Article published 8th June 2008
Debate rages over the best educational route for children with SEN, even for seemingly similar children, with very similar conditions...
If a child is profoundly deaf, should they attend a special school for the hearing impaired or be educated alongside hearing children in a mainstream school and who, ultimately, should decide?
Deafness is something about which many people have strong opinions, and parents and other deaf people can be passionate in their arguments.
Often problems really begin when negotiating secondary schools – this is where many of the really serious difficulties start, when a child has to move around different classes and teachers and can easily get overwhelmed.
It is at this stage that many parents consider specialist schools for academically bright, deaf children. Here, three parents of deaf children tell about their own experiences and different approaches to the mainstream/special debate.
Ian’s story - Why mainstream schooling mattered
Ian got meningitis when he was 8 months old and was diagnosed profoundly deaf in both ears early on – there is difficulty detecting deafness and degree of deafness in babies.
He wore hearing aids from then on. We were lucky as we had a home help and were able, in the preschool years, to spend time trying to get him to make sounds and words. This is probably the most crucial time as the decision to sign or speak is made during this period. Ian went for Cochlear implant assessment when he was 8, but we decided not to proceed – we are now going through the assessment again!
We put Ian into a normal state primary school where he received additional help. Getting this help needs a statement of SEN from the local authority that effectively makes the funds available to the school. It is crucial that the right ingredients are cited – help at school (we had full-time help to begin with which has tailed down as Ian wanted independence and has found ways to cope), speech therapy (crucial), peripatetic visits, support from other bodies. If these ingredients are not there they need to be lobbied for with vigour. We certainly had to lobby. We also moved during this period, which provided interesting insights into the levels of help different local authorities were willing to provide.
Ian was clearly bright and passed his entrance exams into a boys’ grammar school. We had to overcome resistance from the headmaster who didn't want someone with disabilities affecting the school performance!
After that ‘battle’, which we won, he has been very supportive, as has the school. Ian has also fully participated in sport, which is important in growing self-confidence and making friends.
We wanted to avoid any school with a hearing unit, including deaf grammar schools, as we felt standards and expectations may be lower.
Nonetheless, it is vital to have someone who understands about the radio aid or the hearing aid, can check it and is capable of either getting it to work or replacing it. We did this at home, relying on peripatetic help and support from the local hospital. This is, of course, complemented by support from hearing tests which monitor things on a regular basis, and regular visits to an ear, nose and throat specialist.
We feel it’s important to meet others with deaf children with similar aspirations, to establish what help/support should be provided during school time. Ian is now 17 studying for A levels with the expectation of going to university.
Lucy’s story - why a special school was the right choice
I am the mother of a 14-year-old child who was totally deafened at the age of 18 months by meningitis (she had a Cochlear implant at the age of 3).
I have witnessed many parents, myself included, desperately trying to work through the stages of bereavement (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance) as they gradually come to terms with the fact that their son or daughter has a permanent disability, which is never going to go away.
The problem for parents of a disabled child is that there is an additional agenda, which may prevent them from doing what is best for their child and may instead result in their doing what is most comfortable for them, based on their state of psychological adjustment to their child’s disability.
Wanting to be normal
Some parents seem to latch onto ‘normality’ as a target, convincing themselves that interventions (such as the Cochlear implant) are going to make their child ‘normal’ again. This then means living a normal life, going to a normal school and doing everything to avoid the label of ‘disability’ raising its ugly head.
For these parents, mainstream education is the goal, because they can then say that their child is going to a normal school. This makes them comfortable about their child’s disability.
‘They’re doing alright because, look, they’re going to the local secondary school with all their friends. So that means they are normal and their deafness is not a problem.’
In some cases, this may simply be an expression of the denial or bargaining (using rationalisations to make you feel better), which is an integral part of the psychological state of bereavement. Normal bereavement processes generally take a year to reach resolution. However, having a disabled child results in abnormal bereavement, because the source of the grief is (literally) ever present and cannot be forgotten, so emotions continue to be raised years after the event. I still find myself unexpectedly in tears when I am asked to talk about my daughter’s illness and our early struggles to cope with its consequences, even though it all happened more than 10 years ago.
Why choose a mainstream school?
So the issue is: does getting your deaf child into a local mainstream secondary school indicate success in the management of their deafness? It depends. There are undoubtedly some deaf children who get the support they need in mainstream and function extremely well, reaching their full potential and coming out with excellent qualifications to set them up for life.
