Who am I?

My name is Joanne,  you may know me as the person who wrote the song ‘Give Us the Sign’  written to support the campaign #Where is the interpreter.  I created a choir in 2020 which had a wonderful mix of people with a vast range of age differences, signing ability and a mix of d/Deaf and hearing people.  We created a video which can be viewed on YouTube signing along to Liv Austen singing the lyrics  ‘Give Us The Sign’.  Have a look and see what you think?Joanne Woodhouse-Roberts

I’m frequently asked about my educational background especially since writing the song therefore I thought I’d take the opportunity and reminisce about my school days. (College days come later!)

At the age of 5 as a profoundly deaf child, (medically speaking) I went to Culloden primary in Dee Street London, it has a hearing impaired unit.(back in my days it was a HIU today you may know it as Resource Base)

Culloden was a tiny elegant school situated next to the Blackwell Tunnel. It isn’t somewhere you would expect to see a primary school but nevertheless the school was lovely, it had 4 blocks, each block would have 4 large classrooms as well as the boys and girls lavatories everything was on ground level.

I was happy at Culloden, it was a ‘close knit family’. There were around 10 deaf children and we all stuck together.  It was an oral school but we had a Teacher of the deaf (TOD) who taught us BSL (unofficially!) now and again. Many of us had finger spelling competitions to see who could finger-spell the alphabet the fastest, like you do!!! There were two school buses that would collect the deaf children from school and vice versa as none of us lived locally and the best thing of all, was the deaf children left school 10 minutes earlier than the hearing children, as we had longer journeys home.

I remember occasionally playing with the hearing children but if I am completely honest I really only mixed with the deaf children. Looking back at a young age of 5/6/7 I knew, I felt comfortable with other deaf children. I recall frequently being told off by the teachers for not using my voice with my deaf friends, as we often spoke to each other without using our voices ( we didn’t sign) just lip sync the words to one another. I suppose as we were all deaf we couldn’t see the point of using our voice!

Culloden were very good at putting all the deaf kids together, despite our ages, we were all put in small groups possibly for practical reasons as we didn’t have many T.O.Ds. From the deaf kids point of view, it encouraged us to play and learn with each other, we loved it and being on the bus together was a bonus. Looking back, I loved Primary, my deafness was never an issue it was all positive, easy going, enjoyable and I thrived.

At the age of 11, I joined St Paul’s Way in Shelmerdine Close London, also an oral school. It was 2/3 miles from Culloden. It was built in 1966, there was nothing cute about the school. It was a huge building full of glass windows brown brick and concrete with 6 floors and wire fence all round.  It wasn’t pretty, nor welcoming and me being a young 11 year old, it was scary from word go!

Culloden was the main feeder school to SPW (for deaf children) many of my deaf friends who had left Culloden before me were already at SPW and many more would follow.

Secondary couldn’t have been more different if it tried. I was the only deaf pupil in my class, in fact I was the only deaf pupil in my year! I was used to having a supportive group of deaf friends and having a TOD with me most of the day, to hardly seeing a TOD and being surrounded by hearing peers, to being alone and feeling lonely.

Of course, being at secondary school meant going from classroom to classroom with different teachers and subjects throughout the day. We all know this can be challenging for any child to adjust to. For me adjusting to lipreading different teachers throughout the day was a mammoth task. I also had new subjects like French. I found English lessons enjoyable but the lessons could be tough, I relied heavily on my friend Angela who sat next to me, without her I would have been none the wiser so imagine how my French lessons went!

Some teachers had wonderful deaf awareness and noted I was there with them in the classroom. They would give me eye contact and acknowledge they had a deaf kid in their class. Others were fond of walking around the classroom, and perhaps thought I came from a Marvel scene with special ‘abilities’ where I was able to lipread the back of their heads and follow them whilst they paced round the classroom!

During years 7 and 8 I rarely interacted with other deaf pupils. I had two hearing friends in my class. Of course we all know that two friends pair well, three is a crowd, and in many cases one often gets kicked out of the crowd. I had my share of being kicked out! Whilst Angela was a life saver during lessons, equally I hated being a deaf pupil relying on the girl sitting next to me to get me through my lessons, it felt so wrong, so degrading, and gave her so much power when it came to the gang of 3!

The first couple of years life at SPW were very lonely.  I felt very isolated as a deaf child. I  was an emotional wreck at the best of times and cried frequently. I liked being with my hearing friends, but it wasn’t the same, it wasn’t enough. I rarely had TOD support during my lessons in mainstream and I never went into the Unit for any lessons. With hindsight and the knowledge I have today, how anyone expected a profoundly deaf pupil to learn without support, is mind boggling. Why did I receive so little support? I do not know. Was it due to the head of Unit’s lack of understanding? Lack of staff? Poor awareness? Too many pupils? Lack of funds or did she (the head)  simply think I’d cope fine?!

