Education22nd September 2014

UN Convention Education

The decisions on deaf education by this head teacher, other educationalists, policy makers and the political elite is life-limiting on these deaf youngsters.

by Sarah Lawrence

Accessing good education is an essential part of every child’s life. It should be every child’s right to be educated in a way that gives them the opportunity to flourish and to achieve their full potential. Central to that education is communication. Without it, how can teachers impart knowledge, and how can students understand what they are being taught. For deaf students across the UK, the lack of good communication and deaf awareness is letting them down and denying many bright, intelligent and articulate children the education they deserve.

Deaf people in the UK were delighted when the United Nations developed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities introducing the requirement of countries to facilitate the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community. The UK adopted that Convention in 2009, signing up fully to its requirements. It should have been a game changer in respect of deaf children being given the option to learn sign language. It was not. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is true. If I was being kind, the two-finger salute to this Convention shown in many quarters around the UK, is because of ignorance and a lack of awareness. A more cynical assessment might propose there is an attempt across the UK for policy makers and delivery personnel to make British Sign Language extinct.

Central to my concern is education of our deaf kids. I go to lots of different teaching establishments and talk to lots of parents of deaf children. I also talk to deaf children. I went to visit a Hearing Impairment Unit in a Mainstream Primary/Junior School recently where I had the opportunity to chat to six 9 and 10 year olds and three 6 year olds. None of them were BSL users. They all knew a little Sign Supported English (SSE), and the staff were using a mixture of voice and SSE. Some of the children had cochlear implants, and others were wearing hearing aids.

I asked the 9 and 10 year olds to tell me their names. With difficulty, they did so, although none of them knew the correct sign for each of the letters in their name and instead of mouthing their name, they spelled out the letters, B E N. When I started to sign simple stuff and used visual clues to show what I was saying, these children came alive, with one little boy in particular delighting in learning new signs and being able to say a sentence quickly.

I was asked to sit in a group so that the children could show me and explain some of their project work. I am sorry to say, none of them were able to do so readily, with a great deal of teacher intervention needed to get simple messages across. Knowing what I know about deaf education today, it is what I expected, but for 9 and 10 years olds, the lack of vocabulary was still shocking. These children are all captured by the Special Educational Needs system, but they were being treated as educationally disabled, when in fact the majority of these children are as intelligent as other kids, they just need effective deaf communication.

I enjoyed my visit and by the time I left, the children were able to properly sign their name and use some other signs in context, but I left angry at the limitations being imposed on their achievements by the school. It took me back to my childhood, when teachers used to write on my reports, “Considering Sarah’s disability, her academic achievements are very good.” In many quarters and despite a generation to improve since my school days, it seems attitudes remain the same. Those deaf children who do well and go on to have a university education, deserve a medal, because they are remarkable and are probably lucky to have had teachers who have fully embraced and responded to their deafness. This should be the norm, not the exception!

After my visit to this one school, I found myself reflecting on the communication level of these 9 and 10 years olds, and those of a 5 year old I interviewed on camera at a recent deaf football match. The 5 year old, who had been exposed to BSL in his Deaf family, could chat easily and readily, answering questions and giving opinions without difficulty. The children at the school could not communicate effectively with me, a fellow deafie, a hearing colleague who was with me, or to their teaching assistant. The kids were like a brand new, sleek and shiny 8 cylinder sports car that no-one could be bothered to put the petrol into.

Causing me a great deal of angst afterwards, the icing on the cake came through some feedback from the school. The children had loved the visit and the opportunity to meet with me, but the head teacher had given an instruction afterwards that none of these deaf children should be exposed to BSL again! They were being taught through SSE!

Yet again, decisions for these deaf youngsters were being made by a hearing head teacher who lacked ambition for these children because she does not understand that deaf means not being able to hear, not a lack of intelligence. A more clear breach of the Convention you couldn’t get, but who will challenge it. Does anyone even care?

The decisions on deaf education by this head teacher, other educationalists, policy makers and the political elite is life-limiting on these deaf youngsters. Even before they leave Junior School, their future will be limited because they are not being given the chance to get the same results as other children. Not because they are thick, or dumb as I was still told only a few days ago, but because good lines of communication are not in place.

Why is it thought that SSE, a communication tool, is better for deaf youngsters than BSL, a full language? Why does that barrier exist for BSL? Why do so many deaf people have to wait until after their school days are over before they learn their own language if they do not come from deaf signing families? Surely, that is what the Convention was all about, and yet it seems to have introduced no change at all here in the UK.

Head teachers who make unilateral decisions to deprive deaf children access to BSL need to be challenged and educated. The low esteem in which many of them hold their deaf students needs to change so that there is an expectation that deaf children can achieve the same results as their hearing counterparts. Education Authorities need to take a stance on BSL that conforms to the UN Convention, whereas most Local Authorities probably don’t even know it exists. What is the point of these things if national Governments can roundly ignore their requirements and not bother telling people to change. Ah, of course, our politicians and teachers think they know what is best for our deaf children than the international experts, that must be it!

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Community / Education

22nd September 2014