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Demystifying Deafness

- Reflect -

Like many of us, I’ve been hunkering down on the sofa to watch Strictly Come Dancing, that ever present harbinger of winter. It’s always comforting to have Strictly’s ubiquitous fix of sequins and spray tans to brighten up these chilly, dark Saturday evenings.

If you’ve been tuning in too, like me, you’ve probably been captivated by the fantastic and inspiring Rose Ayling-Ellis and her partner Giovanni Pernice. For those who aren’t aware, actress Rose is deaf, and her presence on the ever-popular ballroom dance show is breaking ground in more ways than one.

Let’s be honest, lots of us probably aren’t that aware of what life is like for the Deaf community. Before this series of Strictly started, many of us questioned exactly how Rose would be able to dance in time without being able to hear the music. So, watching how, week after week, she produces beautiful, technically demanding dances, performs death defying lifts, scores top marks, receives unbounded praise from the judges, and love and admiration from her partner, has been not only entertaining, but powerfully educational. If you haven’t seen the moving moment when Rose covers Giovanni’s ears before the music stops and they perform part of their dance in a silent tribute to the Deaf community, I urge you to watch

Rose has a sign language interpreter, who is visible on the show during the post dance interviews. When the pair incorporated sign language into their choreography, a representative from the Institute of British Sign Language told ITV news that it ‘without doubt, inspired people to enquire about studying the language’. So much so that, on 31st October, free trial enrollments to British Sign Language (BSL) courses rose from the usual 20-30 per day to a whopping 711, and searches for sign language increased by 488%. The show’s production team have all undertaken deaf awareness training and learned some sign language, and we can all now watch Strictly with BSL interpretation on the iPlayer, as well as the usual subtitled option. 

It strikes me that Rose is not only raising awareness about deafness, she’s actively celebrating it, and is succeeding in her desire to ‘break stereotypes about what deaf people can and can’t do’. She’s remarked before that “it’s such a joy to be deaf”, and it’s certainly a privilege to see her joyfully whirl around the dance floor.

There are over 50,000 children in the UK who are deaf. Very few deaf children have no hearing at all. Most can hear some sounds at certain frequencies or levels of loudness and hearing can often be improved (though not returned to ‘normal’ levels or clarity) with hearing aids or cochlear implants. Temporary deafness, in contrast, is extremely common – 80% of all children will have experienced it to varying degrees by the age of 10, often due to transient conditions, such as glue ear or other ear infections. Children who are deaf are at high risk of language deprivation. 90-95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, who generally don’t know a sign language before the birth of their child and may struggle to communicate, at least initially, with their baby. Language deprivation (which is avoidable) can cause a delay in language development and impact on school attainment. 

- Motivate -

Given these statistics, it strikes me that deafness is something that all school staff and parents should endeavour to gain a greater understanding of, especially given that there are so many simple, evidence-based things that we can all do to be more deaf friendly.

To find out more, I recently spoke with educational audiologist and teacher of the deaf, Dr Joy Rosenberg, from Oxford Audiology Solutions. Dr Rosenberg notes that we can all learn a little about the challenges posed by living with reduced levels of hearing, simply by popping in some decent ear plugs for the day. She advises experiencing a variety of situations to see what the impact of hearing loss is. Try chatting one to one in a quiet place. Put the TV on (without subtitles) at your normal volume and then see what difference subtitles make. How loud does it need to be for you to hear it adequately? Try having a group conversation somewhere with background noise, like a cafe, restaurant or bar. Reflecting on your day will be a real eye opener! It’s also worth listening to this simple hearing loss simulator

The National Deaf Children’s Society stresses that it’s important to remember that every deaf person is different and will have different levels of deafness, use different technology to help and have different communication preferences. They advise that it’s important to find out exactly how each individual communicates. We know, for example, that 64% of severely or profoundly deaf children in the UK communicate using only spoken English, whilst 31% use sign language in some form (22% signing alongside spoken English).    

It might sound simple, but to communicate in a more deaf friendly way, it’s important not to cover our mouths (tricky in these times of masks), mumble or over-exaggerate speech (louder is not necessarily better!). If needed, get a child’s attention by giving them a gentle tap, wave or call their name, but don’t shout or clap. Make sure that they can see your face whilst you are talking, and speak clearly and naturally. If they mishear you, rephrase what you said. Try to reduce background noise. Speak one at a time and use visual cues where appropriate. Be patient, keep trying and never give up! The National Deaf Children’s Society is full of fantastic tips, and it’s well worth taking a look. 

At school, the closer a deaf child sits to their teacher, the better. Reducing background noise is crucial. Consider adding more soft furnishings (such as wall coverings, carpet or covers on chairs and chair legs) to classrooms. Remote microphone systems can also be useful for teachers who want to overcome background noise, if the pupil has a cochlear implant or hearing aid. There are also microphone setups that work really well for group work. Reducing the levels of listening effort required of deaf children is critical in helping to combat concentration fatigue, which can have dramatic impacts on their physical and mental health. Don’t forget to turn on subtitles (or closed captions) for any audiovisual material you are using. This benefits not only children with hearing loss, but the whole class!

- Support -

Thankfully, there are numerous resources available to help us support deaf children and their learning.

I’d urge all classroom staff to take a look at University College London’s free online deaf awareness course which, whilst basic, covers communication strategies, evidence-based tips for supporting learning and an optional, free BSL taster! You can also contact Dr Joy Rosenberg for further information. The fantastic Centre for Educational Neuroscience has also recently produced a great blog and short video dispelling common neuromyths about deafness which could impact on the academic outcomes of deaf children.

The National Deaf Children’s Society website is an absolutely wonderful resource, packed full of information and support. Paediatrician Dr Tamsin Holland Brown has created a fantastic website and app designed to support children and families suffering from glue ear. Moreover, we need to build deaf children’s resilience by exposing them to inspiring deaf role models (like Rose), giving them an understanding of their deafness, cultivating an appreciation of deaf culture and encouraging them to advocate for themselves. The National Deaf Children’s Society has a website specifically for young people who are deaf, called The Buzz, which gives children and teens opportunities to read inspiring stories and connect with other deaf young people. 

To help inspire you further, I’m thrilled to be hosting a webinar with Dr Joy Rosenberg next week, on December 13th at 7.30pm, where we’ll be discussing optimal ways to build resilience in deaf young people, both in the classroom and at home. Book your tickets now!

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

School staff who’d like to understand more about the best ways to support deaf pupils can watch our comprehensive and informative training video, produced by Dr Joy Rosenberg. We’ve also added an article outlining 20 key things to understand about deafness, and an amazing list of over 250 useful websites and resources for deaf children, their families and schools, provided to us by Dr Rosenberg.

Don’t forget that Tooled Up members have free access to all of my webinars. To book your free place on next week’s webinar with Dr Joy Rosenberg, click here.

To read and view more content, follow me on my social media channels.

Have a great week.