Sign language and the education of deaf pupils – personal experiences
A feature of this website is the inclusion of personal experiences of the topic under consideration. This makes it possible to include different perspectives, including accounts from professionals and consumers, and different views on decisions that have been made.
We welcome these contributions at any time, and guidance for contributors is given in the overview of the project section.
We are also happy to include here links to signed contributions.
- My LASER story – Miranda Pickersgill Miranda was for many years a Teacher of the Deaf and was Head of Leeds Deaf and Hearing-Impaired Service, 1987-2000
- Education anecdotes – Robin Caley Robin is currently Chief Executive Officer of Deaf Direct after a long career in social work, social work training and management of Deaf Centres
- Culture shock 1973-6 the seemingly unbridgeable gap! – Miranda Pickersgill Miranda was for many years a Teacher of the Deaf and was Head of Leeds Deaf and Hearing-Impaired Service, 1987-2000
- A linguist reflects on Sign Supported English (SSE) – Bencie Woll Bencie is currently Director of the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre, University College London. As a linguist, she has been involved in research on sign language and deaf studies since 1978.
- A Language for Ben – Lorraine Fletcher Lorraine has been a teacher and later in her career a Teacher of the Deaf. She is mother of Sarah who is hearing and Ben who is deaf.
- Margaret Keir: Introduction of Sign Language in the Education of Deaf Children at Garvel Deaf Centre in Greenock Margaret was Head of Service for Deaf and Hearing-impaired Children in Inverclyde 1974-1999 including Pre-school Home Visiting provision; Garvel School for Nursery and Primary-age Children; Secondary Unit in Gourock High School; Peripatetic Service.
- Sara Head: Developing a bilingual approach to the education of deaf children Sara is currently Assistant Headteacher (Lower School), Heathlands School St Albans and previously Teacher in charge of bilingual programme and Head of Primary department, Royal School for the Deaf, Derby.
In the first account, Miranda Pickersgill describes the work of the organisation, LASER, its early small beginnings and its developing role in major discussions about the use of sign language in deaf education. In the next two accounts, Robin Caley and Miranda Pickersgill describe, from their very different perspectives, the struggles to get signing taken seriously in education in the 1960s and 70s. In the fourth account Bencie Woll discusses the use of SSE in the classroom, but the problems that can arise without a clear understanding of its roots in British Sign Language (BSL). In the fifth account, Lorraine Fletcher describes the importance to her of getting a deaf person to work with her young deaf son Ben, the difficulty of finding the right person and the relief when one was found. In the sixth piece, Margaret Keir describes introducing a bilingual approach to the education of deaf pupils after a considerable period of using signs and sign language in Garvel School, Greenock. Sara Head, in the seventh piece also reflects upon the introduction of a bilingual approach but focuses on the early decisions that had to be made in the period immediately following its introduction at the Royal School for the Deaf, Derby.
In the late 1970s, the first Centres of Deafness and Sign Language Research were being established at Moray House College, Edinburgh (under Mary Brennan) and at Bristol University (under Jim Kyle and Bencie Woll). One of the courses run by the Bristol centre was a “Certificate in Professional Studies, Sign Language” on which I enrolled in 1979. This was the first course to present the latest sign language research findings in a way which was relevant to one’s work, in my case teaching. It was on this course that I met two other teachers (Rachel Wilson and Claire Wickham) who, along with others, subsequently became the organisation to be known as LASER.
Within a year of starting work at Derrymount School in Nottingham, I renewed contact with Rachel and Claire. The three of us felt that it was important to continue the dialogue and to explore further what we had learned on the course. Like many teachers, we sought to better understand what and why things happened and welcomed any opportunity to study and share with others. It was partly as a result of this shared spirit of enquiry that the organisation LASER came about. At the same time, a new name was achieving prominence b Fletcher. Lorraine and Ray Fletcher had made the decision to use BSL from the start with their deaf son Ben and with friends and family. This initiative had been picked up by Tyne Tees Television which was starting to produce TV programmes for deaf people. ‘Language for Ben’ was the outcome of this – initially a TV series and later a book written by Lorraine Fletcher. Lorraine and Ray had done their homework on BSL, not making their decision lightly. Prior to Ben’s starting his local nursery they came to visit Derrymount and were so taken by Syd Stone, my deaf colleague (who died in 1987), that they immediately started to recruit a deaf person to work with Ben. They were fortunate in acquiring the services of Judith Collins, a remarkable deaf woman whose impact on Ben was immediate and long-lasting. Sadly, Judith died in 2014.
