A good friend agreed to be my referee for a prestigous Board position recently. It’s not one of those Board positions where you are expected to volunteer your time out of the goodness of your heart. They will actually pay me for my time. A rarity in the disabity area where we are expected to give and keep on giving. But this post is not about that, its about what my friend said when he completed my referee check, “I described you as a pioneer for access to tertiary education for disability ….”
I laughed and made some self-depreciating comment along the lines of, “My invoice is in the mail.” But truth be known I was proud, touched and even a little emotional. You see my journey to education access has been a long one. My friends kind comments gave me pause to reflect. I decided to write about it, as I do. But it is a long story so it will be in two parts. I hope the reader finds my journey to accessibility as interesting as I have..
My Deafness became profound between ages of 9 and 10. It was not a fun time. I was fitted with hearing aids and wouldn’t wear them. Not an uncommon thing for young deaf kids. I couldn’t hear much with them anyway. My academic work suffered. I went from being near top of the class to near the bottom. That is the sort of impact not being able to hear can have.
I had no support in class. I kind of bluffed my way through. Copying friends work. Constantly looking over my shoulder. Trying to work out what to do because I had not heard the teacher. Always in trouble because I could no longer monitor my voice. I couldn’t whipser and still can’t. I was told to be quiet constantly. “TELL KERRIDGE TO SHUT UP.” Dutifully my desk mates would let me know I had that I had been thus told. I came to loathe school.
One day we had music. We sang along to Scotland the Brave. I sang too, following the words from the song book. I was really into it, belting it out at the toop of my voice. Suddenly I became aware that I was the only one singing. I was miles behind everyone. Out of tune too. Everyone was staring. Even the teacher had to stifle a laugh. Comical as it must have been, my humiliation was extreme.
And you know friends treat you different. They no longer want you on their team. You are always chosen last. And they tease you. They try to make you lipread things wrong. “Are you a girl ….???” – “Are you a poof …???”
Kids are cruel, extremely so. I knew what they were doing and sometimes I would play along just to see their reaction. Believe me deafness can lead you to lose faith in people very quickly.
You feel stupid. You feel worthless. Your school work comes back with an F. Your maths is all wrong. You dont know what to do when the teacher is explaining games or activities. You just want to curl up and die. It is hard, very hard. This was what school was like for me for four long years.
You try to compensate. You become the bad kid in the class. The negative attention to your behaviour is better than the constant struggle with deafness. You talk all the time so you dont have to talk to people or listen to them. You talk over people and distract everyone. You see, doing all the talking is better than having to listen when you cannot hear.
It was a traumatic time. A horrible time. It came to head in high school, I began to wag school rather than have to confront the evey day struggle of being deaf in a hearing school. I would catch the bus and travel right on past the school. All the way to Elizabeth shopping centre. I was well informed though because I would read the newspaper on the public toilet from start to finish. I did this for fourteen days in a row before the school saw sense to call my mum and ask where I was.
I was in a bad way at the time. I experiencing paranoia. Being deaf in a hearing environment, when you are the only deaf person, is a nightmare for any adolescent. I well recall sitting at the back of the school bus religiously. I did this so that I could see everyone. You see I had this unhealthy fear that people might talk to me or about me. Not being able to hear people caused me paranoia. I feared they were all talking about me and laughing at me. By sitting at the back I could at least see everyone and in this small way my anxiety was lessened.
To cut a long story short my parents decided that I needed extra support and I ended up at the now defunct Centre for Hearing Impaired Children at Strathmont High School. There I received support for the first time since losing my hearing around the age of 9. I was 14 years old. For the first time I met other deaf young people. For the first time I was exposed to sign language. With support from the teachers of the deaf I began to rediscover my academic mojo.
Support at the school was just adequate by todays standards. I mean when I started at the school I could not sign. Interpreting classes was not really an option. But also, looking back, the signing skills of the teachers of the deaf was so poor it was probably a good thing that they did not interpret for me.
Instead they took notes. They would sit next to me me and note the SALIENT points of the class. I emphasise salient because the access that I got to the information was entirely dependent on whether the teacher of the deaf thought it was relevant or not.
So I still missed out on a lot. I missed out on peer learning for example. I missed most of the questions and the answers from the class. All this is important for learning. Still, the note-taking of the teachers was adequate enough for my academic progress to pick up.
I was not then, and am not now, your ideal student. I get bored and distracted easily. My mind drifts. I would have “Can’t be Fucked” days and fake sickness and stay home. I often missed the bus and was late. In short, I did not help myself. In hindsight those teachers did a wonderful job with someone who was often his own worst enemy.
I am grateful for the support that they provided. I have no doubt that without it, and if I had stayed in a mainstream school without support, it is unlikely that I would have succeeded academically at all. I hate to think where I would have ended up given the traumatic experience of school that I had experienced before moving to Strathmont.
The school was a bit of a culture shock really. Deaf kids are so nosey. They gather round you and ask you so many questions. You Deaf? Your parents Deaf? Brother sister Deaf? How go Deaf? You sign? They never shut up. The thing about these kids that I noticed,. even at that early age, was the gap in their language. Well at least their English language. Their writing was appalling. They didn’t get my jokes. I was used to odd looks when I told jokes but completely blank stares was another thing altogether.
My arrival at the school was not a romantic ever after story but it was the awakening in me for the fight for Deaf rights. I mean I had just come from five years of hell. A hell that no kid should ever have to experience. I was bitter about that. I was witnessing, although I did not know it at the time, language deprivation among deaf kids for the first time.
I was full of questions. Why was their English so bad? Why did the kids from Deaf families, who signed and didn’t speak, have better English than the kids from the hearing families? Surely the reverse should be true? As I learnt to sign I realised that the teachers of the deaf at the school signed terribly and sometimes even struggled to understand the deaf kids. This realisation left me appalled.
I remember soon after leaving school I penned an article for the Parents of Hearing Impaired Children in South Australia. I basically decried the horrendous signing skills of the teachers. I told the story of the art teacher, a Mr Dumucious, who became a fill-in teacher of the deaf. Jovial guy as he was, he couldn’t even finger spell properly. There was no way he would have been able to support deaf kids in class. Yet there he was, employed as a teacher of the deaf.
I wrote the article because I wanted better opportunities for Deaf kids. It did not go down well at the school. I was the poster boy you see. The first to matriculate from the school or any Centre for Hearing Impaired Children. The principal of the time let me know what he thought of me for writing it. His choice of language was, shall we say, colourful.
My journey to matriculation was not plain sailing either. I left school twice. You see deaf kids were not supposed to be academic. They were supposed to work with their hands and in factories. The world of the Deaf professional was unimaginable. How would they communicate? How would they speak on the phone ? How would they satisfy consumer and client needs? Impossible! Factories and making things or simple admin work were the way to go.
The problem was that I was lousy with my hands. Luckily, perhaps, I was involved in a road accident when I was starting out as a cabinet maker. I had to get lunches for everyone on a colleagues bike. I would cycle to and from the local bakery with lunch orders. One day I foolishly pulled out in front of a motorcycle without looking while turning the corner. I was sent flying and broke my elbow. To this day I cannot straighten out the elbow. That was the end of my quest to make cabinets. I was lousy at it anyway, but at least it set forth a chain of events where I matriculated.
Matriculation brought with it the challenges of university education. This at a time in Australia when support for students with a disability was almost non existent. This is part two of my story – a journey to accessibility.