Emily Howlett: When does accessible become dumbing down?

Posted on March 21, 2014



“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Deaf, I shall fear no evil…”

Except I do. I do fear, hmm, no, not evil, but I fear you lot. Deaf people. Even though I am one. I never used to, of course, but that was before I realised the terrible truth… You can sue me. Or, at the very least, get me sacked from my job and run out of town.

Believe it or not, I somehow manage to do a lot of things. I would like you to imagine me as the nurturing head of an immaculate, smoothly-run household, managing to compose great journalistic pieces of our time, alongside endless hours spent baking brownies and bread while solving the economic problems of the First and Third Worlds, developing cures for teenage acne, teenage pregnancy and, well, just teenagers. This is how it is, every day.

Definitely do not imagine me bashing out 500 words at 4.00am with a 6.00am deadline, looking like a hungover Ewok, wondering what day it is and throwing dry cereal at my family if they dare to be hungry. Not that.

My point (they always manage to get a bit lost, don’t they?) was, I do lots of things and from time to time I have been known to teach. Recently, this has been Shakespeare, with a lovely group of English students who are so intelligent I basically sit and ask them questions just to learn the answers.

Now the group are mainly hearing, but there are a few deaf students too. It makes for a unique dynamic, as everyone really goes out of their way to avoid communication breakdowns, and, naturally, to set traps for their teacher who walks straight into every one, naively believing they would get bored with doing so. (They don’t. Ever.)

However, it also makes for some tricky times. Some of the students on the English course are fantastically bright and knowledgeable, but they can struggle with some actual written English. Some of the deaf students, who create beautiful, stunning signed interpretations of Shakespeare, actually find it hard to read deep, jargon-laden English from a page.

Textbooks, the bane of all student lives, are particularly inaccessible to them, because of the constant text bombardment and unnecessarily complex descriptions. But they’re not afraid of a little hard work, and, to be honest, there are hearing students who struggle more. Hell, even I can’t read more than one chapter of an intense textbook without a tea break – and I write the bloody things…

I hadn’t really thought too much about this, because we all get on so well as it is – them laughing and getting on with their work while I go and scour the staff room for dry clothes to change into (what absolute larks we have!). But then I got assessed. And the assessor decided my slides were too English for the deaf students, and also the two Polish girls who, ironically, speak much better English than the assessor did.

FINE, I said. FINE, I WILL MAKE ALL THE SLIDES INTO BSL. (The capitals here denote my soothing and unbothered tone.)

The assessor, she said no. No, no, no. Because then it becomes inaccessible to the hearing people. “ACCESSIBILITY IS KEY. You must make all of the English very, very simple. FOR ACCESSIBILITY. Otherwise they will sue you. FOR DISCRIMINATION.” (The capitals here denote the fact I thought she was a foolish melon – not that I dislike assessments, but usually they provide constructive solutions, not just jollop. And she really was a baggage; talking to the deaf students as if they were mute cows she’d unfortunately happened upon in a field.)

The Emily Howlett, she said no. “If I make it all really simple then it’s offensive. Nobody learns anything. It’s patronising and silly and I don’t like you and I won’t do it. So there.” (That’s the accessible, simple version. The real version had many, many more swears and went on for about three days.)

But, of course, she was right. My lessons aren’t accessible to everyone. If your grasp of English is very, very basic, you would need a lot of support. But, y’know, it’s an English class, teaching students who have already passed GCSE and A Levels in English, and are specialising in some of the most complex literature ever written, even if we do hit the odd textbook-shaped roadblock. I thought that excused the fact that I used quite a lot of written English teaching it, but am I wrong? Should everything be accessible to everyone all the time? Is that even possible? It sounds nice, I guess.

My students have communication support in any form they require, but none of them use it. Instead the whole group works together; generally, when one person is struggling with something, several others admit they’re finding it difficult too, and I basically sit back and let them work it out together. The ones who understand explain to the others, and then later the tables turn. It’s a lovely atmosphere, and I thought it was the meaning of accessibility; everyone piling in together to create and improve and share.

Well, whatever it is we do there; it isn’t accessibility the politically correct way. And I’m scared to challenge these PC norms, because we really had to fight to get some of those in place – we still fight every day for our rights to access everything fully. Who am I, some maverick teacher, to come along and say, “Actually we don’t need that?”

Mixed messages. I’m scared of sending mixed messages to the people who don’t really understand our situation but who govern our lives. So, I’ve gone for the easy option. I’ve scrapped all the slides. I just can’t bring myself to go into that classroom with one syllable, four word sentences and insult the intelligence of those wonderful young people.

Those wonderful, wonderful young people. No matter if they sue me for discriminating against them, they remain forever wonderful in my heart for one reason more than any. Obviously, I can’t give you details. I’m afraid of being sued.

But, let’s put it this way; if you come to assess me and my students, and you bring a closed and locked mind, well, you better also bring a change of clothes. It’s a crying shame, but nobody will have anything spare. So sorry about that.

Emily Howlett is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer, horsewoman and new mum. Emily used to be found all over the place, but motherhood has turned her into somewhat of a self-confessed homebody. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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