A crocodile of six-year-olds from Nene Valley Primary School, Peterborough, moves cautiously round the wide circular corridor at the new National Centre for Deafblindness in Peterborough, where the organisation Deafblind UK has its headquarters. One of each pair wears an eye mask and ear defenders so that they can experience what it is like to be deafblind. They are in charge while their partner guides them. This is one of the activities children are able to take part in through a carefully designed programme aimed at learning what deafblind people can do as well as what they cannot.
Heather O'Brien, education manager, is introducing the concept of what it is like to be deafblind and explaining that people may not be totally blind or deaf. Pairs of specially designed spectacles are passed round. Some have a tiny hole in the centre but are dark elsewhere, simulating tunnel vision; other pairs demonstrate what it is like to see only to the side, or have swirly patches that simulate when the eye is scratched.
"It's the same for people who are deaf - they may hear certain levels of sound better than others," explains Heather. "Some have a whooshing sound in their ears which makes it difficult to pick out certain noises or speech." She demonstrates by providing several sets of ear defenders for the children to wear. There is a little clowning around, to be expected of six-year-olds, but the children are obviously intrigued by the sudden loss of one of their senses. One or two children clearly do not like the experience and quickly remove the defenders.
Next the group considers what you are prevented from doing if you cannot see or hear. Suggestions such as "Football," "Painting," "Reading,"
"Knowing when it gets dark or light," move on to more thoughtful considerations: "Making friends," "Finding your way to places". Heather explains how deafblind people communicate through touch. The Deafblind Manual, or fingerspelling, is very similar to signing for deaf people, with a few additions to make it suitable for blind people too. She takes the children slowly through the alphabet. "You use the left hand as a piece of paper and the first finger on the right hand as a pencil," she explains.
Soon the children, and teachers, are able to write their names, and are ready to be introduced to Alberta, who has been deaf from birth and blind since a child. Alberta regularly comes to meet groups of children at the centre to talk to them about what it is like to be deafblind. She is aided by her interpreter, Nina, who simultaneously signs the letters on to Alberta's hand and interprets what she is saying to the children. If the children are nervous initially, Alberta's warm smile soon wins them over as she tells us about how she grew up and now lives with her husband. "What do you miss most about not seeing and hearing?" someone asks. "Not being able to see my seven grandchildren, but the nine-year-old is perfect at Manual, so we can talk," she replies. The children are keen to meet Alberta by signing their names on to her hand, rewarded by a look of real pleasure from Alberta.
Next are activities, such as seeing how it feels to do everyday tasks like making a drink, looking at the Heritage exhibition which contains items such as Braille Scrabble, and Feeling Art which shows how art can be accessible to deafblind people. "Obviously this group is very young and with older children we adapt the visit to their abilities," says education co-ordinator Laura Perkins. "A-level students visit who are studying sociology, design, or health and social care, and secondary schools also come for PHSE and citizenship."
On the map
National Centre for Deafblindness. John and Lucille van Geest Place, Cygnet Road, Hampton, Peterborough PE7 8FD. Tel: 01733 358100. www.deafblind.org.uk