Asher Woodman-Worrell: How my friend Ben Thomson conquered university

Posted on April 25, 2012

I was recently asked by the editor of this site to write an article about my university experiences, after appearing on the BBC3 documentary Deaf Teens: Hearing World.

I am currently a second year student at Nottingham Trent University under the guise of studying Information Systems – while in reality, I often study procrastinating on Facebook!

Like everyone else, I have a story to tell about my experiences in education, but then I realised I have a far better story to share with you all. The protagonist of this story is Ben Thomson, a lifelong friend of mine.

Before I start, let me fill you all in a little about Ben’s life prior to starting his degree.

Ben was born to deaf parents and deafness in his family goes back seven generations. He was raised communicating in British Sign Language and his childhood was filled with going to deaf clubs.

He went to the Royal School for the Deaf in Derby (I am going to refer it as RSD from now on) from the age of three, to when he was nineteen years old.

Ben’s life so far was filled with BSL as his main method of communication, with writing notes as a back-up.

While he was in the Post 16 department at RSD, (where he attended Heanor College) he had a communication support worker to support his education. After attending classes, he would then go back to the student residence where he mingled with his deaf peers, communicating in sign language.

After college, where Ben developed an interest in film and TV production, Ben applied to three universities and eventually chose York, feeling they offered better accessibility and a more interesting course.

Eventually the day came where Ben had to leave home for first time and head into the unknown.

On his first day of moving in, after he had bid his emotional parents farewell, it hit Ben that for the first time in his life, he was on his own (even if his grandparents lived in York!). Ben then did what any fresher would do – he headed to the student union in the quest to make friends.

But when he arrived, to be greeted by a chorus of mingling, chattering students, he felt as if he was invisible, almost like he was a ghost amongst the humans.

He wasn’t sure whether to approach someone, or wait to be approached for fear of crossing some unspoken hearing socialising code. In his old deaf world, he was used to wading into any conversation (the saying “the more, the merrier” always applies to any deaf social scene!)

Eventually, he fled to his room where he took residence for the next few evenings, chatting to his parents on MSN for support.

On the third evening, Ben decided that enough was enough and went back to the student union, this time armed with paper and pen.

This novel approach attracted the attentions of the student union manager who noticed this and worked out Ben was deaf. They got chatting and after a while the manager introduced Ben to a third year student who was on the same course as Ben.

That night the old confident Ben returned.

After attracting a lot of interest in learning sign language from his fellow students, Ben and a hearing friend called Ross decided to set up an university society called SignBar which gives students the chance to meet up for a drink while practising the sign language that they have learned in level one, two and three courses offered by the university.

There, they can brush up on their signs, mix with people with a different signing ability, and relax without pressure of the classroom (though occasionally Ben likes to up the pressure by getting all of the attendees to sign without using their voice!)

After getting through all the red-tape, SignBar was born,  with Ben taking the position of Vice-Chair.

Fast forward to the present, the society meets once a week and now have 96 members of their group on Facebook. Ben is now the Chair of the SignBar. The society has just won the most improved society award [Ben is pictured on the right].

This all happened from a single pen and a piece of paper….

To any aspiring deaf students reading this who is looking to emulate Ben’s society – Ben’s advice would be to not take a no for an answer.

When faced with “no” he would say always ask why, and flatter the university with an explanation of how setting up the society would benefit them. Finally, get many people as you can in your corner to show the demand for the society.

You might be wondering why I am telling you this story. For me, it serves as an inspiration. It’s an example that I can aspire to, and by telling this story, I hope this can also inspire you all, as it has inspired me.
Whenever I am facing barriers in my university or in my life due to my deafness, all I need to do is to think: “Remember Ben Thomson”.
So next time you are typing a mildy abusive message to the bank on your minicom or wondering why you are not getting interviews for the jobs you applied for, just use those three special words!
“Remember Ben Thomson.”


Asher is a 2nd year ICT student at Nottingham Trent University. He likes to think he is a forward-thinking young man exploring and seeking out his place in this strange world. In reality, he spends far too much time on his Playstation 3. Follow him on Twitter: @AsherWW

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