Charlie Swinbourne: 9 things we learned from C4’s documentary about Mary Hare school

Posted on December 15, 2017

Channel 4’s Extraordinary Teens documentary (watch it here) went out last night, and quickly became one of the top 5 trending topics on Twitter (check out the hashtag  with a strong response from deaf people across the country.

Here are 9 things I personally took from the programme:

1. Despite using the oral approach to education, sign language is widely used at Mary Hare

Mary Hare has long been known for the fact that BSL is not used in lessons, but sign language can be seen everywhere else at the school.

The programme mainly focused on Lewis (pictured above), a first-language BSL user, and we also saw students signing, well, literally everywhere. At lunch, in their living accommodation, and occasionally in lessons among themselves too.

Some signed in a more BSL way, others along with their speech, and it was lovely to see that this was completely accepted, with pupils able to express themselves naturally, in a way that best suited them.

2. Not signing can lead to feeling left out

The programme followed Andrew (left) as he tried to become Head Boy, asking his peers for a “second chance.”

Interestingly, Andrew recognised his lack of popularity was in large part due to the fact he didn’t sign, showing just how important being able to use some level of signing is for being accepted socially at the school.

3. For many pupils at the school, Mary Hare saves them from mainstream education

It was striking that the twins Fae and Mae had suffered to such a degree in mainstream education, despite being able to speak clearly, and having such strong lipreading skills.

They described being left out, not invited to social gatherings and said how horrific their experience in mainstream education was.

It was clear that for them, attending Mary Hare was something that changed not only their educational chances but their sense of being included socially by being among other deaf children.

This said something powerful about the experiences of many deaf children in mainstream schools. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those children cannot go to Mary Hare, or for that matter, another deaf school.

4. But Mary Hare can be a bubble

As we saw one of the twins struggling with being confident in the outside world, we saw how being at the school (and perhaps this is like any other deaf school) can be a safe bubble for the children, that means that they have to adapt when they leave.

What I’d say is it would still seem better to be in a supportive, inclusive environment for your formative years, then make that adjustment, than being in an environment which you struggle with.

5. Teachers aren’t always honest with Deaf children

Some deaf people talk of how their teachers weren’t always honest with them growing up, how they were told they had great speech for example, only to find that people couldn’t understand them when they ventured into the outside world.

There was a moment that stood out in this respect, as Lewis repeatedly failed to distinguish between two separate sounds from his speech therapist. When she told him that he was doing well, he said immediately: “don’t lie.”

While it was clear the therapist was trying to encourage Lewis, this moment has gained a strong reaction from deaf people on social media, praising him for recognising the reality of the situation and calling his teacher out on it.

6. Parents who sign to their deaf kids, have close bonds with them

Seeing how close Lewis was to his mum was really moving, especially seeing how they communicated so fluently, using both sign language and speech. You could see that being able to communicate clearly with his mum had helped make Lewis who he was today.

7. Cochlear implants aren’t instant fixes

Videos showing instant, moving reactions to cochlear implants being turned on have become ubiquitous in recent years, but this programme showed the other side, as Lewis struggled to identify any sounds at all when his implant was first turned on.

The programme showed the reality of implants for many deaf people, that learning to hear with them is a process. In the end we saw how months later, Lewis’s ability to hear had been enhanced, and he played us a recording of birds tweeting to show that he’d started to appreciate sound.

8. There’s great positives in deaf children being educated together

At the start of the programme, I watched Lewis messing around in class, teasing a classmate then making a funny facial expression, and I turned to my wife and said to her: “he couldn’t do that at mainstream school.”

What I meant by that is that he wouldn’t have been able to express himself in the same way.

We saw, across the programme, deaf pupils who were able to be themselves. To mess around, to interact with one another or with teachers confidently, to feel like full members of their school.

9. Deaf schools, whatever their approach, are one of the key building blocks of the deaf community

As we gained an insight into the four pupils and the school more widely, it came across that since so many pupils had close bonds, and were also using sign language, that we were seeing some of the future of the deaf community, right there on our screens.

In spending years alongside other deaf pupils, these pupils were forming bonds that would continue later in life.

While it would be wrong to assume they would all go into the deaf community, it seems likely that many will continue with a strong sense of deaf identity and solidarity, even coming from a school that is well known for an oral approach.

Read Charlie’s article about what Deaf people think about Mary Hare, written before the programme aired, here.

What did you think of the programme? Tell us below.

Watch the programme on All 4 (UK only) here.

Read more of Charlie’s articles here.

Charlie Swinbourne is a journalist and is the editor of Limping Chicken, and is also an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter.

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