Nicki Harris: Working with Deaf Learners

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy name is Nicki Harris and I have recently been approached by Deaf Unity to become involved in some of their initiatives regarding education for young Deaf people – something to which I have devoted the majority of my working life.

My journey started many years ago when I was a small child, but I didn’t realise then exactly how my fascination with sign language would shape my life.  We have a family history of hearing loss – my grandmother and my father both experiencing many incidents of infections resulting in significant hearing loss. They didn’t use sign language but certainly relied on lip-reading and hearing aids (when my grandmother could be coaxed to put them in!).  It wasn’t until many years later whilst tracing the family tree that my sister discovered an ancestor on my father’s side who had been profoundly deaf from birth and who had used sign language.

Attending school during the 1960/70’s, it was rare to encounter peers with disabilities.  I vividly remember a primary school sport’s day when a little girl in my class, Angela, who had a prosthetic arm and leg, was arguing with the teachers who felt she could not take part – she was adamant she was going to run and run she did – it didn’t matter that she came last because when she crossed the tape every parent and all of us children cheered and clapped. That single act of determination has stayed with me always.  She was showing us all that she had a right to be treated the same as everyone else. We had to wait a good few years more before legislation caught up with her!

After school, with languages as my chosen route, I found myself working in France but I still felt I hadn’t found the language which ‘blew me away’.  I had to wait a few more years for that; in fact I was 28, spending many months in a leading ENT hospital in London with my second daughter, when I was exposed to the beauty of watching sign language – and I was hooked.

Becoming an Interpreter

It took further years for me to source an appropriate tutor (bearing in mind the lack of recognition for BSL in the late 1980’s) but when I did, I was catapulted into another world, a world of warmth, beauty, linguistic richness, history, oppression yet integrity.  In my quest to work with this new community I was fortunate to be accepted to work for the embryonic Post 16 team of the Surrey Service for the Hearing Impaired (now known as Physical and Sensory Support).  Part of the training was in BSL; I studied part-time and passed level 1 BSL in six weeks, level 2 in 15 days over an academic year and level 3 (old style!) by three hours every Friday morning for nine months – the assessment took a complete day and I see from other contributors that the gruelling content has already been outlined.

Successfully achieving these qualifications led to my being approached by Durham University to study for the MA in BSL/English Interpreting which they were offering having secured European funding – I thought originally that everyone who passed level 3 would be approached so I threw away the letter!  Luckily for me, they followed up with a ‘phone call and my parallel, yet complimentary working paths started; working full time in education with deaf young people and training to be an Interpreter. How my life had changed in just two years!

The right of access to education for everyone is a fundamental aim for all educators of disabled people and with the advent of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and the Equality Act (2010) this is now at the forefront of many admissions policies.  I still work for Surrey, now as Lead Professional Post 16, but the small Post 16 department of 1989 of five support staff and two peripatetic Teachers of the Deaf and only one deaf college student, is now approximately 50 staff with advisory teachers of both the deaf and vision impaired, Interpreters, fully qualified dual sensory trained support staff and excellent office staff.

We currently support approximately 350 students in colleges and Universities in and around Surrey and visit 47 different educational sites – timetabling (which is done two weeks in advance) can be a nightmare; packages of support are bespoke but student led which means my Sunday afternoons are usually a scene of me surrounded by timetables, tippex and copious amounts of coffee and chocolate as I attempt to make the jigsaw fit!  The variables of part-time staff, travel time between colleges, travel costs and personalities/preferences all need to be factored in.

Having the advantage of a large department affords the opportunity for flexibility in terms of the skills-set required for different settings/situations yet every week throws us another challenge in terms of visits, guest speakers, lectures being cancelled, staff being ill and the pressure of making the student’s DSA stretch so they are not disadvantaged.  As professionals we have a duty to level the playing field, ensure there is no reverse discrimination yet support both appropriately and cost effectively.  Timely transition planning, supported taster days/interviews, specialist in-class support and advisory teacher tutorial support ensure the student has holistic, comprehensive and appropriate support on the right course which reduces student drop-out rates.  It pays to do the right preparation.

Difficult times ahead

Sadly, there are difficult times ahead in terms of changes to the education system in the UK; the raising of the school participation age throws up questions over funding for deaf students being sufficient; the schools funding reform is still in flux and, with a high impact low incidence disability such as deafness, there is no doubt that appropriate support can also be expensive. The phasing out of Statements and the introduction of the Education Health Care Plan questions the parity of provision across the country and whether or not college funding will be organised around supported contact hours or a banding system; and the continuing DSA issue where some HE establishments use fellow students to note-take and out-source their interpreter support to different agencies who strive to fill bookings – inevitably sometimes students go without.

The DSA is allocated to the student, it is their right to say if they are not happy with their support and complain first to the educational establishment to give them the opportunity to rectify the situation but, should that fail, to Student Finance England. Ought there to be a national review to invest in and direct specialist training for CSWs/Interpreters specifically to work in FE/HE education?  This would give national parity, increase student choices for HE as potential students would know wherever they choose to study appropriate support will be in available.

CSWs/Interpreters must have the linguistic ability in both BSL and English to match that of the student and be able to do the mental gymnastics required for challenging lectures!  Plus stamina!  University timetables in particular are not very ‘Interpreter friendly’ and with the DSA (Disabled Students Allowance) only being a limited pot of money the luxury of having two Interpreters can be slim.  With the BSL Act simmering away, surely this is an area which needs developing now rather than playing catch-up later.

I am passionate about this area of education and, with like-minded people, am a member of a variety of working groups striving to raise access arrangements and achievement.  Currently I am Chair of the ASLI Education Working Group and would be pleased to be contacted with queries/questions regarding access; I am actively involved with BATOD, Deaf Education Support Forum (DESF), National Sensory Impaired Partnership(NatSIP), Ewing Foundation, Signature, ACSWs, NDCS and individual projects funded by both leading Charities and the Government.  But at the core of any working party has to be the young deaf people themselves.  Gone are the days of young deaf people being ‘done unto’, now is the time for us to follow them, which is why Deaf Unity is such a key organisation.

Over the 25 years I have worked in this field I have been fortunate enough to have supported 100s of students and their families; students who have not only shaped my life but allowed me to be part of theirs, from supporting in college/university to Interpreting for their weddings, children’s births, family events and some slightly less festive occasions, all of which I have felt is a privilege.  There is much work still to do in Education and there are some excellent practitioners already working in the field but now is the time for the young people themselves to campaign for better access; they have the power, legislation is behind them.

Go for it!

Nicki Harris works within education as Lead Professional (Post 16) for deaf students at Surrey Council. She is passionate about ensuring students get the right support and communication support, and feels fortunate to have supported hundreds of students and their families, being involved in their lives and their life events. She is Chair of ASLI Education Working Group, and is involved with BATOD, Deaf Education Support Forum (DESF), National Sensory Impaired Partnership (NatSIP), Ewing Foundation, Signature, ACSWs, NDCS and many more besides. She welcomes queries and questions regarding access. 

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