Overcoming barriers to help my deaf children succeed

overcoming barriers deaf children

I’ve got two deaf boys. They’re brighter than I am. They’re more determined than I am. They work harder in the course of a single day than I do in an average week.

They’ve got loads going for them. And yet despite all that, without people fighting their corner, their life chances would not be good. At all. The boys have overcome massive barriers to get to where they are now. And yet, they still have massive barriers waiting for them over the horizon too.

That's why the National Deaf Children's Society has launched a new Overcoming Barriers strategy 2017-2022 to overcome the social and educational barriers that hold deaf children back. This five-year strategy aims to:

To achieve this over the next five years we will focus on three fundamental areas.

  • Continue fighting to improve the services received by deaf children and young people.
  • Champion the development of good language and communication skills.
  • Shine a spotlight on the importance of being independent and the transition into adulthood.

Barriers for deaf children: our experiences

If you’re reading SNJ articles on a regular basis, then you know what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about the deafness – the deafness means adjustment, rethinking, retooling, but that’s about all that’s needed. The barriers I’m talking about are ones that shouldn’t be there are at all - barriers that aren’t caused directly by deafness, but by how certain people and organisations treat my kids, simply because they are deaf.

“Your child is profoundly deaf. You will have to come to terms with the fact that he will never learn to speak”

That’s what we were told by a local audiologist when our eldest son was first diagnosed as deaf. That was the first professional opinion we were given. That audiologist diagnosed his deafness correctly. She could not have been more wrong about his speech, his language, his potential, or about what we should expect from a deaf child. She didn’t point us in the direction of British Sign Language – she just assumed that his life chances were blighted because of his deafness.

Every deaf person, every deaf child, every family of a deaf child deserves better than this. And yet, these sort of barriers are still depressingly common – and not just with deafness either.  SNJ columnist Nancy Gedge puts it better than anyone out there – she’s writing about Down’s Syndrome here, but it applies here too.

Ninety percent of deaf children are born into hearing families – families like mine. What they need in the turbulent early years – above all – is decent, impartial information to help make choices outside of a purely medical space. What communication approaches can I use? Does my child need a hearing aid, cochlear implant, or none of the above to thrive? What can I reasonably expect my deaf children to achieve in life, and how can I help them achieve it?

Matt and son
Matt (right) and his son in a therapy session

Connecting with others breaks barriers

And it’s not just access to hard facts – it’s access to people’s lived experiences that breaks down the barriers in the early years. Where are the deaf children, deaf teens & deaf adults who can show me what life is like, what life can be like as a deaf person? Where are the families of deaf people who can advise me, keep me centred, make me laugh again, give me strength to take on things that stand in my way, and who make me well up when I see what amazing things their own deaf children are doing with their lives?

These are big barriers, right from the start.

And the most scandalous barrier of all, in my opinion, is the difficulty hearing parents of deaf children face in learning British Sign Language. There are very few free high-quality resources here. Most parents who take the BSL route have to fork out thousands of pounds of their own money for the privilege of learning how to communicate fluently and confidently with their own flesh and blood.

“You need to adjust your expectations, Mr Keer. Primary school is over now. This is secondary, and children with his profile just don’t get good GCSEs”

That’s what I was told a few years ago by an assistant head of a school rated outstanding by Ofsted. We ran - very fast - and we found a wonderful special school that knows what it takes to meet the needs and potential of both boys. My eldest son has just finished eight GCSEs, and he’s likely to pass almost all of them. If he wants it, he now has a clear path to a maths degree or a higher apprenticeship. My youngest looks like he’s heading the same way.

And yet, if we had trusted the advice of our local authority, the boys would have had virtually no sustained classroom support. If we had trusted the advice of Ofsted, they would have left school with no GCSEs. Both should both hang their heads in abject shame. Neither is likely to any time soon.