I missed my deaf friends terribly. I missed having a bond, being able to communicate with ease, a common ground with other deaf pupils, the power of being in a minority group in my daily life. Being with someone the same as me.  During my time at Lower School I was never encouraged to mix with deaf children or attend the Unit by the teachers. I was quite shy and being so young, I only ever went to the Unit for the odd hearing aid battery and even then I sometimes went without to avoid making an appearance.

The Unit was on the top floor (6th floor), it consisted 4 classrooms and 4 TODs, for a time we shared the corridor with the 6 form but that closed, so we had the whole corridor to ourselves. With hindsight, on the positive side it was lovely all being together, everyone could easily dip into the 4 classrooms with ease and without disturbing the rest of the school. On the negative side, you only saw the Unit pupils when you had trekked all 6 floors. If you didn’t walk up there, no one would have been any the wiser about our existence!  I used to have this burning desire to find my deaf friends in the Unit. I had this terrible guilt and fear if I did this, it could mean leaving my hearing friends and risk getting kicked out the crowd again.  Besides, no one asked me to go to the Unit, in truth I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to go, I didn’t actually know at the time, the purpose of the Unit!

In Year 9, things started to change. I gained confidence and began to meet up with some of the deaf children in the Unit during break times.  I soon got into the swing of being good friends with deaf children again. For me, it was life changing. It reminded me of who I really felt comfortable with. By this time there was a change of Head of Unit.. The replacement head had a better understanding of what deaf children needed, and made some positive changes. With this, and my growing confidence, things improved as well as receiving more support in the classrooms.

Leaving my hearing friends during break times whilst I sought respite with my deaf friends, often meant  returning to a frosty atmosphere. Whilst I was aware they probably didn’t fully understand or approve, it was something I had to do for me, for my sanity. I couldn’t wait for the bell to signal the end of a lesson. I would dash up to what felt like a thousand flights of stairs to meet my deaf friends.

In Year 10 I started doing lessons in the Unit. This was mainly due to hearing children having to chose 4 GCSE options alongside their compulsory subjects such as English, Maths, Science and PE. However, I opted to choose 2 subjects History and Child Development,  therefore it gave me more time to spend in the Unit. As I was doing GCSE I also received a lot more support during lessons in mainstream school.

Years 10 and Year 11 were almost like a home coming! Deaf friends at last….teachers of the deaf who knew how to work with deaf children. gone were the days of trying to follow teachers round the room and lip read in the most impossible conditions! No longer was I in the minority struggling to follow the most simple sentence and constantly playing ‘catch up’!

Sitting next to a TOD in mainstream became my saving grace. They became my friends, my knight in shining armour and fulfilled not only my educational needs in the classroom, but also my emotional needs as they knew I felt so out of place in a hearing environment. They did their best to make a good job of an impossible situation to integrate me into classroom full of hearing kids.

But then I hit another problem, the older I got, the more my hearing peers saw TODs around, the more aware they became of the support I received. My hearing peers saw it was unfair, that a TOD would write notes during lessons, they saw it was unfair I would leave a lesson to go up to the Unit, they complained to a teacher about the unfairness.  In short, the more support I received, the bigger the wedge between myself and the other children in my class became and by the time I got to Year 11. I rarely saw the girl that had been sat next to me in class for years, I didn’t have hearing friends any more!

I battled with my hormones, adolescence, deaf identify, (another article!) frustration, and finally confusion.  The tears stopped flowing but the anger built.  I was confused, felt isolated, and alone. I was in a hearing school and wasn’t comfortable within the hearing environment. It was everything that I wasn’t. I was deaf and yet I never actually met a ‘culturally deaf’ adult nor never met anyone as Deaf or as confused as me. Deaf role -models were non existent back in my day.

I couldn’t communicate, participate or understand the same way as hearing children could. I was told to ‘ listen’ in class and ‘pay attention’ and was expected to follow a task, but I couldn’t hear.  If only they knew how hard it was to concentrate on just trying to work out what they were saying! With a teacher by my side, I had a better chance but the kids didn’t like it.  I would try and ‘act hearing’ to fit in with my hearing peers, but seriously, who was I kidding?!

I often used to ask myself the same question again and again. What on earth am I doing in a hearing school? Who am I? Am I deaf or am I hearing?

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