One Saturday in the autumn of 1983, I convened a meeting at Nottingham Deaf Centre, to bring together those people who were interested in pursuing the development and use of BSL with deaf children. It was a small gathering of largely local people with a few teachers, Social Workers, Speech and Language Therapists, parents of deaf children and deaf people who were working in settings which were starting to use BSL officially. There was a great deal of interest in the topic but a lack of information about where to start or how to go about it. The initial meetings were very informal, held in Deaf Centres, homes and schools; they were an opportunity to share ideas and practice. People talked openly about the work they were doing; everyone was expected to sign for themselves which was quite a challenge!
Gradually the meetings became more structured with guest speakers and interpreters. After some discussion the group adopted the name LASER. From the start we made notes from our meetings (written up on a typewriter!) and circulated these to those who had been present. This was way before the days of email and the internet so communication was largely by phone, Minicom and post. Within a few meetings we were recording our deliberations in a newsletter, LASERBEAM, which, thanks to Lorraine and another parent of a deaf child, Riki Kittel, became a regular publication.
Up until 1986 LASER was a small, informal group, holding workshops on topics of interest, fairly low-key and really acting as a support group for the range of people who were trying to use BSL in their educational (and other) work. I enjoyed these times despite the work involved, as the meetings were extremely productive and gave me much-needed support for my classroom teaching. It was good to bring together people from such a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines, deaf and hearing, all sharing the same goal of the effective use of BSL in the education of deaf children. LASER became the forum through which sign bilingual thinking and practice would evolve.
Soon after I moved to Leeds in 1986 there was a shift in LASER’s activities, one result of which was that it started to take up more and more of my time at a point when in fact I had even less time than before! It was decided (in response to members’ demands) to hold an annual conference and from late-1987 this became the place to see and to be seen! Membership of the organisation grew and the content of events became more serious and far-reaching. BSL as a subject was arousing considerable interest – all the more so when combined with education. There was plenty of material to present and plenty of people who were interested in receiving it. During the lifetime of LASER, significant research into BSL and its use continued to take place. More research centres were springing up and increasing numbers of deaf people were becoming researchers. More and more UK universities were setting up interpreter training courses, linguistics courses and high level BSL courses. CACDP’s qualifications in BSL were responding to the upsurge in interest in learning the language. Students on these courses as well as education staff and others with an interest in BSL in education were keen to attend LASER events.
For about 10 years (1986-1996), LASER’s profile was high; events and publications were in great demand. LASER meetings grew both in size and frequency along with annual conferences, usually held in Deaf Centres. The first of these took place in Derby on the day of the Great Storm of 1987! Despite the disruption to travel, people came from far and wide to this event which was a turning point in the life of LASER. The format for the annual conference was keynote speakers in the morning followed by workshops in the afternoon which added to the logistical complexity of the day, especially with the provision of refreshments! To all of these events we were able to attract important speakers including Mary Brennan (by then at Durham University and who sadly died in 2005) who was a regular guest speaker and hugely supportive of our endeavours. We also attracted speakers from abroad such as Patrice Dalle who was heading up bilingual education at France at the time. I will never forget Brigitte McWhinney’s amazing interpretation from his French into BSL and spoken English and vice versa!
In some ways, for me the conferences were less useful than the smaller events we had held previously as I was so involved in the organisation of the day that I rarely had time to relax and join in. However, we did tackle some issues which were highly topical such as cochlear implants and the roles of deaf adults and Communication Support Workers. These events generated documents which colleagues could use in their own work. For example, there were at the time some concerns about the proliferation of CSWs. LASER provided a forum to discuss these concerns and produced guidelines and standards. It was an area which I would need to revisit a number of times during my career!
Increasingly it fell to LASER to define what was meant by sign bilingual education and this presented an opportunity for us to produce a model and guidelines which could act as a yardstick for service and school development. I enjoyed working on the model document with Sue Gregory (and others). It was certainly needed. Listing the principles, the conditions and key ingredients, indicating the range of languages and means of communication, gave us a yardstick against which developments could be measured. It had been interesting to get to that stage by looking at many examples of bilingualism in spoken language populations as well as its emergence in sign language users. There was a consistent central core to all of this which one could apply whilst recognising what was different in deaf populations. The document was an attempt to define the minimum conditions for sign bilingual education whilst showing the range of children who could be accommodated. It was rather ‘black and white’ but it did what it said on the tin! Also LASER had been the vehicle to get it out into the public domain which felt appropriate.
It was 23 years ago, in 1992, that the BSL Dictionary was published, after what seemed to be a very long wait and the authors (Mary Brennan and David Brien) asked for it to be launched at a LASER conference. I remember this publication being planned in the mid-70s when Alan Hayhurst was in charge of the BDA. Over time the dictionary project had become more and more complex; the goalposts were moved several times but eventually there it was. It is interesting that initially it was felt that without a dictionary, BSL would not be accepted as a bona fide language. In fact, in the course of the development of the dictionary, this acceptance had happened anyway and by the time the mighty tome was published, although it was greeted with fanfares, I donbt think it had the place in BSL literature which had been intended. Maybe this is a topic for another contribution to the website?
