Site that's seen but not heard

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Jane Norrie reports on a multimedia arts project that aims to give deaf children the confidence to find their own voice.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's desire to bring the Internet into every school may not have received universal acclaim, but for children who are deaf or hard of hearing it may bring significant benefits. With deaf children increasingly being taught in mainstream schools, many deaf pupils, particularly those with hearing parents, suffer from a lack of adult role models. Consequently they can experience a painful sense of isolation.

But an imaginative multimedia pilot project at London's Photographers Gallery aims to help deaf children use visual communication methods while increasing their own self-confidence and ability to learn.

Over the past year, five deaf artists have received instruction in the use of new digital technologies. During National Deaf Awareness Week (20-25 October) they launched the fruits of their labours in the form of an educational CD-Rom and Internet website - De@fsite, both designed to be used by young deaf people individually or in schools. The gallery is an educational charity and obtained funding from private sponsors including BBC Children in Need and the Carlton TV Trust.

Through a sign language interpreter, De@fsite co-ordinator Olivia Tumim explains how the project got off the ground. None of the five artists, she explains, had used a computer before. But working with a multimedia tutor they have put their own experiences and artwork on line, using digital photography and computer graphics packages.

The artists were chosen from a range of ethnic and artistic backgrounds, to present a variety of positive images of deafness. Some use British Sign Language, others communicate orally. One originates from the Sudan, with Arabic as her first language. One is a painter, another a textile artist.

Painter Niall McCormack, with an interpreter and through his CD-Rom, tells his own story. Born in Ireland, Niall spent his early primary years boarding in a convent school. Although profoundly deaf, he was forced to try to speak using the oral education method, which demands some level of hearing.

His memories are harsh. In the dormitories and in the classroom, he remembers being under constant surveillance in case he resorted to sign language, which was forbidden and strictly punished. Being unable either to lip-read or speak, he was hidden away from visitors as "retarded." The psychological damage was, he says, "phenomenal".

He went on to attend a Christian Brothers school, where he was one of only two pupils to gain a leaving certificate in the the school's 140-year history. "When I left school," he says, "I felt I had no identity." He travelled a road of self-discovery in Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Bosnia until he realised a dream and was accepted into Dublin's National College of Art and Design, from which he graduated with a degree in fine art.

Now Niall calls himself the de-institutionalised artist. His images on the CD-Rom start with the dark, repressive arches he associates with his early school days, and end in a luminous glow - symbolising the re-creation of his own life. "I have developed my true self as an Irish person and a deaf person. I am independent, self-reliant, free, able at last through the Internet to communicate with the mainstream," he says. Seeing his story will, he believes, empower deaf children, allowing them to rely on their own initiative, develop their own imagery and recognise the value of their own ideas.

While Niall's contribution to the CD-Rom is largely autobiographical, printmaker Damien Robinson presents her experiences in the form of a board game.

She became deaf at the age of 17 following a bout of meningitis. She then found herself in a kind of limbo between the hearing and non-hearing world. "It felt like a game where I didn't know the rules," she says. Only when she began to learn BSL and could communicate with other deaf people did she regain her confidence. One of her aims is to expose the way society treats deafness by highlighting the comments people have made to her.

The comments make you want to laugh and cry at the same time, such as: "You don't look deaf. You're far too pretty to be deaf. Is your boyfriend normal?" With the launch of the CD-Rom and website, the first part of the project is complete. The second stage, which will run over the next few months, involves piloting the scheme through a series of full-day workshops with schools.

The workshops will be led by Niall and Damien and will give students the chance to use multimedia technology to explore their own interests and identity. Schools already involved include Oak Lodge Secondary School for Deaf Children, and Hendon and Blanche Neville Secondary Units, all in London.

The project should benefit subjects such as language and art as well as IT. And the students, plus their parents and teachers, will be asked for a critique of the CD-Rom, which, once refined, will be available for work with other schools.

Individual children will also be able to participate through the website. By any count the Photographers Gallery has pioneered an innovative idea with potentially far-reaching results.

Workshop places, which are free, remain available. Contact Olivia Tumim on minicom: 0171 379 6057, or fax: 0171 836 9704. De@fsite is at http: de@fsite. Other funders were The Baring Foundation, Save and Prosper Educational Trust, the John Lyon's Charity and the London Arts Board

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