A feel for words

24th November 2006 at 00:00
A ground-breaking initiative is helping pupils understand what it's like to be deaf and blind. Eva Langlands reports.

John whitfield still remembers what it was like being the only deaf boy at a mainstream school. Faced with the daily struggle to communicate with his peers and keep up in class, he learned to lip-read quickly.

Today, the 48-year-old wonders how things could have been different. "It was the school of hard knocks. Even once I'd learned to lip-read, it was tough. Whenever the teacher turned to the blackboard I'd no idea what she was saying. When kids sitting behind me answered a question, I was lost.

"I spent my school years trying to be accepted, but feeling excluded. A few simple steps to make my classmates more aware of my situation could've changed all that," says Mr Whitfield, whose determination led him to university, where he graduated with a psychology degree.

Now deaf and blind, Mr Whitfield is at the forefront of a ground-breaking initiative to ensure the next generation grows up understanding deafblindness, a condition affecting an estimated 5,000 people in Scotland.

Armed with a few simple props and decades of experience, he tours primary and secondary schools across Scotland, raising awareness about dual sensory impairment.

It is, literally, a hands-on experience. Young people learn the ABC of Deafblind manual, the tactile language used by deafblind people.

Pupils act out the difficulties faced by deafblind people through practical exercises and discover how these can be overcome. One favourite role-play involves walking from one end of the classroom to another wearing "tunnel vision" glasses - spectacles showing Mr Whitfield's 10 per cent vision.

Within minutes, this simple exercise generates instant awareness and lots of laughs.

"The kids think it's fun watching me wearing the glasses and stumbling around," says Irene Parfect, a teacher at Millersneuk Primary in Lenzie, whose P4 class took part in the training as part of a disability project.

"They get to grips with the issues quickly. Many realised how fortunate they are to be able to see and hear. Visits like this are important."

More than 11,000 young Scots at more than 200 schools have taken part in the initiative, offered free by Deafblind Scotland, with numbers increasing year on year.

The mid-morning bell rings at Millersneuk and children stream into Ms Parfect's colourful classroom to start practising Deafblind manual. The pupils hold out their hands to each other and begin drawing and pointing on their palms with their fingertips. It's impressive. This new language has gripped their imagination.

But starting young is key to transforming attitudes long-term, says Mr Whitfield. Just one short lesson in deafblind awareness can change how someone communicates with deafblind people throughout their life. He hopes more schools will take up the challenge.

* www.deafblindscotland.org.uk

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