Watch him talk

4th July 2003 at 01:00
A London teaching assistant has something important in common with his pupils: he's deaf. Janet Murray reports

Leigh Bish is feeling pleased with himself. He recently delivered an assembly to more than 150 students - a daunting but not uncommon experience. But Mr Bish is profoundly deaf, and English is his second language, so it is easy to understand why he's so proud.

The 32-year-old teaching assistant at Thomas Tallis school in the London borough of Greenwich turned to education after working in a chemicals factory and as a postman. His own experience of education was mixed. He went to Mole Hill Copse county primary school in Maidstone, Kent, which has a unit for deaf and hearing-impaired children, then Hamilton Lodge a specialist school for deaf children in Brighton.

At 16, he went to Southwark college in London to study for an advanced vocational certificate in leisure and recreation, with British Sign Language (BSL) as his first language. "The first few weeks were awful," he recalls. "There were 45 hearing and no other deaf students. For the first three weeks, there was no support. I tried to make notes in lectures, but kept getting lost. I gave up and went home."

His father intervened and Southwark recommended CityLit - a college in central London that provides learning opportunities for adults and has a centre for deaf education - which provided two support workers to take notes. "I'd have to take them home and copy them up. But it wasn't just copying - I had to look up any unfamiliar words, which was a challenge. My dictionary was falling to pieces by the end of the course."

Tutors suggested he stay on to study for a higher national diploma, but funding difficulties forced him to take a packing job instead, where a six-month contract became six-and-a-half years. "It was dull, but I got danger money because I was working with hazardous chemicals, so I kept on doing it." Being a postman was better, but he felt he should be doing something more purposeful.

When he heard last year that Thomas Tallis school - an 11-18 secondary with a support centre for the deaf and hearing-impaired - had advertised for a teaching assistant to work with the deaf, he was excited but unsure about applying. "I thought there was little chance of me getting the job," he says. "I'd lost almost 12 years of English writing skills and the competition was stiff. I'd had lots of experience working with deaf children, teaching deaf awareness at a local school, but I still didn't believe I had the experience to do it."

The school has 16 deaf and hearing-impaired pupils in Years 7 to 10, who learn in mainstream classes most of the time, with Mr Bish ensuring their needs are taken into account. Subject teachers give him notes before lessons so he can prepare. He also teaches deaf awareness. "It's often difficult for the hearing to appreciate, but deaf children have to learn how to interact. I teach basics such as sign language, using type talk or minicom phones, and about deaf organisations."

He also raises awareness of deaf issues in PSHE lessons and assemblies, with the help of interpreters. "Hearing children are curious about the deaf world," he says. "They want to know how a deaf person wakes up, or uses a mobile phone. Many say they have never met a deaf person."

Mr Bish believes deaf children can thrive in mainstream schools. "They need to be independent," he says. "Until I went to college, I had no experience of mainstream schooling. It was a shock, but it improved my confidence. As long as they can cope with the work, and the support is available, it's a great way to build confidence."

Education authorities have been required to improve opportunities for deaf children to communicate since BSL - the preferred method of communication for 70,000 people in the UK - was formally recognised as a language in its own right in March. Tom Fenton, chief executive of the Royal Association For Deaf People, describes the move as "the most important event in the history of Britain's second largest indigenous minority language".

Mr Bish agrees. "I was so pleased to hear that BSL had been officially recognised. But it's only the first step - there's a long way to go." He also supports the development of a deaf studies curriculum as part of the national curriculum. "It's the first time I've felt part of a community.

I'm a role model for deaf children at the school. It's great to feel you belong."

British Deaf Association: Text phone: 020 7588 3529; voice phone: 020 7588 3520; helpline: 0800 6522 965, Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm; Deaf Children's Society: Freephone helplineminicom: 0808 800 8880, Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm ; Association for Deaf People: Voice phone: 01255 830219; text phone: 01255 831186;;CityLit Centre For Deaf People: Voice phone: 020 7383 7624; minicom 020 7380 0416;

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