Feel for others

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Karen Gold visits a centre where pupils experience at first hand what it's like to be deaf and blind

An enormous plastic maggot crawls through a football-sized apple on a display board at the National Centre for Deafblindness. Children cringe and grimace at it. Then they turn to stroke the carved birds and leaves on the velvet-smooth wooden poles supporting the display. What would you do if you wanted an apple but couldn't see the maggot in it?

The display brings home the yuk factor of unforeseen domestic hazards - such as the wasp in the teacup - yet combines it with a tactile experience everybody can share.

It's a remarkable juxtaposition. But then this newly opened centre is quite a remarkable place. Purpose-built on an otherwise featureless industrial estate in Peterborough, the centre is intended to serve Britain's 24,000 deafblind people. It is headquarters for the charity Deafblind UK, most of whose members are born either deaf or blind and then go on to lose another faculty later.

Deafblindness is a devastating disability. It is so overwhelming, says business studies teacher Maggie O'Brien, who regularly brings students to the centre from nearby John Mansfield Secondary School, that some children simply cannot believe deafblind people exist: "They say to me: What do you mean? People are deaf or blind. They aren't both."

So as part of serving deafblind people, Deafblind UK decided a crucial part its new centre's work would be educational. The centre is in a building which is the first in Europe to be designed entirely with deafblind people in mind. It was built in the form of a circle, so anyone can follow the wide, hand-railed corridors and know they will end up where they started.

Full of natural light and contrasting paint colours, with automatic doors, a tactile map at the entrance, Braille and Moon signs outside every room and a sensory courtyard garden, the centre enables visiting groups of sighted and hearing children who have been blindfolded and ear-muffled to find their own way around, if they want to, virtually upon arrival.

From there they can follow a one, two or four-hour programme led by the charity's education manager Heather O'Brien. This can include learning the deafblind communication system called Manual, based on finger-spelling in the palm of the hand; learning to read and write the tactile languages Braille and Moon; meeting a deafblind person; experiencing an art workshop, or trying to prepare food and sort washing in the centre's simulation kitchen.

Having tried on various distorting goggles - Heather emphasises to visitors that deafblindness rarely means total darkness and total silence - a group of Year 11s from John Mansfield go for the kitchen experience. With a partner who watches to make sure they don't hurt themselves, they spill water into overflowing cups (bleach, Heather points out, is always labelled in Braille), spread dollops of inedibly thick margarine on to bread and narrowly avoid eating from a tin of catfood - indistinguishable by touch from a can of baked beans.

They move to the art room, where Heather hands around small objects for them to feel: a shiny box, a carved wooden mouse, velvet and hessian bags.

(None of them thinks to use their sense of smell, or they would have discovered that the box contained mints.) As they pass objects to each other, still blindfolded and ear-muffled, unable to hear or see, an eerie silence descends on the room. None of them thinks of touching one other.

None of them knows what is being passed, or when, or from where. None of them speaks.

When they take off the spectacles and ear-defenders, the moment goes. They feel some bigger objects - a sculpted head, a highly-decorated totem pole and draw what they think they felt. They meet the centre's receptionist and postal worker Dorreen Heath, who is deafblind, and ask her about her work through a fingerspelling interpreter.

They consider adding the communication needs of deafblind people to their GCSE business studies coursework and reflect on their feelings through the session: hesitant, panicky, better informed and more realistic about how deafblind people might be helped to live and work independently.

So far about 30 schools have visited the centre, says Heather O'Brien. They include Year 1 classes, sixth-formers, private schools and pupil referral units. Some follow her programme; others create their own, combining citizenship subjects - empathy, inclusion - with other subjects: art, literacy (via Braille, Manual and Moon), science (there are displays on the working of the eye and ear), history (a timeline and display, starting with the invention of the first known tactile language in the 3rd century ad opens at the centre next year) and design technology.

All children are struck by the experience, she says; some are profoundly affected, following it up by volunteering, fund-raising, telling their friends, even requesting work experience. And that is precisely the point, she adds: "We want these children to understand the importance of inclusion for when they become the architects and nurses and teachers of tomorrow."

The National Centre for Deafblindness runs free open evenings for teachers. Tel: 01733 358100. Email: education@ deafblinduk.demon.co.uk

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