How to meet the needs and aspirations of deaf learners with additional SEN
For specialist deaf schools and colleges the impact of the move from statements of SEN to education, health and care (EHC) plans on their working practices has been significant. Some organisations work with several different local authorities providing for a cohort of students who all have legal statements, learning difficulty assessments or EHC plans. Most students are now in the process, under the legislation, of transferring to EHC plans. Although complex and administratively stressful, the changes in the legislation through the Children’s and Families Act (CFA) 2014, and the subsequent SEN and Disabilities Code of Practice, have provided students, parents and professionals with an opportunity to reflect on current practices and revisit students’ strengths, needs and support and, crucially, their personal aspirations.
What are the needs of profoundly deaf students?
The vast majority of students I have worked with are profoundly deaf. They are also unique. Their first language is British Sign Language (BSL). Most acquired their language late and the vast majority were communicatively isolated in their previous provisions. Some of them have used augmented communication, including symbols that are signed and have a visual aspect. When I first started working with them many had access to sound at different levels, although the majority did not have access at a language level.
In terms of communication and language, profoundly deaf students are each a one-off. In fact, their only commonality is that their language and communication needs have not been fully met within a mainstream setting. By this, I mean they will not be able to participate fully and independently in society without specialist support. Making friends and building relationships with peers and staff can be complex due to the limited shared language.
These students need a language for communication but also for thought, learning and social engagement. If this basic need goes unmet, young people will become isolated and this will impact on their mental health and wellbeing. We know from academic studies that language deprivation, where one does not have access to a visual or spoken language in the early years of life, impacts on future academic and social success.
The ability to communicate in effective and meaningful ways also has a deeper impact. As that great communicator Nelson Mandela famously said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart”. Language – which is visual for deaf young people – is intrinsically bound to culture, identity and self-esteem. The language barriers to students achieving their ambitions are then multiplied by their additional SEN and disabilities, thereby creating a unique package of issues. These barriers include cognition and learning needs, sensory and/or physical needs, as well as social, emotional and mental health needs.
How can learners’ needs be met?
Young deaf people need to be both personally and educationally empowered to meet their aspirations, and those of their family. The first step is to enable the young person and their family to have a “voice” in shaping their educational journey towards adult life goals.
When teaching deaf learners, it is important to start with the goal and work back from there. If you use this logic to guide your thinking about SEN provision, you must start with the young person’s aspirations. Their aspirations, ambitions and dreams must be the golden thread that runs through how you create, design, implement and adjust their support or provision. With these goals established, you must then explore with the young person what achieving these goals actually looks like; how will you know when you’ve met that goal? In short, you ask them “what are the outcomes that you want to work towards?” and “what do we need to put in place to enable them to happen for you?” As you work with the young person, from establishing their needs, through providing interventions, through to achieving outcomes, you must keep these goals in mind.
My role is to increase awareness of the different ways to enable the profoundly deaf young person with additional SEN to reach these goals. I establish appropriate outcomes with therapy, education and care teams, structuring support to achieve these outcomes. Needs assessments are fundamental in this process. These allow you to identify the barriers to students achieving their aspirations. The outcomes are stages on the journey towards achieving a positive life in adulthood. The big change for many services is that legally the young person’s aspirations and outcomes must now drive the process. These aspirations are decided by the student and, when required, their informed carers. To make these aspirations a reality, all the relevant services involved in education, health and care must work together as a team in a cohesive approach.
Like all young people, deaf students want the opportunity to have as productive and independent a life as possible. Specialist education providers need to enable young people to develop informed choices with a view to building a life and being happy, by ensuring curricula and provisions are targeted to ensure best progress.