As more and more people were involved in BSL research and training, some of the comradeship and co-operation prevalent in the ’80s, had started to break down and rivalries began to appear. The small group of interpreters, linguists and deaf researchers on whom people like myself had come to depend, started to break up or disappear. People moved on into new positions. Others who did not have the same background, took their place, unaware of the battles that had been fought over the previous two decades to get to where we were.
These changes started to affect LASER. We were a small group of committed people who ran the organisation, meeting regularly as a committee to plan future events and edit our publications. For all of us, this was additional to work and other commitments. The only funds for LASER came from annual membership and from this we had to pay for all the expenses of our events and publications. As the membership got bigger and conference organisation more complex, cracks were beginning to appear. People were unable to continue to do what was required and dropped out; there were no volunteer replacements. Towards the end of the ’90s, the organisation was in decline and in 2001 it was officially wound up. Perhaps it had run its course and was no longer needed. No other organisation had taken on its work although the issues were by then more widely known and supported. Nevertheless, it was a sad day when I wrote to the remaining members announcing LASERbs demise. The remaining funds were transferred to the Sign Bilingual Consortium hosted by Frank Barnes School and the stock of LASER publications joined the archive of the British Deaf History Society and the library of Moray House College in Edinburgh.
I would be interested to find out about the impact of LASER on readers of this website. It would also be good to ask some of the contributors to LASERBEAM between 1983 and 2001 for permission to reproduce their articles, many of which are personal accounts. I hope readers would find these interesting, if somewhat dated! I remain very grateful to everyone who gave their time and energy to this pioneering radical and exciting organisation. I still hold a copy of every document LASER produced although some pages are rather faded and dog-eared! It is the only organisation of which I was ever made Life President (although LASER’s life turned out to be rather shorter than mine!).
Robin’s experience with Deaf people began in 1963 when he went to the Hull and East Riding Institute for the Deaf and Dumb to learn communication for the Duke of Edinburgh award. In his long career he has had extensive experience in welfare and social work with deaf people including involvement in developing training courses. He has also been actively involved in education being, among other positions, Chair of Governors at Longwill School for the Deaf in Birmingham. He is currently Chief Executive Officer of Deaf Direct.
I came to work in Birmingham in July 1980 as Director of the Birmingham Institute for the Deaf (BID). There were three schools for the deaf: Longwill; Braidwood and Royal. All were oral schools but Royal, which was residential, allowed signing after school. I had an approach from Jessica Hills, Deputy Head at Braidwood, to ask if I could teach the staff who were involved in teaching the children who had additional problems. These children were going to be allowed to use sign language but definitely not with the other children. I asked David Hyslop (Breakthrough Trust) if he would do some joint teaching with me. We went across to meet the Head and during the meeting I signed with David. He was then strongly rebuked for signing back. Afterwards I said to David he will get far worse from me if he ever lets a hearing person tell him how he should communicate. We became bosom buddies. Jessica knew once we had a foot in the door signing would start to become acceptable.
A change of Head led to a steady improvement. Teachers still had to give up their own time in order to develop their skills. If they needed to learn new skills for the curriculum (maths/reading) they could take time off school. Total communication was the bin wordb. CACDP (Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People) was just about to start. I was invited to preach at the School’s Harvest festival. I deliberately used a mix and match method (BSL/SSE/speech). I told funny stories which had the children laughing. Afterwards when we were having lunch the Head said “I wasn’t happy with the way you were communicating; we normally just speak at assemblies”. I asked him if the children understood me? Another teacher answered “I would give you 8 out of 10 and we are lucky if we get 3 out of 10 in the classroom”. I was invited back the next year and I enquired “How do you want me to communicate?” “Just please yourself- we use all methods these days” At last!
Whilst all this was going on at Braidwood, Longwill staff were asking why hasn’t the new man at BID come to our school. They were told I was too busy! Although the Head liked me he didnbt want me influencing communication methods. Eventually I did get an invitation and I agreed to teach the staff. Remember classes were still new, there were very few tutors and no trained tutors (nowadays this would never happen but it was only 30 years ago.) Most of the staff gave up their time and were keen to learn. One of the staff, who was a very skilled Teacher of the Deaf but a rank oralist, was bitterly opposed to me coming in. If I was in the staff room, she would walk out. You can’t win them all.
I used to find it frustrating when school leavers came to BID and you couldnbt make head nor tail of what they were saying. Equally I found it uncomfortable when they felt embarrassed if you signed to them. Thank God for children at Longwill and Braidwood that is a thing of the past. Now there is a sense of pride and there are adult Deaf role models in the schools. In the last 10 years, whenever I attended a function at Longwill, in my capacity as Chair of Governors, I always had this feeling of pride.
