Deaf Children’s Wisdom: Raising money for the Family Centre for Deaf Children in Bristol

Newly (self)published via Kindle is a short ebook based on a small research project I was involved in a few years back, called Seeing Through New Eyes, at the Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol.  This book is a record of the voices of ten deaf children. All profits will go to the Family Centre for Deaf Children in Bristol. You can find it here.

And here’s a sneak preview:


BETWEEN 2003 and 2005, I spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around with a small group of deaf children. They, perhaps predictably, were totally unfazed by my presence, by my ignorance, by my often ‘stupid’ questions (I am hearing, after all) and by my turning up at their houses in the evenings, or at the weekends, armed with my videocamera, tripod and tapes. We started off with me asking general (“boring!”) questions: about school, about BSL, about friends and family. But over the months we went deeper, exploring issues of ethics, ‘voice’ and translation, and the future of the deaf education and indeed the Deaf Community. By the end of the project, I was completely overwhelmed, humbled, awestruck and troubled. I suspect they weren’t. They carried on with their young lives and forgot about me and the project. And rightly so. They have now grown up. They’ve gone through school, college and university. They’re working, they’re travelling, they’re in relationships.

I am writing this book towards the end of 2012. I am not entirely sure why it has taken so long, but suffice to say, the intervening years have not been plain sailing. I have mixed feelings about this book. Its (self)publication is driven by some deep, unresolved emotions, largely to do with the fact that I am neither deaf nor a parent of a deaf child, and I gave up being a Teacher of Deaf Children many years ago. It is driven by the fact that I made a promise to each child that I would write down what they told me and tell it to other people. It is driven by the fact that, alongside the work with these children, I had the utter privilege of learning from a very special group of deaf educators, who (regrettably) for reasons of confidentiality, cannot be named here. These are the educators to whom the children refer in these pages. These are the educators who, often as Teaching Assistants and Deaf Instructors, do their best to create and sustain bilingual environments in the classroom and school, often with few training opportunities and even fewer resources. These are the educators who also foster deaf children, who are trained counsellors, who run youth community programmes at their local Deaf Club, who volunteer in their local Deaf Community through the school holidays (“24/7/365” as one of them put it). My debt to them is immeasurable and my thanks long-overdue.

The children with whom I worked for two years, I believe, enjoyed telling me about their lives. Many times they relished the opportunity to poke fun at hearing people, to express irrational, impossible hopes, to bemoan what they perceived as dark clouds threatening to overshadow their worlds. Their signs left me at times shocked, shamed, indignant and bruised. Their philosophies on deaf life still blow me away, some seven years later. Their turns of phrase often jolt, bewilder and puzzle. It is difficult to know how to respond to a 10-year-old deaf child who, banging fists on the table, or the arm of the chair, talks with no small degree of outrage about their ‘language rights’. I know several hearing ten-year-olds, and their preoccupations are generally far less extremist and worldly. I try to recall my framing of interview questions, and cannot ever remember starting up a conversation about, say, the Threatened Linguistic Status of British Sign Language. These children come from hearing-signing homes, which I would argue necessarily politicises—to a greater or lesser degree—their upbringing, whether unconsciously or not. They have also spent many hours in school and in Deaf-Community spaces exposed to a very specific deaf rhetoric; one that they internalise, chew over and experiment with. It is, at times, eyebrow-raising, sharp-intake-of-breath stuff. It is at other times profoundly moving and, philosophically, astonishingly sophisticated.

Looking back, I have vivid memories of particular interview moments: Chrissie, sat cross-legged on her bed, explaining to me the difference between hearing and deaf people’s storytelling styles; Kimberley in the sunshine in her friend’s garden, relaying her fears about the future for deaf babies; Ben, laughing, eyes wide in wonderment, recalling the moment where he realised and understood that he was deaf. I could go on, but perhaps you should find out for yourself.

Ben, Chrissie, Dominic, Edwin, Hadi, Kimberley, Kumar, Michelle, Natasha, and Phoebe; this is for you. Sorry it took so long.


THIS book re-presents the views of bilingual, bicultural deaf children who were asked to talk about their experiences of school, friends, family, Deaf Club, sign language and their futures. Ethnographic interviews, combined with extensive periods of participant-observation were carried out in connection with a larger project that investigated what was originally termed ‘Deaf Ways of Teaching’, and later recognised as ‘Deaf Pedagogy’ (see Afterword). The children were involved in many of the decisions regarding how their signs  might be recorded and re-presented.They each commented on and approved earlier drafts that now come together in this book. I have done my best to bring their individual and collective voices to the pages that follow.

The Children

This book is therefore for, about, and from ten deaf children: Ben, Chrissie, Dominic, Edwin, Hadi, Kimberley, Kumar, Michelle, Natasha, and Phoebe. They are aged between 10 and 15. They have all attended Deaf Schools (either day or residential) and had both deaf and hearing educators. Some of them have also experienced mainstream education. They all use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language. Their parents are all hearing. Two of them have deaf siblings. Three of them are the only child in their family. All their families use sign language in the home.

The Triptych

The stories and messages these children conveyed over two years of interviews fell quite beautifully into three parts and so structuring their contributions in this way—as a triptych—aims to reflect, rather than to over re-present, the seemingly effortless simplicity of what they taught me about their young deaf lives. However, it is on closer examination that we are able to observe the complexities behind and within each picture, and how the imagery of the three intersects to tell a series of interwoven stories. Displayed together, we are free to observe through our own eyes, to draw on our own life experiences, and to make our own subjective sense of what we see, remember, imagine and feel. The children’s creation is therefore subject to multiple interpretations, as their own opinions, observations, thoughts and feelings resonate with each observer—deaf, hearing, adult, child, educator, parent, friend—in an infinite number of ways.

Taken directly from their own signs then, the three parts of the triptych are: “Perfect-what?”, “Difficult-what?” and “Future-what?” The main aim is for this book to remain as far as possible in the space of the children themselves. It is often tempting to layer on interpretations and meanings from what others—adults, educators, parents, researchers—say and think, thereby lifting it from one space, and attempting to locate it within another. Once we start to weave in adult-researcher-expert perspectives, the danger is that we over/misinterpret the children’s views by framing them too closely, say, to the work done with deaf educators as part of the wider inquiry, or by seeming to place them in direct line or conflict with the views of adults.

While the children’s descriptions, narratives and viewpoints are compelling, insightful and perhaps unwittingly profound, my task was to frame them faithfully as children’s work, while honouring and doing each of them justice. There are many startling insights that are undeniably and intrinsically linked to the work, experiences and worldviews of deaf educators. This reveals not only the extent to which the children are young deaf people, members of a visually and spatially orientated collective community who share similar experiences of being in the world, but also the extent to which they should rightly be granted autonomous conceptual status as social actors (see Corsaro, 1997) and research collaborators (Grover, 2004). I am therefore faced with a task to be tackled with care and sensitivity if I am to treat the knowledge and wisdom of the children with the respect and dignity it deserves.

Artworks are traditionally hung on gallery walls or displayed alongside a brief description, providing contextualisation or the curator’s interpretations. In line with this, the Afterword comprises my reflections, as self-appointed curator of this work.


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