The big wide world

You may have read “Who am I?”, looking back at my school days which have a mixture of happy memories, as well as some unhappy ones, and dealing with all those difficult emotions as a deaf teenager in a hearing environment. This article is focusing on my path through Further Education and my views on the education I received.

I recall at 16 being uncertain of what I wanted to do in life. I’ve always admired children who are very sure of their plans/prospects – college, university and career. I recall I briefly toyed with the idea of doing photography. I then romanticised with the idea of doing hairdressing, but felt this was a bit dangerous; what if the customers asked me for a trim and I gave them a chop, that could be quite disturbing for us both!

I went to Kingsway College at Kings Cross and as crazy as it sounds I cannot remember how I ended up there. (this was many moons ago I may add). I believe Kingsway merged with Westminster sometime around the Millennium and it’s now known Kingsway Westminster College.

At 16 years old I knew very little, I was ill equipped.  At this point, I hadn’t met any culturally Deaf adults. I knew nothing about the Deaf community or even of its existence, nor did I have any real solid BSL skills other than the basics such as the alphabet, “What is your name” for instance.  My transition into further education and the adult world was inadequate to say the least. Was I prepared for adulthood, Further Education or the Deaf community? With hindsight, certainly not!

Kingsway was a hearing College, a beautiful old building full of character and original features. The NVQ Business & Finance course consisted of 5 Deaf girls- Yes ONLY 5. I came from a school with 30 hearing kids in my class and longed to be with the deaf children. Imagine my surprise to find 4 Deaf girls in the classroom, 3 came from Oak Lodge and another from residential school. I would be with 4 deaf girls full time but there was a catch, all the girls were BSL users and I wasn’t!

I was incredibly lucky when I started college, the girls were very patient and supportive. We mostly got by. We had days of frustration and a few communication breakdowns along the way which caused a few teenage difficulties especially when they shifted to BSL structure as opposed to SSE! However, being with them full time 5 days a week as well as socialising outside college, I took to Sign Language like a duck to water!

With hindsight, I was learning BSL to communicate with the girls. I was always striving to improve to ensure they could understand me. Strangely it never occurred to me then that if I learnt to sign, it could be a communication tool for me and a benefit to have BSL in my life. Today BSL is my lifeline! Today BSL owns me!

Being in a class with Deaf girls, meant full inclusion, no loneliness and no playing catch-up and most importantly of all, I was forming friendships with other Deaf students and not the staff. In fact I would say I felt ‘normal’! I thoroughly enjoyed my time learning, not only as a Business Studies student but I learnt to accept my Deaf identity. I didn’t have to try to be hearing. I was able to explore from a Deaf perspective and I learned to be proud, to be my Deaf self.

I was sad when my time to came to end at Kingsway. That one year made a huge impact on me, it was valuable and has made me who I am.

On leaving Kingsway, my parents moved to Essex and I started at South East Essex College of Arts and Technology (SEECAT) in Southend. I remained there for 3 years continuing with Business Studies for a year which I passed, and then switching to a Social Work course.

Thankfully when I arrived in Essex I had BSL skills under my belt giving me a huge advantage. I was offered BSL communicators to give me access to mainstream lectures, never before had I had access to education this way. Once again, I didn’t know the existence of BSL communicators or their role.

In many ways SEECAT reminded me of school, there were many similarities. For example, I returned to being the only deaf person in my class, yet we had other Deaf students in the college/building. We (Deaf students) socialised on the top floor canteen – just like school.

Very few of the Deaf students had any hearing friends. We would all meet up in the canteen, huddle together and frantically sign away. In classes I relied on the BSL communicators to give me access, they also translated any spoken conversations which meant I wasn’t excluded . This was a revelation to me, I never received this at school. It became apparent of just how much valuable information comes from our peers. That saying, ”You don’t know what you miss” comes to mind, until you experience inclusion.

I didn’t form any friendships with my hearing peers in class, like school I became friends with the communicators and staff, which continued outside college hours. This became a common theme throughout my education (apart from Kingsway). If students were getting on with work, I often felt obliged to make casual conversation with the communicator as opposed to working, as it felt rude to leave them sitting by themselves twiddling their thumbs. During my time at SEECAT I came to realise the benefits of a local Deaf community. I met many Deaf people and for the first time I felt comfortable.  My emotional needs were being met and I developed Deaf friendships. Amongst Deaf people, I didn’t feel judged and in some ways, when I stepped into a Deaf Club, I felt they were my ‘family’ as we all had a common bond.

This leaves me reflecting on my education – was it a success? Does integration work? Did I receive a successful education? And most importantly of all, were my needs met?

This is where it gets difficult, as each and every deaf child/person will have their own journey, with their own needs, aspirations, assessments, and emotions.  Maybe at this point I should point out I developed speech during my formative years, but many didn’t, and they were educationally placed differently because of this. The fact I developed speech I felt was measured as an ‘educational success’, or rather their success. It is my view speech got in the way, as the professionals thought my speech fixed everything, back in those days oralism was considered the best option and few looked past that. To maintain my speech was hard work, hours and hours of speech therapy and lots of corrections. I missed maths lessons to do speech therapy. I think many professionals judged on speech rather than the use of language. How important is speech really? I guess for hearing people, hugely!

There is no doubt in my mind, my education could and should, have been better. There is no doubt there were countless failures along the way and no doubt that someone should have acknowledged my emotional and mental well being as a Deaf child/teenager. I should have been given the opportunity to explore the world of Deafness, such as meeting Deaf role models, talking about Deaf identity, introducing Sign language, and information about different educational options.

I do not believe integration worked for me. The fact I became friends with members of staff throughout my educational journey speaks volumes . The staff gave me ‘access’ to an education, as well as filling a void of my lack of friends in the class. It wasn’t a good all rounded education and nor did it fulfil my emotional needs, I missed out on the simple things such as friendships and common bonds. I found it so difficult. I was left confused, isolated, rejected, hurt and at times angry because I didn’t understand how I should feel. I was in a environment learning alongside hearing children/young adults and no matter how hard I tried, I would never be hearing.

I failed miserably to keep up with the hearing children, I often felt a failure and I never felt one of them because quite simply, I wasn’t one of them!

We must remember this was some 20/30 years ago; what options were there? There were choices, yet these were governed by funding, distance from home and of course not forgetting the residential options. Teachers did their very best, parents were advised by staff who were obliged to follow Local Authority policies and of course by the medical profession. They were following their own training and experience of Deaf issues, which at times was very limited.

Are the options any better or different today? I am not sure. Perhaps the biggest difference today is Sign Language is more accepted and recognised in the world. We are exposed to more Deaf role models today. We don’t have to look far to see those role models – technology and social media is playing a huge part and of course blogs like this!

If I was to reflect on my education from age 5 to 20 years old I would ask; Should I have been introduced Sign Language as a young child? Yes. Should I have used Sign Language at home and school? There is no doubt the answers would have been “yes”.

I believe knowing what I know now, I would have benefited from being educated in a Deaf school. However, we all know a residential education can raise separation issues at such a young age.

All the professionals within the education and medical profession except one with whom I had contact, were hearing, . The same applies to my parents who followed the Local Authority policies at that time. I often wonder, if Deaf professionals had been involved would other options have been explored and would the advice my parents and I received have been different?

I don’t look back with regret, as I believe that can eat away at you but I wish it had been easier. Had I been better emotionally equipped, I would have gained more from my education and been a happy teenager, my transition into adulthood would have been so much easier. If I had been embraced as ‘Deaf child’ as a starting point rather than an attempt to mould me into a hearing child, things would have been so different.

21 June 2021


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