and brailled buttons that have helped, although they are all important.

Rather, it’s the training that has gone on in large and small organisations, raising staff awareness of why these changes are necessary, and what they can do to make their businesses more accessible to disabled customers and clients.

Changes in legislation

The recognition of BSL as an official language in the UK was another huge step forward – although it took years of campaigning to achieve it. The UK spends vast amounts on translating public information leaflets into several foreign languages, but never used to include BSL information for deaf people, but happily this is now changing.

The official recognition of BSL as a language

When the Further Education Funding Council decided to allocate funding to support deaf and disabled students, it was possible at last to make appropriate arrangements for each individual, based on a full assessment of their needs. This opened up access to everyone, and gave new opportunities to deaf and disabled people young and old who hadn’t been able to study at a college before.

Funding to support deaf & disabled studentsIn Further Education

……and in Higher Education

The same principle was then applied to higher education – but the allowance for paying for support (DSA – Disabled Student’s Allowance) is allocated to the student and not the institution. Based on a thorough assessment of need, the money can be used to purchase equipment to enable study, or to pay for non-medical helpers such as note takers, interpreters, readers – or could pay for Braille or other transcription of materials.

This has had an immensely positive impact on the increased number of deaf and disabled people applying for university places, and in their levels of achievement

Having a note taker in lectures – it is impossible to concentrate on lipreading and take notes simultaneously, and much of what is said could be missed. It is also extremely tiring to lipread for long periods of time, and concentration slips. It is also impossible to lipread if the lecturer moves around whilst speaking, or turns to write something on a whiteboard but continues to talk.

DSA can also pay for interpreters in lectures and seminars, as well as for assistance with language if this is needed.

Examples of support for a deaf student at university

A PC or a laptop will enable the student to be able to communicate with staff and other students at any time by email – and the Allowance usually makes a payment towards internet costs.

A radio aid will enable a student who uses a hearing aid to get much better sound input during lectures, and in seminars.

Student accommodation will need to make appropriate safety arrangements, such as vibrating fire alarms, or flashing lights, and safe evacuation plans should be agreed with the student and relevant staff.

Additional time for exams may be appropriate if the student’s first language is Sign Language, as it may take longer for them to read and then compose written answers. Invigilators must be made aware when there is a deaf student in an exam, and must ensure that the student is able to understand the necessary instructions

The cumulative effect of disability rights developments and the recognition of BSL has created a much higher public awareness of deaf people. There are lots of signed and subtitled programmes on television, as well as programmes made by and for deaf people.Most importantly of all, for the group of people whose needs this conference is focussed on, there is an ever growing awareness amongst academic and other staff within universities of how they can best prepare for and work with deaf and disabled students.

Increased public awarenessof deaf people

The Disability Support services in universities have two key roles to play:

Their first is to enable deaf and disabled students to maximise their potential by using whatever support mechanisms are available to them, and to intervene on their behalf if appropriate.

The second is to work closely with staff across the university, to ensure that there is clear understanding of the needs of disabled students, and to be on hand to advise on strategies or different approaches that will enhance the students’ learning.

The role of the Disability Support Service in a university

The DARE project

The DARE project has laid a strong foundation for this dialogue between university staff and their colleagues in Disability Support services. The resulting DARE materials provide excellent information, but they also give people the opportunity to reflect upon how they would best work with deaf or disabled students, and how they could easily modify their usual working styles to accommodate someone who needs to learn in a slightly different way.

The DARE materials

This paves the way for an improved learning experience for the student, which may mean higher levels of achievement, but I hope that it also brings a feeling of satisfaction and achievement to those staff, who know that by their informed efforts, this leap forward has been made possible.

I am sure that the DARE materials will contribute to a much more positive experience for students and staff alike, and I applaud Irek Bialek and his co-partners, and wish them all every success for the future.