Lizzie Ward: My Journey as a Deaf Learner: Part One
Published: Mar 22nd, 2013
Learning has always been a passion of mine. Although studying can be painstaking, I feel that education is a right for everyone. I believe that people should be able to choose what kind of education they want. For Deaf learners, this is an especially important right – because the kind of education available for us is often dictated by funding, distance and what support is available. My own journey as a Deaf learner has had a lot of ups and downs; times when I look back and wonder how I managed it.
Let me give you a bit of background on my own deaf identity. I grew up within a hearing family with a younger deaf sister. My parents never made us feel like we were different – I remember having a happy childhood, with plenty of freedom to do the things I loved doing. I didn’t particularly enjoy wearing my hearing aids, but I accepted myself as a deaf person, and regularly attended events with the NLDCS (North London Deaf Children’s Society), so I always knew that there were other deaf people out there. In the 1990s-2000s, my sister and I were part of Chickenshed theatre and were amongst the first people to be part of using BSL and SSE on stage in their productions. Learning some sign language strengthened my positive deaf identity and opened up another world. Especially during times when I felt that the outside world was just putting up more barriers.
The Primary Years
My first experience of education was at a mainstream Primary school. I had already been enrolled there at the age of 5, in their Reception class. My language development had been good, and at that point, nobody would have thought everything would change. When I was 6 years old I was diagnosed as profoundly deaf with progressive hearing loss. At the time, my parents were devastated, and had no idea about what this meant. They consulted with the audiology department at the RNTNE (Royal National Throat Nose and Ear) Hospital, and we began a round of specialist audiology tests.
I was fitted with my first hearing aids. At the time, I could hear some things without them, so it did bother me a bit wearing my hearing aids, but I think it helped that the ear specialist we had at the time was lovely – he reassured my parents, he was with us every step of the way and had a brilliant sense of humour with a good dose of common sense.
My parents felt that as my progress might be hindered if they changed schools, they decided to keep me there. About once a week, I had a visit from a Teacher of the Deaf. In class, I didn’t have much support, but I remember that because of my love of reading and writing, my development went well. It was Maths that I struggled with the most, and this was the area that my TOD and various visiting support teachers focused on the most often.
My experience at Primary was interesting – I doubt that deaf children now would have this set up (without much support). The teachers were supportive, giving me written and printed materials so I could follow the classes. The class size was small, and I stayed with the same classmates all the way through to Year 6. I learnt a lot, but Art was by far my favourite subject, as well as ‘reading’ times and creative writing. Again, I never felt ‘different’ in the sense that I was left out because I was deaf. It helped having the same people around me, and that I was confident enough with them that they didn’t treat me as somehow ‘other’. I enjoyed the same things as they did – music, crafts, reading, popular culture.
The move to Secondary
The shift from Primary to Secondary was the hardest thing for me. I moved from a small local Primary to a large city Secondary. The school was at least 45 minutes away from where I lived, and my parents chose it primarily because of the support they had – at the time an HIU (Hearing Impaired Unit), with a staff of dedicated Teachers of the Deaf and support workers. There wasn’t anything near enough that was suitable for me – I wasn’t fluent in BSL at the time and needed the support of notetakers with short periods of time in the HIU focusing on things myself and the other deaf students might be struggling with.
The first two years at Secondary school were not too bad; I had friends and though things were often difficult – language classes in particular (French – the language of the nose!) – I did well academically with the support that I had. In fact, my journey through Secondary was an academic success – I got my GCSEs, I got two Bs and a C for my A Levels, which were the marks I needed to go to The University of York. However, picking apart some of the issues I had does shine a light on the problems of mainstreaming and support provision.
Swimming through the Mainstream
Part of me feels that I did well because of my own determination to succeed. I loved to read and learn, and though there were some subjects that I had a bad relationship with (Maths, Physics, Chemistry and French), for the most part I cultivated a lifelong love for English Literature, Sociology and Art. The set up in class for support was difficult because in my year, there were four of us, often spread out across different ‘sets’. I got the feeling that it must have been hard for the stretched HIU staff to cover us all – there were obviously students in other year groups and sets that also needed support.
This would mean that for at least 50 per cent of the time, I was left without support. The subject teachers were aware of that, but I still found lipreading a strain, especially towards the middle of the day, and they would often move around, talk whilst facing the blackboard, stand in front of the light, and so on. Lipreading is 70 per cent guesswork, and you have to know the context of what is being discussed. Even with the efforts of the support staff to educate them about Deaf Awareness, teachers often forgot.
Towards Year 9, I became increasingly introverted and anxious, building a shield around myself. Year 9 was my hardest year, the year that I lost a lot of confidence. I don’t think there’s an easy way to explain this change in behaviour. I feel it was that I became anxious about being in a place with so many people, with less support than I needed. I was encouraged to answer questions in class. I developed anxiety about my voice and how it sounded to the hearing people in my class – despite the fact that everyone’s voice goes a bit funny when answering questions in a class setting! Coupled with the growing pains of being a teenager, this didn’t help my sense of self.
I began to feel singled out, more noticeable in a sea of hearing students, ‘known’ because I was a deaf person. It was a time when I just wanted to blend in, to be myself, to have friends that appreciated me for who I was, and not the person I became when I was at school. I sought refuge in books, in reading. I became someone who ‘got through’ school, who survived it.
The years that followed, the GCSE years, were difficult socially, but I did well. I put a lot of my energy into catching up with the classes where I didn’t have support. My last year of GCSEs was better, and outside of school I had friends and a boyfriend. My relationship with my little sister was a source of strength. The A-Level years, where I gained more independence, had better support, and was studying two of my favourite subjects (Sociology and English Literature) – were much better, especially the last year, when I felt that the future was unfolding before me.
In the first year of my A Levels, the school actually had BSL Stage 1 as a language option (we all had to choose a language in the first year of A-Levels). The BSL teacher gave me a much needed boost to my own sense of self identity. My self-belief and confidence began to grow, and I could feel my anxiety beginning to dissipate. The teachers in the last year of my A Levels treated me like an adult and capable of forging my own path.
I think I surprised people (and myself) when instead of going for English Literature at University, because a lot of the courses didn’t appeal to me, I went for Sociology at The University of York. This course was innovative, full of modules like Cinema and Society, Humans and Other Animals, Death and Dying and Gender and Society. I wanted to learn more about society, and my visit to the University impressed me so much. I also visited the support co-ordinator, who alleviated my fears and worries, telling me that I would get full support. Support was available for lectures, seminars and important class trips. In fact, if I felt I needed it, I could also receive support for some society meetings! It was a revelation to me. You can read about the next chapter of my education journey in Part Two.
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
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