Whilst working in a very rural part of North Wales in the late 60s/early 70s, a family moved there. Dad was profoundly deaf and a sign language user (before BSL was recognised), Mum was hearing and they had two profoundly deaf children. There was no school for the Deaf in North Wales and children were sent to a residential school in England. I used to visit the family home regularly especially when the children were home. One day I was visiting the school and the two children saw me in the playground. They came running over very excited and signed, telling me all about their trip with Daddy to Blackpool and gave vivid descriptions of the rides they had been on. A teacher came walking across, slapped the back of their hands and said ‘speak’. The children looked at me, clammed up and said ‘speak’ and then ran off. You can imagine my fury. However, I didn’t want to cause a situation but as they ran away I said to the teacher ‘don’t ever do that in front of me again!’. At the time the school was still oral but became much more tolerant later, eventually accepting Total communication as their approach.
Back in the early 80s I was visiting the LEA school for the Deaf (age 3-16). The teacher was teaching geography and there was a map of Britain. It was a class of 14 year olds and one of the boys had been expelled from three schools for the Deaf including Larchmoor which was for ‘maladjusted deaf youths’ (sic). This particular boy had very poor speech but was a fluent signer and very bright although very wayward. Birmingham and London were highlighted on the map and the teacher wanted the class to repeat the word ‘LONDON’. This lad kept putting his hand up but was ignored. The others duly said ‘London’ and were praised. I pointed out that the lad wanted to say something. He then started to explain that “he used to go to a school near London and when he went down on the train they went underneath these long arches which carried boats and it was called an aqueduct”. When he finished the teacher gave a pleasant nod. I knew she hadn’t understood so I said would you like me to tell you what he has just explained. She was amazed at what she heard.
Birmingham School leavers’ course
I was running a school leavers’ course and preparing the students for adult life. I used to insist the course was run at the Deaf centre and the children had to make their own way there. The schools happily agreed to my demands. One day before the course started, two lads were making tea and were having a very detailed animated discussion. The teacher who normally joint taught with me was off so another one came that day. She had a strong oral background and noticed the boys debating. Her comment was “Oh dear look at that – not a single lip pattern between them”. Again I knew she had no idea what was being discussed so I interpreted for her. I said they are discussing the pros and cons of the Government’s Youth Training Scheme (YTS). One thinks it is great and gives you a chance to prove yourself and hopefully leads to full employment, the other thought it was exploiting young people. She couldn’t believe they could be having such an informed discussion. I take my hat off to the teacher because she said b”that has convinced me that I must learn to sign, my pupils are missing out on too much”. She did and she passed CACDP stages 1 and 2 before leaving the area.
Working in Cheshire they only had a few units attached to mainstream schools. Some were good and some not so good. If the Head of the school was keen to have a unit, there was more likelihood of success. I worked closely with one unit and the teacher was great – so open to ideas and opportunities. It was agreed I could take the school leavers to a BDA residential course for school leavers in Yorkshire. Most of the children attending were from signing schools. The first night, our children looked like fish out of water – they had never been in a signing environment. Thanks to the wonderful leadership on the course they quickly integrated and by the end of day three didn’t want to come home. They demonstrated a confidence I hadn’t seen before.
My first teaching post in 1973 was at Beverley School for the Deaf in Middlesbrough. Like most newly qualified Teachers of the Deaf, I believed in what I had been told on my course – the Manchester oral method. I was young (23) and extremely inexperienced with a limited view of the world. I think that was typical of the time and helped to account for the strength of oralism in that it was a fairly closed world and not open to challenge. Once I was in the classroom the reality of teaching deaf children hit me. I was struggling and, at times, desperate. I could not communicate with the children nor them with me. I can still remember how this felt. Initially I thought the difficulties I was having were my fault, that I wasn’t doing the Manchester method properly. Then I wondered what it was about the children that meant they couldn’t make sense of what I was trying to do. Some colleagues gave the impression that so long as one was using the method correctly it didn’t matter but I could’t handle not understanding or being understood by the children. So I swiftly concluded that there must be another, better way.
I had little or no encouragement from the profession. During my first year of teaching, I wrote a letter which was published in the magazine of the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf. In this letter I questioned why there had been no reference to deaf people or to the use of sign in the training I had received. It was a cry for help from a young and inexperienced teacher. In the following edition of the magazine, a response was printed from one of the elders of deaf education; this was a dismissive and patronising put-down. However, in the next edition, there was a follow-up from Molly Kennedy, Head of Heathlands School at the time, criticising the response and arguing that new young teachers like me should be encouraged to question and challenge. I was suitably encouraged!
