Jen Dodds: Growing up in oral education

Posted on September 20, 2013

A new school year has just started and kids everywhere are going back to school – or just starting it, like my son and his friends. That, and Andy’s great post for parents of deaf kids, has got me thinking about my own (deaf) education.

I don’t mean to be negative, but er, it was a bit rubbish.

I went to a famous oral deaf boarding school. Opinions on this school are split. Those who loved it tend to either be able to hear quite a lot, or they just ignored the educational crap and spent all of their time there larking about with their friends. Those who have bad memories of the place either had a bad experience for their own reasons, or, like me, can’t hear at all, and found it difficult – or actually impossible – to follow lessons.

The irony of that isn’t lost on me.

Before boarding school, I went to a mainstream school with a PHU, where I spent most of my time hidden in corners of classrooms, reading books (handily, I became deaf just after I’d learned to read). Reading books was the easy option – I didn’t have to try and lipread anyone. It was also fun and exciting, because books ARE fun and exciting if you pick the right ones.

But then, at boarding school, I wasn’t allowed to tuck myself away into classroom corners with my latest adventure novel; I was expected to PARTICIPATE. However, this was also the time when I met loads of other deaf kids like me, so I was thrilled at the prospect of playing and talking with others who could understand me and be understood. I was normal; the same as everyone else. Or was I?

Forget the highly paid, “specially trained” teachers of the deaf who ran the place. I wouldn’t have got through seven years at that school without my friends. The ones who could hear more than me – i.e. everyone! – interpreted bits of lessons; mostly giving me summaries under desks or telling me what we had to do for our homework. Others taught me to fingerspell, and later, to sign (badly, but it did the job back then). We all helped each other in some way or another. We rocked.

Some of the teachers were OK. Obviously, I couldn’t lipread any of them 100%, because I’m not a robot, but I found that those who were more generous with using the blackboards and OHPs (this was before PowerPoint and Smartboards were invented) were the easiest to follow. Looking back, though, it seems kind of lame. Why didn’t we all just, er…. sign?

My English Literature A Level teachers are a good example of what it was like. We had three of them:

I think we all liked Teacher 1 best – he didn’t talk very much. He spent every lesson sitting next to the OHP, writing translations of the Olde English books that we were studying, so that we could copy it all down in our exercise books. He would sometimes discuss bits of the texts, but mostly he liked making football related jokes. If he was feeling brave, he would try to fingerspell the odd word, while keeping his eyes on the classroom door in case anyone came in and caught him in the act.

Teacher 2 talked a lot, but I’m not really sure what about. His health problems featured quite often, though. He also made us read aloud the plays that we were studying. On an enjoyment scale of 1 to 10, I think I would give that a zero.

Teacher 3 was quite scary, and completely impossible for me to lipread. She had one of those mouths that don’t actually move much, you see. So, what was she thinking of, working in a DEAF SCHOOL?! Someone must have thought it was a good idea. That someone wouldn’t have been me. I only got the odd word, and spent the rest of her lessons desperately looking sideways at my friend, who secretly told me the important bits, like which page to turn to. And then we’d get told to “stop talking and concentrate”!

I wouldn’t mind so much, but that was supposed to be specialist deaf education. Surely being a teacher involves communication, and if you can’t communicate with your pupils, um, what’s the point? I wouldn’t imagine there were any deaf people on the school’s interview panels, though, and if there ever were, they’d no doubt be amongst the world’s top 10 lipreaders, or actually, practically hearing.

The more I think about it, the stranger it seems.

I won’t even mention the “auditory training” we had, where we were grouped according to how much we could hear. I was put with the other profoundly deaf kids, and we had to sit for ages as teachers held pieces of paper in front of their mouths and we had to strain through headphones to see if we could hear the difference between “Jennifer” and “Christopher”. They really shouldn’t have bothered.

I give up. I did actually pass all of my A Levels, but not with good grades (interestingly, my marks improved a lot when I went to university and had interpreters). So, how did we manage that? Doing at least two hours’ homework every night may have had something to do with it. I really don’t know.

Those days are thankfully behind me now, and I’ve come through it with a few qualifications and a bunch of brilliant friends for life.

I’ve no idea if the deaf youth of today read Limping Chicken. Is it er, cool enough? Well, if you’re a youth, and you’re reading this, I’d like to say good luck to you. If you can’t understand someone, it’s their fault, not yours. If you’re worried about something, talk to somebody, because a problem shared is a problem halved, at least.

And above all, don’t give up. Because you rock.

Jen Dodds is a Contributing Editor for The Limping Chicken. When she’s not looking after chickens or children, Jen can be found translating, proofreading and editing stuff over at Team HaDo Ltd (

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