Lizzie Ward: My Journey as a Deaf Learner
Published: Mar 22nd, 2013
Lizzie Ward is a journalist, blogger and writer. She has a BA (Hons) in Sociology and a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies (2009) from the University of York (2006). She hopes sharing her journey through education will highlight both the positive achievements and problematic issues for Deaf Learners.
Lizzie: Learning has always been a passion of mine. Although studying can be painstaking, I think education is a right for everyone, and believe people should be able to choose what kind of education they want. For Deaf learners this is especially important, because the education available for us is often dictated by funding, distance and support available. My journey as a Deaf learner has had ups and downs, but I hope it will inform and inspire others to succeed.
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. I didn’t particularly enjoy wearing hearing aids, but accepted myself as a deaf person, and regularly attended events with the NLDCS (North London Deaf Children’s Society), so always knew that there were other deaf people out there. My sister and I were part of Chickenshed theatre for many years, and were amongst the first to use BSL and SSE on stage in their productions. Learning sign language strengthened my positive deaf identity and opened up opportunities when I felt like an outsider.
I attended a mainstream primary school from the age of 5. My language development had been good, and nobody thought that anything 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 didn’t understand what this meant. They consulted the audiology department at the RNTNE (Royal National Throat Nose and Ear) Hospital, and began a round of specialist audiology tests.
Soon after, I was fitted with my first hearing aids. At the time I could still hear some things without them, so it bothered me to wear them, but the ear specialist we had at the time was lovely, which really helped. He reassured my parents that he was with us every step of the way and had a brilliant sense of humour!
My parents didn’t want to hinder my progress by changing schools and leaving mainstream schooling, so decided to keep me there. In class, I didn’t have much support, but I engaged with a Teacher of the Deaf once a week. I had a love for reading and writing, which really helped my development, and Art was by far my favourite subject. It was Maths that I struggled with, so it’s where I had more support from my TOD and other teachers.
My experience at Primary was interesting…. I doubt deaf children now would have such little support. The teachers tried their best to be supportive, giving me written and printed materials so I could follow the classes. I never felt ‘different’ or left out because I was deaf, and it helped having the same people around me all the way through the school, who enjoyed all the same things I did.
The shift from Primary to Secondary school was hard for me. I moved from a small local Primary to a large city Secondary that was 45 minutes away from where I lived. My parents chose it primarily because of the support they had – at the time an HIU (Hearing Impaired Unit) with dedicated Teachers of the Deaf and support workers. There wasn’t anything nearer that was suitable for me as I wasn’t fluent in BSL and needed the support of notetakers and the HIU for areas I was struggling with.
My first two years weren’t too bad; I had friends and though things were difficult – language classes in particular (French – the language of the nose!) – I did well academically. Part of me feels this is because of my own determination to succeed. I loved to read and learn, and though there were some subjects that I didn’t love (Maths, Physics, Chemistry and French), I cultivated a lifelong love for English Literature, Sociology and Art. The support in class was difficult because in the year there were four deaf students, often spread out across different ‘sets’, making it hard for the stretched HIU staff to cover us all.
Meaning, at least 50 per cent of the time I was left without support. Although teachers were aware of my deafness, they would often move around, talk whilst facing the blackboard, stand in front of the light, and so on, which made lipreading a real strain. 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, and lost a lot of confidence. I think this is down to being in a place with so many people, and with little support. I was encouraged to answer questions in class but developed anxiety about my voice and how it sounded to hearing people. Coupled with the growing pains of being a teenager, this didn’t help my sense of self.
I began to feel singled out as a deaf person in a sea of hearing students, which particularly difficult at a time when I just wanted to blend in, be myself, and have friends that appreciated me for who I was. I sought refuge in books, and became someone who simply ‘survived’ through school.
GCSEs and A Levels
I found my GCSE years difficult, but I did well. I put my energy into catching up with the classes where I didn’t have support, and outside of school, found friends and a boyfriend. My relationship with my sister was a source of strength. The A-Level years, where I gained more independence, had better support, and were studying two of my favourite subjects (Sociology and English Literature) – were much better, and it started to feel like the future was unfolding before me.
In my first year of A Levels, the school had BSL Stage 1 as a language option, and the BSL teacher gave me a much needed boost. My self-belief and confidence grew, and my anxiety began to dissipate. The teachers treated me like an adult and capable of forging my own path. In July 2003, I left school with three A-Levels, two Bs and a C in Sociology, English Literature, and ICT.
Choosing a University
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.
I think I surprised everyone by opting for Sociology instead of English Literature, studying at The University of York. The course was innovative, and full of exciting modules like Cinema and Society, Humans and Other Animals and Gender and Society. I wanted to learn more about society, and my visit to the University impressed me so much. I also met 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.
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 – 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 the hardest academically, it was an in-depth look at Sociological Theory and Methods, and I had to pick some modules from Politics, which involved exams, political theory and ‘debate’, and there was lots of political jargon in thick textbooks. The second and third years were much better because we were able to choose the modules we studied.
The course was difficult enough for hearing students, but even harder with a notetaker, and I often lagged behind in seminars. Perhaps the solution would have been an electronic notetaker. I found lectures better, (I hated sharing my opinions in seminars anyway!) using my notetaker and notes from the lecturer.
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 more manageable.
I found some lecturers were mindful of having a deaf student in the department, but for most of them, it was their first experience of a deaf student. I would ask for notes, which they were happy to provide, and get transcripts from any videos that weren’t subtitled in advance, as the lecturers would tell the support services what videos were going to be used. My personal tutor was brilliant. 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 studied, I wanted to research something important and personal to me.
Socially, my first year was quite smooth and I found people were friendly and willing to learn how to communicate with a deaf person. On the whole though, I still struggled with shyness and found it difficult to make deep and lasting friendships.
Despite my growing independence and quiet confidence, I found it hard to make friends who understood. I had some incidents of exclusion from one of my flatmates, who complained about using subtitles on TV, and covering her mouth rather than being clear whilst talking to me. There was only one other deaf person I met on campus and we tried to set up a deaf group, but had very few takers.
Towards my last year, my research gave me another outlet to explore my identity as a deaf person. I explored different aspects of access that still needed development within society: transport, health, and entertainment, which gave me a much-needed confidence boost. I created a questionnaire (which had a really good response from deaf people across the UK!) based upon the Social Model, as I was determined to move the emphasis away from a Medicalised Model of deafness.
I graduated in the summer of 2006, with a 2:1, and headed back to London, not knowing I’d be back a year later to do a Masters in Women’s Studies. My Gender and Society lecturer had planted the seed of continuing studies, and I was already becoming an active feminist blogger. 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 also volunteered at charities to gain some experience, but felt as though it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. Blogging was something that brought me back to writing, so I decided to apply for studying a Masters at York, with the wonderful Women’s Studies department.
This time, the procedure was different in terms of funding. I was able to apply for Disabled Students Allowance for support and notetaking, but I had to fund the course and accommodation myself (unlike BA degrees, MA and PhD funding is not covered by the Student Loans Company). Although money was tight during the year, I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I bloomed socially – the Women’s Studies department is small and everyone works together. It’s a very special department with producing some amazing research. I found that people on the course were really supportive, and they gave me a sense of what intersectionality and inclusion actually meant. The groups were small, and I never felt as though I was left out, as everyone became aware of how to interact with a deaf person.
I also got involved with Student Union politics, and learnt a lot about courage, and sticking by your opinions. Although I withdrew from internet feminist politics, 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 focused 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 a lot during this time; and something changed as I realised that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I’ve learnt many things since doing my MA, including studying a Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing with the Open University, and doing my BSL Stage 2. 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.
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