Charlie Swinbourne: Last week’s Newsnight report was a reminder that too many Deaf children have been victims of sexual abuse

Posted on November 9, 2015

Erika Jones’ report on sex abuse at London’s Woodford school, which was shown on BBC2’s Newsnight last week, made after a year of painstaking research (read her article on it for this site by clicking here) stuck in my mind for days.

I’d already seen the report (which was made as a collaboration between Newsnight and See Hear), when it first aired on See Hear a few weeks ago, but seeing the interviews again, seeing those Deaf people tell their stories and explain how their experiences marked their lives, really saddened me, and made me feel angry about what they went through.

The fact is, there’s too many stories like these. Of vulnerable Deaf children, away from their families at boarding school, falling prey to people who think that they can take advantage of the communication barrier between those children and the outside world.

The part of Jones’ report that stood out for me in particular was how some of the children tried to tell the outside world what was going on.

Not knowing how else to articulate what was happening to them, they wrote the word ‘rude’ on pieces of paper and folded them into paper aeroplanes and threw them through windows. Passers-by “would pick them up, laugh and wave and go on their way and we would feel frustrated,” said one of the victims.

The powerlessness those Deaf people felt as children at Woodford School reminded me of the stories in the 2012 documentary Mea Maxima Culpa, which I saw recently on Netflix. That documentary is about how four Deaf American men protested against the abuse they suffered from a priest when they were children at a Catholic school.

That film showed how difficult it was for those Deaf men to find people who’d believe them, let alone for justice to be done.

In frustration, at one point, we see one of the men visiting the priest responsible, knocking on his door and confronting him. Even then, his anger is brushed away, dismissed, and his experiences are not recognised. It’s a monent that makes the blood boil.

Growing up in the Deaf community, I heard many stories hinting at dark events in boarding schools and in other groups that Deaf children were involved in.

Over the years, there have been regular news stories about incidents of sexual abuse involving Deaf children. We’re not just talking about decades ago, some of these news stories are very recent.

For example, this story from Quebec in Canada on Friday last week, where a $20 million settlement has been reached after 38 abusers were identified at a Catholic school for the Deaf,  who abused hundreds of Deaf children.

We might assume that in the current education system, and with far more awareness of sexual abuse in wider society (not least after the recent cases involving celebrities) there’s better safeguarding of children. Better rules and regulations that make sexual abuse less likely.

We might hope that less Deaf children in the UK are affected by sexual abuse, and a case like Woodford School wouldn’t happen today, at least not to the same extent, not in the same way.

We might assume the risks are lower, but is it safe, or sensible to assume that? I don’t think it is.

Deaf children are still vulnerable to these kinds of incidents today, in this country. And they remain at higher risk than other children because of the communication barrier, because they can’t make themselves as easily understood.

If Deaf children are still vulnerable in this country and in America, what of schools in the rest of the world, in developing countries for example, where Deaf people are often generally viewed far less positively, where Deaf children are even less likely to be listened to?

Authorities everywhere need to realise how this kind of abuse can happen to Deaf children – and react to that risk.

At least here in the UK, there have been attempts to help educate Deaf children about what could happen to them, and what they can do about it.

One example came earlier this year,  when I was lucky enough to work with Deaf director Bim Ajadi on an Underwear Rule film for the NSPCC (which I wrote) featuring Deaf characters.

The basic rule it tries to convey is that it’s wrong for people to touch Deaf children where their underwear is, and that the children should tell a trusted adult if it happens to them.

Watch (and please pass on) the video below.

But there needs to be more examples like this, more ways of illustrating the issue to young Deaf people so at the very least they are aware of what the boundaries are and what they can do about it.

On a broader basis, sex education remains an issue. As I’ve written about in the past (here’s a Guardian article from 2012) young Deaf people often don’t get all the information they need when it comes to sex education and that also makes them vulnerable, not only to sexual abuse as children, but abusive relationships later in life.

Although I felt horrified by the stories that were told on Newsnight and in Mea Maxima Culpa, I also felt a sense of deep admiration for the Deaf people who told their personal stories of what happened.

It must be so hard to talk about those kinds of things happening to you, but they did it on camera, in order to raise awareness and aid understanding of the issues within wider society and within the Deaf community too.

Without those people telling their stories, people wouldn’t be discussing these issues now. It’s so important that their stories are not forgotten.

Watch Erika Jones’ Newsnight report here and read her article for BBC News here.

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning director and scriptwriter. He has written for the Guardian and BBC Online, and directed the comedies The Kiss and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool. His documentary Found, about people discovering the Deaf world, came out earlier this year.

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