When I was diagnosed as being profoundly deaf at 11 months old, the doctor said that I’d never be able to speak or have a “normal” education. My mother’s response was instinctive and instant: “She WILL be able to speak – and read Shakespeare.”
Twenty years later, my mother wrote to that doctor, relating the moment I collected my BA Hons 2:1 in English Literature. How did I get there? Mainstream education.
Placing me in mainstream education was not an easy decision for my hearing parents, who explored all the options and read books, including Language for Ben. They wondered if they should go down the signing route and enrol me at a school for the deaf. So my mother taught me the basics. One day she signed “I love you” while saying the words. I responded with: “I love you too”. But with speech, not signs.
My parents, however, had a fight on their hands to enrol me at my local primary school. The headteacher was willing to take me on, but the borough was more reluctant, as I’d be the first deaf child in the area to go mainstream. With the headteacher’s backing, my parents made a strong case. Eventually, the borough agreed – and I was lucky enough to receive support from two fully trained teachers of the deaf, who’d take notes and help me follow.
I loved learning and took to primary school like a duck to water. My peers accepted my deafness, spoke clearly and included me. While I never experienced bullying, there were a couple of isolated incidents. A boy said I shouldn’t be allowed in the school because I was deaf and another laughed at my radio aid, which I’d wear in classes. So what? It helped me hear better.
My parents, class teachers, support teachers and peripatetic teachers from Blanche Nevile all wrote in a newsbook, recording my progress and if I was struggling with a particular word or concept. It was a great tool, but became obsolete in the sixth form – as did my radio aid, as I was not prepared to wear normal clothes with it hanging around my neck!
In the first week of secondary school, my support teacher gave a deaf awareness lesson to my class, which included a demonstration where they listened through a hearing aid attached to a tube to paper being torn. This made them realise the level of hearing I needed for sounds they took for granted, and they accepted me.
Without such awareness, school life would have been harder. Education isn’t just about learning verbs, but also mixing with your peers and finding out about yourself.
While I flourished in the humanities, I found Maths more difficult – interestingly, I’ve come across many deaf people in the same boat – and while my classmates had music lessons, I went over equations with my support teachers. I also took just eight GCSES, so I could have the extra time to focus on Maths, as well as French – for I was determined to learn another language.
My French teachers prepared transcripts for tapes and for the listening exam I was taken to a separate room where a support teacher spoke French. Lip-reading French was tricky (like all deaf people, I can have some trouble lip-reading English!), but I got a B. It’s one of my proudest achievements.
Concentrating all day meant that I tired easily, so the decision to take just eight GSCES was the right one; I could focus on getting A-C passes for all of them. The next challenge was A-Levels.
Climbing the education ladder
It wasn’t easy at first. While all of my teachers had actively encouraged me, the sixth form head was sceptical about me being able to cope. But everyone else knew I could, and that was what mattered. It made me determined to prove her wrong.
So I took A-Levels in English Literature and Sociology, as well as text processing qualifications. I had a new teacher of the deaf who used Speedtext, to help me follow lessons more quickly and contribute to in-depth discussions. The result? An A, B and distinctions in my text processing exams. My sixth form head could eat her words!
When looking at universities, I had a disappointing experience with one that was renowned for having deaf students. On visiting, the admissions officer was taken aback that I wasn’t interested in Deaf Studies, and hastily suggested contacting another university that might be more suitable. I have nothing against Deaf Studies, but I resented being pigeon-holed and my enthusiasm for that university dimmed. Instead, I accepted a place at the University of Reading, where the Disability Liaison Officer was helpful and I was not pushed towards other courses.
For lectures and seminars I had good notetakers. There was one incident where my usual notetaker was off sick and her replacement kept asking me what I wanted her to do and if she was doing it right. It was my most stressful seminar! But I complained to an apologetic Disability Liaison Office and never had a problem again.
Keeping an open mind
Did I explore other options for my education? Yes – I was open-minded. I looked at Mary Hare Grammar School for the Deaf twice, at secondary and sixth form level. It was intriguing, but at 11 I didn’t feel that I could move away from home. By the sixth form, I was used to mainstream and it wasn’t for me.
I did work experience with two schools for the deaf and Blanche Nevile’s Adminstration and Resource Centre. It was fascinating to see deaf children respond to pre-school and formal education differently. Some deaf people find it easier to communicate using sign language, and I believe in total communication. However, it was hard for me to see some pupils, who used BSL, struggle to construct sentences in writing exercises. So I’ve always tried to use SSE when signing.
Everyone is different, but I preferred mainstream education – with the right support, awareness and attitude. Since my parents made a case, the borough has welcomed deaf pupils into mainstream; I’ve been told that we helped pave the way and I’ve been held up as a role model.
But it’s essential that these pupils get the right support and do not suffer from cuts to services. Then mainstream education can continue to work for deaf people like me.
Lucy Coelho, 30, is a journalist and editor for Waitrose. She went to Reading University where she achieved a 2:1 BA (Hons) degree in English Literature and has pursued her dream of being a writer and journalist.