I was fortunate in having contact with the local social worker with deaf people soon after I started at Beverley School. Cath Smith visited the school regularly, I think largely through her own insistence. I was fortunate in having in my class a child with deaf parents for whom Cath was needed to interpret. She was able to show me the opportunities for my learning to sign locally and towards the end of my first year, this was a lifeline. But the school did not support this new contact nor the influence that Cath was having and once I started to use sign, however badly, this was not well-received.
However, it was a separate opportunity which really changed things for me. One day while I was at Beverley School, one of the other teachers, Colin Tinkler, asked me if I would like to accompany him in taking a group of secondary pupils on a BDA (British Deaf Association) ‘Mountain Venture’ course in Keswick. I had had no contact with the BDA prior to this but the prospect of a week in the fells doing walking, climbing and canoeing appealed to me greatly. The course was organised by Margaret Moore, the Further Education and Youth Officer for the BDA at that time, and the instructors were all deaf people with expertise in the field. This was another shock to the system! Deaf people who had never met the children before, teaching them how to rock climb, to manage a canoe, to read a map, to do first aid and know about the mountain rescue service. All done in sign, no need for Colin and me. Complete mutual understanding. I couldnbt believe my eyes.
At night, in the girls’ dormitory, I would bombard Margaret with questions. She was very patient. I barely slept, I was so excited! On walks, I would bring up the rear since I didn’t have the signing skills to explain what we were doing. The deaf sports instructors were superb. I had never before seen deaf people in charge or teaching. I had assumed that this would never happen. Yet the children looked so at home and at ease (which of course they were). I watched how the deaf instructors explained things to the children, how they responded to their queries and anxieties, how they told jokes, all the time thinking that I would try out such things back at school. The BDA was one of the few organisations to give deaf people not just opportunities for socialising and learning, but also for teaching. It was in its heyday at that time.
That summer I arranged with Margaret Moore that I would volunteer at some of the courses run during the school holidays. One of these was another ‘Mountain Venture’ course in the Lake District, for older deaf people (i.e. not school children). These were exciting times and I was privileged in being one of the few hearing people taking part in what were the only courses available at the time which brought deaf people together in this way. I was also totally immersed in sign for weeks on end and was starting to make some progress. I met Ruth Sutcliffe (now Roberts) and her parents Brenda and Tom at this time. They were active in the BDA as well as in Oxford and London. Both were hugely respected and were extremely generous and kind to me during a time of huge angst about how I was ever going to be able to sign properly and to succeed as a teacher. There was quite a bit of animosity towards Teachers of the Deaf at the time, and at times I felt responsible for all the faults of the teaching profession. As so few Teachers of the Deaf went to deaf events, I was often the target for the anger of deaf people and social workers. At around this time I was introduced to Clark (Denmark) and Maureen (Reed) in Paisley and was told in no uncertain terms, what they thought of Teachers of the Deaf. But at least I was trying to do something about it.
The following year, Colin and I once again took a group from Beverly to Keswick. This time, Margaret Moore was not there, having left the BDA to train as a history teacher I believe. Her replacement was Peter Llewellyn-Jones who had worked with Margaret and then taken over when she left. Peter was more skilled in sign than Margaret had been and this was the first time that I had seen a hearing person communicate so well with deaf people and interpret between them and hearing presenters. Suddenly the bar had been raised!
It was after this course that Peter and ‘became an item’ although he was living near Carlisle and I was in Guisborough, North Yorkshire. During the school holidays, I would accompany Peter on the courses he was running. This included summer schools for older deaf people in places like Barrowby and Canterbury. I remember also that we visited John Denmarkbs unit for deaf people with mental health problems in the North West. John was a charismatic character who spoke passionately and with good reason about the failure of oralism and the damage this had done to the lives of many deaf people who had ended up needing his specialist centre. I believe that this was the only facility of its kind in the country at the time and that one of the patients was a deaf woman whose profile had been used for the BDA’s logo. During the course of 1975-6 I was fortunate in meeting a number of deaf and hearing people who played an important part in developments in the deaf world at that time. They all spoke passionately about the state of deaf education and yet the gap between this and what I was familiar with at Beverley School seemed unbridgeable. I spent the next 30 years trying to bring the two very different worlds closer together!
I first began thinking seriously in the early 1980s about why SSE (Sign Supported English) appeared so ineffective. I had gone to observe some lessons at a small deaf school (long since closed). The teacher was attempting to teach the children how to tell time using a wooden play clock with moveable hands and communicating in SSE. She asked the children to move the hands of the clock to show 5 past 2. One by one the children came up to the front of the room, and each one placed the hands so that the time shown was 5 to 2. As she kept insisting ‘5 past 2’, I realised that the sign she was using was the BSL sign PAST meaning ‘in the past’, ‘ago’, etc. and the children were clearly understanding this as meaning beforeb or ‘in the past’, therefore interpreting the sentence as meaning ‘5 before 2’. As a linguist and psycholinguist, that led me to think about lexical choice, how deaf children were so frequently exposed to this sort of mismatch between sign and word meaning and in a broader sense to recognise the importance of awareness of the difference between output by teachers and uptake by deaf children.
