Anonymous: How my son benefited from accessing his education with skilled sign language support

Posted on March 29, 2015

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Deaf children in education have a variety of experiences, and not all of them good. With national cuts to services, the NDCS campaigned hard last year to prevent the decline in teachers for deaf children and the vital support they provide.

One of the issues that we have in this country is the expectation that people with limited BSL skills are suitable for working with young deaf children in schools.  Don’t misunderstand me, there are some fantastically skilled people out there who would love to have the chance to improve their BSL, but are stuck at their current level for various reasons.  

The money just isn’t put into these roles to enable people to progress, because we just don’t sufficiently value the work that they do.  The powers that be do not appreciated the complexity of the work with deaf children and how much needs to be invested in order to prevent future escalating costs of supporting deaf people with poor educational achievements.

I want to share a small portion of our experience in influencing the support for our son who is currently in year 5 (he is 9).  His older brother, now a young adult, had a similar portfolio of support, and thrived from the excellent access at this same age.

Deaf children are entitled to apply for a statement of special educational needs (SEN). We started this process when our son was 2. It all went smoothly, except for the part of the statement where we wanted to stipulate that the communication support workers have a certain level of BSL skill.  

The teacher of the deaf said “you will never get anyone with level 3 to work in school. You can’t ask for more than level 2”.

Level 2 is equivalent to GCSE level BSL.  Our son was due to start school and needed access to everything in BSL. Not signed English, not speech with sign, he needed someone fluent in BSL who could explain the world around him in a purely visual language. They needed to be skilled in both BSL and English so that they could help him develop his bilingual skills. They needed to be knowledgable about deaf culture as well as hearing norms, to help him develop his bicultural skills.  In essence, they were crucial to him laying down the foundations for future learning and success. This was not a job role to take lightly.

We succeeded in stipulating minimum of level 3 BSL in the statement.  The school also included both of us parents in the interview process; his father was on the panel to assess the attitudes and experience of the applicants, and I assessed their BSL and translation skills.  I won’t lie, it was a tough interview process!

We were blessed to find someone who fitted the bill perfectly.  She had a deaf husband, and her BSL skills exceeded level 3.  Our son thrived.  When she went on maternity leave, the replacement was similarly skilled and also vetted by us.

At the end of year 4, both the communicators handed in their notice.  Their reason? Our son didn’t need them anymore.  He no longer needed ‘help’ with his education, he just needed access.  They were victims of their own success.  He had outgrown their BSL skills, and now needed an interpreter.  He was fully bilingual and didn’t need BSL for all his lessons.  He was fully integrated, and with support from an excellent teacher for deaf and the communicators he had developed strong bicultural knowledge too.

However, needing an interpreter and getting one in education are two different things.  Whilst funding for communication support was brought into the school via his statement, the school still had to top it up from their own funds. If the communicators had not voluntarily left, and his need for an interpreter had been agreed, there may have been redundancy costs incurred.  It turns out there is a black hole in the funding which leaves schools picking up the pieces. Definitely not an incentive to integrate deaf children with expensive support needs into mainstream provision.

The usual maximum funding allocated via a statement comes in the form of “units”. The maximum is 10 units per child with a full time support requirement.  Our son was receiving 20 units of support in order to pay for his communication support, and this still left the school with a shortfall.  The proposal to employ interpreters pushed this up to something like 30 or 40 units.  We needed good justification to ask for this kind of funding.

The local contract for interpreting provision was with an agency we had reasons not to want.  Luckily because the support for our son was “child specific” it didn’t have to fall under this contract.  Knowing that I could contact freelance colleagues locally and could offer them regular work, I was able to negotiate an all inclusive rate that beat this contract cost anyway.  We bypassed the agency by me picking up the administrative work of booking interpreters.  We just needed the agreement for funding.

On the very last day of term, before the summer holidays started the answer came back from the education authority that they would top up the statement and enable our son to have full time interpreter support for the autumn term. This left me to find and book a team of interpreters who could take our son from the dependency on CSW’s to independence via interpreters.  The interpreters would also have to gently education the school staff on the difference between a teaching assistant and an freelance interpreter.  No mean feat really!

And has it worked? Well apart from the headaches it has given me, the whole thing has been a roaring success.  I say this from the point of view that I am now looking  at a confident, academically bright and competent boy who is in control of his own access support.  He is nine.  He has been able to make sensible decisions about which sessions require support and which he can manage in.  The teacher for deaf, school SENCO, teaching staff and the interpreters have all been fantastic.  Our son has two full days per week with an interpreter, and three half days.

I have no idea what will happen for secondary school.  But clearly he is not going back to communication support workers for education.  They were right, he had outgrown them.

And the interpreters? Well it might be primary school, but it certainly hasn’t been easy work! Interpreting songs and TV programmes like Newsround off the cuff; dealing with classroom dynamics and changing staff; and just the challenges of working with kids! But also, our son is adept at deciding when to look at the interpreter and when to lipread, so they have had to deal with judging when to sign and when to leave him.  One challenge for the teachers has been getting used to the idea that the interpreters will not tell our son off when he is secretly reading instead of paying attention!

I do not know of any other primary school age child who currently has interpreters in this country.  There is a family in Belgium who had to go to court to get interpreters for their son.  I am so grateful we didn’t have that battle.

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