Thomas and James, accomplished young men
Thomas and James, accomplished young men

Being deaf isn't a learning disability, but the education system creates one

Deaf kids doing well in school should be a humdrum, everyday, unremarkable tale. Deafness, in and of itself, isn’t a learning disability. Hearing technology has never been better. Diagnosis of deafness is happening earlier than ever before. Research into how deaf children learn has never been sharper. Our understanding of disorders that sometimes accompany deafness has never been better.

And yet, despite all these breakthroughs, the barriers that stand in the way of deaf children’s educational attainment remain huge. Disgracefully, unacceptably huge. Deaf pupil attainment is flatlining at a level well below their hearing peers; in 2016, around 60% of deaf children in England failed to achieve five decent GCSE passes that included English & Maths. Why?

The achievement of deaf children is underpinned by the health of the SEND system in particular, and the education sector in general. And both are in deep, deep crisis. There are deaf pupils achieving against the odds, usually thanks to the efforts of superb mainstream teachers, specialist teachers and SENCOs. You won’t find a better example of tradecraft than this, from SNJ columnist Barney Angliss.

But success stories like this one shine brighter as the wider climate becomes harsher for deaf pupils. Every year, parents come to visit my kids’ special school. Every year, the stories of jaw-droppingly poor provision get worse. Every year, the stories of arrogant, high-handed unlawful behaviour by local authorities get worse. And this year, there were many more stories of deaf pupils losing specialist support as schools grapple with budget cuts..

Bureaucracy, misinformation and incompetence are disabling

How does this impact deaf children? In all manner of ways. Bureaucratic buck-passing over the cost of a radio aid that never arrives. Fist-chewingly simple and completely free reasonable adjustments, not implemented for lack of resource or understanding. Closure of specialist deaf units in mainstream schools. Misinformation about entitlement to specialist provision and children’s educational rights. Highly-trained teachers of the deaf becoming ever-scarcer – and worse still, increasingly forced to act as resource gatekeepers rather than dependable sources of expert support.

And that’s before we’ve even started with the SEND reforms. These have not been kind to deaf children. I’ve seen hundreds of draft EHCPs since 2014; I’ve seen precisely two lawful draft EHCPs for deaf children in that time – and that’s if the kids can get them at all. There are more deaf children in full-time education than ever before but astonishingly, the number of deaf children in England with an EHCP has fallen by 4% since 2014. And if you think that SEN Support is a dependable way of meeting deaf educational need, then you need to re-read this SNJ piece thoroughly.

The battle is relentless. And no-one – no-one – in a position of authority is meaningfully holding these organisations to account.

NDCS a lifeline

But despite all this tide of gloom, families of deaf children aren’t alone. The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS)

have been standing up for the rights of deaf children for over 70 years now. The NDCS have been a lifeline to our family in times of trouble: they have introduced us to wonderful deaf role-models, they’ve stood up for us against malevolent and inadequate public bodies, they’ve let us test drive new hearing technology, they’ve run awesome courses that have let my kids make new friends. And as my kids start to transition towards adulthood, I’ve no doubt that I’ll be leaning on them again.

And above all, this is an organisation that punches well above its weight strategically. Far, far too many charities have pulled their punches in engaging with the SEND reforms; NDCS is not one of them. Behind the scenes, it plays a crucial role in defining standards for specialist support services. It uses its strategic heft to campaign effectively at both a local level and a national level.

And that new strategy I already mentioned, Overcoming Barriers, will do exactly what it says on the tin. It’ll encourage and support deaf young people to stand up for their rights, understand their options, advocate for themselves and develop life skills – and it’ll enable the families of these young people to support them better. Not just in the UK, but beyond too.

The NDCS are aiming to dismantle these barriers by 2030, so no deaf child gets left behind again. That’s a tall order, but it’ll be a privilege to help them. There’s every chance that I’ll have deaf grandchildren – and I’m damned if I’ll see them face the same barriers that we’ve faced.

You can find a link to the NDCS “Overcoming Barriers” strategy here – or for the BSL version, click here.

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Matt Keer

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