Lizzie Ward: My Journey as a Deaf Learner: Part Two
Published: Apr 26th, 2013
About a month ago, I wrote about the first part of my journey as a deaf learner, covering primary and secondary education. My aim is to share my story and explore the different types of education and support that are available for deaf people in the UK, as well as taking a look at what situations or experiences were difficult for me as a deaf learner.
In July 2003, I left school with three A-Levels – Sociology, English Literature, and ICT. I had spent a few months in 2002 going to University open days with my Mum and sister, exploring my options. I hadn’t yet settled on whether I was going to do English Literature or Sociology – and at each of the Universities we visited, I took an interest in both disciplines. I was looking for a University that had a course that interested me – that was modern and exciting.
The University of York
I found exactly what I wanted when I investigated The University of York’s Sociology BA. We visited the University and attended an incredibly interesting talk from one of the lecturers. My Mum was the communication support that day – unfortunately I didn’t consider whether they would have been able to provide a notetaker or Communication Support Worker for me on the Open Day, but in hindsight I think they would have.
Although I liked the look of other courses around the UK – Birmingham and The University of East Anglia in particular seemed good for Sociology – York stole my heart. It had a lot to do with the city itself (stunning), the people (friendly), the ease of travelling to London and Edinburgh (halfway between family and my partner), the lack of exams (the Sociology course was assessed by essays and project essays) and of course the access provided.
The Disability Support Co-ordinator was supportive and outlined the different types of support they offered for deaf students: communication support, interpreters, notetaking, transcription services, lipspeakers, vibrating and flashing fire alarms in student accommodation and extra time for exams if needed, as well as support for out of class trips. The funding for this support came from applying for the DSA, the Disabled Students Allowance, available for all deaf people and disabled people studying in the UK.
So, once October 2003 rolled around, I was a mixture of nerves and excitement – apprehensive about meeting new people, because if there’s one thing you need to know about me, it’s that I’m an introvert; but excited because it was a new adventure.
Access at University
The first year at University was possibly the hardest academically because I also had to pick some modules from Politics, which involved exams, political theory and ‘debate’, which left me a bit cold. There was lots of political jargon in thick textbooks. The first year of Sociology was a more in-depth look at Sociological Theory and Methods, whilst the second and third years were the best because we got to choose what modules we studied. They had a brilliant array of modules – Humans and Other Animals, Cinema and Society, Death and Dying in the Social World, Gender and Society and Body, Culture and Society, amongst many other interesting sociological explorations.
It was difficult enough for the hearing students on my course, but harder with a notetaker, as I often lagged behind a bit when it came to seminars. Perhaps the solution for seminars would have been an electronic notetaker, a little bit faster. Lectures were fine with my notetaker and notes from the lecturer. However, as someone who was quite shy and generally not excited about sharing my opinions in front of people, seminars were the worst part of University for me anyway!
However, I got used to this new approach to learning, and learnt coping tactics for seminars. I would throw the odd opinion or statement into the mix, to give the impression I was taking part. The class sizes for seminars varied from six to twenty students, depending on the popularity of a module.
The seminars with smaller groups were much more manageable, but there were also opportunities to work within smaller groups within the larger seminars. The lecturers managed this well, and many were mindful of having a deaf student in the department. For most of them, it was their first experience of a deaf student in the Sociology department.
I would ask for notes from the lecturers, which they were happy to provide, and get transcripts from any videos that weren’t subtitled, usually in advance, as the lecturers would tell the support services what videos were going to be used. My personal tutor was brilliant; everyone had someone within the department to review progress and as a liaison for any grievances. She was clear and easy to lipread and supported my decision in the third year to do my dissertation on access for deaf people within society. Despite all the fantastic modules I had done, I wanted to research something that I felt was important and necessary to me personally and for deaf people.
Socially, my first time at University was a mixed bag. On one hand, my first year was quite smooth and I found that people were friendly and some of them were willing to learn how to communicate with a deaf person. There were some friendly people on my course too. On the whole though, I still struggled with shyness and found it difficult to make deep and lasting friendships from that period in my life.
