Innovators who transformed the lives of profoundly disabled children

2nd July 2010 at 01:00
Over the next few weeks, we will feature the winners of this year's Scottish Education Awards, beginning with a teacher honoured for her lifetime achievement and a special school recognised for its dedication to its pupils' well-being. Emma Seith reports

In 1983, when teacher Mary Lee joined the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, pupils with multiple disabilities and a visual impairment had no means to communicate beyond simple body language.

They could not get their thoughts, feelings, needs and wants across verbally, and they could not see to sign.

It was a source of considerable frustration for both the children and Mrs Lee, which is why she and a colleague, Lindi MacWilliam, developed Canaan Barrie "on body" signs. Now the language is used in countries all over the world.

It was this achievement and her reputation as an "exceptional educator" that led to Mrs Lee receiving this year's lifetime achievement prize at the Scottish Education Awards in Glasgow.

Canaan Barrie signs involve touching - on the body or hands - or movements close to the child (see box, below).

The key to developing the signs was to "put yourself in the place of the child", said Mrs Lee, now a principal teacher at the school.

"The success of our methods is down to really trying to see the world from the children's point of view, not from our own, as sighted individuals."

Since the language was developed 25 years ago, the impact on the children has been considerable.

"They have developed to a more advanced stage of communication because we have given them the means to communicate."

The details of the Canaan Barrie system are contained in the book Learning Together, which Mrs Lee wrote with Lindi MacWilliam.

The book has been translated into Czech, French and Dutch and, according to Julie Shylan, principal of the Royal Blind School, Canaan Barrie is becoming an accepted communications method not only in the UK, but across Europe and beyond.

Mrs Lee started out in education as a classroom assistant, working in a Rudolf Steiner school. She then applied to Redland College in Bristol to become a primary teacher.

"They asked: `Do you realise we are just starting a new course that takes you straight into special education?' - so I was interviewed for that. Special education appealed to me because it was about truly working with individuals and picking up what their needs were."

Upon her return to Edinburgh, Mrs Lee, who was born in the city, worked as a movement therapist at Gogarburn Hospital.

"Again I was working with people with severe learning difficulties, developing their communication."

In 1983, after time out from her career to have a family, she joined the Royal Blind School.

"There was no curriculum at that time for children with multiple disabilities and visual impairment, so it was a very creative process, of us observing and interacting with the children and then discussing what we were finding as professionals."

Today the job remains creative, she says.

"Because the children are so individual, it is still a case of working out what is best for the individual child - but we now have a huge body of knowledge behind us."

Mrs Lee has done her bit to share that knowledge with teachers of the deaf, blind and sensory-impaired in the developing world. Between 1999 and 2007 she spent two weeks each year in East Africa, through Swedish charity SHIA, sharing knowledge and experiences with families and teachers.

She has also served as the English-speaking nations' representative on the European regional committee of the International Council for the Education of the Visually Impaired since 2005.

Back in Edinburgh, Mrs Lee continues to work in the classroom, and leads the Royal Blind School's weekly playgroup, where parents and carers get a chance to work with her and their infant in a supportive, small-group atmosphere, building the critical foundations for communication and development.

The Royal Blind School's principal, Julie Shylan, says: "Mary Lee is indeed an exceptional educator of whom we in Scotland can be very proud."

The Scottish Education Award judges concurred. They said they were "impressed by the respect, gratitude and love for Mary expressed by parents and her colleagues."

Having won the lifetime achievement award, Mrs Lee says she feels there is an expectation she will bow out of education. The 58-year-old, however, has no such plans.

"I'm hoping to carry on for some time yet," she says. "I enjoy working with my colleagues; I'd hate to give that up."

"Feeding our pupils can be complex," admits special school headteacher Jim McCaffrey. "If we don't get it right, there is a risk of nutritional deficiencies and that, in turn, will impact on their ability to attend and their performance."

Every child at Hillside, a 21-pupil school in East Ayrshire for children with complex learning difficulties, has his or her own eating and drinking profile, which is reviewed every six weeks by a specially-appointed dietetic cook, parents, school staff, dieticians, the school nurse, and speech and language therapists.

