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There are only 21 deaf schools in the UK now, compared to back in 1982 when there was 75. The drastic decline is frightening especially when it’s been recorded that only 36% of deaf children are attaining 5 GCSE’s grade A*-C.
In my eyes it’s not all to do with intelligence. A deaf child can do anything, providing they have the right support in place. It’s mostly down to accessibility.
Now, some people have argued that with technology improving mainstream schools are now much better at providing for deaf students. By technology I’m assuming they mean hearing aids, radio aids and whatever other amplification or alerting equipment they may use.
But as someone who has attended both mainstream and a specialist deaf school I can see clear distinctions between the two.
I worked hard at mainstream school and I did very well, no doubt about that. But I was insecure and on edge the whole time I was there.
I hated the radio aids I was given to wear and made to look different by. I avoided speaking in public, blushing whenever I was made to and I spent most days urging the school clock to hurry up so I could go home. My mum always said I was ‘wishing my life away.’ But I just knew I felt repressed.
At mainstream school it was often a battle to get the education just right for me. I didn’t want to be pulled out of French and Music lessons like the other deaf students so my parents made sure I remained in class.
And I didn’t want to be segregated from my peers and made to sit alone with a support worker, so there were more meetings about that. My French teacher gave me additional lessons so I could practise lip reading for the oral exam and truth be told, I worked my socks off to get the grades.
I left mainstream school with 11 good GCSEs but very little confidence in myself.
I started at Mary Hare school for the deaf in 2002 and referred to it as a ‘dream school.’ Sure, I was a teenager and amazed by all the -ahem – attractive boys, but more than that I felt for the first time in my life normal.
Having a chat with peers was no longer an awkward struggle. There was just one teacher of the deaf in each class, no support worker beside me taking notes or interpreting. I felt truly independent. It was brilliant.
I continued to work hard but the other areas in my life were beginning to be fulfilled too. I had friends. I had hobbies. Boyfriends! I was no longer hiding away in the background. I was being true to myself.
More importantly for my career, my tutors noticed my passion for performing arts and gave me an education in it like no other. I received tuition in singing, dance, playing the drums and as a stage performer.
Throughout my five years at mainstream school I was never once cast in a show or given a speaking role in a production. At Mary Hare I got lead roles in each show I did. It enabled me to pursue a career in the arts, encouraging me to take my dance degree and to eventually getting roles in TV and film.
I don’t think I would ever have had the confidence to pursue my passions without having gone to Mary Hare. I would have remained in the background, quietly working hard but never wanting to be seen because of how insecure and ‘different’ I felt. I probably would have remained very lonely too.
That’s why attending a deaf school, for me, is about so much more than just the education. Yes it is accessible and deaf-centered, but more than anything it supported my self esteem and sense of identity in a way that mainstream school could never do.
Hearing people take for granted the ability to feel ‘the same.’ But if we put a bunch of them in a deaf school and labelled it ‘mainstreaming’ I’m sure they would appreciate just how difficult it can be to blossom in an environment where you naturally feel inferior.
Of course, mainstream school can be a great experience for a lot of deaf students and in no way are two deaf people ever the same. But you know that feeling where you go somewhere and everyone’s like you and it feels natural and easy and like coming home? That was Mary Hare for me.
I hope every deaf student finds that place of their own, wherever that may be.
Rebecca-Anne Withey is an actress, sign singer and tutor of performing arts. A black country girl at heart, she now resides in Derby where she works in both performance art and holistic therapies. She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.
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