However, there are others who suffer in a mainstream class. Imagine the effect of noisy classrooms; large class sizes; poor class discipline (leading to disruptive behaviour); teachers who, having no training in the needs of hearing impaired students, may inadvertently make learning difficult (eg failing to face the deaf pupil; talking too quickly or quietly); lack of subtitling on video presentations; lack of written support (eg text on a smartboard behind the teacher) so that the lesson is being transmitted simultaneously in writing as well as orally.
A hearing-impaired child may be unable to contribute to class discussions because they fail to hear their fellow students, feel socially isolated (because they are just too hard to talk to) and refuse to use a radio aid or have support staff present in the classroom (because it makes them different from their peers and is ‘seriously uncool’). All that is a hell of a high price to pay for the title of ‘normal’.
Why choose a specialist school
I would be dishonest, however, if I did not also identify the very real concerns of sending a child to a specialist school for the deaf. These schools are generally residential, which means boarding unless you are lucky enough to live locally or are prepared to move house. They could also be viewed as deaf ghettos, where your child will be surrounded exclusively by hundreds of deaf pupils (some of whom may have additional physical or behavioural issues) and where schoolwork is pursued in isolation from the normal world outside. Is this secluded community the best place for your child to prepare for the hearing world? It can be.
What specialist HI schools enable is easy access to learning, without the exhaustion and frustration of the fight to be understood or to understand.
An easier life?
Everything is geared up to enable your child to overcome the technical difficulties of their deafness. Class sizes are much smaller than mainstream, classroom environments may well be fitted with every technological gizmo known (and there is an awful lot available now with the introduction of smartboard technology into the classroom and lots more to come).
These aids enable written support for every word spoken. There are also other systems allowing pupils access to each other’s speech, so that interactive class discussions are the norm. The teachers are not only subject specialists, but also trained teachers for the deaf. They know how to facilitate learning in deaf children and are far less likely to make errors in their teaching style that act as a barrier to effective communication in the classroom.
If your child has poor speech quality, the likelihood is that they will be much better understood by the teachers in a specialist school.
In this way barriers to learning are removed and your child can then have the ‘normal’ child’s experience of school, which is listening to the teacher and understanding the words that they say, and being understood in their turn. This liberates them to concentrate solely on understanding the subject material itself. This is exactly what a normal child’s experience of school should be.
Perhaps the definition of ‘normal’ education is not sending a deaf child to a mainstream school, where they have limited access to what is going on in the classroom, but instead sending them to a specialist school where they can experience learning in a normal way by concentrating solely on understanding the subject material.
Difficulties with hearing aids (or any other gadget to improve hearing) are also not an issue at a specialist school for the deaf. Everybody is in the same boat. They are all dependent on some kind of electronics. It is not hidden, it is simply forgotten about. There are also no barriers to communication. If speech is too difficult, the kids revert to sign language. Even oral kids will soon be signing away with the best of them. Communication without barriers, without effort, without prejudice.
This use of sign language may horrify parents who have embraced the oral approach.
However, there is no evidence to suggest that sign language is in any way damaging to oral learning, if it is used in a social context.
Instead, it could be said to enrich the deaf child’s life, providing a more relaxing method of communicating outside class. After all, your child is deaf. Nothing is going to change that. Current technology can only provide advanced forms of hearing assistance. We cannot currently undo or reverse the physiological damage that causes sensori-neural deafness (although this remains a possibility in the future). In the meantime, pretending that the natural state of your child is anything other than deaf is to be in a state of denial, and that’s not good either for you or for your child.
Special schools - emphasising disability?
Yes, undoubtedly, allowing your child to go to a specialist school for the deaf does emphasise the fact that they are disabled. Is that a problem? It shouldn’t be. Your child’s confidence about their own deafness is dependent on their being completely comfortable in both their partially hearing state (with aids) and their stone-deaf or hearing-impaired state (without aids). Going to a specialist school should certainly help them to come to terms with their disability. The ‘Why me?’ is a lot easier to handle if they can see hundreds of others with similar difficulties.
A special school for the deaf may be an isolated community, but it often represents an oasis where a deaf child can drink their fill from the pool of knowledge with ease.
Having reached their potential they are then ready to enter the outside world, equipped with the qualifications they need to do well and the confidence concerning their deafness, which should significantly reduce the barriers to their success. The ghetto issue is also fairly easily resolved: by weekly boarding and/or encouraging active socialising with hearing peers in the holidays.
You want your child to experience a normal education? Think about a special school.