Every Deaf Youth Matters

Me, myself and I – how my life has been –

I feel fortunate to be able to recognise my own achievements from my teenage years which incorporate the Duke of Edinburgh Awards (Bronze), working in Camp America twice with behaviourally challenged children – both deaf and hearing, going to Israel as a mentor to a deaf child in a hearing group for 3 weeks, attending the World Federation of the Deaf Youth Camp in 1995, working on several Friends for the Young Deaf (FYD) projects with the aim to break down communication barriers between deaf and hearing children, co-ordinating several British Deaf Association Youth Exchanges (with Switzerland and Russia for example), and setting up the Sheffield Befriending Project for deaf children which sadly closed due to lack of funding from Connexions.

Of all these experiences, it is working on Deaf youth camps, that has been close to my heart – so much fun and so much empowerment to children and deaf volunteers too, many of them young themselves. I remember telling all the successful applicants at their training day – “We have one aim, and that is to make sure that when the campers go home, they’re crying, wanting to stay on”. I’m pleased to say its always happened!

On the Academic side of my life, I enjoyed my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Goldsmith’s College which then led me to achieving a PhD in Developmental Psychology. I am currently a trustee for the British Deaf Association which is undergoing the final stages of a new organisational restructure. I am also a trustee of Sign, the charity for deaf people with mental health. I used to work for the Civil Service as a Fast-streamer where I learned a lot about management and policy development. However after too many shortbread biscuits and excessive amounts of good coffee (!), I decided I had enough. I now work for University College London as a post-doctoral researcher, looking at the early development of deaf toddlers. I believe that my achievements are the result of a combination of my own determination as well as having been fortunate to have been brought up with fluent communication. My family has been deaf for several generations, where everyone uses sign language. Yet it is not just communication, it is also the opportunities my parents and family have pushed me into.

Deaf children

There is a valid difference between becoming deaf at a later age and being born deaf. With current trends in society where sign language is accepted more and more, we are looking at about 50% of deaf young people who use sign language. However the exposure and modelling of such a language to these young people is variable, with a lot of schools employing hearing people with minimal sign language skills to deliver the education curriculum to the children. There are some exceptions, but it is still not good enough.
There is a difference between learning a language and having a pragmatic grasp of a language. Children start school at 3 or 4 years of age, and for many, it is often their first encounter with sign language. Compare this to the average hearing child who begins school with a language appropriate age.

Further to this, think about the implications of a delayed language model. In my own PhD research I found many deaf children to have significant psychological impairments in their social cognitive understanding of the world, namely Theory of Mind abilities, and was able to associate such difficulties with the experience of fluent, indirect conversations at an early age.

For some deaf people, having a deaf identity is a crucial need to be able to leap across that social medium, to finally enter conversations at an equal par to that of their hearing counterparts. Understanding their identity is further enhanced once in a context where everyone is the same, where everyone shares one language, and where that language is at a fluent level.

As most of you will have been youth workers at one stage or another in your lives, you will no doubt understand the importance of one’s peer group. Being able to follow conversations of peer-related issues is something that is largely dependant on one’s ability to hear/lipread/speak in a mainstream school, and also on the peer group’s willingness to adopt and meet the needs of the deaf individual. This does NOT happen generally, and we often find high degrees of isolation, poor levels of social empathy and minimal skills in making conversations.

It is interesting to note that one of my colleagues from the Tyneside Deaf Youth Project has been doing some research with mainstreamed deaf students -Connexions Tyne and Wear have been involved and supported this project. There is a general consensual finding that well over half of all mainstream students (over 95 percent say they are oral users) want to learn BSL and more about their own deafness, including the opportunity to meet Deaf adults. This research will be published in March 2006.

Connexions and what its meant to be about

I want to make reference to the various deaf organisations who work with deaf young people. All of these organisations have their merits and yet are harshly limited in that it is hard for them to reach out to deaf children, especially those in mainstreamed schools. A postcode lottery exists in education for deaf children, and this is sadly also applicable to their social lives. For example, the RNID Employment Service in Brighton/ Sussex has a good relationship with Hamilton Lodge school, where they meet children and tell them about opportunities after they leave school. Yet this is not the norm across the country. The BDA has Youth officers in Wales and Scotland and yet not in England due to funding. RAD has its services in Essex and London (Connexions Essex, London East and now London South have funded RAD) but it cannot do everything that needs to be done. The NDCS has local groups across the country, with a diversity of localised projects but it is often about…

THE REFERRAL PROCESS

The whole concept of Connexions is excellent if it really worked in principle. There is a lack of sign-posting for many deaf children, that when they are finally identified as having psychological problems etc, they are often over the age of 12 and its often far too late to help them to reach their true potential. Youth workers that are employed to work with deaf young children do not often have the specific skills that such children will need.
What is needed is to reduce this cohort of children with maladjustments by working with them at a much younger age – which is what I believe Sure Start and Connexions is meant to be all about?!

Education trends

The huge rise in mainstreamed education has meant a strong reduction in peer groups. The informal part of education (e.g. play, social relationships, empathy, and sexual identity) is often not reached in school because of a lack of a shared common language. We are not talking about hearing children using the manual alphabet. We are talking about proper peer use of language, love, relationships, identity, sexuality, drugs and all the issues that youths access so easily via their ears.

Stronger peer groups mean stronger identities and hence stronger individuals.
We have literally lost the battle to reduce the drive for mainstreamed education. This is because people really mean well, and also money. However we must not lose the battle to have the UK’s existing deaf youth services around the UK. We must also not lose the opportunity to provide a buffer for the gaps in education via youth projects. Youth projects are really useful, I do not need to stress how important these projects are, you can see this from the young people you will have met today.

Monitoring

One point I wish to raise at this meeting is that of monitoring. We need to be careful and not rely heavily on people who pretend they know it all. We need to have a bottom up protocol of monitoring such projects, where young deaf people are able to rate such projects and give feedback/criticism where it is due. It is a core value of youth work that youth workers listen to youths. We need to be cautious of too many projects being created by organisations and services that are not monitored by young deaf people. The presence of young deaf people here today at this conference is something that RAD can be congratulated on.

Fostering

After 8 months of intense assessments, I finally got approved as a foster carer for Southwark Council. I was approved to look after children aged 4-10. However, my foster child is 14. They “can’t find any children who need a deaf foster carer” in Southwark – which is typical of local education authorities’ attitudes. Refusing to have the role models there in the first place, at an early age, maintains the need for organisations and other bodies to continue doing “repair work”. Why not think on another level, and ask yourselves and your young deaf people, how do we minimise such needs for repair work? I can give you one answer, start early, invest early.