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Charlie’s good listening environment

Photo: Charlie's story

Charlie, who is moderately to severely deaf, started primary school in September. He enjoys school and has made new friends, but things could have been very different had parents Suzi and Martin not fought to get him into a school with good acoustics.

Charlie failed his newborn hearing screening and was diagnosed with a moderate to severe hearing loss soon afterwards. Martin and Suzi learned early on that he could go to a mainstream school.

“We live in an area with excellent schools so we weren’t concerned about where he went,” says Martin. “We didn’t realise until much later that even the best schools may not have a good environment for deaf children to learn in.”

After his diagnosis, they did everything they could to help Charlie develop language, starting with making sure he always wore his hearing aids, fitted at eight weeks.

“We took it on as a challenge,” says Suzi. “Play was never just play; we always thought about the way we were communicating.”

They used lots of play-based activities to support Charlie’s development, read lots of books with him and tried to fill his life with as many different experiences as possible. They were rewarded when Charlie started talking early.

“His first words were really clear, and it was such a relief,” says Suzi.

"We saw our bright, responsive kid become the last to do everything."

When Max, now two, was born, they knew he could also be deaf, but it was still a shock. “We had a bit of self-pity at first but Max has the greatest gift because he’s got Charlie and vice versa.”

However, a birthday party in a noisy hall last year showed how much Charlie’s environment affected him. “We saw our bright, responsive kid become last to do everything. He was copying but didn’t know what was happening,” says Martin.

“We thought, ‘will that be him at school?’” adds Suzi.” “If it’s too noisy, will he shut down? How will he be able to understand things or make friends?”

"The physical features of schools affect acoustics."

A year before Charlie started school they made appointments with a SENCO to see their local schools, visiting on normal days to assess noise levels.

“The first school I visited had Victorian buildings with high ceilings. The acoustics and background noise were terrible,” says Suzi.

Further investigation found challenges in all schools with open-plan classrooms for the early years, noisy radiators or noise between classrooms. “You see other accommodations for disabilities, like ramps, but not even a consideration of the acoustics,” Martin says.

Eventually they found a suitable school for Charlie. However, without a statement of need, which is rare in their local authority (LA), it would be difficult to get him a place.

They found they could apply for the school using a rule of medical and social need but were provided with very little guidance or hope of success. They did a lot of research to find out their LA’s criteria for allocating places and used part of the Equality Act.

“We pointed out that the physical features of schools affect acoustics and Charlie’s ability to hear,” says Suzi. “If he can’t hear, then he can’t learn.”

They argued that the Equality Act needed to be applied at the time of allocating the school, not once he was placed in a school. Suzi put many hours of work into the application, even helping the professionals write their supporting letters to fulfil the LA’s specific criteria.

“Be really clear on your LA’s requirements on how to get your child into a school.”

Fortunately, they were successful and Charlie started at the school.

“Reception is still challenging. They’ve got open-plan play but also a separate room for formal learning,” says Suzi. “We feel lucky because the school has been really proactive in creating the best listening environment possible for Charlie. They’ve made curtains, felted pencil pots, covered hard surfaces and sealed doors.”

Suzi and Martin advise other parents to start investigating schools early. “The National Deaf Children’s Society resource on choosing schools was really good.” says Suzi. “Be really clear on your LA’s requirements on how to get your child into a school.”

They were relieved and pleased with the outcome for Charlie. “I hope now that our boys will be happy at school, make great friends and be confident,” says Martin. “Because then they can do anything.”