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Finding the right school

Catherine Field, a Deaf-blind mother with Usher’s Syndrome, from Essex, UK, talked to Gill Lea-Wilson, Information Officer at DPPI, about the challenges and triumphs of trying to secure a good education for her two hearing daughters.

Both my daughters are hearing but with two deaf parents, their first language is British Sign Language (BSL). Finding the right school for my children was important because I want them to have a good education and I want them to grow up bilingual, using both BSL and English.

Choosing a school

Choosing a primary school for my eldest daughter, Elizabeth, made me feel extremely anxious. I contacted schools by type-talk and letter, asking if they could accommodate a visit. Some told me to come to their open days but this was no good for me, as I need one-to-one support, extra time and a slower pace.

After facing a lot of negativity, I had a chat with my communication support worker from work, who kindly volunteered to accompany me on school visits in her own time. With this arrangement, schools were happy for me to visit, since they did not have to pay for an interpreter. Once I got to meet the head teachers, I was able to establish a good rapport with some of them.

I wanted to access the school league tables to help me choose the best school. The local authority told me to phone individual schools but many seemed suspicious of my request and refused to give me the information. In the end, I went to the library with my communication support worker. It did not have anything in large print, so she wrote out the information in large print.

Application process

Completing the enrolment form was another challenge. I was given a green form with old-fashioned type, which I could not read. My husband, being severely dyslexic, could not help. I copied the form onto white paper and faxed it to my parents. My father completed the general details and my mother typed the remaining questions to me via textphone. This system took a long time but worked. My father posted the form back to me to sign.

The local authority advised me to send Elizabeth to a school which it said was deaf-aware and a feeder for a secondary school with a deaf unit. I ignored this advice as I disagreed that the school was deaf-aware, and the deaf unit at the secondary school did not use BSL.

We got offers of a place from all three of the schools we applied to. In the end, my decision was based partly on the journey to school for Elizabeth, as well as the accessibility of the school for me. It was then clinched when I spoke to the head teacher at Grove School, who told me they had a reception teacher who could use BSL, who would be Elizabeth's first class teacher.

Home-school partnership

I explained to the head teacher about my deaf-blindness and social services sent a letter to the school about the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. However, I really had to reinforce the fact that all letters home should be in large print, bold, on yellow paper. There was a lot of paperwork - newsletters, school trips, parents' meetings and so on - and the school took on new office staff in order to put information into large print for me.

The school has an open door policy, which means that parents can drop in at any time. This was a great idea but it did not work for me as my visits needed to be planned. Many of the school staff wore bright clothing and jewellery. I explained to the head teacher that my visual impairment meant that I could not look at these teachers. Now, the staff wear black when I have a school appointment or if there is an assembly.

As I could not go into the school and chat with teachers, I requested a home-school diary, to record what they have been doing, any problems which have arisen, information about forthcoming events and so on. The school bought a yellow file with yellow paper, and typed or wrote in large bold print, with black ink. I would respond by typing something. The diary proved successful and continues to be used.

Teaching sign language

The reception teacher was initially the only staff member using BSL. She used a bilingual approach with Elizabeth and often signed across the classroom. Other children soon became interested in signing and I became involved in teaching them signs. Because the school uniform is purple check, it was very difficult for me to see but the children would put on their plain dark purple cardigans or jumpers if I was there. Once the children started learning BSL, they also started using it at home and their parents also became interested.

In assemblies, good lighting, background colours and distance were important factors for my vision, which the school tried to accommodate. I would arrive half an hour before the other parents and two seats would be reserved for me and my communicator-guide. Elizabeth would be at the front so that I could see her. The school began using BSL in assemblies, which it had never done before.

With a communicator-guide, I have also been involved in artwork at the school. I do three-dimensional, very textured artwork, so that I can feel it. During an Easter bonnet parade, the children passed close by me so that I could feel their bonnets. The class teacher taught them to sign some Easter songs, which was a lovely surprise and made me cry!

Second time around

Four years on, my younger daughter, Jennifer, is due to start school in September. The application form is now orange and white with tiny print and impossible to read. I thought, "Here we go again!" I rang the local authority for a large print version

but they told me to ask the head teacher to fill in the form for me. So I called the school, and they said that they are not allowed to complete it. I had to go back to the local authority to ask them to make it clear to the school that they have given permission for the form to be completed in this way.

I want Jennifer to attend the same school as Elizabeth, as so many things are established there now. The local authority says she lives out of the catchment area but we are ignoring this and waiting to hear if she has been approved for a place.

First published DPPI Journal, Issue 58: Summer 2007

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