Now you're talking my language

24th March 2006 at 00:00
How good is your school for deaf pupils? A new DVD aims to improve attitudes for the 80 per cent of deaf children who are in mainstream education, writes Douglas Blane.

At the far end of a long, carpeted corridor with panelled walls decked with photographs of football legends, a roomful of visitors to Ibrox is talking animatedly in two languages.

Oliver Kerr, the star of the DVD that is being launched and a former pupil at Earnock High in South Lanarkshire, where the film was made, explains its aims through an interpreter.

"It's really saying that being deaf is not a problem. We can still communicate. A lot of hearing pupils see people like me as different and tend to back off from us. There is no need," he says.

Deaf since birth, Oliver learned to talk within his own family using British Sign Language. English, with its different structures, syntax, grammar and vocabulary, had to be learnt later.

"I do read and write in English, but if you compare my English with that of a hearing pupil's, it won't be as good or as natural, simply because it's a second language to me," he explains.

Go For It tells of a friendship between a deaf pupil, played by Oliver, and his best mate, who can hear. It also introduces Fiona, who uses a hearing aid and lip-reads.

The simple message is that deaf people communicate in a variety of ways and friendship and chat between deaf and hearing people is perfectly possible and enjoyable. Mime, simple signs, body language, facial expressions and writing can all be used, separately or in combination.

"Just loosen up and try to communicate in any way that seems sensible,"

says the voice-over on the DVD, which includes introductions to BSL and lip-reading.

The DVD has been produced by the National Deaf Children's Society and distributed to all Scottish secondary schools. It is part of a larger, two-year project, with pound;160,000 funding from the Scottish Executive, explains Ken Corsar, director of NDCS Scotland.

Eileen Burns, the project manager, did a lot of research in schools in every education authority to find out exactly what they needed and wanted, he says. She is now working with them on accessibility strategies specifically aimed at deaf children, and the charity is collaborating with HM Inspectorate of Education to develop a "How Good is Our School for Deaf Young People" evaluation guide.

"The DVD is just one part of our efforts to influence culture and attitudes in all Scotland's schools," he says.

The majority of deaf pupils - over 80 per cent - are currently taught in mainstream, Ms Burns says. "If you talk to them, they will say they find it difficult to join in and be part of the school community. So it is important to improve communications between them and their peers. That's what we are aiming for."

Earnock High, its teachers and pupils feature in the new DVD because the school has a long-established and successful department of deaf education.

"Two of our pupils are now at Glasgow University studying computer science and engineering," says the department's principal teacher, Sylvia Gordon.

"Deaf students have note-takers at university and college, but our teachers - we've eight in the department - go into classes with the children, sit facing them and translate what the subject teacher is saying into BSL.

"Like any language it takes time and effort to become fluent. But, as the DVD says, it's not hard to learn basic signs and finger spelling."

BSL, which was officially recognised as a language in 2003, is the first or preferred language of around 70,000 deaf people in Britain. This exceeds the number of Gaelic speakers, the DVD explains. When friends, family and interested others are included, the figure rises to half a million users, about the same as the number of Welsh speakers.

"There is no written form of BSL. So kids may struggle with English, as Oliver was explaining," says Ms Gordon. "Verb tenses can be a problem because BSL is topic based and uses a timeline - yesterday, today, tomorrow - instead of tenses.

"Some of our pupils enjoy reading, but for others the last thing they would do to relax would be read a book."

Once encouraged to think about differences and similarities between deaf and hearing people, mainstream pupils can often be more receptive than some of their teachers, she says. "Some are not keen on having other teachers in their class, but they shouldn't worry about that. If we're listening to what they're saying, translating it into BSL and making sure the pupils understand, the last thing on our minds is whether it's a well-structured lesson."

Occasionally teachers are not anxious but downright unenlightened, she says. "I remember one saying to me, 'Deaf kids can't do geography.'

"This new DVD should help to get rid of ideas like that."

National Deaf Children's Society Scotland, tel 0141 248 2429

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