The Code of Practice details what supporting successful preparation for adulthood entails:
“With high aspirations, and the right support, the vast majority of children and young people can go on to achieve successful long-term outcomes in adult life. Local authorities, education providers and their partners should work together to help children and young people to realise their ambitions in relation to:
• higher education and/or employment – including exploring different employment options, such as support for becoming self-employed and help from supported employment agencies
• independent living – enabling people to have choice and control over their lives and the support they receive, their accommodation and living arrangements, including supported living
• participating in society – including having friends and supportive relationships, and participating in, and contributing to, the local community
• being as healthy as possible in adult life.”
On the face of it these are not complicated ambitions. The SEN changes have been a response to the fact that they have often not been achieved. To ensure students have a clear route toward achieving them, as providers we need to constantly be focussed on meeting students’ personal goals.
To illustrate and bring some of this to life, let’s look at a college student; we’ll call him Stephen.
Here are two different ways of summarising Stephen:
- Stephen is profoundly deaf and high functioning autistic. He has social, emotional and behavioural needs, organisational difficulties, memory deficits, dyslexia, sensory processing disorder and dyspraxia.
- Stephen is a keen sailor, funny, a loving son and a good friend. He is interested in graphic novels and is an award-winning animator. Stephen’s ambition, at the moment, is to live independently and work in creative media.
Both descriptions are factually correct, but it is the second vision of Stephen as a person that we want to focus on; this is the Stephen we are working with. To do that, we need to understand the challenges presented by the first description and work with Stephen to ensure we enable him to own and realise the ambitions of the second. So, what did we do in partnership with Stephen? What solutions did we co-produce?
Stephen’s needs were met by a complex mix of professionals and strategies. Stephen was helped to develop his interests by structuring his experiences in ways that allowed him to develop social and emotional life skills at a pace that worked for him. He was placed in a bilingual (sign language and English) provision with a large therapeutic services team. He had small class sizes, a teacher of the deaf (ToD) and a tutor who provided pastoral care and acted as a sounding board for new ideas and problems or worries. A communication support worker adapted his curriculum to meet his deaf needs and supported his autistic spectrum disorder needs. Stephen lived in, and was an active part of, a community of fully signing deaf and hearing people which fosters a positive deaf identity. He was surrounded by BSL adult role models and he had structured language classes in his first language. Stephen was supported by visual learning tools and consistent routines. He also had access to mind-mapping assistive technology to organise his thoughts and ideas, and to a swing which helped him sensorially self-regulate. Occupational therapists worked with Stephen and his care key worker to implement a functional life skills programme, taking account of his needs for routines and assistance to complete a task. The care team supported him to transfer his skills.
With his needs met, Stephen could learn and grow into adult life. He is now living independently with the support of adult social services. He attends college and has achieved his BTEC L2 Diploma in creative media production. Stephen maintains contact with his old friends who share his interests. To put it simply, he has achieved his ambitions and is working towards the next step of working life.
So, what was at the heart of this success? By working in a blended, multidisciplinary and trans-disciplinary way, with his internal and external team from education, health and social care supporting him, we worked together to break down the barriers to achieving his ambitions. Seeing Stephen as a person through the lens of his ambitions and working together with Stephen to enable him to meet those ambitions has enabled the professionals to focus on Stephen’s strengths, to build in provisions and set achievable goals and outcomes, for the present, medium-term and long-term.
When faced with complex problems, it’s all too easy to be defeatist. Yes, barriers exist but barriers can be overcome. Needs can be met in educational provisions if we remember that our guiding principle and overarching joint goal must be to see the young person and focus on what they want.
Wendy McCracken, Professor in the Education of the Deaf at the University of Manchester, has examined parents’ concerns that professionals often only focus on one aspect of the young person. She called this “overshadowing”. We are all in danger of overshadowing our young people, not seeing the full picture because we see them though the specific need that we specialise in. By focusing on all of the young person, using their ambitions as the golden thread to follow through to provision and outcomes, a student can be offered a unique package that will support them to have every opportunity to meet their goals and reach their full potential. The challenge is clear and pressing: we must see the whole person.
Kaye Stevenson is Therapeutic Services Manager and Teacher of the Deaf at Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education: