University of Edinburgh

Newsletter No 8: August 1999

A Headteacher looks back

by Margaret Keir, formerly Head of HI Service for Renfrewshire

What are my impressions of the last four decades of Deaf Education in Scotland? I'm sure many people would agree that "Sign Language versus Oralism", in different guises and with varying degrees of heat, has dominated the scene.

When I began working in this field I knew nothing of the controversy and unquestioningly accepted the Manchester philosophy. No-one told us about the "Hundred years war". No alternative approaches were offered. Deaf children, like all others, should learn to speak. The fact that they communicated in sign to one another, or that the adults in the deaf club and at the Church for the Deaf used sign, did not seem to matter. That was OK.

The interesting thing was that the cleverest children, with the most advanced skills in English language, all seemed to come from deaf families where Sign Language was the main means of communication. Was it just that the children felt secure and accepted as part of the Deaf Community? In addition to this, their sound grounding in a first language, British Sign Language (BSL), served as an excellent foundation for the development of English, their second language. This fact was not to be recognised until more was known about language development in children generally and until BSL was "discovered".

Paget-Gorman sign system was introduced in Aberdeen School for the Deaf. I took the little I had learned with me to Suffolk to use with some of the deafblind children on my caseload, all "Rubella" babies.

When Sign Language was first introduced in Garvel it was still a form of Signed English (SE). The aim and expectation then, twenty years ago, is still prevalent today. Unfortunately we human beings do not often seem to learn from each others' experiences. We each have to undergo the same microcosmic evolution for ourselves. Our aim was for the children to acquire English and we expected our attempts at Signed English to be the route.

The acquisition of English language in their pupils is an aim common to all teachers of the deaf and one we have certainly not abandoned in Garvel, but it may not be totally realistic for all children. More important is the acquisition of language: a means of understanding the environment; a means of communicating with other people; a means of developing higher level thinking skills; and a means of establishing one's identity and self-worth.

As the years have gone by, it has become clearer what BSL can do for deaf children. Initially it was moving to see how children became happier and less tense when sign was introduced. Today, to summarise our experience in Garvel, I believe that Signed English/ Sign Supported English presented with a respect for and an appreciation of BSL, in a flexible way that allows for freedom of expression from the children and that is accompanied by BSL from deaf adults "live" and on video, can result in an advanced level of BSL from the children. This level can be developed by deaf tutors. Top primary children can progress to an understanding of the grammar of their language and can learn to use BSL and English with equal success respecting both in their place.

In my experience children do not acquire English through Signed English, but when they have made the transfer to some use of English, SE becomes more of a teaching tool.

It's a question of "acquisition" versus "teaching". It all comes down to attitude:

  • the attitude of hearing teachers to the Deaf Community, their language and culture, both in and out of school; and
  • the attitude of parents and the wider community to deafness and deaf people.

These attitudes affect the children's attitude to deafness, to themselves and to the hearing community.

Although I feel that an acceptable compromise has been reached at Garvel, until such times (if ever!) as a purer bilingual approach can be implemented, I do not think the position of Deaf Education in Scotland is at all stable.

The widespread use of cochlear implants is in some ways, turning the clock back. Of course it is a wonderful medical advance in hearing-aid technology and will make the English language and mainstream education accessible for many more children. But I have to admit my concern when parents are made to feel that their deaf child will become a hearing child and that the beginnings of the acquisition of BSL should be abandoned. It sounds all too familiar to me, too much like Deaf Education of forty years ago with the mega-emphasis on "What did he hear" and "Can she produce an 'S'?"

My other big concern relates to the future of the Deaf Community. There has been a general public increase in deaf awareness. The use of BSL on television is familiar to most people. Many members of the general public have attended BSL classes and many more continue to do so. But at the same time as the profile of the language is raised and the future begins to look optimistic, the Deaf Community is suffering from the effects of educational inclusion. Deaf children, placed in mainstream schools, are isolated from one another. They are consequently at risk of not developing a Deaf identity and of not seeing themselves as part of the Deaf Community. This is a national phenomenon.

Locally the situation is more hopeful with the setting up of a Deaf Forum which has direct contact with the local council. Here the wishes of deaf people are represented and, hopefully, can be met.

A great deal of unspeakable damage is done to deaf children by well meaning teachers. I have forgiven myself now for the unthinking part I once played in that failure, in the belief that our pioneering work with BSL, though it has not gone as far as I should have liked, has made it easier in the wider scheme of things for the next stage to take place. The time has come:

  • to address the real meaning of equal opportunities for many deaf children;
  • for more deaf teachers of the deaf, working alongside hearing teachers and offering complementary skills;
  • for BSL to be used as a teaching medium. Deaf children have a right to be educated in their first language and many would benefit from the opportunity to do so; and
  • for BSL to be taught as a curriculum subject to hearing and deaf young people.

To recognise the value of their language is to recognise the value of the people.

I hope I will be around to witness these developments.