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Alice’s difficult start at secondary school

Photo: Alice and her family outside on a walk.

With her progressive deafness, Alice’s family knew challenging times were around the corner. And starting secondary school and having her cochlear implant fitted in the same year proved difficult for the family.

Getting the bus to secondary school made Alice (13) nervous. Would she be able to hear what anyone was saying to her? Luckily a group of Alice’s friends hatched a plan to make sure Alice was never left out. The girls took it in turns to sit next to Alice on the bus, which gave her the chance to chat to her friends on a one-to-one basis every single day.

But it wasn’t initially this easy. Alice’s progressive hearing loss and new cochlear implant made starting secondary school a worrying time for her.

The fourth of seven children, Alice also has an older sister and younger brother who are deaf. Victoria (16) is moderately to severely deaf and Henry (2) is moderately deaf, both wear hearing aids.

The three siblings were each over a year old when mum Linda-Jane was told they were deaf. After Victoria’s diagnosis, alarm bells about Alice rang for Linda-Jane and her husband Colin. Their suspicions were confirmed when she was referred to audiology. When she was eventually diagnosed at 15 months, the family was shocked; they’d only just come to terms with Victoria’s diagnosis.

“At first, I was confused,” Linda-Jane says. “My children aren’t deaf. I couldn’t understand it.

“We contacted the National Deaf Children’s Society and they were brilliant straightaway. Barbara, our Children and Families Support Officer (CFSO), came to see us and I’ll never forget her calm reassurance. We immediately knew it wasn’t the end of the world and we weren’t the first family to go through this.

“While we had a double-whammy with both girls being diagnosed, we realised it could be positive. This sounds awful, but I remember thinking at the time ‘It might be nice for the girls to have each other.’”

While Victoria goes to a specialist deaf school, Alice attends a mainstream secondary school, but splitting them wasn’t an easy decision for the family. Linda-Jane explains their choice, “Victoria uses British Sign Language but Alice’s preferred method of communication is speech so we decided the oral route would be best for her. She had a tremendous amount of support at primary school where they had experience of teaching deaf children.”

With a progressive loss, the family always knew her hearing would get worse. “As Alice’s hearing deteriorated towards the end of primary, it became apparent that a cochlear implant might help,” Linda-Jane says. “As parents, we were aware of the risks but naturally wanted to give Alice the very best life chance we could, particularly as she was using an oral method of communication. We hoped an implant might clarify speech sounds for her and maybe even improve aspects of her speech. Luckily for Alice, it paid off and she’s never looked back. Although it’s not a magic wand and it doesn’t mean she can hear absolutely everything, it’s the very best means by which she can access sound.”

With a new implant that Alice was getting used to, she also had to start secondary school and unfortunately the school wasn’t quite as experienced at working with deaf children as her primary school. Alice quickly became withdrawn and quiet and it began to take its toll on the family.

"Alice starting secondary school was one of the most difficult times we’ve ever experienced."

“Looking back, this may sound like an exaggeration but I don’t think it is, it was one of the most difficult times we’ve ever experienced,” says Linda- Jane. “Alice was finding it really hard to make friends and fit in. Thankfully our Teacher of the Deaf and our CFSO were fantastic.”

Luckily the school were very understanding too and wanted to improve things for Alice. They set up a buddy system where pupils volunteered to take turns to make sure she always had company and was never left alone at lunch or break times. That, along with her friends’ morning bus rota, started to make a huge difference.

“We were overwhelmed with how helpful and compassionate other pupils were to Alice,” Linda-Jane explains. “I’d like to think that this will be a legacy that Alice leaves behind for any other deaf children who go there in the future.”

Starting secondary school was a big step towards independence for Alice, but it was challenging getting used to the new cochlear implant at the same time.

“I was a bit worried before the operation,” Alice says. “Afterwards I couldn’t hear anything from one ear. It felt very strange. After the switch-on, I could just hear beeps which was really weird! It was difficult at school because people kept forgetting I couldn’t hear them.”

Having the implant has made a big difference to Alice’s school life though. She can hear her teacher and friends a lot better and her FM system is a big improvement. “I was amazed, I didn’t expect the words to be so clear,” Alice adds.

Despite the early difficulties, Alice loves school now and has big aspirations. “When I grow up I’d like to go to university and train to be a nurse like my big sister Lucinda!”

So, what advice would Linda-Jane offer other parents who might be finding the school transition difficult? “Make use of all the support you can,” she says. “We were very lucky to have the National Deaf Children’s Society from day one and they remain our go-to with any issues, which can be quite often with three deaf children!

“Lastly, don’t forget you’re the expert on your child. You’re their greatest advocate and, ultimately, their voice.”