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A new start for Anna

When they made the decision to leave Ukraine after Russia invaded Kyiv, mum Olha and dad Viacheslav knew that they needed to resettle somewhere Anna would get the support she needed with her communication.

Mum Olha and dad Viacheslav dote on Anna (8), who is profoundly deaf and has auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder (ANSD), a relatively rare form of deafness where sounds are received normally by the cochlea but become disrupted as they travel to the brain.

“We found out Anna was deaf when she was about two years old because her reactions to speech and sounds weren’t like other kids,” Viacheslav explains. “We immediately contacted doctors and specialists, but Anna passed her otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test [a test to find out how well the inner ear or cochlea works], which showed that she has normal hearing. When they did other tests though, it showed she was profoundly deaf.”

“What she can hear depends on the situation,” says Olha. “Sometimes she can hear the doorbell or a dog barking, but sometimes she can’t. The problem was that we didn’t actually know what was going on because it was difficult to understand her diagnosis. It’s a new world for us, there’s no history of deafness in our family.

“For me, it was difficult to come to terms with deafness being a part of my life and to not know what the future would be like for our child. But it’s normal for us now.

“Anna wears hearing aids and we bought her first hearing aids ourselves when she was five years old. Ukraine has a different medical system to the UK. We have different institutions and doctors that help, but there was a big waiting list for the support. So, we decided to do it on our own.”

Because of her profound deafness, Anna finds it difficult to communicate using spoken language. “She has problems with speech,” explains Viacheslav. “Sometimes it’s difficult to understand what she’s talking about. She also has problems with understanding the meanings of words and with constructing sentences.

“We started to develop her hearing and speech skills in Ukraine, but we had lots of questions because every institution has their own approach to communication development for children. It was difficult for us to choose which approach would be more suitable, but Anna did attend a special kindergarten before the Russian invasion. She also regularly attended group and individual speech and language therapy sessions, which helped her progress too.”

When the family decided to leave Ukraine after Russia invaded Kyiv in February last year, finding support for Anna’s deafness was their top priority. “Supporting Anna was the main factor to consider when deciding where we could move,” explains Olha. “Before we arrived in the UK we emailed the National Deaf Children’s Society and got support from the organisation. Everyone understood the situation in our country and with deaf children.

“We made the decision that we should move to Scotland, because of the schools there and programmes like ‘Homes for Ukraine’, started by the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government was our sponsor and helped us move. It’s a beautiful country.”

Once the family had resettled in Scotland, they began attending our Family Sign Language (FSL) course to start learning some British Sign Language (BSL). “Anna didn’t fully understand what was happening in Ukraine,” remembers Viacheslav. “When we decided to move, it was a very difficult decision. Because of her delayed speech and language development, it was hard to explain to her what was happening. BSL is actually the key for us to be able to provide her with more information about the situation in Ukraine and her new surroundings.”

“The main issue for us was that there isn’t a good culture of sign language in Ukraine and we don’t have as much support from the country there,” says Olha. “Of course there are a lot of volunteers, groups, some schools and private charities, where deaf people can communicate and use their skills and knowledge. But in the UK, BSL is now an official language and deaf people can ask for an interpreter if they need it to communicate in official institutions.”

Alongside their FSL lessons, the family enrolled Anna in school for the first time. “In Ukraine, children don’t start attending school until they turn seven,” explains Olha. “The Advice and Guidance Officers at the National Deaf Children’s Society sent us a list of different schools for deaf children in Scotland and we looked through to find Anna’s first school. Now, she attends a school for deaf children and she’s very happy. She enjoys her days at school and is very proud of the gold coins she gets for good behaviour and doing tasks well.”

“Combining the efforts of the school and us as parents is great for Anna and we’ve seen progress in her development, communication and social skills,” Viacheslav proudly says. “It’s easier for her to learn BSL and for us to use it with her now she’s learning it at school too. She tries to construct new sentences and is improving her vocabulary every day. We need to learn more signs to keep up with her!”

“A sentence of three words from Anna can contain an English word, a Ukrainian word and a sign, so it’s definitely a combination,” Olha agrees with a laugh. “But it’s great because BSL is a bridge between us and Anna.”

Spring 2023 Families magazine