Cathy Heffernan: Report from DCAL’s Deaf Children’s Development Conference

Posted on October 3, 2012

On the face of it, lipreading someone and reading a book are two wholly separate skills. But research suggests Deaf children’s reading skills are dependent on their ability to lipread.

This was just one of a host of unexpected snippets of information I found out at DCAL’s Deaf Children’s Development conference two weeks ago.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on at DCAL – that’s the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre, based at University College London. The centre seems to be full full of very clever people who like to delve into the Deaf Brain, unpicking it and submitting it to lots of tests to see how it works!

In order to make more people aware of the research being carried out at the centre, Lilli Risner organised the conference. The day showcased DCAL’s research and give those of us who don’t have time to sit through dense dissertations published by very clever researchers the chance to work out what on earth they mean.

For starters, there’s Mairead MacSweeney and her team, who look at lipreading, or speechreading, as they call it (because lipreaders don’t just read lips, it’s about the whole face) and the connection with reading. They have found that children who can lipread will often also be able to read – which challenges the orthodoxy within some sections of the deaf community that lipreading is not necessary and fluency in BSL and reading is enough.

Though I’m sure these findings will be hotly contested. During lunch, a mother of deaf children said her children didn’t lipread but were very good readers. There’s always someone who doesn’t fit into the box.

Fascinatingly, the team also found that hearing children between the ages of 5 and 12 lipread as well as deaf children, and there are indications that hearing children use lipreading in order to aid their own reading skills. If that is the case, this challenges another orthodoxy – that children who have cochlear implants should be discouraged from using visual communication, in order to ensure they learn to hear. It would also seem a plausible explanation for those mysterious low literacy levels among children who can hear well with CIs.

Next there’s Gabriella Vigliocco’s talk on iconic signs. These are signs that look like objects, for example: the sign for “camera” where you hold up your hands and click as though you were taking a photo. This talk was quite academic, and might have left some (er, me) reeling through information overload. But her research on the practice of signing words while simultaneously mouthing their English translation – as many deaf signers do – was interesting. She found that mouthing and signing were independent of each other and is a result of bilingualism, rather than the two languages being combined. An implication of this is that learning BSL does not interfere with learning English.

Kate Rowley told us about her research into Sign Language Impairments (SLIs) which heralds another important aspect of the work at DCAL: how it moves beyond deafness and looks at other reasons behind a child’s delays in development. At school, I never heard of any of my peers having dyslexia – but proportionally, a few students at the school would have been dyslexic. Because deafness is used to explain everything from poor literacy to being socially awkward, there is a risk that parents and professionals may overlook other underlying factors.

As a result, there is very little known about language impairments in deaf people. A question from an audience member went on to highlight the lack of information, support and services for parents of children with suspected sign language impairment.

Rowley later spoke about a project she is working on with Indie Johal and Bencie Woll looking at deaf children today. Research carried out before phones, the internet and social media is now redundant, and there’s a need to look at deaf kids as they are now. There were lots of positive and negative findings but the most disquieting thing they found is that deaf kids are still plagued by low literacy levels.

So the problems of the past are still occuring today. But what’s being done about it? Let me put it another way – if any ethnic minority group was found to be failing at literacy, it would be scandalous. But Deaf people, our community and professionals are so used to this being a problem it fails to shock us any more.

Which leads on to the big question: action. We have all this research done in our name, but what are we going to do about it? All this research is great but of no consequence if it doesn’t translate into action. And that’s the key question…. how to do this.

This conference is a good starting point because it showcases their findings. Once this information becomes absorbed it will be harder for people to continue with what could be damaging assumptions around deaf education, such as the belief that people don’t need to lipread, that children with CIs should avoid relying on lipreading, and that everything comes down to deafness.

Dr Hillary Sutherland hit the nail on the head when she said in order to do so, people need to stop fighting and start cooperating in order to achieve the best environment for kids.

Find out more and access resources from the conference at the following links:



Cathy is a Dubliner turned a Londoner who is now living in Dublin again! A Deaf journalist who has written and worked for the Guardian, she is also a director with extensive experience in television.

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