Last week, a new study found that for deaf children, early exposure to both sign language and spoken language is the best way to maximise linguistic and congnitive skills. Here, Alison Leach writes about some memories of not being able to sign during her own education…
Despite being born Deaf into a Deaf family, with BSL as a first language, I attended oral schools for the Deaf.
Throughout my childhood, speech development was promoted widely, so I was subjected to extensive speech therapy. Such attempts, however, were in vain as I was not able to acquire speech, nor hearing!
I encountered numerous communication barriers, and I still clearly remember three things that happened. I’d like to share them with you.
The first was at a primary school, where one day, we were discussing Marco Polo’s travels.
The teacher said a word I could not understand – but everyone else could. I frowned, and the teacher repeated the word to me. I implied that I could not comprehend her. Impatiently, she repeated the word several times more. I still didn’t get it. I wept with frustration as all my classmates could understand her except for me.
My schoolfriend stepped in and said the word ‘tractor’ using a clear mouth patterns while gesturing in a driving motion. I understood in an instant, and was eternally grateful to my friend. However, rather than being pleased, my teacher was furious with my friend for actually ‘showing’ me!
Second, in a secondary school, we had to take ‘speech’ lessons almost daily before school commenced. I was in the bottom class and the ‘worst’ in the group. Teachers could not believe that I was incapable of hearing, as I was able to write English fluently, so they kept scolding me to pay more attention in class.
At one parents evening, a particular teacher was telling my parents that I had been disobedient for not listening in ‘speech’ lessons whilst it was apparent that I could ‘achieve’. My father pointed out that I had not been disobedient and told them that I could not hear and it was extremely difficult for me to learn to ‘speak’.
The teacher refused to believe my father (teachers know best don’t they?!) so my father challenged the teacher to test him with the headphones (Dad had the same level of hearing as me). The teacher turned on the volume and my father shook his head. The teacher turned the sound all the way up to maximum and my father continued to shake his head, indicating that he could not hear at all. ‘Now you know Alison is NOT a naughty girl!’ Dad retorted angrily. After that, the teacher shut up and left me alone.
The third occurrence was in the same secondary school. I was known for being good at maths and the teacher gave me a mathematical problem fully expecting a correct answer. I replied ‘seven.’ “Oh Alison!” he groaned falling onto the floor and banging the ground with his fists. I was perplexed as I was certain that my answer had been right. A fellow classmate, who was also a maths whiz kid, interjected “But Sir, Alison did say ‘seven.’” The teacher got up from the floor red-faced: “Oh, I thought you said ELEVEN.”
My parents and I would have preferred for me to attend signing schools for the deaf but there weren’t many choices in my home area. I often wonder what opportunities I might have missed out on.
Although I did attend one of the top deaf schools (if not the best) in the country, which didn’t use sign language and served me well academically, I wonder how well I could have done if I had been able to sign.
I want more people to know that oralism is not ‘one size fits all.’ It’s not for everyone.
Alison is thirtysomething. She was born and bred near the south coast and currently resides in the west midlands.
The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, training and consultancy Deafworks, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.
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