Lorraine has been a teacher and later in her career a Teacher of the Deaf. She is mother of Sarah who is hearing and Ben who is deaf. Ben was born in 1980 and diagnosed when he was 10 months old. The following is taken from her book ‘A Language for Ben’ based on her diaries and describes the search for a deaf assistant to work with Ben in nursery, an unusual provision at that time.
At the deaf club, Ben picks out people to watch. He does not just watch anybody; he watches the people who interest him. And none of the people who apply to work with him interest him . . .
Judith arrives at the Nursery with her mother and they stand in the wet area, conversing in sign. Judith’s clothes are bright; her smile can light up an entire room. Ben watches her. The other children watch her. The Nursery staff watch her, with little, satisfied smiles. I talk to her and to her mother about Ben and what we want from him. Yes, they agree with us completely. Her mother gestures towards Judith. Look at her, she says. She has grown up with BSL. Her education began long before she started school, at home with her parents, because they could communicate. Judith adds that, as she got older, she learned English, and now she has two languages. She can sign in English, but with Ben she would prefer to use BSL – it’s quicker; it will catch his attention better. Talking to Judith and her mother makes me feel good; they think we have made the right decision and Judith seems to have the skill and confidence to carry the idea through.
At the end of the afternoon, Judith joins the children for their end of session ‘quiet time’. ‘She joined in!!!’ the staff report delightedly afterwards. ‘She seemed to know exactly what to do. The children loved her! But will she apply? Will she want to work with us?’
Yes, Judith will apply, despite the low pay.
After the interviews, Judith is called back and offered the post. And she accepts. And I am delighted.
The officer from the LEA comes to talk to me afterwards. He is amazed, he says, at what he has learned this afternoon about the deaf, and about deaf education. He is very grateful to have had the opportunity of being involved. He has mentioned to Judith, he says, the possibility of this project being continued into primary school, if she would be willing to stay on. He will follow our progress with interest, and he offers his very best wishes for next year. His attitude gives me great satisfaction – and confirms my faith in ‘ordinary’ educators, who, like the nursery staff, and the educational psychologist, are not afraid to give their backing to something new. If it were not for them, these ‘unaffiliated’ professionals, the events of today could not have happened.
As I go outside, and throw my arms around Judith, who has been waiting anxiously throughout, I am conscious, too, that if it had not been for her constant support, and that all of my friends, I might well have given up long ago.
At last, the work is really over. Now, for the first time in months, I can rest. When Ray comes home and hears the news he takes it quietly. Someone asks if we will celebrate. We haven’t got the strength to celebrate. We are both absolutely worn out, me, from the pressure, Ray from coping with me under pressure. We both feel that now, maybe, we can get back to being an ordinary family again. I have done all this for Ben. At the moment, I hardly know the child, and poor Sarah, just reaching the end of her first year at school, has had so little attention recently that it is a wonder she still has any faith in us at all. But now we can start rebuilding. Now, we can begin our return to normality.
Head of Service for Deaf and Hearing-impaired Children in Inverclyde 1974-1999 including Pre-school Home Visiting provision; Garvel School for Nursery and Primary-age Children; Secondary Unit in Gourock High School; Peripatetic Service.
In 1974 I was appointed Head Teacher at Garvel, where deaf children had received an oral education since its establishment by Alexander Graham Bell in 1878. Garvel was reputedly the first school of its kind in Scotland. My role also included responsibility for the Peripatetic Service in the Inverclyde area and later for the Secondary Unit which was set up in Gourock High School 1976.
I had been trained on the oral Course for Teachers of the Deaf at Manchester University, the only such Centre in the UK at that time. My experience of using sign language in education was a limited knowledge of the Paget Gorman Sign System which I had used previously in Aberdeen School for the Deaf and with deaf/blind children in Suffolk.
During 1976 Garvel staff began to agitate for the use of sign with the children. We had a new teacher with no previous experience of working with deaf children but with plenty of common sense. Her comment is indelibly imprinted on my mind. bThese children are being sacrificed to a system.b I decided to do something about it.
A recent appointment to the Training Course for Teachers of the Deaf at Moray House College of Education in Edinburgh had been Martin Colville. In December 1976 he came to Garvel to discuss ‘Manual Communication’. In January 1977 he began taking ‘Visual Communication’ classes with staff and parents. By May ’77 the term ‘Total Communication’, an import from America, was being used. Classes for staff and parents continued to be available over the years with many Deaf adults accepting the role of tutor. It has to be stressed that at this time not very much was known about the Language of the Deaf. Most people, including our Deaf tutors, did not recognise it as a language. It was seen as a means of making oneself understood by a series of gestures.
