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Finding Florence's confidence

Photo: Read Florence's story

Florence (18) hasn’t let being profoundly deaf get in the way of achieving her dreams and attending university.

Walking out the door of her Sixth Form College holding the envelope that carried her A-level results, Florence caught the eye of her mum and burst into tears. But happily they were tears of joy as she’d just found out she’d achieved a place at her first choice university. “I got three As in History, Psychology, and Philosophy and Ethics,” Florence explains. “I was shocked. I really didn’t think I’d do so well but the fact I did gave me the confidence I needed to go to university.”

“We were thrilled when we found out Florence’s A-level results,” Florence’s mum Sharon adds. “Florence had really set her sights on the University of Birmingham and we were just so delighted that she had achieved her goal.”

Diagnosed as profoundly deaf at three years old, Florence always knew she wanted to go to university. Her dad Rob is a physiotherapy university lecturer and when she was young Florence would often join him in his lecture rooms colouring in special paper with the university’s logo at the top. “We always knew that Florence was very keen to go into higher education,” Rob says. “But we were worried about whether she’d get the right support.” 

"We were so delighted that she had achieved her goal."

Florence attended mainstream schools and communicates using speech and lip-reading. Initially she used hearing aids but at 13 decided to get one cochlear implant. Although she found the implant to be effective, school wasn’t always easy. “School had its ups and downs,” Florence admits. “I enjoyed it and had good support in place but sometimes I struggled to hear my friends. The canteen was so loud and I’d just sit there not hearing anything and feel quite left out. I also got really tired from concentrating and listening because I lip-read. In sixth form you’re expected to go home and do lots of work in the evening but I was just too tired to do that.”

Struggling with tiredness was one of the reasons Florence worried she wouldn’t be able to achieve her dream of going to university. But after attending a summer course at University College London (UCL) for deaf sixth form students, she found out about the support that would be available to her and met deaf students who were already thriving at university. “That made me feel really confident,” Florence says. “I visited a few universities and all of them told me my options for support and that made me feel better about higher education in general.”

Another thing that boosted Florence’s confidence was joining the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Young People’s Advisory Board (YAB). Last year she even visited the Department for Education (DfE) to discuss the YAB’s Right to Sign campaign which aims to get British Sign Language (BSL) included in the school curriculum.

“We went down to Westminster and the DfE and met three civil servants,” Florence explains. “That was really great because I’m quite interested in politics and campaigning. I really enjoyed being on the YAB; it made me feel more confident and independent. The trip to the DfE made me think I might like to do something related to politics in the future.”

“Getting involved with the YAB was a big turning point for Florence,” Sharon adds. “We were surprised she even applied. She was really not confident and quite isolated at school at that time. But she applied for the YAB and just grew in confidence. It really stimulated her interest in trying to make things different for other people.”

With her experience on the YAB, her visit to the DfE and her brilliant A-level results behind her, Florence was excited to start at the University of Birmingham last September studying Philosophy, Religion and Ethics. “The first few weeks were quite strange – being away from home,” Florence admits. “But the hardest thing I found was cooking for myself; I’m still getting to grips with that. I’ve had a few mishaps and even burnt my rice!”

"I was shocked I did so well."

Florence lives in student accommodation at the university, alongside all hearing students. Initially she admits she felt nervous about living with hearing peers and worried about how she would explain her deafness to them. “I also worried about not hearing fire alarms and things in my flat. But the university gave me a fire alerter that vibrates when it hears the fire alarm,” Florence says. “I also have a special doorbell; it flashes and it’s really loud. Actually things like that are quite a good ice breaker. On the first few days people would ring our flat doorbell to say hi and everyone would find the loud doorbell quite funny so then I could explain it. It was a good talking point. Now when I’m in group conversations I’ll notice someone remember and turn to look at me when they’re speaking.”

It hasn’t taken long for everyone to begin to adapt so that Florence always feels she can join in – even her local student pub. “Me and my friends go to this weekly pub quiz in a pub down the road,” Florence explains. “After they found out I had difficulty hearing the questions they installed something in the pub which displays the questions on the screen.”

And while at first lectures were a bit of a struggle as her lecturers hadn’t all been given deaf awareness training, Florence has found other support at the university. “I have to go and give my lecturers my radio aid and ask them to repeat questions from the students and not face the board,” Florence says. “That was a bit scary but most of my lecturers have been really good. Seminars are more challenging because the hardest thing for me is if people are having discussions. The university has provided me with a key worker and I also have a notetaker and radio aid for lectures and a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD) who visits fortnightly, which are funded by Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs). So I have plenty of support in place if I’m finding anything challenging. I have to do a lot of reading for my degree and some of the language is quite hard to understand so I write down all the words that I didn’t understand and go through them with my ToD.”

In her spare time Florence enjoys singing but she found the university choir a challenge as they sung many songs in Latin so she took matters into her own hands. “I find singing therapeutic,” Florence explains. “But I didn’t know what Latin sounded like or how you pronounce it so my friend and I are setting up our own choir here. We’ve gone through the Student Union, who have been very supportive, and the choir will be for anyone; it doesn’t matter if you can sing or not.”

After achieving so much, Florence admits she’s not always been as confident as she is now. “My advice to other deaf young people would be: don’t think you can’t do stuff because you’re deaf because I didn’t know if I could do it either; just do it.”

And her parents Sharon and Rob agree. “When I first found out Florence was deaf and I was upset and worrying, I would never have dreamed that she’d be this person now,” Sharon says. “I’d say to other parents to never put limits on what your child can do because they’re deaf. We’re so proud of her.”