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Anwyn’s decision to learn British Sign Language

Photo: Read Anwyn's story

For the first nine years of her life, Anwyn’s borderline severe deafness wasn’t officially diagnosed and was simply seen as part of who she was.

“My family and I had no idea there was anything wrong with me.” Anwyn (now 15) recalls.

Despite having hearing tests mum Ruth was told Anwyn’s hearing problems were due to severe glue ear. But when she had grommets they didn’t help. Eventually it was a school nurse who identified Anwyn’s hearing loss.

The nurse then spoke to Ruth about her concerns about Anwyn’s hearing. “She said: ‘I don’t want to worry you, but I think your daughter has a problem with her hearing’, and I thought, ‘Yes, at last somebody is actually agreeing,’ and she got Anwyn referred to an audiologist,” says Ruth.

Anwyn had a different reaction: “I wasn’t very happy with the diagnosis; I was scared and confused – my primary school didn’t have that much experience of deaf kids.”

After the diagnosis her school made sure Anwyn was at the front of the class and people talked to her directly. However, living in a small town in Wales, they were fairly isolated and didn’t have much access to information on deafness. Ruth didn’t really know what support to ask for.

“Anwyn was doing well academically. People were saying ‘she can’t be deaf, she’s perfectly fine’. She can speak wonderfully in two languages – English and Welsh – so therefore nothing was wrong.”

“Going on the Roadshow was absolutely amazing: that was the first time I finally realised I wasn’t alone.”

Lack of access to information and services meant learning BSL wasn’t an immediate option. “We were very isolated,” says Anwyn. “I’d seen sign language on CBeebies but I didn’t know it was for deaf people! I didn’t know anything about the Deaf community or deaf communication. I was very lonely as a kid; I thought being deaf was something wrong.”

It was only after visiting the National Deaf Children’s Society Roadshow aged 14 that things really changed for Anwyn.

“Going on the Roadshow was absolutely amazing: that was the first time I finally realised I wasn’t alone,” she recalls. “They told us about places I could go to meet more deaf people. The thing I found really interesting was the way people communicated was really direct and clear, honest and open. That, to me, struck a chord that this is a whole new way of communicating.”

“I soon realised the lack of services is because we live in Wales.”

That visit inspired Anwyn to learn BSL, but accessing it wasn’t easy.

“I contacted as many people as I could, trying to find out where Anwyn could have BSL lessons,” says Ruth. “There isn’t anywhere locally that teaches BSL to her age group and I soon realised the lack of services is because we live in Wales. Anwyn has access to English and Welsh classes, but she is also deaf. That is part of her identity and yet she’s denied access. I think it’s unfair for deaf children to be denied part of their culture.”

It was by sheer chance that Anwyn has been able to learn BSL. A friend of Ruth’s, Graham, who used to work as a communication support worker, offered to teach Anwyn.

“Graham learnt sign language to communicate with his nephew and then he kept taking it further. He’s a very good teacher,” explains Ruth. “He’s teaching Anwyn all the grammar and how to construct sentences.

“I want to raise awareness.”

“I feel strongly that BSL is important for Anwyn’s confidence and identity. Going forward she can say ‘I am deaf’ verbally and she can also say it with her hands and body. That, I think, really strengthens her communication.”

This was clear when Anwyn recently went on a National Deaf Children’s Society residential weekend event. “There were three people who communicated just using sign language and it was really useful because I was able to pick up what they were saying and interpret,” she explains.

A keen writer, Anwyn is combining her newfound BSL skills with her poetry and hopes to use these to spread deaf awareness in her community. “I’d like to put a show together with my poems and my BSL. People don’t know what’s available to them because we’re in a small town in the middle of nowhere, so I want to raise awareness,” she says.

When it comes to her future, Anwyn would like to go into film and TV and use that as a platform to further increase deaf awareness. “I would have more deaf people on TV. The first time I saw a young deaf character on TV was on Doctor Who and it was absolutely amazing,” she remembers. “She was completely deaf and she was the leader and people respected and looked up to her.”

Anwyn advises other deaf young people who want to learn BSL but may not have easy access to it to keep pushing. She says, “You deserve to know sign language and if no one’s going to let you do it, just keep pushing… politely though!”