It is an example of good practice, argues Mr McCaffrey - and judges at this year's Scottish Education Awards agreed, giving Hillside the award for health and well-being school of the year.

Hillside pupils' eating and drinking profiles indicate their dietary requirements and ensure youngsters receive the right level of nutrition. They also tell staff how they need to be fed - if there are chewing difficulties, problems swallowing, sensory impairment, or if they are fed by a tube going directly into the stomach.

All staff, from teachers and classroom assistants to clerical workers and the janitor, support pupils during school lunches to help them develop their social skills.

"A positive change in behaviour has been shown as a direct result of improved nutrition through school meals," claims Mr McCaffrey.

The school has also tried to give pupils more of a say in what they eat at mealtimes, with the introduction of a bespoke menu board.

"The authority was issuing new menu boards, but they were not suitable for our pupils. So we described what we needed and they designed one for us," explains Mr McCaffrey.

Now the pupils can make their lunchtime choices using a menu board that has sound and Braille, as well as symbols and images.

The menu board has since been adapted and is used by teachers to give pupils the chance to make choices in a range of areas - timetables, parties, electing the head boy and head girl and deciding on the hymn to be sung at assembly.

It is also proving useful in other areas of the council's work.

"The boards have now spread from education into care of the elderly, and are being used in residential homes," says Mr McCaffrey.

Hillside also tries to relieve the pressure on families. It has ensured a range of professionals are accessible through the school, thereby avoiding unnecessary travel and disruption. Dieticians, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists all work with children.

Parents play an important role in the life of the school, stresses Mr McCaffrey. There is an open-door policy for all parents, and once a fortnight there are social nights to allow pupils and their extended families to make use of its specialist facilities.

"Some of these young people, because of their support needs, are not able to access local sports facilities," he explains. "The parents don't get the chance to take part in the shared experiences that other families take for granted."

At social nights, as well as doing sports with their children, parents are encouraged to take some time out for a spot of well-earned rest and relaxation.

"We have beauty treatments and different therapies, such as aromatherapy," says Mr McCaffrey.

Parents wishing to enhance their own skills can also complete healthy eating, nutrition and ICT programmes. For the pupils' part, they all have cookery timetabled into their week.

According to the judges: "Hillside School uses an integrated approach with partners, parents and the local community to provide high-quality learning experiences, underpinned by a clear focus on health and well-being for all its pupils."


Canaan Barrie is a system of communication through movement and touch, for children with multiple disabilities and a visual impairment who cannot communicate verbally or through traditional sign language.

The language was developed by Mary Lee, a teacher at the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, along with her former colleague Lindi McWilliam. Mrs Lee scooped this year's lifetime achievement award at the Scottish Education Awards.

"Because developmentally the pupils were at quite an early stage, they were still at a level where they were using personal gesture to communicate," Mrs Lee explained. "We wanted them to move beyond that, but to maintain understanding."

The two women looked at the way the children naturally communicated and adapted traditional sign language to suit their pupils, using touch on the body and hands and movements close to the child.

"The sign for `good' in Canaan Barrie is patting your chest, which we took from the children - it was something they did naturally," says Mrs Lee.

In sign language, meanwhile, you say `car' by pretending to steer a wheel; in Canaan Barrie, because the children rely on touch, the sign for car is a circular motion on the palm of the hand.


A key feature of Hillside School was its work with outside agencies, said the judges responsible for identifying the winner of this year's health and well-being award at the Scottish Education Awards.

They commented, in particular, on the school's involvement with researchers from Edinburgh University, who were developing the prototype of a new musical instrument, the "skoog".

The skoog is a cube designed to allow disabled children to make music. It can be programmed to be sensitive to even the lightest of touches, but it is also robust enough to resist strong handling. The instrument can produce the sound of a flute, trumpet, bowed or plucked strings, clarinet and other instruments.

Depending on the amount of pressure exerted on the sensors, pupils control how high or low, long or short, each note is.

In May, the pupils performed a specially-composed piece, on an Afro- Scottish theme, to a large audience at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

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