University of Edinburgh

Thou Shalt Not

Lorna Humphrey

After 7 years in the system I definitely feel a great sense of the 7-year itch upon me. It's not a new man I need, it’s something that is much harder to find, something that there has been a distinct lack of throughout the years in both Health and Education hearing impaired support: and that’s honesty.

Whilst the great debate goes on, on how best to support Cochlear Implanted children, and all hearing impaired/deaf children for that matter, and satisfied or dissatisfied parents sing the praises of a particular school or method of support, before you all rush off to the estate agent or LEA to back your change of educational placement, I offer a note of caution.

After our son was finally diagnosed as profoundly deaf at the age of 22 months, we have lived in 3 different regions and come a full circle in deaf education: joint Deaf Nursery School and Mainstream supported Nursery, Mainstream Primary fully integrated and supported full-time by a Teacher of the Deaf (non-signing support), and currently back to the original Deaf Primary School.

In our original residing city our son was provided with the Phonic Ear hearing aid, we were told if we signed he would not speak, and like disciples we followed our gods not to the Promised Land but to the land of Hell. By 3 years 4 months we had a child we could not communicate with, explain the world to, answer his questions or compromise with. In turn being unable to make sense of his world with no communicational skills to aid him, he made the rules and strived to control his world around him; if he made the rules then he would understand the game. The game was called survival.

He was turned down for the Cochlear Implant around the same time and his hearing loss of 97db (left ear) and 105db (right ear) was supplemented by post oral aids in replacement of his Phonic Ear. At this point, against our gods’ commandment, Thou shalt not sign, we did. As far as we saw it we were already in Hell and desperate.

Having no communicational skills by 3 _ years old had a profound impact upon his social and developmental skills. He had built a bubble around himself that was difficult to penetrate, so it took a long time for him to realise signing meant something, a tool he could use, rather than his experience to date that this was yet another thing he couldn’t understand.

There is signing and there is signing you understand. Back then 5 years ago in Deaf Nursery School, Signed English was delivered at such a prolific rate that it made a Japanese Taiko drummer look slow. Both left you in a hypnotic trance. But I wondered, ‘What did this communicate?’ as I went away with the same ringing in my ears. So we turned to BSL that had the same qualities as a Japanese drummer: rhythm, mood and an art in itself. So by the time our son was finally successfully implanted for his 5th birthday his signing skills weren’t that much ahead of his spoken skills but by now he had a communicational aid he could use, and slowly his behaviour became normal.

The Deaf School had a different set of commandments, they weren’t etched on stone for all to see, but like signed words poetically displayed in the air they hung indelibly suspended: Thou shalt not have a Cochlear Implant.

Our son moved on to mainstream school, fully integrated in a class of 12 with a ratio of
4 deaf: 8 hearing taught by a Teacher of the Deaf (or in training to be one). Four and a half years on we had very serious concerns about his progress. We aired our concerns: How big was the gap between our son and his hearing peers? Or his deaf peers for that matter? Could he bridge the gap between P4 and P7 adequately enough to help him cope with Secondary School? How could we achieve this? Where was he on a sliding scale? What was his language age? The answers in return were vague, woolly, redirected or avoided. A new commandment blocked our path to enlightenment: Thou shalt not question.

Two independent assessments confirmed our fears, and worse. Our son, at the age of 9 years old, had the language ability of a 2_ year old with the reading age of 5years 10months. It was therefore understandable really why he couldn’t get past level A (Scottish Grade*) in any subject. He didn’t have the language ability to cope with the work, or more importantly the level at which it was presented in class. By now his mainstream P4 class would be expected to have achieved level B and would be working towards level C. Instead of bridging the gap, the gap was widening. We decided to reinstate sign language and sent him back to his old deaf school. Five years on it has a different set of commandments.

And that note of caution? Schools and services can change radically, for better or for worse, depending upon who is managing them. Deaf children are still being fitted to the faith rather than the faith being fitted to suit the child. Is it oral or sign? Deaf School or Mainstream? And we are still being brainwashed with; Thou shalt not, and if you do, you will not reach the Promised Land.

Haven’t we lost the plot? Communicating is about conveying a message, and the message becomes more powerful as it is conveyed through every communicational aid available to us. We all receive these multi-channelled messages in our everyday lives. These messages influence us and help us make choices. But these messages aren’t just spoken, aren’t just signed, they are displayed, they are put into visual context, they are relayed visually and verbally through every means available. Think of brand names, think of banks and building societies. Think then of these brands/services and if they would have had the same impact on us if they were only spoken about, we only read about them, we saw the photograph alone. Would we have remembered them so well? Deaf children are no different. In fact marketing knows only too well the power of their multimedia communicational message on our children. Our children know what’s fashionable, how it works, what it’s for, way before us parents do. Even 10-year-old ones with the language ability of 3 years.

Generally, I have not thought that the professionals supporting our son over the years weren’t good at their jobs. To the contrary he has had some fine teachers, doctors, therapists and support staff. So it is not their ability I am questioning, more their honesty in their limited ability to help him and their honesty over his progress. The distortion of the truth, presentation of answers, the avoidance tactics, stonewalling and sitting on the fence, even when presented with my arduously obtained facts to the contrary of their vague or biased opinions.

So let’s go back to the brand names, it’s no good building a name around a product that’s not going to live up to the advertised expectations. If sales are dropping, service users falling, cracks will appear. Doctoring the books can only be done for so long. Companies need to adapt to what the market wants/needs, not what they want to sell to the market.

And it’s no different with educating and supporting deaf children. Education and Health need to adapt to suit their needs, we need to know the diversity of needs, and adapt to the fluctuation of these needs. We need facts and figures to identify progress or lack of it in order to improve the system and provide a better service. But we also need honesty in the provision of these facts and figures and act responsibly in how we use them. We don’t need a league table of schools supporting deaf children, more a knowledge of what that school can honestly provide and whether they can honestly support that child with the provisions they have in place, we need to know how successful or unsuccessful they are in order to improve, not blame.

I hold great hope out for The Achievements of Deaf Pupils in Scotland project at The University of Edinburgh, Moray House, Edinburgh, as a step towards improving the service. I implore the professionals who take part in providing the facts and figures to be bold and honest in their assessments. I implore the parents to please take part in this on-going survey, it may just seem like yet another time-consuming task you can do without, but it is the smallest things that make the biggest changes in our society. Without the facts we do not have the power. Power to improve, to work together, Health and Education, professionals and parents, multi-channelled methodologies pitched together to communicate a stronger message to our children and for them to convey their message to us.

You may well think I’ve turned atheist, but I haven’t. I follow a different belief that has steadily grown. Believe in thyself. For there is no purer motive than: for the love of thy child. And the commandment: Thou shalt not deter me.

* Level A: should be attainable in the course of P1-P3 by almost all pupils
Level B: should be attainable by some pupils in P3 or even earlier, but certainly by most in P4
Level C: should be attainable in the course of P4-P6 by most pupils
Ages of year groups:
P1: 4yrs. 6mths. – 5yrs. 6mths
P2: 5yrs. 6mths. – 6yrs. 6mths
P3: 6yrs. 6mths. – 7yrs. 6mths
P4: 7yrs. 6mths. – 8yrs. 6mths
P5: 8yrs. 6mths. – 9yrs. 6mths
P6: 9yrs. 6mths. – 10yrs. 6mths
P7: 10yrs.6mths. – 11yrs. 6mths