The late Dr. Mary Brennan was working in the English Department at Moray House in 1976. She was asked to give two linguistics lectures per week to trainee Teachers of the Deaf. As part of her preparation for these lectures she visited Schools for the Deaf to observe how the children were being taught and acquiring language. She also visited Deaf Clubs to meet Deaf adults. The result of her investigations was the publication of a ground-breaking pamphlet, ‘Can Deaf Children Acquire Language?’. In May ’77 she began Linguistic Analysis with the children at Garvel.
Soon after this we began to receive visits from linguists and others working in the field of sign language in different countries, notably Scandinavia, Holland and the USA. These included Willard Madsen, a Deaf Professor from Gallaudet College in Washington and Dr. Britta Hansen who was researching Sign Language in Denmark. By this time other schools in the UK had begun to introduce sign. The Scottish Educational Signs Committee was formed under the mistaken belief that, although we did not have a proper understanding of how the language evolved, we had a right to invent signs for use in the classroom. In Garvel we were using a version of Signed English in an effort to present as much of an English sentence as possible in sign in the belief that children could acquire English this way.
Gradually we began to see that what our pupils really needed was a naturally acquired language. During my time teaching deaf children in Aberdeen I had often wondered how it was that the children of Deaf parents always seemed to acquire the best written English skills. Was it because they were totally accepted as Deaf people at home and were consequently happy and relaxed and so learned more readily? In fact it was some time before I understood that, having acquired BSL as a first language when they were babies and toddlers they therefore had a sound basis on which to build a second language, English.
Not understanding the structure of BSL we frequently to our shame did not recognise its use in the children and even accused them of sloppy signing. On one memorable occasion Garvel pupils and staff were visiting the Home for Elderly Deaf People in Glasgow. The children were doing their best to converse with the old people. We were amazed when one old lady, pointing to a little girl whose parents were Deaf, announced, b”That wee girl comes from a Deaf home, doesn’t she?”. Her ease of communication in BSL had been recognised. Although our understanding and knowledge was evolving all the time our BSL skills were very limited and very slowly acquired. I have a vivid memory of visiting a two-and-a-half year old deafened boy at home. I knew quite a bit about BSL by that time but was still guilty of making a typical hearing personbs mistake. We were on the floor, playing with toy vehicles. He had a little van in his hand. I signed, “Open the door”, using a flat hand movement, hinging from the wrist. He repeated, “Open the doorb”, using two flat hands sliding apart, a movement much more appropriate for that particular van door.
I also remember attending a lecture in Glasgow given by Professor William Stokoe who was doing research into American Sign Language. I posed the question, “Can deaf children acquire BSL when teachers are not using it?”. His response that they couldn’t was rather disheartening to say the least! However we were to find that this was not necessarily the case. The secret was to allow free and uninhibited communication without correction. The children when regularly exposed to fluent BSL from Deaf adults, eventually became fluent themselves. They became much better exponents than their teachers. They developed BSL although we were not using it.”
In written language correction was avoided in the early stages. Whatever was offered was accepted and so confidence was built up. At first the children’s written language showed very little sign of English structure. The temptation would have been to cover their work with bcorrectionsb. But what they were producing was not bwrongb. It was an expression of the stage they were at. In time grammatical features of English, such as plurals and verb endings began to appear here and there. These could be pointed out to the child and then recorded.
Many children throughout the country were not having access to their first language at the optimum time, in infancy. I was convinced that this was not the way it should be. Deaf children deserved better. What they really deserved were Deaf Teachers of the Deaf, working alongside hearing teachers at home and then at school. In that way they would have been given equal opportunities with hearing children in the acquisition of language. There is now sufficient evidence to show that acquiring Sign as a first language, far from having a detrimental effect on a child’s acquisition of English, actually makes it a lot easier.
There was continual opposition to our use of Sign from many quarters, particularly from other members of the profession and that was sometimes hard to take. Nevertheless the Garvel approach to Deaf Education was becoming well known. In April 1979 Moray House Outside Broadcasting Unit made a Total Communication film, “Deafness No Barrier”. In October 1980 the BBC Horizon Programme featured Garvel, starring our first pupil to have had sign language input from the beginning of his education. In 1988 another video,bBridging the Gapb was made, this time by the TVEI Communication Unit at St. Columbabs School in Greenock.
Research into British Sigh Language was progressing apace with a Research Project having been set up at Moray House under Dr. Brennan. We attended as many of the courses and conferences as we could, including international conferences held in Edinburgh, a conference on the BSL notation system (it was now possible to transfer signs into a written form), a ten-week course of seminars on BSL and courses for the Certificate for Sign Language Communicators. From 1990 -1995 I undertook a distance learning Masters Degree in Deaf Studies from Durham University.
