Campaigner with an ear for the deaf

16th February 1996 at 00:00
"There are none so deaf as those that will not hear." So said Victor Hugo. Unfortunately his words describe only too well a number of those working in the Scottish education system, according to Veronica Rattray, the outspoken Scottish development officer for the National Deaf Children's Society.

"It makes me extremely angry when you get professionals who don't know about deaf education, or why it is important to have teachers of the deaf and not just learning support, and they are making the decisions," Mrs Rattray says.

"I feel very sorry for the children who struggle against the odds but leave school not reaching anywhere near their potential. I strongly believe that the best gift you can give a deaf child is a good education and the opportunity to flourish so that at the end of the day they can take their place in society as confident adults. Sadly this does not always happen. We have a long way to go yet."

Mrs Rattray, aged 48, is the society's first Scottish development officer and has set herself an ambitious agenda. She has launched a campaign to highlight the shortage of qualified teachers of the deaf and wants to see a centre of excellence established. She hopes to strengthen the parental support network across the country and encourage the professionals to listen more to what parents have to say.

With local government reorganisation causing major upheavals, there could hardly be a more uncertain time to begin, but no better qualified woman for the job. As a mother of two deaf teenage sons and a hearing daughter, Mrs Rattray has first-hand experience of the difficulties faced by parents.

Shortly after the birth of her first child in 1976, she began to suspect there was something wrong with his hearing. "Robert was a typical bright baby, but he used to shriek a lot, and he never understood speech or looked round when you called his name," she recalls.

Repeated requests for Robert to be properly screened were dismissed by a rather hostile GP. "I knew nothing about deafness, so when I was told that I was imagining it all I began to think it might be true. No one wants to believe there is anything wrong with their child."

Mrs Rattray was seven months pregnant with her daughter Gemma and was waiting to join her husband in Scotland, when she learnt that Robert had been placed on the "at risk" register by her local social services. "At first I was speechless with shock, but then I felt tremendous outrage at the way Robert had been treated," she says.

It became clear that her GP had interpreted her natural persistence as a possible threat to her son. It was here that Mrs Rattray's strong will and tenacity came into play for the first time. She stormed down to the baby clinic and demanded a screening, despite feeling mentally and physically drained. Experts took just 15 minutes to diagnose Robert, by now 17 months old, as profoundly deaf. The shock of the diagnosis led to the premature birth of Gemma the next day.

By the time her third child Nathan was born in 1982, Mrs Rattray was well acquainted with the difficulties and rewards of bringing up a deaf child. But she admits it was eight months before she realised that Nathan too was deaf. Her experiences have left her firmly committed to ensuring other parents receive the support and advice she was denied. She passionately believes parents should be listened to and given the information they need to make up their own minds.

It is a philosophy she has followed, unafraid that at times her decisions might be controversial. Nathan and Robert were brought up in the oralaural method but have since picked up sign language. And in what is a telling critique of what Mrs Rattray calls a lack of choice in Scotland, both boys were sent to boarding schools for the deaf in England, paid for by the local education authority, to complete their secondary education.

"Robert was a bright child, but with just two hours' support a week in his mainstream school, he seemed to be standing on his tiptoes in the deep end, just managing to keep his head above water," she says. "If I had the choice I would have wanted them to go to schools in Scotland, but to safeguard their future we had to look elsewhere. There was nothing equivalent to the centres of excellence in England that would have been right for them."

On integration policies, she adds: "Robert would not have achieved what he has in a mainstream school here. It has been recognised that we need to establish more secondary provision for deaf children in Scotland. There is so little choice."

The task facing Veronica Rattray is daunting. But a pragmatic, clear-headed approach, determination and a sharp sense of humour give her an odds-on chance of success.

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