Maybe it was because I hadn’t grown into myself, and despite my growing independence and quiet confidence, found it hard to make friends who understood. One of my two flatmates in the final year did an about turn and there were a few incidents of glaring exclusion; complaining about putting subtitles on the Television, not inviting me out whilst inviting the other flatmate and mumbling or covering her mouth rather than being clear whilst talking to me. There was one deaf person I met on campus and we tried to set up a deaf group, but there were very few takers.
Towards my last year, I found that my research gave me another outlet to explore my identity as a deaf person. As with the times I had found an exploration of deaf identity a powerful boost to self-confidence at secondary school, I explored different aspects of access that still needed development within society: transport, health, and entertainment, amongst others. I created a questionnaire using a mix of quantitative (data based) and qualitative (writing/opinion based) data, and had a good response from deaf people around the UK. The survey was based upon the Social Model, and I was determined to move the emphasis away from a Medicalized Model of deafness.
I graduated in the summer of 2006, with a 2:1, and headed home to London. At the time, I had no idea I would be back a year later to do a Masters in Women’s Studies; but my Gender and Society lecturer had planted the seed of continuing my studies. I was already becoming an active feminist blogger, and in my year away from York I went on my first Reclaim the Night march arranged by London Feminist Network, along with my sister and Mum.
I volunteered at a few different charities during my year out to gain some experience, but part of me felt as though this wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. Blogging was something that brought me back to writing. I decided to bite the bullet and apply for another year of studying at York, with the wonderful Women’s Studies department.
Back to Learning
This time, the procedure was different in terms of funding, especially. What remained the same was being able to apply for Disabled Students Allowance again for support and notetaking, but I had to fund the course and accommodation myself as unlike BA degrees, MA and PhD funding is not covered by the Student Loans Company. I felt it was worth it, and though things were tight for this year of study, I felt it was one of the best things I did.
I bloomed socially, as the Women’s Studies department is small and everyone works together in some way. It’s a very special department, with some amazing research coming out: intersectional and international. I found that the people on the course were one of the best and most supportive groups of people I had the privilege to study with. They gave me a sense of what intersectionality and inclusion actually mean. The groups were small, and I never felt as though I was left out; everyone became aware of how to interact with a deaf person.
I also became involved with Student Union politics with my fellow Women’s Studies peers. I learnt a lot about courage, and how to stick by your opinions. Although I withdrew from internet feminist politics during this year, I felt that I was focusing more on what intersectional feminism was about, and how I experienced the world as a deaf woman.
This led to my interest in the autobiographies of deaf women, and my MA dissertation focusing on autobiographical accounts of life from deaf women. It involved reading the small collection of autobiographies by deaf women, such as The Cry of the Gull by Emmanuelle Laborit, and also undertaking social research by asking deaf women to write about their lives. I wrote and wrote in this period of time; and something changed as I realised that this is what I wanted to do – to write.
When people start the researching process for their dissertations, they start by reading widely within their chosen area. It gets narrowed down to a collection of essential books and articles that work for your dissertation. My ‘eureka’ moment was reading an article by Hélène Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa, when she says:
‘And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. I know why you haven’t written. (And why I didn’t write before the age of 27.) Because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it’s reserved for the great – that is, for great “men”; and it’s “silly”. Besides, you’ve written a little, but in secret.’
I’ve learnt many things since doing my MA, including studying a course with the Open University (a Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing), and doing my BSL Stage 2 (with an amazing Deaf woman teaching us and another wonderful group of people), and I continue to read widely and learn all I can about the world around me. I think the essential ingredients for learning are curiosity and determination, but when we are deaf learners, we have to be extra determined.
There are still many barriers, and much campaigning and work to do to ensure all deaf children and students, whether signers or oral, get the right access and support. What works for one deaf person, will not necessarily work for another. This is why it is essential to examine and explore ways to support deaf learners through their education.
Lizzie Ward is a journalist, blogger and writer – and Deaf Unity’s Editor. She has a 2:1 BA (Hons) in Sociology from The University of York (2006) and a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies (2009) also from The University of York. She hopes her journey through education will highlight both the positive achievements and problematic issues for Deaf Learners. You can find her blog at http://catsandchocolate.com and her website at http://destinyischoice.co.uk
Previous article/interview: Robert Skinner: Albania and the Deaf Community
Next article/interview: Susanne Rees: A Passion for Social Enterprise