We stuffed cotton wool in our ears and wore special glasses to simulate deaf-blindness. But we still can't get it. We can't 'unknow' what our lives of sensation have taught us

12th November 2004 at 00:00
She's being a bit naughty today," cries Flick, the new lunchtime supervisor. Daisy is tearing down the corridor, giggling, with the picture symbol that says "toilet" flapping in her hand. Flick is in pursuit, half walking, half running, in a way that says, "I'm not really chasing you but I'm not letting you get away either". I smile. "Yeah, it's good isn't it... and, by the way, we don't use the word 'naughty' any more." Flick looks sceptical.

"Daisy was affected by rubella and has been deaf-blind since birth..." I begin, but Flick interrupts me. "She can hear a packet of crisps rustling!"

"Yes, she has a little hearing and a little sight."

"She's got sight all right," says Flick. "She can spot a chocolate button on a brown carpet."

"That's good," I say. "We can use that; we all need motivation." I gaze away as I remember something my first headteacher told me. "We have to remember," he said, "we're all motivated by the same thing." I said, "The pay slip at the end of the month," at the same time as he said "the children". Exit red-faced new teacher.

Back to Daisy. "She's 12 now," I tell Flick, "and she's been with us for seven years. For seven years we have worked intensively with her on communication skills. We've taught her how to ask for what she wants, using symbols, and she's just realising that she has some power and control. Do you remember your own children going through 'the terrible twos?'" "Do I!"

says Flick. "Sharna used to have terrible tantrums, kicking and screaming, running off..."

"Well, that's something like what Daisy's going through now," I say. "She's discovering she has a place in the world, and she likes it. That's why we're so pleased when she's being cheeky; it means she understands that she can communicate, that her behaviour has effects, that she can make choices, and say 'no'."

"But what do we do? We can't have her running off all over the place."

"No," I agree, "she does need to learn to conform a bit. What we have to do now is teach her to manage herself." You can pick a screaming two-year-old up from the supermarket floor but we couldn't, and shouldn't, be picking up and chasing Daisy.

"So next time she runs off?"

"If everyone's aware, they can gently direct her back to where she's supposed to be and you can give her lots of praise for coming back."

We walk outside and I chat to Flick about deaf-blindness. We recently did some training at school, stuffing cotton wool in our ears and wearing special glasses to simulate poor vision. It's fun feeding each other custard while blindfolded and being led around the school wearing fuzzy glasses. But we still can't get it. We can't "unknow" what our lives of sensation have taught us. The milestones most children pass have been denied to Daisy; we crawl because we see something we want, we learn to talk by babbling and having our noises copied, and we develop relationships through smiles, gestures and sounds.

Flick seems to be appreciating my little lecture and appears much more comfortable as we reach the playground, only to see Daisy, the cheekiest look on her face, running as fast as she can with the PE teacher's packed lunch clasped in her hand. "Of course," I say, "it could be that she's just being plain naughty."

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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