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Working wonders

Photo: Hannah’s story: how work experience increased her independence

Work experience has helped Hannah (17), who is severely to profoundly deaf, become more independent and feel more prepared for the world of work.

Having tried working in a primary school and her school canteen before even starting sixth form, Hannah’s done more work experience than the average teenager. 

“Along with other deaf students at the school, Hannah used to have hearing support lessons and some were used to help develop independence, so we got them work experience to help improve their communication, teamwork and confidence,” explains Teaching Assistant Helen who has supported Hannah throughout school, college and work experience.

Although Hannah was born deaf, initially it wasn’t easy for mum Nikki to get a diagnosis. “When Hannah was born the paediatrician could see her face looked a little different and said she had Branchio-Oto-Renal syndrome, which affects the ears, neck and kidneys, and that she’d probably be deaf,” says Nikki. “I got her home and knew she wasn’t hearing properly because she wasn’t taking any notice of sounds like rattling keys. The health visitors all said she was fine but I kept going back until about six months when she had a hearing test and was finally diagnosed. But I don’t think they believed me even then.” Having suspected it from the start and with other health problems to deal with, Nikki didn’t feel too affected by the diagnosis. “I just thought, ‘It is what it is’, and that I’d do my best for her,” she remembers.

It was when Hannah started primary school that Nikki knew something else wasn’t right. “She’d walk round the playground by herself, talking to herself. I was told it was because she wasn’t wearing her hearing aids – she often wouldn’t wear them then or would only wear one – but I knew it was something else,” says Nikki. She again had to push for a diagnosis until they were told Hannah had mild autism.

Then at secondary school, Eggbuckland Community College, Hannah flourished. “The school has done an awful lot for her. She was so quiet and shy when she first went there but she’s come out of her shell so much now,” Nikki says. Hannah, who also has mild learning difficulties, now does a split placement between her school sixth form and the local college where she’s doing a diploma in performing arts. Supported by Helen, she’s doing brilliantly, even winning an award for top student of the spring term.

“Hannah’s performing arts course was initially timetabled for four days a week with the expectation that the students find some work experience on the fifth day,” explains Helen. “So we had a chat and Hannah was interested in retail and the library.” Hannah was lucky enough to get positive responses from both Debenhams and the local library, at the same time her college timetable dropped to three days a week, so she was able to do both.

“I was excited but also worried I wouldn’t be able to hear,” says Hannah. “I don’t mind asking people to repeat themselves but I was a bit worried I’d have to keep asking and still wouldn’t hear them. Luckily, that hasn’t happened so far.”

In the library Hannah was tasked with shelf checks and sorting books into order. “She did a really good job. They were pleased with her,” says Helen. “Sometimes customers asked questions and I was usually able to lip-read them,” says Hannah. “Being in a library it was naturally quiet but if I didn’t hear someone I’d tell them I was deaf and ask them to repeat themselves.”

At Debenhams Hannah was set to work in the women’s clothing department. “I had to put the sizing cubes on the hangers – which gave me blisters!” she says. “I also had to tidy and sort clothes into size order, check the right brands were on the right hangers and scan tickets on clearance items to see if they’d got cheaper.”

“At first Hannah’s supervisor would occasionally walk and talk with her back to Hannah, so I reminded her to turn around and then by the second week she’d got the hang of it and was remembering to face her,” remembers Helen.

After six weeks Hannah’s college timetable increased back to four days so she had to give up one placement. She decided to stay at Debenhams. “I like fashion and really enjoy sorting out clothes and putting them in size order. It was also busier than the library so I had more to do,” she says.

As time went on, Helen slowly reduced her support so Hannah could be more independent, moving gradually from staying with her the whole time until eventually Hannah was confident enough to go by herself, including getting the bus alone. “It was done in a controlled way. Debenhams said someone would walk Hannah to the bus if she wanted, they were really supportive,” says Helen.

“I’m a little bit over-protective sometimes and thought she’d struggle with the work experience,” says Nikki. “But she’s done brilliantly and loved it.”

Hannah plans to return to Debenhams in September when she begins her Level 3 diploma in performing arts and she’s even lined up some more work experience at a local theatre before that. “I definitely feel more confident working now,” she says. “The staff at Debenhams were very supportive and I became a lot more comfortable working there. The customers were generally really nice as well. They didn’t have any issues just because I’m deaf.

“I want to work in performing arts in the future but if that doesn’t work out I would do retail. I just always try to have a positive attitude.”