Although the School section of our Service was very small – sometimes with only half a dozen pupils – staff, parents and the Deaf Community both locally and further afield, were very keen to maintain its autonomy. In the mid-eighties the Local Authority proposed the closure of Garvel with relocation to a room in a local Primary School. With support from parents, the Deaf Community and local and national media the attempt was defeated.
In November 1984 Dr. Brennan began linguistic assessments of the pupils and the BSL features of their language expression began to be more clearly appreciated. Throughout the development of our language programme there was on-going involvement of many Deaf adults, working with staff and children, providing role models and making videos for the children of story books and reading books. Their contribution was indispensable.
From early on in our use of sign, video records were kept of each child’s BSL development. When they left school they then received the gift of a copy of their record. By 1996 we had begun introducing the children to the idea of the existence of the two languages. This was accomplished with the involvement of a Deaf adult. The work and commitment of class teacher Margaret Crawford in this area was invaluable. The plan was to help the development of both languages. The children were shown an extract of a piece of video taken of themselves during bNews Timeb. They repeated what they saw and were then helped to translate this into English. This presented the ideal opportunity to talk about grammatical points which cropped up. So English began to be taught as a second language. By 1997 the children were translating their own news from BSL into English. In 1998 they were learning about Classifiers and Directional Verbs in BSL and Adverbs and Clauses in English.
In 1999, before I retired, an Outline Language Programme had been drawn up. At that time we had video film of the stories of the Oxford Reading Tree Reading Scheme told in BSL so that the concepts of the stories were understood before they were presented in English. BSL was being recognised by the children in video stories told by Deaf adults and a start was being made at translating these into English.
The whole process was very time-consuming and required great patience. Sometimes progress was very slow. The constraints of the curriculum made it difficult to take frequent samples of each childbs linguistic progress but there were lots of encouraging moments. The support and advice we received from Dr. Mary Brennan and Martin Colville were indispensible. None of what was achieved would have been possible without it. I was fortunate also to have had dedicated and highly skilled members in the teaching and non-teaching staff in the three branches of the Service.
I consider it a great privilege to have been at the forefront of BSL research and its application to Deaf Education.
In 1990 RSD advertised for a teacher to take the lead in the Sign Bilingual project at Derby. I was fortunate to get the job and the project started in September 1990 with a class of six profoundly deaf pupils. Initially the plan was to have two teachers working together, a deaf teacher who used BSL and a hearing teacher who used English.
However, it soon became clear that this level of double staffing was not necessary if the class teacher was him/herself bilingual. So after one term a model was developed where the majority of the children’s curriculum was delivered by a teacher through BSL with an emphasis on developing English as a second language through reading and writing and oral/aural skills through specially designed, topic-related modules. This oral component was delivered in close collaboration with the speech and language therapists and made considerable use of role play and videoing to support the children’s understanding. For example during a topic on houses and homes the children role played Estate agents and practised oral phrases and languages linked to describing houses. Oral work within the class led up to a real life visit (in the case mentioned to an estate agentsb) where the children had a chance to practise what they had learnt with hearing people.
Key to the success of the project were deaf and hearing staff working together and all staff involved having high levels of both BSL and strong literacy skills. As the model rolled out through the department deaf teachers worked with hearing assistants and hearing teachers worked with deaf assistants to ensure children had access to the best language models. Access to quality BSL training for hearing staff was something that Derby was able to offer through its Communication Centre and the centre also helped contribute to children’s literacy by making a range of videos in BSL that were based on children’s books, such as the Oxford Reading Tree series. At the same time that Derby was developing its sign bilingual model, other settings were also developing sign bilingual education, though each was slightly different. However, the key principles were the same – the recognition of the crucial importance of BSL as a language in its own right to enable children to develop high levels of language for cognition and learning which would allow full access to the curriculum and enable the acquisition of English as a second language. There was close collaboration between settings involved in sign bilingual education under the auspices of LASER and professional expertise was shared. As part of the project the use of sign graphics as a bridge to literacy was trialled. Some children found this helpful in the early stages and several of the children started to draw their own sign graphics to get down their ideas. From this starting point some other settings began to develop computer programmes which allowed sign graphics to be recorded in picture form and there are now programmes that allow sign graphics to be put on paper. Although there are still different models of bilingual education for pupils using sign language, the crucial role BSL plays is now generally accepted across most settings, whatever ‘label’ that setting may have. In general, the starting point needs to be not trying to fit a child into any particular ‘model’. The need for the child to have a fluent and natural first language on which to base all other learning remains the most important foundation for education.