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Ellie's whole school learned to sign

Photo: Read Ellie's story

Ellie (5) is profoundly deaf and doesn’t speak and her parents were worried about how she’d cope at mainstream school – but, thanks to her school’s determination to include Ellie, she’s thriving…

Stacey sat on the plastic chair and watched her daughter Ellie (5) stand up and face the class, her teacher smiling encouragement. Ellie made the sign for “rainbow” and the children sat cross-legged on the mat concentrating as Ellie told them, through sign, about joining Rainbows. At the end, her teacher signed, “Thank you Ellie,” and one girl signed, “I like Rainbows too.” Stacey felt a lump in her throat. Her daughter was profoundly deaf, had no speech and she’d not long started the first year of
mainstream school.

Stacey and husband Bobby had worried about how Ellie would be able to communicate and join in at a school full of hearing children – but here she was confidently entertaining the class. And her classmates understood her because the entire school had learnt Ellie’s first language, sign. “It was amazing to see it,” says Stacey. “Everyone, even the dinner ladies, had learnt to sign.”

Stacey and Bobby were shocked when Ellie was diagnosed as moderately to severely deaf at 15 weeks old. She was given hearing aids and monitored for the next year. It was a daily battle to keep the aids in, and the couple weren’t sure they made much difference. Ellie babbled like other babies, had regular speech and language therapy and the couple hoped she’d learn speech.

"It was amazing! From the first day Ellie was able to communicate with everyone."

They were thrilled when she learnt a few words ‘hiya’ and ‘all done’. Then, at a year old, a scan showed Ellie’s right ear had no auditory nerve, and her left cochlea was formed like a ‘C’ shape instead of a spiral. The outlook worsened when Ellie reached two and her hearing started deteriorating.

Frustrated at being unable to communicate, she had frequent meltdowns. Ellie’s speech and language therapist said Ellie wasn’t likely to develop speech and suggested learning sign. The couple did a two-day ‘Signalong’ course when Ellie was nearly three, and tried teaching Ellie but with little success. “It’s similar to British Sign Language (BSL) but more child friendly; it involved a lot of repetition,” says Stacey. “Ellie simply wasn’t interested, didn’t understand what we were doing.”

They were told she could have a cochlear implant, on the left ear only because the right ear had no auditory nerve. “Doctors said it was her best chance of being able to learn speech, though it was less predictable than other cases because of her unusually shaped cochlea. It was the hardest decision but finally we went ahead,” says Bobby.

On Ellie’s third birthday she went into hospital for implant surgery. “She took a while to respond,” says Stacey. “Then she was hearing sound but not connecting it with speech. Her frustration and meltdowns continued.” Two weeks after the implant Ellie started nursery. She was assigned a full time communicator who taught her Signalong and translated for her, while encouraging Ellie to try on her own. “Her first signs were ‘crisps’ – she loves them! – and ‘sausage’, all foodie things,” says Bobby.

Ellie got on well at nursery and slowly learnt more sign. “Lots of friends in her nursery had been at playgroup with her since six months old, before any of them could speak, so Ellie’s deafness and inability to use speech wasn’t a problem,” says Stacey.

"Ellie simply wasn’t interested (in sign), didn’t understand what we were doing."

When Ellie’s younger sister Katie (now 3) was born, she was thrilled and took an interest in teaching her signs. It was when Ellie started primary school last August that her signing really took off. “She still had her communicator, she could see how useful communication was, and she was a really sociable child and wanted to join in,” says Stacey. “The best thing was all the teachers and staff, including the dinner ladies, went on the Signalong course and taught it to the children. It was amazing! From the first day Ellie was able to communicate with everyone.”

The school had suggested that Ellie could defer starting school for a year because of her January birthday and deafness. “We decided against it, it’d mean her friends leaving her behind and we didn’t want that, especially as they’ve grown up with her, knowing about her deafness,” says Stacey.

Now the couple are thrilled with Ellie’s progress. “She knows so much sign, she’s leaving us behind,” says Bobby. “Her hands are so fast, when she’s signing with her friends we don’t have a clue what they’re saying!”

They watch their confident little girl race around on her scooter in her favourite Spiderman costume, joining in everything that’s going on, and they’re so thankful for the school’s determination to make sure Ellie is fully included. “At parents’ evening teachers said her progress was incredible, she’s keeping up fine,” says Stacey. “She’s a really clever girl, with a terrific memory. Ellie’s teacher Mrs McKinna and communicator Mrs Copeland have been absolutely fantastic with Ellie, she loves going to school and learning with them – we wouldn’t have got this far without them.

“She can hear some sounds – she’ll tell you the letter of the alphabet you’re saying, but she’s lip-reading it too. We’re going to try cued speech and she’ll eventually need to learn BSL. We’ll need to decide when the right time is, but she’s doing just brilliantly. At Rainbows they don’t sign but they soon will – Ellie and a couple of friends who sign are teaching them!”