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Zara’s difficult decisions

Photo: Zara's mentor was helpful when it came time to picking GCSE subjects.

Picking her GCSE subjects was hard for Zara, but with advice from her mum, teachers and mentor, she learnt the importance of choosing what you enjoy.

Zara (15) felt nervous when she found out she had to do a presentation in spoken English for her English Language GCSE. She uses a combination of Sign Supported English (SSE) and speech to communicate and is naturally quite shy. “I worked hard on my speech with my Teacher of the Deaf, but it was scary,” Zara explains. After all the hard work, the speech went well.

“Zara loves some of the subjects she picked for her GCSEs, like Art,” says mum Raqidha. “She does struggle with some though.”

Zara’s younger brother was identified as deaf at his newborn hearing screening and this led to Zara being retested. “I wondered why Zara wasn’t talking at two-and-a-half,” explains Raqidha. “I told the doctor; the audiologist tested her and confirmed she was profoundly deaf too. It was a big shock as nobody is deaf in our family, and I have two older children who aren’t deaf. The youngest two also both have Usher syndrome.” Usher syndrome is a rare genetic condition which can affect hearing, vision and balance.

At the time, Zara was attending a mainstream nursery, but Raqidha didn’t think she would be well supported in a mainstream primary school. “I found a school with a specialist base for deaf children where they sign,” she explains.

When it came to choosing a secondary school, Raqidha and Zara had different ideas. “My first choice was to send her to a deaf school,” Raqidha says. “I thought the school attached to her primary school, with a secondary base, was too big for her. After we visited the deaf school, she said, ‘Mum if you’re happy that’s fine, I’ll go to the school, but I don’t think I fit in here.’ She’s very determined in her decisions.”

“I didn’t want to feel different,” Zara explains. “I wanted to go to the mainstream school.”

In secondary school, Zara continues to work with a communicator and a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD) in the specialist base but spends most of her time in the mainstream classes. While she enjoys school, she does struggle with socialising. “Luckily, Zara’s had one friend since nursery and they’ve stuck together since,” says Raqidha. “They get each other through. Sadly, she hasn’t made any new friends. It does upset me, but she’s done really well and I’m proud of her.”

When Zara got to Year 9, teachers began to speak to her about deciding which GCSEs she’d do. She thought about what she most enjoyed and what she didn’t like. “My favourite subject is Art,” says Zara. “I didn’t like Geography!”

“We went to an open day and met with Zara’s teachers,” says Raqidha. “We discussed options Zara would be able to access best. Zara isn’t confident so we had to think about the best subjects for her personality. She likes drawing so she chose Art; that was an easy decision. She likes baking and cooking, so she decided to do Food Technology. We spoke to Zara’s ToD who chatted us through the other options.”

However, the lack of flexibility in choosing made the decisions a little harder. “I had to choose either History or Geography,” says Zara. “I hate Geography so it was an easy decision, but I don’t love History either.”

“Zara struggles with dense subjects like History so it’s tough for her,” adds Raqidha. “I think she should have had more flexibility not to pick one of those.”

Zara was also advised not to do certain subjects which she wishes she’d pushed harder to be allowed to do. “I wanted to do Spanish, but I spoke to my teacher and she advised me not to do it because it would be too hard for me,” says Zara. “I really enjoyed languages and I think it’s a shame I was advised against doing something I enjoyed. But instead, I’ve decided to learn it in my own time.”

“I wish Zara had been given the opportunity to try,” adds Raqidha. “Zara would have loved to do a GCSE in British Sign Language (BSL) too. I work in a school and know signing isn’t just for deaf children, so it’d be nice for mainstream schools to offer it. Why does she need a GCSE in History or Geography? One in BSL would be much more useful.” A GCSE in BSL doesn’t currently exist, but it’s something the National Deaf Children’s Society is campaigning for.

Zara also had a mentor, through a National Deaf Children’s Society programme, who helped her to work through the decisions and shared his experience of GCSEs with her. “Having a mentor was really helpful,” says Zara. “He was older and had done his GCSEs. He gave me lots of advice and told me to choose what I’d do well in and what I’d enjoy. I asked him a lot of questions. He told me which subjects he chose and how he found those subjects. It was good to talk to someone else who was deaf who had gone through his GCSEs.”

Although she was disappointed in some of the decisions she had to make and is finding her GCSEs a challenge, Zara is still excited for the future. “I want to be an optometrist,” says Zara. “I want to show people who also have Usher syndrome what they can do. I’ll have to do Science A-levels.”

“It’s stressful because you feel you need to do really well to give you a better chance in college,” says Raqidha. “But I said to Zara, ‘As long as you try your best, Mummy doesn’t mind.’ I’m just really pleased with her; she settled in well and she’s proved lots of people wrong.”

“Don’t be scared of the decision,” Zara adds. “If you want to do Spanish, do Spanish! Choose subjects you’re going to enjoy.”

Winter 2022 Families magazine